The Old Market, Hove, Mon 22nd Oct
“We're just a folk band, really,” deadpanned frontman Mike Lindsay at one point.
“Discuss”, he could have added. The vast majority of their songs feature the great folk staple of monophonic choral singing. It makes for a refreshingly direct, unperformative style, the very opposite of all that over-emotive 'X Factor' warbling that so often passes for singing nowadays. But, much like Lindsay's comment, its a style you could also call deadpan. Like reciting a story straight, it does little to clue the listener in on how to take things and leaves more open to interpretation.
Dispassionate in tone, it tempts you to take the singers as reliable narrators rather than characters within the songs. And yet there's simultaneously something disquieting about it. Notably, anachronisms abound; magic spells coexist with bedroom TVs, horses clattering over stones only to run into police cars, rivers and fields morph into branches of Little Chef.
Musically it's like the old Steve Reich device of a musician playing along to recordings of them-self. However close together the singing comes, it never quite hits the exact same notes at exactly the same time. The ear hears the harmony but also senses the subtle discords going on around it – edges are always blurred.
...which pretty much sums Tunng up all round. Their songs are beguiling, placid surfaces barely concealing murky depths. Their tunefulness often draws the listener into quite sinister lyrics before they've even noticed. Something terrible always seems to have happened which is only alluded to, or to be happening but on the periphery of our vision. 'Tale From Black', we're told, is about an old lady who commits murders in order to use the bodies' blood for typewriter ink. “Actually”, Lindsay concedes, “we've quite a lot of songs on that subject.”
'Jenny Again' comes on like a break-up number and only some way in do you realise it's a victim's ode to their murderer. Yep, it's not just the panning that's dead here – murder's a definite theme. That great folk staple of the murder ballad is given a twist – building on the model rather than merely duplicating it. And it is simply more effective to hear Tunng gently cooing on the subject than it is to hear Cannibal Corpse screaming and gurning and getting themselves in an awful bother. It's the same relationship as 'The Innocents' does to 'Saw'.
But like those choral vocals the music also slips off-kilter. It's often hard to work out just what its doing, to sound so harmonious and so disconcerting at one and the same time. Songs aren't broken or dispensed with, just given half a twist until nothing sounds quite in the right place any more. As much as anything from folk, it's reminiscent of John Cale's bleakly beautiful ballads, such as 'Antarctica Starts Here.'
..which is of course what's at the root of Lindsay's gag. Made of such slippery stuff, they're hard to pin to any genre. The venue dubbed them nu-folk, but that alone merely suggests the performers being pre-pensionable. Psych-folk comes closer, but practitioners tend to the more brazenly psychedelic and in-your-face. I thought of both twisted folk and folk noir, only (just as whentrying to coin terms for the Physics House Band) to find both to be already in use.
However, while I can confidently say they didn't play a song I didn't take to, I suspect after a decade of deadpanning time may have washed out some of their lo-fi weirdness. It's the familiar story, as a band become more accomplished they get correspondingly less interesting. Certainly my stand-out favourite track of the night was the early (and afore-mentioned) 'Tale From Black.' Perhaps partly because it was the first track of theirs I ever heard, on the much missed Festive Fifty, from 2004.
But it's not just that. Sampling and sound effects seem less employed in their more recent fare, yet they seem to add much - lending proceedings the feeling of a ghost story. Those so minded might even trace an overlap between Tunng's songs and the more ambient Ghost Box scene. While hauntology has become something of a buzzword, both can create music which feels in itself like the haunting – leaving the listener trying to reconstruct some original event from a series of spectral happenings. (“The ghost of an image/It's just fleeting glimpses.”)
Tunng are just a folk band, really. Not really.
Not from Brighton but London, the now-twice-mentioned 'Tale From Black'...
HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT
Brighton Concorde, Fri 18th Oct
The same night Half Man Half Biscuit played, a friend told me she was off to see Culture Shock. A chance event which duplicated with uncanny accuracy the divide which hit music in the early Eighties. (Though the bands weren’t formed until ’84 and ’86 respectively.) Anarcho-punkers Culture Shock had songs about not liking governments and nuclear war and animal experiments. While, in the post-punk corner, HMHB had songs about not liking people who put peaches on their cornflakes.
There was no contest as far as I was concerned.
They also wrote songs about converting their loft back into a loft, seeing the Bootleg Beatles dressed as the bootleg Mark Chapman, and replacement rail services which turn out on close inspection to consist of buses. And they split up because being in the band was causing them to miss too much daytime TV. Never did smalltown England seem smaller, which is about the greatest complement you could give them.
But they since reformed and here they are…
(They actually reformed in the Nineties and I've even seen them since then. But then that makes the story less newsworthy.)
As such tales might suggest, they were not a band to court success. In fact, the responded to the limelight as a vampire might to sunlight. With their rinky-dink sound, flat-pack riffs and default setting of jaded, they worked best sniping at things from the sidelines.
But it's a bit like what (of all people) Noel Gallagher said recently. In the old days, politicians helpfully looked like nutters and you knew where you were. Nowadays they're slick, smart/casual and, in his words, “they walk among us.”
Similarly, the limelight has come to prove equally slippery. Seriously, how do you avoid it by not playing 'Top of the Pops' when the show isn't even on? The old gag about being “differently successful” now seems all too credible a fate.
Some now regard them as an honorary sort of folk band, and most likley rightly. But what is true for good can also be true for ill. Their first album was called 'Back in the DHSS' and their second 'Back Again in the DHSS'. Frontman and songwriter Nige Blackwell had been unemployed for years before forming the band, and his writing wasn't based in the doley lifestyle so much as steeped in it. An over-active imagination, fed only on a diet of celeb trivia, music biz lore and childhood TV memories, spun them into fantasies of obsessive contempt. With little to actually rebel against, instead you cultivated sneery diffidence. It was like you were on strike against the very idea of engagement. But songs about signing on now feel much like songs about weaving, an exercise in preserving what was once a way of life.
In short, playing a sizeable venue, packed with fans who know all the words, is that really the way it's supposed to be? Of course their tracks ceaselessly aped and echoed football chants, TV themes and nursery rhymes – they're based on a singalong source. But how singalong can a gig get before it's just like 'The Rocky Horror Show'? At times it feels like an acid gob grenade aimed at the trivial and irritating. But, even with the ever-reliably sardonic air eminating from Nige, all too often it feels like that - a show.
Perhaps it's pointless to compare gigs two decades apart. But a creaking community centre in Southwick followed by a long bus ride home, wasn't that the way it was supposed to be?
Something else which happened the same day... Morrissey's autobiography was unleashed, leading to the Guardian quoting his famous line - “in the days when you were hopelessly poor/ I just liked you more.”
Just saying, is all.
As I'm sure you're used to by now, not from Brighton...