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Missed part 1 of this amazing retrospective on Suede by our Martin? Right this way, folks.
Sixteen months after their gloriously successful debut, and by way of a taster for the second album, Suede released their career pinnacle: the faultless trifecta of ‘We Are the Pigs’, ‘Killing of a Flash Boy’ and ‘Whipsnade’. The portentiously-tolling minor-chord intro of ‘We Are The Pigs’ gives way to Brett Anderson in full, finely-fettled flow: flouncing around the soundscape, a figurehead for the dispossessed, disenchanted victims of urban decay, empathising, encouraging, exhorting a beautiful flash of direct action against the oppressors before the attraction of the crack pipe becomes once again irresistible.
Bernard Butler has by this point found the electric guitar incapable of fully expressing his musical ambitions: sections of the orchestra are called on one by one to amplify his concepts: strings sweep through the chorus, brass adds sandpaper edge to the breakdowns, neither of which can compete with Butler’s enormous wall-of-sound guitars – like being trapped in a lift with mirrors on all three sides, he manages to conjure a seemingly infinite number of guitar parts from one source, each in turn a little further away, distant but distinct. The rational brain knows there must be some end to it, but no matter how hard you listen, there’s still something else in the background. The B-sides are just as exhilarating: ‘Killing of A Flash Boy’ is simultaneously ribald and genuinely threatening: a seedy provincial holiday resort imagined, or perhaps documented, descending into vicious jealousy and violence:
Shake your fake tan through aerosol land and you’ll know
That you’ll suffer for your sex by the caravanettes, oh no!
That shitter with a pout won’t be putting it about no more
Oh shaking obscene like a killing machine here we go
This is the zenith of Anderson’s obsession with the twisted side of the humdrum British way of life: like a Martin Parr photograph with the lights out, familiar white working-class settings become arenas of disease and violence. Even though it’s caricatured and embellished, there’s a truth to Anderson’s lyrics that shift them into the realm of genuine social commentary: he’s saying, “this is what happens, this is how people feel and behave when there’s nothing better to do.” And there’s a glamour in the revulsion, an attraction in the dirt that he sees, and he wants us to see it, too.
A month later, in October 1994, ‘Dog Man Star’ was released. From the very first seconds, and perhaps to the slight disappointment of those hoping for ‘Suede’ mark II, it becomes apparent that the short, sharp, three minute arrangements of its predecessor are almost entirely absent: this is very much an orchestrated album, almost conceptual in its execution. There is a proper introduction, a rousing orchestral finale, and arguably a coherent narrative of love, sex, drugs and loss. The atmosphere is one of faded autumnal grandeur, of end-of-the-pier desolation; the soundtrack to a black-and-white film yet to be made. The film might take as its theme that of breakup, and breakdown, given the emotional strain and animosity running through the band at the time of recording.
The tension between Butler and Anderson was so high, neither of them could stand to be in the studio as the same time as the other. Bernard Butler’s increasingly erratic and demanding behaviour culminated in his departure before the album was even finished, giving rise to curious situations like the guitar part of ‘The Power’ being recreated note-for-note from the demo by a session guitarist. Despite, or perhaps because of its problematic gestation, ‘Dog Man Star’ contains many astonishing moments amongst its crumbling artifice: the peerless guitar solo in ‘We Are the Pigs’; the literal car crash of ‘Daddy’s Speeding’; the intertwining banshee howl of vocal and guitar in ‘This Hollywood Life’; Anderson’s falsetto crescendo in ‘The 2 of Us’: defining moments worthy of the high-concept glam-rock pantheon.
