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Night Engine were one of 2013’s one to watch, with a spectacular show at Liverpool Sound City, and for those that were there, an equally successful one the following week at The Great Escape. They released a three singles on limited coloured vinyl, each of which duly went on to sell on the secondary market for some stratospheric prices. Foundations duly laid, Night Engine have similarly ambitious plans for 2014, with an album release slated for the autumn, preceded by the single ‘All I Got’.
It almost goes without saying by now that Night Engine channel Fashion-era Bowie – a comparison primarily due to the remarkable vocal talents of Phil McDonnell: all camp authoritarianism and demonstrative vibrato. The band deliver slick, dark funk, with a hint of Strokes haughty garage rock, topped with the electronica of early Depeche Mode. On ‘All I Got’ McDonnell is apparently bemoaning the high expectations of a, shall we say, ‘acquaintance’. There’s talk of one night in leather, caged animals and flared nostrils. Oo-er missus. The band maintain a sleazy groove through the crooned middle eight; come the chorus they let it all hang out in a thunder of fizzy guitar and overdriven bass.
Night Engine truly deserve the plaudits they’ve gathered since their inception a couple of years ago. Theirs is arch yet danceable, disco-retro cool, with the whole Bowie factor adding to the novelty. If this single is anything to go by, the album should be one of 2014’s finest moments.
‘All I Got’, Night Engine’s next single, is out on the 2nd of June. ‘Wound Up Tight’, their debut album, is slated for a release in the autumn.
If there ever was a band defined by their frontman, The Crookes is it. George Waite, for it is he to whom one’s eyes cannot help but constantly be drawn, wields a hoiked-up bass, throwing it into all sorts of shapes whilst emoting into the microphone for all he’s worth. In the face of such competition, the rest of the band make up no more or less a competent background noise while Waite embarks on his various whimsical tales of romance with song titles lifted from Allan Ginsberg. It’s all unashamedly straightforward – there’s little in the way of artifice, in the music at least. The Libertines are a clear reference point, in the jangly arpeggios, keen-as-mustard drumming, and sweetly melodic vocal lines. That’s where the comparisons end, however, as there’s the sense that The Crookes would never think of veering anywhere near Pete Doherty levels of debauchery. They’re too nice and polite for that. At least in public anyway.
The new material does add some welcome maturity to their sound. Respite from jolly guitar japes is provided by ‘Howl’: a downtempo affair, admirably considered and reflective, with a nice big chorus that relies on emotional depth for its impact, rather than just up tempo guitar strumming. Also off the new album is ‘Outsiders’. We’re back to the romance theme again – they appear to sing of little else – but they are still displaying a maturity as befits a band promoting their third album. The lyrical content is artfully bookish, peppered with literary references and generally treading the well-worn path of contemporary realism, romantic yearning and the odd bit of existential despair.
Oops – my eyes have wandered from Waite for a second. A brief loss of attention. I’ve missed a moment, never to be brought back. Must keep watching, listening.
Could the band really be just a vehicle for his charisma? What if there was only him? As if sensing the same question, Waite dismisses the band – they’re “tired” – and addresses the crowd with just his voice and a battered Telecaster for company. ‘The I Love You Bridge’ is the highlight of the set – an unadorned paean to the power of a vocal melody and a handful of roughly-strummed electric guitar chords. Waite has the crowd in his hands, everyone knows it, and all are perfectly comfortable with the situation.
Which somewhat calls into question the need for three supporting players. Yes, drums are essential, as is a bit of electric guitar to fill in the treble range that the bass can’t reach. But are two guitarists really necessary? Apparently, Daniel Hopewell is responsible for a great deal of the lyrical content, for which he should be commended; but onstage, newly paunchy, sullen, mute, with his rhythm guitar turned down to the point of near audibility, one wonders how the sound would open out with just the one midrange instrument. Certainly Waite’s personality is the central celestial body, generating the charismatic field by which the others orbit – where’s the difference between two moons or three?
Harsh words, perhaps, and as a founder member and lyricist, clearly Hopewell’s position is secure. But the feeling remains that perhaps the band isn’t quite delivering the musical potential to do true justice to the intricate, erudite lyrics, that both guitarists are reading from the same crib sheet rather than playing disparate yet complementary parts. A subtle point, perhaps, that should take nothing away from the great ride that The Crookes have taken us on tonight. They’ve got some great tunes, of which the new ones are the best, a world-class frontman, and give enjoyable show. And one final word – the dedication of some of their fans is quite remarkable. One enthusiastic chap had already seen them in Leeds the day before this gig, and was planning to see tomorrow’s too. He could barely contain his delight in wangling the signed set list. Any band capable of such loyalty must be doing quite a lot of things very right indeed.
View Martin’s entire set of high-res photos from the Crookes’ set in Newcastle here.
Courtney Barnett’s debut ‘A Sea of Split Peas’ has been available from House Anxiety records since last November, but it’s this summer that sees her properly making a mark on the opposite side of the world from her native Melbourne. TGTF tipped Barnett as one of the artists playing all three urban festivals around the May Day bank holiday and picked out the 5-minute epic of ‘Anonymous Club’ as “showcasing Barnett’s ability to turn down the tempo and bring out a more circumspect, even sombre, mood, all led by her gently vulnerable voice.”
