Audio, Brighton, 9th Dec
Themselves San Francisco-based, Wooden Shjips are presumably named after the classic Jefferson Airplane track. (Though how they came by that strange extra letter I've njo idjea.) And naming a band after a track already used by another band most commonly signifies music that's merely going to regurgitate. But, shortly after seeing the Black Angels, it seems I'm going to have to make another exception to my rule.
For they're not much like the Airplane at all, subjecting songs to their psychedelic curdling. Their sound's more metronomic, open and expansive. 'Space rock' is a term often used interchangeably with psychedelic but in this case would be more fitting. Their website describes their mission statement as “transforming heady psychedelic rock into minimalist masterpieces”, and as the organ swirls they sound like something closer to the Velvet's 'What Goes On'. Except with Hawkwind's guitar sound. And something of Question Mark and the Mysterious thrown in too.
They came with the perfect backdrop film, a Pollock come to life meets Bridget Riley combined with the old TV closedown signal. A shorthand way of saying this isn't going to be that pretty kind of psychedelia, with all those coloured lights and childhood whimsey.
They have such a good rhythm section - tight, driving and spacious simultaneously – that you start to wonder if they didn't spent years honing their skills marshalled into someone's backing band, and tonight is their first chance to break free. The vocals would even by the most charitable source be described as weak, but then they clearly aren't intended to be dominant. (They barely speak to the audience between tracks, as if words don't interest them.) It's the organ that takes to the fore, its surges at times almost breaking into drones. At times the player (who in police parlance I now know to be called Nash Whalan) would only marginally move his hands, like some expert driver, like Irwin Schmidt in those classic old Can clips.
I suspect, however, that everything that makes the band so great live would start to work against them on CD. Truth to tell, they don't have a great range, they're one of those bands who have their sound and would rather stick to it. And what makes for the hypnotic force of repetition would, once recorded, most likely soon become mere repetition.
But definitely a band to take in live, should they sajl your way.
...and a live session on American radio...
The Hope, Brighton, Sun 17th Nov
You could describe Califone as having parked their easy chair at the point where the venn diagrams of blues, folk and country converge. The slow and steady pace of their songs makes them feel like boxcars traversing the landscape, allowing listeners to hitch a ride. Though Tim Rutili is the singer and chief songwriter you could hardly call so unassuming a fellow a frontman. Looking like Columbo's more crumpled slacker brother, he keeps mischievously suggesting he should introduce each number in a declammatory Gene Simmonds style. Then almost murmurs the words to their track 'Funeral Singers', “The book is aching for the tree/ Return, return, return to me...”
...and they must be the only band matching that description to have written a fiddle-led ode to Surrealist film-maker Luis Bunel. For there's also a persistently left-field edge to what they do, it just takes you a while to notice its there. It's like they've stepped straight from the back porch to the sound lab, skipping all the intervening stages. (They are, after all, not from some rustic backwater but Chicago, virtual home of experimental rock.)
Let's compare them momentarily to Tunng, who twist folk tunes until you're haunted by their strangeness. But Tunng's music is almost the definition of uncanny - strangely familiar. While Califone, strangely, are merely familiar. Every sound they turn their hand to comes out sounding entirely natural. In the old days, people picked up guitars and fiddles when they wanted to make music. These days there are more things to pick up. But with Califone it still feels the same deal.
After I first heard them on the late, lamented radio show 'Mixing It', one of the presenters commented their music sounded like it had simply been lying there waiting to be played - perfectly summing up their apparent artlessness. Or, to quote from another song, the afore-mentioned 'Luis Bunel', “Every camera loves you better/When you quit trying to play”. “Quit trying to play” could indeed be their axiom, a Yoda-like refusal to strain for effort.
As the set progresses, the unaffected-effects songs slowly stretch into something more wig-out, one number pulsing like something from Steve Reich. But it's less that they expand their musical ground, more that they pull more things into their orbit.