One surviving marker of Butler’s increasingly dominating personality is his insistence on length. Latterly-released long versions and demos reveal exactly the scope of Butler’s ambition – if it had been given free rein. The unedited version of ‘The Wild Ones’ is a case in point – the piece considered by the band themselves as the pinnacle of the Butler/Anderson partnership, would, if one of its co-writers had had his way, be no less than 7 minutes long with a tour-de-force instrumental at its heart. The truth is, the extended version is for completists only: the edit works better as a song. No matter how good Butler’s guitar shredding is, the song as a whole is too strong to be distracted by such fripperies. More suited to ego-driven over-indulgence is the extended version of ‘The Asphalt World’, which clocks in at an eye-watering 11-and-a-half minutes. This song represents every excess Suede had partaken of in the previous half-decade, made music. The 5 minutes of song proper serves as just an introduction; the almost-silent breakdown section seethes with threatened violence, sparks of filtered sound and rumblings of sub-bass stalk the background, looking for an excuse to jump from the shadows and reveal themselves in their vulgar glory. And an excuse arrives in Butler’s most audacious guitar solo yet put to tape. The unedited version reveals a scope of ambition cut from the initial release – hard-panned squalls of guitar pour forth from both sides, while a filthy, tremoloed lead part builds to a guilty, orgiastic climax. “Who does she love?”, indeed.
The truth is, if they had disbanded after the release of ‘The Wild Ones’, their last release of the Butler era, Suede would have had as unblemished a career as it’s possible to achieve in pop music – two albums and seven singles, and all arguably perfect. In a pleasingly circular way, their story would have been the perfect subject for a Suede song – a brief glimpse into an intense love affair, stubbed out in a whirlwind of drugs and bitter recrimination, with an absolutely superb soundtrack. But, astonishingly, their most successful years were still ahead of them.
Suede’s newest album ‘Bloodsports’ is available now.
On the 11th of May this year, anyone born on the day Suede released their debut single will be celebrating their 21st birthday. Widely credited as being one of the earliest and most influential practitioners of Britpop, in truth the Suede story is more complex and enigmatic than that, and the eve of adulthood of their debut release seems as good a time as any to revisit the Suede story. In this retrospective we reassess Suede’s catalogue, critically assessing how their music stands up to the cold light of hindsight, and how latest release ‘Bloodsports’ fits with the rest of their oeuvre.
In chronological debut single order: Blur (27/10/1990), Suede (23/05/1992), Pulp (27/11/1993), Oasis (23/04/1994). That quadruplet, give or take an Echobelly here or a Menswear there, made up the bands who brought to life the monster that was Britpop. Shaking the audience out of their shoegaze stupor, Britpop proved that guitars and songwriting could be sexy in a way that neither the loping stonerism of baggy, the chiming watercolour of shoegaze, nor the neanderthal bludgeoning of grunge could. Before long, it grew into a zeitgeist-defining cultural movement with its own fashions, haircuts, and even art, all soundtracked by a certain type of band.
Of course it wasn’t long before Britpop was disappearing into its own navel; the proliferation of Union Flag guitars and headline news rivalries turned what was once the saviour of British music into a tabloid-fuelled parody of itself. But there have rarely been finer places for a music fan to be than a small British record shop on a Saturday morning in summer 1994: an embarrassment of riches practically jumping off the shelves at you, each from a fresh, exciting British band.
Which Suede undoubtedly were. Although their first couple of efforts at the cusp of the decade were mediocre affairs – ‘Wonderful Sometimes’ is baggy nonsense, ‘Be My God’ a bit better, showing glimpses of Bernard Butler’s future guitarscapes – by 1992 the chrysalis had split open and Suede as we know them emerged with ‘The Drowners’. Which neatly summarised the band’s virtues, but, cleverly, was in no hurry to reveal them. It takes four bars before the floor toms finally give way to several layered, fizzy guitars; the band love the intro so much they repeat it again, finally unleashing Brett Anderson’s teasingly camp vocal well over half a minute in. The chorus is simultaneously dreamy and aggressive, and it all crescendos with a mountain of guitars and a singalong handclap as catchy as any pantomime finale. As debut singles go, there’s few finer examples.