Said track has recently been treated to an accompanying video by Melburnian illustrator Celeste Potter. A monochrome, lo-fi, and subtly disturbing animation which evokes the restless dream of a child who’s read The Gruffalo too close to bedtime, both visuals and song inhabit a dreamworld of resigned despair – tears feature heavily. This is Barnett’s most downtempo, introspective work – elsewhere on ‘A Sea of Split Peas’, the tempo rises and humour is used to great effect, so this piece shouldn’t be taken as representative of her output as a whole. Nevertheless, a beautiful piece of art of which both Barnett and Potter should be duly proud.
It’s summer 2011 – the Summertyne Americana Festival at the Sage, Gateshead. David Macias, the then president of the Americana Music Association, is due to make a presentation that addresses the thorny issue of: what is Americana? Those of us keener on actually watching some music in the beery sunshine rather than talking about it indoors, missed the official conclusion. But surely the answer then, and ever since, is: rather a broad church of American rock, blues, and gospel-based music, overlaid with a tang of country. Banjos feature prominently. But why stop there? Why can’t an album of grunge-tinged rock, featuring tracks which could fit straight into the great contemporary American rock songbook, qualify? Because if it could, what Afghan Whigs have delivered with ‘Do to the Beast’ would fit right in.
In their first career, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs were active for 15 years from 1986, releasing six albums on a number of independent and major labels, notably Sub Pop, home to grunge contemporaries Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. But despite fraternal connections, The Afghan Whigs have always shown influences more left-field than most of their contemporaries, with an evident enthusiasm for classic soul (cf 1992’s album of soul and R ‘n’ B covers ‘Uptown Avondale’), utilising avant-garde mutations of classic songwriting technique.
In contrast to the 16 years we’ve waited for a new release from The Afghan Whigs, now the record has arrived, it wastes no time in getting down to business. ‘Do to the Beast’ opens with ‘Parked Outside’, a swaggering, uncompromising, riff-laden dirge heavy with fuzzed guitars and Greg Dulli’s guttural roar. It’s the sound of grunge, made contemporary for 2014, by men who survived it the first time around. ‘Matamoros’ mixes an electronica-inspired insistent groove, a darkly intense chorus and some strings more Moroccan than Mexican. ‘It Kills’ reveals a delicate underbelly to the band’s sound – “It kills to watch you love another” a self-explanatory confessional matched in tenderness by the understated arrangement and Dulli’s cracked baritone. ‘Algiers’ (video below) is a great American road song, all passionately-strummed acoustic guitar and mid-tempo angst. The sort of thing that Cherry Ghost can knock off in their sleep, but no less evocative for that. ‘Lost in the Woods’ converts a maudlin intro into a unashamedly chart-bothering melodic chorus, one which could easily have come from the pen of soul-era Detroit song-factory luminaries, if they arranged for electric guitar. A curiously schizophrenic arrangement, and one which mirrors the personality of the record as a whole.
The second half kicks off with ‘The Lottery’, a riffy, noisy thing, similar to their very earliest work. More interesting is what follows. ‘Can Rova’ is a great example of where Afghan Whigs differ from their contemporaries – the ability to execute a delicate ballad of tender beauty. This is rock in name only, the Americana label writ large – there’s even some banjo. And then there’s the final duplet. ‘I Am Fire’ is a world-weary dirge arranged for handclaps and despairing vocal. And as triumphant endings go, ‘These Sticks’ is itself a triumph. Attempting the seemingly impossible task of weaving all the disparate threads of the album into one coherent whole, it succeeds. The electric guitars are back, the drums are real, there’s a horn section for good measure.
Don’t ask about the lyrical content. Dulli is famed for his hard-hitting autobiographical style, and there’s no reason to think that ‘Do to the Beast’ disappoints in that regard. There’s simply not enough time or room in a review to properly plumb the depths of his psyche, to do justice to the self-loathing and corruption bubbling within. Suffice to say, the title itself is enough of an indication of what to expect – presumably a corrupted reference to the ancient ethic of reciprocity: “Do unto the Beast as you would have the Beast do unto you.” It could take several years of therapy to unravel what he’s on about here, and that’s just the album title. Approach with caution.
So there we have it. This is the sound of band that have no time for creative boundaries – if it sounds good, it’s in, genre be damned. So there’s the heavy guitar riffs as expected, mixed in with widescreen road songs, acoustic interludes, all given coherence by Dulli’s distinctive voice, at times reminiscent of Billy Corgan and even Rod Stewart. It’s a remarkable achievement for a band that have been away for a decade and a half – to seamlessly carry on where they left off. And ‘Do to the Beast’, in both its sound and its content, is as good as anything Afghan Whigs have ever recorded. Old fans will be delighted, and there’s doubtless a whole new generation just waiting to be inculcated as to the ways of Dulli. Poor dears.