As if gone native to their unassuming style, they seemed to imagine no-one would want an encore and instead traipsed off to their merch stall. Having one then insisted on them, they found themselves unprepared and had to rely on suggestions called out by the crowd. It couldn't have ended in a more appropriate way.
The afore-mentioned 'Funeral Singers'...
...and some honest-to-God genuine shaky footage from Brighton...
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 6th Nov
Here at Lucid Frenzy HQ, we have an attitude to the Young People's Music of Today akin to Saxon Kings' feelings about baths. We like to dip our toe in it every few months, whether we need to or not.
Of course there's more to it than faddishness and generation gaps. There's not much point making more music if you're not going to move music on. Which inevitably leaves some old timers behind. But there has of late been a more fundamental shift. Those Young People of Today, they listen to music through iPlayers or on-line. (They do, I've seen them.) And the different delivery system makes the music different. You can't simply separate form and content.
Us Old 'Uns tend to focus on the downside of this. Music has been made a commodity, to be consumed like the rest of us use water or electricity. But there's an inevitable upside that goes with it. Music always was a commodity fetish, perhaps the most classic example of the term, and sometimes what's really changed is a decline in the fetishism rather than a rise in the commodification. Music was once encumbered with cultural baggage and pressed into signifying your identity. People would often stick rigidly to certain genres, never straying. But if music's simply what comes up next on your shuffle player, your relationship to it becomes more utilitarian. It either works for you or it doesn't.
...which means, I contend, that live becomes a good way to take in modern music. A gig is a shuffle player made out of real people. By the time you've got to the venue, it's too late to take the LP off the turntable. You might as well try going with it, seeing if it takes you somewhere. (In an irony, in our internet age bands now make their living from playing live more than releasing music. Of course people try to capture them on fuzzy footage for YouTube. But everyone knows the experience isn't the same.)
...and as it happens Mount Kimbie are an excellent live band. Dispelling the notion that dance music doesn't work in a gig format, they mix live and electronic instruments with alacrity. They even spent a fair amount on time playing actual honest-guv guitars. (I expect some of those Young People of Today had to Google what the funny stringed objects were.)
One of the axioms of Lucid Frenzy is that great art can straddle apparent contradictions. And, as was alluded to over Fuck Buttons, Mount Kimbie can marshall the power of repetitive beats without becoming their slave, without succumbing to simple rigid repetition. There is always a twist or turn in the track. There's never the sense that the clever stuff is merely smeared on the basic beats, like the frozen veg on the dull dough of a bargain basement pizza. Mount Kimbie live in the beats. Perhaps notably, they're signed to maverick electronica label Warp, known for releasing (among others) Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher.
According to that great authority Wikipedia, they're “arguably responsible for the term post-dubstep”. While I find I take to dubstep on the rare occasions its path crosses mine, I confess I don't have much of a clue what it is. So post-dubstep lies several levels beyond my comprehension. (Less dancefloor-fixated is about all I've gathered.)
So here's an observation that is almost certainly borne of ignorance - Mount Kimbie's post-dubstep is actually putting the dub influence back in. (An influence which never seemed that pronounced to me to being with.) On rare occasions this takes the form of literal lifts, the most obvious being echo effects. But in a wider sense it borrows dub's sense of sonic depth. Dub didn't try to draw a picture, in which a singer stood in front of a backing band. Dub was to music what a Pollock abstract is to painting, it doesn't approximate perspective but still conveys pictoral depth – seeming to stretch deeper and deeper the longer you look into it. Notably, the image for their tour and most recent release is a graphic of abstract, overlapping shapes. With Mount Kimbie, sounds sit on top of one another, overlap, recede. The way they interact is what makes the magic happen.
Mount Kimbie are really very good indeed, and to try out some of their music might be a very good use of your time. Or, in the parlance of the day, they is bleedin' blindin'. Well wicked, mate. 'avin' it, an' that. (Note to self: check this is the way Those Young People actually talk before posting.)
Not from Brighton, but same tour...
Coming soon! More belated gig reviews which compare music to Pollock abstracts...