Four months later, the more assertive ‘Metal Mickey’ was thrust upon an unsuspecting public, proving that the first single wasn’t just a fluke. Again, there’s loads of fuzzy guitars, all tonally different but with a unifying underlying backbone – my guess is that of a Gibson ES-335. The tempo is quicker, Anderson revealing for the first time lyrical themes he would return to again and again – that of night-lurkers out for mischief and sin, femme fatales more than eager to lead one astray, and curious, telling references to a shadowy father figure. The first chorus winds up around the minute mark, and more handclaps signal the whole sordid affair is over in three. This is perfect pop arrangement.
By the time ‘Animal Nitrate’ hit the shelves, it was becoming apparent that Suede were a superb singles band. And not just because they were good at picking the best songs from their albums. The B-sides were famously as good as anything they released on an album, and in some cases the equal of the A-sides. In any case, single purchasers were treated to great value throughout, and not just because of the two extra songs. The first four singles hang together as a collection of art objects, with thematically consistent artwork and typography, proudly proclaiming their allegiance to the sadly defunct Nude records. The four artifacts demonstrate an admirable sense of direction, of a band who aspired to express themselves in something more than just their music; that their physical output looks and feels intuitively “Suede” is testament to their attention to detail and ability to define their sense of self, attributes which would never leave them.
Whichever way one looks at it, ‘Suede’ by Suede is an astonishing album. Commercially, it debuted at the top of the UK charts as the fastest-selling debut album in history, won the Mercury music prize, and remains the band’s biggest selling album in America. Artistically, it’s the sound of two room-size egos finding succour, trusting the other to deliver the bombast they themselves aspire to, safe in the knowledge that neither could overstep – there are no boundaries. Both Anderson and Butler deliver their most concise work, Anderson particularly excelling in the depth of his lyrics, delivering a consistency which was to elude him at times in the future. Single lines such as “In the car he couldn’t afford they found his made up name on her ankle chain” from ‘She’s Not Dead’ perfectly express the mood he was attempting to capture – details of lives lived perpetually on the periphery; of fleeting pleasures snatched between grey skies and the dole queue. Whether or not Anderson truly lived the life he strived so hard to reproduce in song is debatable – 1980s Haywards Heath appears the very epitome of middle class suburban banality – although his subsequent move to London qualifies him at the very least as a first-hand observer. There’s proper poetry here too, in the skewed feminism of ‘Breakdown’:
Where still life bleeds the concrete white
Where the tame star limps an endless mile
Where the canine in the A-line stole your time
You can only go so far
Although such eloquence is somewhat brought back down to Earth by the punchline “does he only come in a Volvo?”. Final single ‘So Young’ serves as a perfect summary of the previous three singles with its ambiguous drug references and tireless electric guitars; tantalisingly, its more considered arrangement featuring acoustic guitar, piano and organ hints at the wider sound which was to come.
If, like TGTF, one finds oneself at a loose end in London on the evening of the first Sunday of the month, then there’s only one place to be. Communion is a monthly new music showcase held at the subterranean sweatbox of the Notting Hill Arts Club, which has hosted many a band early in their meteoric rise to fame. All but one performer tonight were new to TGTF, which begs the question: which of them will continue to grace these pages, and which will vanish into the musical ether with nary a footnote in the history books?
By coincidence, fellow North-Easter and recent review sunject at Roundhouse Rising Amy Holford (@Holfyy) is playing tonight, although her set has been and gone before TGTF arrives. Despite suffering an unknown malaise, her first proper London set is apparently well-received, her down-to-Earth Geordie charm no doubt a refreshing change from the usual London aloofness. Jamie Parisio (@j_parisio) offers up a pastoral, country-tinged set of acoustic numbers which hovers dangerously close to the dreadful banality of the recent plastic-folk revival. ‘Tangles Never Tire’ from recent EP You Promised The Sea sets the tone – downtempo, layered harmony vocals, led by acoustic guitar, thumpy drums and Parisio’s gentle, breathy vocals. All very nice, but as these pages attest, your correspondent is increasingly bored by earnest singer-songwriters these days. There’s so many of them! Join the queue, Jamie.
