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Update 11/02/14: sadly, we have been informed that Catfish and the Bottlemen will not be appearing at SXSW 2014.
Are Catfish and the Bottlemen actually at all cool? Granted, Van McCann has the best real frontman’s name this side of W. Axl Rose, and their hair ‘n’ leather jacket visual aesthetic is certainly a reliable if a little well-worn trope. But their music – straight ahead melodic guitar-rock, as popularised by (whisper it) Stereophonics, Oasis in the early days (when they were good), and trans-Atlantic superstars Foo Fighters – it’s a far cry from that nebulous, effete je ne sais quoi style that usually sets the blogosphere alight.
The thing is, they’re such desperately good fun that any doubts about their hipster status fade under a wave of multitudinous guitars, big rock drums and McCann’s insistent, stadium-ready voice. When TGTF last caught Catfish at a Communion night at Notting Hill Arts Club in March 2013, there were no doubts about their demeanour, but the occasional quibble about their songwriting chops and the production levels of their recorded material. It is with great pleasure, then, that we can confidently declare that their recent trifecta of releases calmly assuages such doubts.
Latest single ‘Pacifier’ has a chorus that could smelt iron, insistent guitar figures throughout, a very effective dynamic and a brilliant ending. ‘Rango’ exemplifies the loud-quiet-loud genre, but confidently takes what it needs and leaves, as opposed to displaying a crutch-like dependence on such a familiar structure. The insistent result throughout their latest material is a band that would sound right at home on a big stage, working through the rock playbook without a hint of irony. Given that the genre’s mainstream profile has arguably shrunken in recent years, perhaps encouraged by tongue-in-cheek acts such as The Darkness, it’s refreshing to hear a band dive right in without any sense of selfconsciousness.
No, they’re not cool. But they rock.
As if to celebrate a communal emergence from a very Dry January, this week three of TGTF’s favourite city-based festivals revealed great chunks of lineup. Live at Leeds and Liverpool Sound City take place on the same May bank holiday weekend, although Leeds is really only a one-dayer, whereas Liverpool treats its weary punters to the full 3-day marathon. And southerners don’t miss out either, as a week later the entire PR population of London decamps their beards and designer handbags to Brighton’s The Great Escape. For some, it’s a holiday, for others, well, they’ll need a holiday afterwards. [Having done both Sound City and Great Escape back to back 2 years in a row, I concur with the latter. – Ed.]
Like the artists themselves, for instance. There’s only so many buzz bands to go round of course, but at the time of writing already five hardy acts are lined up to play at all three events. Here we take a quick look at each and try to determine exactly why they’ve been picked to play three big shows in a week.
Liverpool’s Circa Waves (pictured at top) may well have heard the odd Libertines album in their time (and there were one or two odd ones!): the frantically strummed guitars and the big, melodic choruses have just the right amount of familiarity for them to sound like old friends already; the addition of a pronounced Liverpudlian twang in the vocal delivery of ‘Get Away’ adds a welcome point of differentiation from the seminal Londoners. Similarly, ‘Good For Me’ carries more than a hint of The Strokes’ ‘Last Nite’, although forsaking the latter’s bone-dry retro production for a wider, more modern sound. The big question is, are they more than the sum of their parts, or simply destined to follow paths that others first trod over a decade ago? No doubt their live show will provide the answer.
The we come to Melburnian slacker chick Courtney Barnett, famed for her Dylan-esquely-meandering autobiographical ditties. ‘Avant Gardener’, in its baggy groove and surreal, stream-of-consciousness take on a medical emergency, sounds nothing less than if Shaun Ryder had happened to be an Australian woman and was produced by Beck. Stranger things have happened. But there’s more than just a swaying rhythm and a clever turn of phrase to this antipodean artisan: her debut collection ‘A Sea Of Split Peas’ displays an enviable depth and maturity: being no stranger to a 5-minute epic, something like ‘Anonymous Club’ showcases Barnett’s ability to turn down the tempo and bring out a more circumspect, even sombre, mood, all led by her gently vulnerable voice. Truly a talent deserving of a wider audience – and these three gigs will provide that.
