Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Decemberists at Brixton Academy - 21 February 2015

The Decemberists (pic Louder Than War)

There are some venues that I try to avoid. One of these is the [This week’s Sponsor’s Name] Brixton Academy. I’ve had problems in the past with muddy sound quality and I certainly have problems in the present with the infamous sloping floor which just murders my poor old back and legs. What a drag it is getting old.

And yet… here I am again.

The stage is always impressive, set amongst faux classical columns and mysterious sculpted figures. It’s like being at an outside amphitheatre but without being exposed to the elements.

My misgivings about the sound are initially borne out by the sad fate of support act Serafina Steer, who can be seen onstage making some kind of noise, the specifics of which are lost in the cavernous space. Which is a pity.

However, from this point on it’s good news all the way.

The Decemberists have been away for a while. This is partly due to health scares (fortunately now passed) and partly because band leader Colin Meloy doesn’t feel the pressure to record and tour in constant rotation anymore.

The band are here to promote their excellent new album ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ and their set is artfully split between these new songs and big set piece numbers from their extensive back catalogue.

They are dressed as befits their age and experience, in dapper suits and evening wear. The audience too seems to have mellowed. A Decemberists’ gig of yore would be accompanied by legions of fans dressed as 1850’s New England fishermen, complete with inflatable whales. There is none of that tonight.

The band starts with ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, a song about how bands change over time. The sound is loud and crystal clear and remains so all evening.

Initially it appears as if we are going to get the new album more or less in its entirety, as new songs ‘Cavalry Captain’ and ‘Philomena’ (“Not about Judi Dench”) follow.

There are five full time Decemberists, but they are joined tonight by two female backing singer/musicians who play a prominent role in all the songs tonight, doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Meloy.

They come to the fore in the quieter moments like ‘Carolina Low’, picked out by a white spotlight.

There is older material too, which gives Colin Meloy the chance to revel in his showmanship. ‘Sixteen Military Wives’ features a segment in which he conducts the differing segments of the auditorium in synchronised clapping. ‘The Rake’s Song’ has the whole crowd in the palm of his hand, shouting and whispering (and thinking) the chorus.

The Decemberists are a class act, still very much at the top of their game.
And even though the next day I am as stiff as an ironing board, it’s been totally worth it.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Girlpool, Fake Laugh, FVC at The Lexington - 16 February 2015


Everybody has to start somewhere.

Tonight is the first solo show by Florence Van Camerjik akaFVC. To me she seems familiar, and I eventually realise that she had been the reluctant girl singer who helped out the band Oscar on a support slot the lasttime I saw tonight’s headliners.

She starts her set abruptly, rather at the mercy of her backing music, that provides beats, melody and a vocal track over which she can sing.

She wanders the stage, psyching herself up, her microphone clutched close to her face. The effect has echoes of a girl trapped in her bedroom, grabbing a hairbrush and singing along with hits on the radio.

Florence is a bit stiff and awkward at first, but gradually loosens up, rearranges her clothing and presses on. She has an air of knowing gaucheness that suits the material very well.

What really stands out even at this early stage is the quality of the songs. In a short set of barely half a dozen tunes FVC establishes herself as one to watch out for in the future.

Florence is followed on stage by Kamran Khan, who is doing a solo set as Fake Laugh.

Kamran is young, handsome and painfully earnest, possessed of a beautiful clear voice that gives every song he sings the eerie intensity of a religious work.

Unfortunately, the singer is attempting to make a silk purse from sow’s ears. The songs, though lovely to listen to, are very humdrum, with lyrics that are very much of the moon-June-spoon variety.

By coincidence, both Fake Laugh and FVC have songs called ‘Little Things’. FVC’s was a pop-savvy vignette of young woman anxiety, while this one goes ‘The little things you say / Make me want to run away’. It’s delivered delightfully, but terribly trite.

This is the second time in a couple of months that I have seen tonight’s headliners Girlpool.  The pairing of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad is evolving all the time.