Siblings (@siblingstweet) liven things up a bit. The four Derbyshire lads all line up in a democratic row, lead singer bashing a minimalist drumkit, four-part harmonies sweetly swelling over guitar and banjo. Their material consists of admirably upbeat, deceptively simple ditties such as recent single ‘Colours’ – a fluffy, uplifting meringue of a song, jolly banjo and falsetto harmonies skipping weightlessly from one triumphant refrain to the next. Soused in Simon and Garfunkel with a seasoning of Givers, such Carib-jangle optimism comes as a refreshing, feel-good blast: a coble of hope in a sea of faux, privileged despair.
Like dogs and their owners, can a similarity be discerned between the character of a band and that of their fans? If so, Die Mason Die (@DieMasonDie) are vain, drunken boors, obsessed with papping themselves in the piercing and unflattering light of a thousand cameraphones. Yes, TGTF finds itself trapped behind a group of who at first appear to be Die Mason Die’s biggest fans – they know the musicians’ names and whoop loudly at the end of every song, even stretching to an impromptu “Happy birthday to Stefan,” at one point. Yet when the music is playing they appear completely disinterested, ignorantly braying meaningless self-congratulatory platitudes at each other, to the detriment of anyone who has actually turned up – apparently somewhat unfashionably – to listen to some music.
Eventually TGTF is forced to push as far towards the front as is necessary for the PA to drown out the miscreants: surprisingly far forward, it turns out. Such distractions are a shame, because when the music is properly audible, it becomes apparent that Die Mason Die are a very competent band led by the startling voice of Samuel Mason, whose timbre falls somewhere between the growl of a female lioness whose cubs are being threatened by a pack of ravenous hyenas, and the roar of a nearby nuclear explosion. In other words, pretty powerful stuff. The songs themselves run the gamut between down tempo, reverb-heavy dirges and slightly more uptempo, reverb-heavy dirges, high on atmospherics and mystical musings. The band are good, but the star here is Mason himself: with that astonishing voice and world-weary temperament, one gets the impression that there are many good things to come from him.
After a nouvelle-cuisine undercard of mouthwatering but delicate morsels, to wrap up the night we have the counterpoint in Catfish and the Bottlemen (@TheBottlemen). There’s something of Spinal Tap about them – the superbly-named Van McCann shakes his mop-top as if to prove it’s not a toupée, all the guitars are white, the musicians dressed in black, and they rock out. Hard. The music is noisy, relentless and infused with a youthful jollity that makes their live show such a thrilling watch. There’s flashes of Libertines decadence and Alex Turner‘s provincial sneer, but Catfish and the Bottlemen’s true passion is clearly the rockier side of the road, so there’s a splash of early Strokes naïveté mixed in with a penchant for widescreen guitars which could be stolen from any number of stadium rock bands from the last decade or so.
They’ve got nearly everything covered – great frontman, distinctive look, exciting live show – the only thing that needs a bit of work is the songwriting. The songs can sound a little too similar, the arrangements a little too stop-start formulaic, to really make the most of the potential of the performers. The humdrum production and dated effects of The Beautiful Decay EP doesn’t do them any favours, either. But a track like ‘Tyrants’ prove that the band can deliver on their potential: it shifts through several gears, at each stage ticking the relevant box of emotion and instrumentation. Anyone pondering the future of British guitar music should add Catfish and the Bottlemen to the list.
Cosmo Jarvis isn’t quite a household name. Yet. The proud author of hundreds of songs, four albums, including a double, and a self-penned, produced and directed feature film, Jarvis’s career trajectory is slowly but surely upwards. Anyone familiar with his work will be aware of the heart-on-sleeve autobiographical nature of many of his songs, along with a powerful ability to tell an engaging and thought-provoking story. TGTF was lucky enough to be able to catch a few words with the man himself before the gig, which we will come to in a moment. But what of the gig itself? There’s no polite way to say this – from his hooded lids to gently shuffling demeanour, Jarvis appears a bit stoned. The band is mostly electric tonight, so the more delicate arrangements are abandoned for a faster, barer approach.