If you spend your nights lying awake trying to decide which flavour of rock you like better – the big, heavy, riffy version with screamed vocals, or the more jangly, melodic stuff with at least vaguely recognisable lyrics, then I’m pleased to say you can sleep easier from now on – Darlia from Blackpool have locked both styles in a negotiating room, not letting them emerge until they agreed on some sort of uneasy musical truce. Despite its portentous title, ‘Napalm’ even goes a bit garage-rock in the middle eight, before the Metal Zone pedal is stamped on again and the riffage re-emerges. It’s doubtful that this is a tribute to Napalm Death, who in comparison make this lot sound like a nursery singalong, but it powers along nicely in its own punk-pop-metal way. There are hints of Green Day here, although Darlia come nowhere close to knocking out the sort of world-class melodies that Billie Joe and Co lose down the back of the sofa. Indeed, on occasion, such as on recent single ‘Queen Of Hearts’ from the Knock Knock EP, the light/heavy contrasts don’t sit easily together at all. Much as there’s no demand for a lemon meringue pork pie, I wonder whether metalheads might dismiss Darlia as too lightweight to admit to liking, whilst the riffs might scare off the mainstream audience that bought so many copies of ‘American Idiot’. Time will tell.
Dolomite Minor also do heavy, but theirs is the weight of a fuzzbox, lashings of spring reverb, a repetitive, loping groove, and handfuls of late-60s/early-70s proto-hard rock attitude. There’s a touch of psychedelia too, but they don’t venture far enough away from their riffs to really earn the epithet. And what they carry in musical weight they absolutely drop down the toilet in terms of lyrical sophistication. From ‘Let Me Go’: “The sun goes up / the sun comes down / everyone goes out on the town”, and ‘Microphone’: “Go get her a microphone / all she needs is a gramophone”. There’s a lot of “Spoon on the Moon in June” going on here. With a tune. To be fair to them, fancy-pants lyrics are not the point here: a fey singer-songwriter might have a bunch of clever words, but do they have an industrial revolution guitar riff and drums than could kill a pigeon? No. They’re from Southampton, and so are Band Of Skulls, and they play a Gretsch guitar, and so do Band Of Skulls, which are of course just a couple of big coincidences and in no way has one influenced the other. No sirree. Nevertheless, as the latest in a long line of two-piece teenage riffmeisters, nobody could accuse Dolomite Minor of poor timing. There must be a lot of unemployed bassists out there.
And so we come to Marika Hackman, who has featured in TGTF a number of times before; the Brighton-based singer-songwriter and sometime model knocks out pieces of delicate fragility and open-hearted honesty, sometimes bordering on gruesome realmusik (see ‘Cannibal’ from 2013’s ‘That Iron Taste’ mini-album). Mary caught the end of her very popular show at The Great Escape last year, a very sparse affair with Hackman accompanied by just her acoustic guitar. Let’s hope she’s expanded her live palette somewhat this year: a good part of the joy held within her recorded material are the entirely self-played arrangements – ramshackle at times – that add depth and groove to the idiosyncratic song structures.
There we have it – five artists “doing the triple” of urban festivals this May. There will be more lineup announcements between now and then, and if any more acts end up playing all three festivals, we’ll feature those too – but what more incentive could you need?
Only Real, aka Londoner Niall Galvin, is one of the most intriguing artists we’ve heard at TGTF for quite a while. At first listen of something like ‘Punks And Potions’ (stream at the bottom of this post), the lead-off track of 2013’s ‘Days In The City’ EP now out on LuvLuvLuv Records, the almost out-of-tune electric guitars overlaid with a heavy dose of lo-fi chorusing are the kind of thing any number of bedroom crooners (and surely this *was* recorded in a bedroom) would put out. The arrangement is in no particular hurry, or of any particular convention for that matter, the second verse lazily arriving at the two-minute mark. But Only Real’s talent is to hide within these inauspicious strictures some impressively ambitious and thoughtful work.
