JOWE HEAD + THE DEMI-MONDE
Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Sat 1st Dec
For anyone here who isn't a pun rock trainspotter, Jowe Head was a founder member of the legendary Swell Maps. Who, once described by Simon Reynolds as “the missing link between Neu! And Sonic Youth”, were another of the classic bands who took punk not as an excuse for the usual rants about being bored in a bus shelter but as a cue to embark on surreal low-fi adventuring. (See here for ilks of a similar nature.) Since those days, extensive research can reveal, Head has trod a fittingly wayward path and has fronted this particular outfit for the past four years. (His name, incidentally, is Brummie slang for weirdo and the band's an archaic term for bohemian.)
His attire (colourful waistcoat, feathered top hat, paisley everything else) proved a clue to what we were in for – psychedelia served with wry humour and a folkish tinge. Their website lists the influences “Sun Ra, Joe Meek, The Left Banke, Sandy Denny, Os Mutantes, The Flaming Lips, flamenco, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, The Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Hildegarde von Bingen, Velvet Underground and Nico” - which sounds like music to my ears! Accompanying him are a drummer, a cellist where you might otherwise expect a bassist to be, and a woman providing everything else. Yes, everything else – backing vocals, keyboards, xylophone, theramin and at one stage a kettle. There may even have been a kitchen sink involved for all I know, missed in the general melee.
Subject matter includes Krampus (the Bad Santa of German folklore), William Blake and men turning into fish. Or fish into men. I wasn't clear which. Which was probably the point.
Though they don't sound much like the Swell Maps, there's the same sense of eccentricity, of glorified gentlemanly amateurishness, of revelling in music as a hobby. Which has all the usual advantages. Simply by playing whatever they want, they come up with a slew of playful ideas. Of course all the usual disadvantages turn up too, and not all those playful ideas actually stick to the wall. (A version of 'Nottamun Town' was actually fairly ropey, and that's not a song to spoil.) Head's stage presence seems to epitomise all that, coming across as grinningly impish but also mildly distracted. But then again, to misquote Captain Beefheart, if not everything works that's because it's really about playing.
Not as stellar a show as the Cravats, perhaps, but a drop of the good stuff all the same.
Incidentally, it wasn't actually that dark on the night...
The Swell Maps themselves at their Peel Sessions epitome...
Tues 4th Dec, Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton
Sometimes not knowing the rules is a handy short-cut route to breaking them. Take Japanese music. Forever reassembling Western influences in different combinations, like consignments of LPs were showing up at Tokyo docks shorn of labels and context, leaving the locals to make of them what they will. Like the bass sound from here but the drumming from there? Who's to stop you sticking them together?
Boris being a case in point. Named after a Melvins song, they apparently stem from the Japanese hardcore scene, though little of that sound sticks to them now. (Well they've been at it a good fifteen years!) Instead imagine an intersection of Sabbath's sludgy gut-level riffs, Sonic Youth's adventures in detuning and Mogwai's deranged dynamics and semi-symphonic noise sculptures. And probably other things as well, but that's the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties already thrown in the blender, so seems enough to be going on with.
These sounds are sometimes combined in unimagined ways, but also tracks take unexpected corners, develop at tangents, virtually ambush your ears with sonic assaults. You're never really sure when a track is over, except for the people clapping. Actually, I'm not sure that was much of a guide either. All of which is rather epitomised by band member Takeshi boldly sporting what 'The Simpsons' Otto called “a double guitar.” Apparently one bridge is strung as a guitar and the other as a bass, allowing for rapid-fire switching. Notably, even when they go in for the long ambient sections the audience stay with it. (Unlike my schooldays, when my headbanger classmates would always jump the needle whenever Led Zeppelin got acoustic.) Vocals appear more sparingly than is common in guitar rock, and rather than dominating tend to the intonatory.
My only caveat would be (perhaps unsurprisingly) the same as over Mogwai. There's an occasional tendency to get muso-ish which stopped me committing to it fully. Of course we don't want that punk fundamentalism that tries to insist everything has to sound like the first Black Flag album. And, true, it's a thin line between musicians doing things because they work and because they can, but still not one I like to see crossed. Yet that aside, overall this was a band boldly going, rather than just reheating the rock template for another TV dinner.
If you like this, a full one minute of Boris in Brighton...
...you'll love this. Best part of an hour from a Philadelphia set back in 2005 and probably better than their Brighton gig to be honest. It starts out with their Sabbath side very much to the fore, but starts getting really good when it starts getting spacey about half-way in...
Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...