Favourite ‘Love This’ is rushed through in the first couple of songs, and the fear is that some more subtle moments might be lost in the mayhem. But as Jarvis becomes more comfortable with the limelight, things settle down, and the set broadens out into a fine run through of Jarvis’s best moments so far. He’s clearly a fine guitarist, the voice sounds big and powerful, and I’m reliably informed that the man himself is considered to be very attractive to the opposite sex… or to the same sex, for that matter. In a welcome contrast to the modest sets becoming all too commonplace, he kicks on for well over 90 minutes, with little pause. When there is a break in the set, the shout of “Look at the sky!” is rewarded with a rendition of that very song. As a new Jarvis composition, and with the potential to be a true breakthrough track, it bears mention here. A wide-eyed ballad, with a loping, downtempo feel, Jarvis breaks out his finest Transatlantic accent and emotes like his life depended on it, which in a way it does. It’s got great commercial potential, but still contains a gently sardonic lyric, even when it on the surface it’s a love song. Great stuff.
Inevitably the set ends with ‘Gay Pirates’, but there’s few songs which could bring a set to a close so well and with such a final crescendo. There’s such a breadth to the material on offer here tonight, the audience are left with a feeling of tired sufficiency, which of course is a fine excuse to head downstairs to the bar and mull things over with a few pints of imported lager. Milling around in the bar afterwards are Jarvis’s cohorts Dave Egan and Tom Hannaford, co-stars in The Naughty Room, deputising as roadies, merch stand guys, and whatever other tasks they can perform to keep the Cosmo show running. There is the sense that this is a little family business, running on goodwill and a shoestring budget, the absolute opposite of the big corporate shindig going on across town. And all the better for it in terms of credibility.
Before the show, TGTF had a quick chat with Jarvis. He comes across as lucid, easy-going, and utterly candid, with no hesitation in answering some of the more personal questions put to him. This is how it went:
Why do you make the music you do?
I didn’t really try anything else. Music was always the thing. I felt a need to make pieces which were thorough and credible in themselves, and which had to have a good reason to be made in the first place – be that a message, or a story, or a moral argument the audience was supposed to take away from the song. It’s very easy to make a three-minute song that’s just a throwaway description of something. I like proper ideas, fictional stories that are pieced together into a rhyming narrative.
Such as ‘Love This’, where you take on God?
He pisses me off a little bit sometimes. What I find incomprehensible is that some people are incapable of seeing the truth of the point of view expressed within that song. I find the fact that they refuse to consider the fact that their belief may be false more frustrating than the belief in itself. For me it wouldn’t be a lack of faith that would stop me believing, it would be my realising something else; rational thought if you will. Good [not God] isn’t necessary for anything other than our own well-being. Things will still live and die and nobody cares if that happens. We are clearly the ones that need good to be around – to prevent genocide or whatever. So we should be the ones to globalise its necessity, rather than localising it to a God, a God that will limit us in other ways. ‘It was meant to be,’ they always say. Unbelievable.
What’s it like growing up in Devon? You can hear the Southwest influence in your music.
Living in Devon, you’re automatically at a disadvantage if you want to do anything: it’s isolated, and not just geographically. If you’re from there, it doesn’t have a lot going for it. People don’t realise that there are real regular human beings living in the beautiful place of Devon – it’s not all sheep and fields. If you’re skint in Devon, it’s worse than if you’re skint anywhere else. At least in a city there’s things to do, there’s options – all there is in Devon is the pub.
That aspect of Plymouth is pretty well documented in ‘The Naughty Room’.
All the guys in the film, like Dave Egan who plays Subaru, are from Devon; they improvise around the lines that I write, so what you hear is a true reflection of Devon culture. I’m working on next movie with him as well – it’s called Abandonhope, a black comedy about a really vile metal band from Plymouth, who are really skilled at what they do, but they’re making music that doesn’t really need to be made, and that’s what the rest of the world seems to think about them. It’s really about competing with your father’s success, and escaping becoming your father yourself. The character Howard’s father used to be a big metal-head in the ‘80s, but he’s now heavily into drugs, and they play out a stubborn relationship and uncompromising view when it comes to the art of metal, which is their downfall. It’s about realising that you can escape the fate of turning out how your parents wanted you to.