The Afghan Whigs’ newest album ‘Do to the Beast’, the American band’s first in 16 years, is out now on Sub Pop.
One would be forgiven for not understanding the subtle difference between School of Language, in which David Brewis sings and Peter Brewis plays the drums, and the Mercury-nominated Field Music, in which David Brewis sings and Peter Brewis plays the drums. Well, School of Language is ostensibly David’s solo operation, so despite the live presence of Pete (and the bassist looks somehow familiar too), pretty much everything on the album was written and recorded by David. So tonight there’s no Field Music-style instrument swapping: David takes full frontman responsibility throughout.
And he’s rather good at it, clad in ‘70s-dad chic complete with slacks and linen jacket, displaying an awkward cool which reflects the mindset of the music. He helpfully points out that this is the first School of Language gig since September 2008, a fact which surely does nothing to calm first-night anxiety – nervous fiddling with guitar controls and an in-and-out-of pocket plectrum are telling giveaways. Perhaps the knowledge that bro isn’t going to step out from behind the drum kit tonight adds an extra frisson of tension. But as the photos attest, when initial nerves give way to concentration and growing confidence, Brewis certainly looks the part, sharp of cheekbone and jawline, even throwing some modest guitar-hero moves.
The songs are as precise and efficient as the workings of a Swiss watch. ‘A Smile Cracks’ has two electric guitar solos and a drum solo, which in another context could be a byword for excess, but in fact both are the very model of restraint. There’s acres of space in the arrangements, allowing exact placement of the various melodic components. As the album cover art suggests, this is the motion of an architect’s pencil made music: line, form, and placement are elegant, specific and unambiguous – as if played on a set square and recorded in thin graphite strokes.
One shouldn’t assume that such methods preclude the portrayal of emotion, or that the end result must be soulless. Far from it: the whole SoL experience is one of restrained white funk. Mary has already mentioned Talking Heads in her review of ‘Old Fears’, and the comparison is apt indeed. Self-described “kinda the single” ‘Between the Suburbs’ hints at Nile Rodgers-era Bowie in its stop-start rhythm and chorused Stratocaster work. ‘Dress Up’ is so retro it hurts, heavy with FM synth, tremendous auto-wah guitar, and drums that again refuse to play anything even vaguely resembling a conventional beat. ‘Suits Us Better’ is a dreamy interlude of ethereal backing vocals and reverbed guitar, and a groove conjured from looped beatboxing: at once ethereal and lo-fi.
The introspective-on-record ‘So Much Time’ is slightly faster and certainly more intense live, and works well as a full-stop to an evening of fine virgin music. It’s the sort of gig one wishes to experience again – not because of any particular mind-blowing spectacle, more because of the nagging certainty that with music as subtle and charming as this, the first reading cannot reveal the true depth of everything that’s on offer. Oh well – that’s what records are for.
Jordan Gatesmith is an unlikely frontman – all gangly limbs and sharp features, mostly hidden by a mop of floppy blonde hair. He keeps banter to a minimum, letting the songs take precedence over personality in his band’s short, sharp, 45-minute set. The Cluny is half-full, a fact that the band seem nonplussed about, casually working out set lists on the stage floor way past their start time. They’re in no hurry, because between their two albums (2012’s ‘America Give Up’, and now the one-week-old ‘World Of Joy’), they’ve no more than a single hour of recorded music to their name. Even if they played every track of both albums (they won’t – of which more later), they’d be tucked up in the Travelodge with a cup of cocoa before the witching hour.
Howler are exactly what one could wish for from a U.S. garage band. Casual onstage, unconcerned with niceties, they knock out one deafening energy bolt after another. In case anyone was concerned that Howler might have overnight turned into a lounge band, the first few seconds of the performance assuage such doubts: ‘Drip’ is fast, furious, ramshackle. ‘Yacht Boys’, Gatesmith’s blunderbuss critique of the boat shoe-wearing American upper middle class, complete with spiked guitar work and roared vocal refrains, is perfectly suited to live delivery. However, subtlety is in inverse proportion to energy levels tonight – more down tempo pieces like ‘Don’t Wanna’ (“you don’t have to be a punk / date girls / listen to the Smiths if you don’t want to”) are given the same whirlwind treatment – introspection is dropped in favour of immediacy.
Also missing in action is the psychedelic tinge that infuses parts of the new album, most notably the title track. Notably penned by guitarist Ian Nygaard rather than Gatesmith, it hints at a potential brave new world where high-speed observational punk-rock coexists and even combines with spaced-out psychedelia. A Howler 2.1 that investigated these possibilities would add another dimension to the band’s sound. However, tonight it is the drum insanity of Rory MacMurdo is the powerhouse that drives Howler. The rest of the band are urged to play faster and louder by MacMurdo’s kit, transforming the whole into greater than the sum of its parts. There are moments when one can see through the artifice: a quartet of teenagers rehearsing in a parent’s garage, striving to stand out from the Graham’s number of other similarly housebound aspirants. But it’s their genuinely melodic, meaningful songs, paired with a delivery with just the right mixture of careless virtuosity and attitude, which confirm Howler’s membership of the big league.