‘Get It On’ transcends another (perhaps deliberately) primitive production; kicking off with a memorable guitar figure, the verse ambitiously utilises two simultaneous vocal lines which, like a particularly complex Scalextric layout, follow two disparate, unconnected paths until they suddenly coincide just in time to cross the finish line. The chorus is surprisingly big, and the whole is a satisfying and mature solution of the problem of how to reinvent the electric guitar song for a generation born in the ’90s. He’s also partial to a bit of a rap, and if you can get past a tendency to veer towards Jafaican at times, there’s some decent content in the flow, as exemplified by ‘Backseat Kissers’: a lovely circular groove mated to a quickfire rap which, when combined, substitute for proper singing and arrangement. Still pretty “bedom”, but none the worse for that. Overall, the combination of a naïf approach to arrangement and production, combined with a decent ear for a melody and lyrics, make Only Real a great prospect. One wonders what he’ll be capable of when he finally emerges from that bedroom…
Of all the cultural detritus left behind by the 1970s – flared trousers, tank tops, Alan Freeman – surely one of the most noted musical aberrations is the drum solo. Still popular with hair metal bands throughout the 1980s, rock (in common with the rest of civil society) underwent an enlightenment-style moment of humble clarity from the ‘90s onwards, meaning the drummer was for many years denied their one moment literally in the spotlight. Crystal Fighters, however, in their quest to visit as many genres of popular music as possible in one night, give drummer Andrea Marongiu as much time as he needs in which to demonstrate his tub-thumping chops unsullied by the indignity of overlaid melodic instrumentation. Much like Dennis Potter’s single cigarette in a glass display case, the very rarity of a decent drum solo gives it an intoxicating, illicit air. A moment which traditionally was a decent excuse to nip to the bar is transformed into a set highlight.
Crystal Fighters are perhaps the perfect Euro-band. They look far and wide for inspiration, both stylistically and geographically, eschewing the shrugged-off cool of many acts in favour of extroversion and even an occasional affinity for the cheesier side of Europop. Despite being a Londoner, singer Sebastian Pringle emerges clad in sequinned Arabesque robes, his head entirely covered in sparkling chiffon, brandishing what can only be described as two bunches of gourds, looking for all the world as if he’s just escaped from a north African souk, and has somehow managed to swap a life peddling overpriced tat to naïve tourists for one where he’s the frontman of a successful dance-rock combo.
It’s no coincidence that in this context he appears a shamanic figure, exhorting the crowd to uplift themselves, transcend their earthly cares and spread the love. This well-refreshed university crowd need little encouragement to join the love-in; the gig is effectively a soundtrack to their journey of spiritual enlightenment. And Crystal Fighters are well-placed to supply it – what they lack in mental challenge they make up for in euphoria-inducing melodies and arrangements. Let’s start with the hits. ‘Plage’ is almost childlike in its content and delivery, having only a handful of lyrics and based around a simple ukulele riff, heavy with references to hearts and love. ‘At Home’ is a fascinating lunge for the Mediterranean beach-bar market – five minutes of nailed-on Euro-chill-out-pop which attempts to transcend language barriers by making most of its vocal content: either “oh-oh”s, “yeah-yeah”s, or other nonsensical (but not necessarily meaningless) vowel sounds. The question is, not how well it’s done – very – but whether an English-speaking audience might ask for a bit more insight with their cheese.
As the evening wears on, the tempo increases. The tone of ‘Love Is All I Got’ is self-explanatory from the title – the platitudes “wake your soul with love in the morning / feed your soul with love in the evening / expand your soul with love on the weekend” are set to the classic euro-house instrumentation of kick drum, white-noise snare and filtered synth lines; this is band-as-Ibiza-DJ-set-climax. And whilst that might be the final crescendo of most bands’ sets, Crystal Fighters have yet another level to reach for. ‘Follow’ is nothing less than an ambitious blend of Omar Souleyman’s techno-dabke, eastern European klezmer and western drum and bass. The room likes it – a lot. And after almost two hours, and countless genres, they’re gone.