Which brings us to the topic of parents. If I may say, there’s an Oedipal aspect to ‘The Naughty Room’…
I had a very, very weird upbringing. That’s where it comes from, definitely. I try not to let it manifest itself too much in Lars von Trier-like depictions of personal fantasies, but many of the wider viewpoints the story needs to exist, the opinionated philosophies of the film, are because of my background.
But your upbringing doesn’t seem to have held you back – you’re taking inspiration from it…
It’s only bad if you’re very traditional and you go by what society expects your relationship with your parents to be – and I happened to grow up comfortably deviating from that. But at the same time I learned very useful things from people who weren’t my family, and I saw early on that parents are very flawed human beings, with fucked-up heads, agendas, and things they can’t say to you because they’re afraid of how you’ll see them… And to a certain extent you have to take them at face value… until they snuff it! They’re proud of what I’m doing, but it’s still a weird relationship.
Do you feel mainstream?
Do you want to be?
No. Definitely not. Not any more, not after I heard Ludacris confirming what I suspected about the music industry, they whole soundvertising thing, where these girls will be sponsored by soft drinks companies to make music. Professor Green’s got his big advert doing the same thing. With that comes the death of artistic integrity, which is the part I’m dreading. All along the way, I was constantly advised to do the right “business” thing, to change my approach and not piss off Radio1, rather than do what I thought was right for my music at the time. [Presumably a reference to the Radio 1 ban on potential breakthrough single ‘Gay Pirates’ for using the phrase “gang rape”.]
It would be good for the mainstream to at least acknowledge my shit. But I don’t want to be ass-kissed like they ass-kiss Ben Howard.
After which TGTF went off on a tangent asking questions about the technicalities of guitar technique which are far too dull to be repeated here. So let’s just let that last, pertinent answer hang in the air for a second: “I don’t want to be ass-kissed like they ass-kiss Ben Howard.” As fate would have it, two important live shows were happening in London that night, and the other one was the Brit Awards. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Ben Howard was collecting his second Brit of the evening just as Cosmo Jarvis was invoking his name. The comparison between the two artists is entirely appropriate. Both are roughly the same age. Both are from pretty much the same place in Devon. Both are acoustic-y singer-songwriters. The figures are entirely in Howard’s favour – his only full-length album reached number four in the UK, whereas none of Jarvis’ four albums have troubled the charts.
Jarvis boasts a decent 1.5-million views of ‘Gay Pirates’, but Howard dwarfs that with 8 million views even of his pointless cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’, and similar figures for his own material. Howard makes music for coffee tables bought from Next, Jarvis’s voice sounds like he’s just about to cough up a coffee table. Howard makes music that’s as inoffensive as a pint of milk, Jarvis releases a single that questions the very existence of God and then offers to take him for a cup of something Fairtrade. Jarvis releases 9-minute epics featuring stream-of-consciousness questionings of his own sanity, Howard releases safe, four-minute dirges which endlessly repeat the same tired platitudes. Howard is a poster-boy for bland, safe, pointless, unit-shifting music for people who know no better, who have never been exposed to anything more exciting than Pinot Grigio and oven chips, and probably don’t want to be.
Jarvis is an unashamed British eccentric-savant, encapsulating the true meaning and heritage of folk music, executed in a range of different musical and visual forms – imagine Bob Dylan brought up in Devon with an always-on internet connection. Howard spent Wednesday night supping champagne and being photographed by the world’s media; Jarvis spent it slightly stoned, in front of a rapt crowd in a north London pub, being photographed by TGTF. Howard has two Brits, Jarvis has none, and even though that’s the way it should be, it says everything you need to know about the cynicism of the pop music machine as expressed through the prism of mainstream media. One final comparison: Jarvis will still be making music in 10 years’ time, and probably for the rest of his life… but Howard? I’m not so sure.