It’s interesting watching the dynamic between the pair. Before Christmas, it seemed as though the flame-haired Cleo was the dominant partner. Not so now. The spotlight is very much shared, and Harmony is much more forceful.

It’s very much a joint enterprise, as all songs are sung in tandem, a folky keening that makes their work seem traditional in nature, even though the songs themselves are brand new.

Girlpool are only just coming to the world’s attention, and at present it is not entirely clear what they will eventually be. They are writing and discarding songs at a prodigious rate, with new material appearing on the internet almost weekly. Half of the songs tonight are introduced as ‘new’ and by that the pair seem to mean ‘written in the last couple of days’.

This is clearly evidence of a duo on a hot streak of creativity, but it does also mean that their set is so much in flux that at times it feels like a jam session between the two. They are still figuring out what works, what doesn’t, what they like, what they don’t. The audience gets a bit shut out during this process.

An interesting evening then, with a variety of acts finding their way and attempting to forge an identity. Good luck to them.

(Another song not played!)

Thursday 5 February 2015

Kælan Mikla and City Boys Band at Power Lunches - 03 February 2015

Kælan Mikla (rotten photo by Wyldman)

It’s a bitterly cold February night and everyone is standing around shivering. I’m squished somewhere between the bar and the toilet in Power Lunches, a tiny venue near Dalston Junction that was once a café.

The door to the room is wide open to accommodate a steady stream of smokers, bands, friends and acquaintances. I break the ice forming on the surface of my beer and struggle my way down the stairs to the room below.

The space is tight and dark and even the mirrored walls do not disguise the claustrophobic feel of the place. It’s like entering a pharaoh’s tomb.

We start off with a selection of short films. Without exception these are shot in black and white and depict something indeterminately unpleasant occurring. Indistinct images jump and flicker. The deafening atonal soundtrack amplifies the unease and horror. Probably the best film depicts what might be some ancient hunting ritual enacted by strangely attired girls hurling wooden spears and chasing after some unseen quarry.

In order to avoid their heads getting in the way, half the audience is enticed to duck down or sit on the floor. We hunch in the dark and it all feels very daring and arty.

The first act of the night eventually emerge from behind the tacked-up movie screen.

This is CityBoys Band, two musicians who fuse distorted vocals and heavy percussion to create an unsettling, industrial rhythm that echoes Mark Stewart’s solo work or even Cabaret Voltaire. As such, the duo’s hypnotic sound is right up my street.

The singer mutters intensely, his head bowed as he hunches over an electronic console or clatters away on a drum. The performance space at Power Lunches is so small, and the stage area so low, that if you stand more than two rows back you are pretty much stuffed in terms of actually seeing what is going on.

The room is pitch dark by now and I’m standing on a sea of discarded bottles. The room is packed and there is a real sense of danger about the place. One moment of panic and people could die down here. 


I like City Boys Band a lot, but I make sure that I’m in a better position for the next act. 

I’m here this evening to see Kælan Mikla, a three piece noise outfit from Reykjavik. Such is the speed of the internet, I only discovered they existed on Sunday afternoon, and yet, here we all are two days later.

The band are young, cheery and sing emotionally in Icelandic.

They have a very simple set up. A drummer (Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir) who also sings; a thumping bassist with orange hair (Margrét Rósa Dóru- Harrysdóttir) who occasionally screams terrifyingly off-mike; and the psyched-up singer Laufey Soffía Þórsdóttir, who is necking a respectable quantity of beer and whisky and who crawls around on the floor of the stage.

It’s my idea of heaven.

I love acts such as this. They are following their own idiosyncratic path to create something that is important to themselves and if an audience likes it, so much the better.

As my conversational Icelandic is sadly not up to scratch, I’m not entirely sure what Laufey and co are singing about. I do know that it involves a fair amount of screaming and alcohol. And that is a universal language.

It’s been a genuinely different and really enjoyable evening. There is an easy atmosphere of genial chaos – things sort of start when then there is sufficient momentum for them to do so, rather than to a set timetable.  At times, this has been less of a gig than a Sixties style Happening. It fits in with the tea bar origins of the venue.

Far out.