Jungle are purveyors of sun-drenched downtempo electro-soul, a facsimile of which can often be heard playing on the radio of, say, a 1965 Chevy Malibu SS whilst cruising the vice-ridden streets of a simulated Los Angeles. Title track of recent EP ‘The Heat’ comes complete with a brief straight-faced spoken-word introduction and even some police siren action towards the end, all adding up to a cinematic production style which sounds very west coast indeed (and we’re not talking Cumbria here). It’s smooth, sleazy, and very, very, cool. The Heat has just been released to much fanfare on B3SCI records in North America, comprising all four tracks previously recorded in the UK.
‘Lucky I Got What I Want’ is a soundalike to ‘The Heat'; although more atmospheric and downtempo, it carries the same instrumentation and tone, much as B-sides of old. All blissed-out vocals, detuned, mellow synth, and the tiniest of percussion ticks – this is music to watch the sun come up to. ‘Platoon’ and ‘Drops’, are even more downtempo and inscrutable – is this the first example of glitch-soul? To be honest, the recent fanfare around Jungle appears to be more to do with their carefully-crafted image, rather than the pure excellence of these tracks. They may end up huge, but is there really enough to go on in this first, determinedly downtempo, collection? Anyway, it’s enough to land them a spot on both the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 *and* This Is Fake DIY’s Class of 2014’s list, which has to count for something. We await their SXSW performance with interest…
And so we come to the number one spot on TGTF’s run-down of the acts to watch for 2014. And the winner of that coveted honour is… Findlay, the dirty-rock outfit fronted by the eponymous Natalie. Their 2013 was momentous, from a raucous set at Liverpool Sound City (photos here, Sound City coverage here), being picked by fashion designer L’Wren Scott (Mick Jagger’s better half) to play the prestigious Serpentine Ball in front of the great and the good of the fashion world, to finishing the year with their very first headline UK tour, the trajectory has been steadily upwards. And even though Findlay is the name of the band, it’s really their lead singer who gets all the attention, and with good reason: it’s her sassy, grungy, sexy delivery that give Findlay their appeal, both live and on record.
2012’s début single ‘Your Sister’ really does start as they mean to go on. Unashamedly pilfering a T-Rex riff, Findlay smoulders and growls something about kissing, through a distorted, reverbed microphone, before things reach such a pitch that all she can manage are a few primordial groans. Well done her. If anything, its follow-up ‘Off & On’ turns every knob a bit further towards 11. There’s a little less smoulder, but a lot more urgency and an almost cod-horror feel to the vestigial chorus – the soundtrack to a zombie car-chase. It’s over before it’s even begun, a crazy, sub-three-minute vignette of vamp-rock.
For latest single ‘Greasy Love’ production duties are taken on by legendary rock producer Flood – a sure sign, if any were needed, that Findlay are mixing it in the big time now. The results are clear to hear – if anything, the drama is brought to even more dizzying heights. The vocal is distorted almost beyond recognition, and the narrative abstraction is on another level – undoubtedly she’s talking about something very naughty indeed, over a swampy guitar groove and thudding drums. The result is neatly summarised by the visual tone of the accompanying video – tinted blood-red, Findlay stalks through a desolate urban landscape, caterwauling about all manner of behind-closed-doors shenanigans.
The involvement of Flood is even more significant when one considers the body of work he’s produced with PJ Harvey, perhaps something of an influence on the nascent Findlay. One could also mention as influences well-known punky females such as Patti Smith and Courtney Love. Findlay isn’t quite a Riot Grrrl yet, though – there’s little in the way of strident feminism, although there may be a glimmer hidden under the abstraction, and her stage persona is, frankly, a little more raunchy than the Grrrls of old would condone – but perhaps that makes her all the more balanced a performer. Either way, there’s plenty of star quality to Natalie Findlay, and there’s no doubt at all that 2014 should be the year she makes the jump into the mainstream consciousness. Greasy or not.