The beautiful Sage in Gateshead recently played host to Roundhouse Rising, the first time the event has taken place in association with Generator, the UK’s leading music development agency based in the North East. Martin, our correspondent from that region, was in attendance as four acts vied for the attention of the audience assembled.
First up is Amy Holford. Last time TGTF caught up with her was at Evolution Festival last year, where her delicate strummings were drowned out by the boiling hormones of a thousand 14-year-olds. Tonight, her voice done justice by a proper sound system, delicate material laid bare before a respectful, silent crowd, her full potential is plain to see. The main attraction is a soul voice of such power that it could perform any Motown single from the 60s without breaking a sweat. It swoops and bends through microtones long forgotten in this age of production tricks, one moment honey-sweet, the next buzz-saw provocative, a reminder of how powerful and sensuous a barely-clothed female voice can sound.
The problem is, she’s singing about her grandfather’s cancer. And how a long-gone, but clearly not forgotten, boyfriend didn’t text message her frequently enough. Imagine Amy’s current set distilling down into a pleasant acoustic interlude, bookended by some full band productions in whichever style she chooses – be that soul, electronica, or Tibetan nose flute ensemble – and it is to imagine a great voice put to good use. She might even bring in some writers to put together some material with broader appeal. The current songs are clearly close to her heart, and I wouldn’t for a minute suggest she abandon them altogether. But the next stage in her career surely demands a fuller sound to do justice to that wonderful voice.
Death At Sea (pictured above) have very little time to make an impact, and their triple-headed guitar assault was always going to struggle on first listen. They’re like your little brother’s bedroom band, all earnest pop-grunge and Converse All-Stars, so they do have their niche, it’s just that it’s a rather densely-occupied corner. Nowhere near as innocent are Eliza and the Bear (pictured below). There is no Eliza, and no Bear, in their lineup; what there are is five astonishingly fashionable haircuts accompanied by 30 minutes of quite the most bland music one might ever have the misfortune to experience. From the “and the” nomenclature, through the formulaic loud-quiet-loud-trumpetparps-quiet-loud-aren’t-we-so-folky-even-though-we’re-all-from-Romford arrangements, to the vague, pseudo-deep-and-meaningful lyrics and can’t-be-arsed trendier-than-thou delivery, Eliza and the Bear seem on a mission from the Devil himself to rid music of any meaning or relevance at all. Take ‘The Southern Wild’, for instance – two chords, some twee, twinkly keyboards, loads of “oh-oh-ohs”, stop-starts all over the place, all drizzled with the pointless refrain “You’ve got a lion’s heart / you’ve gotta find it”. And that goddamn trumpet everywhere… somebody please stab me now. They are a photocopy of a successful sound – a cynical recipe made up of familiar tastes. Like the flavour factories that create the fast food experience, there’s no nutrition involved, nothing meaty, just the baubles that sound superficially like music but dissolve into emptiness in your brain.
Everyone’s last hope is for Mausi (pictured at top) to pull it out of the bag after such a patchy undercard – and, praise be to the Gods of music, they do not disappoint. A curious combination of Italian style leavened with North East party ethos, Mausi serve up a luscious plate of uptempo stompers and downtempo emotion, Daisy Finetto prancing around the stage like the coolest girl-next-door everyone hopes to bump into. Latest single ‘Move’ has the Sage bouncing, its verging-on-cheesy Europop a delightful guilty pleasure. Previous release ‘Sol’ brings a similar slice of summery dance vibes to a chilly February evening. No doubt favoured as headliner because of their ability with a groove, nevertheless Mausi do put in the most enjoyable and mature set of the night.
The NME Awards Tour is a long-established way to kick off the musical year with a quartet of bands that gathered plaudits in the preceding months. This year, we have Brummie style from Peace, noisy London shenanigans from Palma Violets, Liverpudlian swagger from Miles Kane, and sort-of-Scottish art-pop from Django Django. Surely something for everyone, and TGTF was there in Newcastle on opening night to see how things went down.
One’s heart goes out to Peace: their set began just as the Academy’s doors were opening, meaning the crowd was more stunted than they deserve. Nevertheless, there were whoops and hollers aplenty from a knot of dedicated fans right down the front. And any plaudits coming their way are well-deserved. Peace have a knack of honing in on any particular guitar music sound from the last couple of decades, and brilliantly recreating it as their own. ‘Follow Baby’ is a fine bit of pop-baggy last heard from EMF in the very early ‘90s. ‘Wraith’, shorn of its dubious blaxsploitation visuals is altogether more considered, with its funky guitar chops and enormous singalong chorus revealing a fine almost-love song.
But where Peace really sound most at home is in the unashamed power ballad ‘California Daze’. Sweet, sweeping backing vocals melt into a gentle guitar figure, the drums kick things up a gear about 90 seconds in, and the emotion is unashamed. A true lighters-in-the-air moment, which shows their maturity as songwriters and talent as performers. Perhaps for my sins, in the widescreen guitars and breadth of scope, I was reminded of a young U2. Peace deserve the latter band’s wider recognition, and tonight is a decent step towards achieving that.
Palma Violets (pictured at top) eschew subtlety in favour of noise, wild abandon, and onstage theatricality. Their sound owes a lot to punk – I’m sure there’s one or two Sex Pistols and Clash records in Sam Fryer’s parents’ record collection. Vocals are artfully tweaked out of tune, instrumentation is simple: a synth organ parping underneath distorted guitars. Fryer and bassist Chilli Jesson have a sweaty bromance going on, mic stands intimately close together, double-headed guitar action never far away. Certainly this is raucous, powerful stuff live, artfully lo-fi (as per the obvious and unnecessary tape noise on their recorded material). Are they the true heirs to the art-punk throne? Until their forthcoming album is properly analysed for the presence of decent songs, the jury is still out, but they’re certainly a fun way to spend half an hour.
As Miles Kane takes the stage, it becomes pretty clear that the crowd is his. Perhaps this is because, as his Wikipedia entry states, he is “very attractive”, or perhaps it’s the glint of his diamanté slippers that prove irresistible. Whatever the cause, the audience are big Kane fans, and he doesn’t disappoint them. Having been in bands since the age of 18, Kane knows a thing or two about throwing an onstage shape – for any young trainee frontmen watching, this was a masterclass in the art of swagger. Kane knows this is his big chance, and has got his pedal pressed hard to the floor. Imagine Liam Gallagher’s vocal sneer, his brother’s guitar technique, Alex Turner’s way with a tune, and Paul Weller’s haircut, and we have Miles Kane – a patchwork dadrock man in leather trousers.
But then again, there’s a big hole right now where all the big beasts used to prowl. So step forward Miles Kane, a pseudo-tribute to them all, to keep the guitar-loving public downloading content for the time being. The fact is, most people know what they like, and like what they know, and what they know is what Miles Kane is offering. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it isn’t really. Kane is 100% professional, committed, and no box in the rock playbook is left unticked tonight. And, cynicism aside, that’s not an easy feat to pull off.
And so it’s left to Django Django to top that. And frankly, it’s a little too much of a jarring contrast to really work well, as the Djangos’ artful and considered musings requiring a little too much concentration in comparison with Kane’s balls-to-the-wall rock. Most of the crowd do stick around, although the atmosphere is noticeably more subdued than previously. Perhaps this is all the better to hear the subtleties in the music, of which their multi-layered arrangements are full. There’s the echo of The Beta Band throughout, which can only be a good thing. To their own audience, with the correct support, Django Django would make a lot more sense. As it is, they are a little too cerebral for the headline slot here tonight. Perhaps a less fickle crowd might await them in other parts of the country…
Overall, this is five-star entertainment: four set of deeply professional musicians, playing somewhere around the top of their game. If you want to find out about new bands before everyone else, this is not the event for you. If you’ve not been paying attention over the last 12 months or so, or just can’t be bothered to keep up, a quick trip to the NME Tour every winter should get you right up to speed with where pop music is right now. That would be a pretty good place, then.
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