THE POP GROUP
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 5th May
When frontman Mark Stewart launches the set with the words “we are all prostitutes”, the title and opening line of perhaps their most classic number, it might signal a statement of intent. Last time round it had been the set closer. Clearly, this won't be a night for messing about.
But it might also suggest a deeper purpose. The last gig had been built around the 1980 album 'We Are Time'. This time its all about the brand new release 'Citizen Zombie', and they're getting the known numbers out the way. Indeed, the title track is the very next to be played. Though it was somewhat controversially pitchforked by Pitchfork, from where I'm standing this makes for a better gig. The fresh songs dominate the set and make the band sound... well, fresher. They seem to run the gamut from quite bouncy numbers to the sinister and discordant. (Stewart back-announces one recited vocal piece as “a bit weird, that one”. And coming from him…)
I said last time round that the curse that befalls bands is that they get better, and that their incendiary yet disorientating blend of syncopation and dislocation could easily suffer from such a fate. But possibly they have got the better sort of better, from the days they were channelling some force they could barely control. Yet they're still not too accomplished, if things are no longer right on the edge of chaos they're still closer to it than today's health and safety regulations normally allow.
I even take to fancying they sound less like a reunited band getting back in the saddle than a band taking their next step – like they'd just been timewarped from 1980 to now, and were picking up where they left off. With typical impassioned hyperbole, Stewart was recently insisting to the Guardian that today's bleak times were precisely the reason to reignite things: “We always wanted to be a pop group...We’re getting right into the belly of the beast. And this is the time to be there.”
And seeing them live you could almost believe him...
The afore-mentioned 'We Are All Prostitutes' not from Brighton but... well, you'll guess where. Still ringing true today...
Brighton Dome, Fri 8th May
The only way I can think to describe electronica artist Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) is that he's to dance music what modern jazz was to trad. He twists, turns and distorts the beats into near-unrecognisable shapes, marshalls them into unpredictable compositions. And yet you feel at the heart of it is someone who loves old-style dance, loves the feeling of surrender to wave after wave of pummelling beats like a blissful form of drowning, someone who's remaking it his way than someone arriving with lofty notions to improve it. It remains dancey throughout. ('Modern dance' might even be a better term than klunkers like 'intelligent drum'n'bass'. But it would make everyone think of Pere Ubu so it isn't much good.)
The result's like a cross between an arcade game on mind-altering drugs and the music of the spheres, a pretty virtuous combination indeed. The beats are so heavy you feel as much as hear them, while the visuals are keyed by the music (by some electronic process I don't profess to understand) – so are in perfect time and give a perfect synaesthesic experience. The overall experience is mesmerising.
Last time I saw Squarepusher, in this very venue some seven or eight years ago, he seemed able to play bass and keyboards simultaneously. This time his bass stood propped up behind him like Chekhov's gun, with everyone waiting for it to go off. And yet I think the set sounded better without it. Jenkinson more or less started out as a bassist, and is an accomplished player. But he's almost too accomplished, the virtuoso playing can bring back something I hoped dance's beats had buried – muso-ness. The bass could make it jazzy in all the wrong ways. While with pure electronica it all sounds... purer somehow, more unearthly, more difficult to grasp.
In fact he only picked the thing up for the encore. Shorn of the fencing mask he'd sported for the whole of the main set, he first picked out idle notes as if mucking around casually at home. They only slowly built up into a fuller, more textured number, much more leisurely than the frenetic force of before. He mostly played notes so high-register I thought he must have switched to guitar, and needed to be told otherwise afterwards. After the sheer sonic shock of the main set, after which almost all the audience were on the feet, it was perhaps a strange sidestep. But the music was effective and demonstrated the variety of sounds he's capable of.
This is from... well, for once the actual gig...
Brighton Dome, Sat 9th May
Anna Calvi must be one of the most theatrical performers I've seen lately, and I write that as someone who was only recently at Marc Almond. She purposefully strides on stage after the rest of the band, and finishes the gig with fans throwing flowers to her. She remains slightly aloof, rarely speaking. Despite a slightly alarming resemblance to Simmonds from 'Agents of Shield', with her trademark tied-back hair, scarlet lipstick and flamenco outfits, and her equally distinctive voice she's very much a self-identifying star.
At the same time she's just as much a guitarist, strapping on at the start of the gig then keeping it to hand throughout. As someone known to reject the very concept of guitar solos as pointless busywork... well truth be told, at times I found them too excessive, but mostly coped with them surprisingly well. They seemed expressive rather than merely flamboyant, connected to the rest of the music rather than interrupting it. The guitar became her voice when her voice wasn't being her voice.
She often plays in the interchange where rock'n'roll meets country, the twangy, trebly echoey sound of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky'. And in general the music manages to keep a foot in rootsy without ever sounding regressive or constrained. She even manages a Bruce Springsteen cover without losing me, something I would have previously thought impossible. Overall the music can hone in on quite small sounds, then break into explosive bursts. The woman to her (stage) right bustles between a bewildering array of instruments, squeeze-box, xylophone, scraping a bow across a cymbal...
It's impressive, it's never short of invention. And yet, for all that its brimming with passion, somehow there wasn't enough heart to it. You can admire it, you can like it, but can you love it? To quote my thoughts on betterness in full from that old Pop Group review:
”The curse that normally befalls bands isn't that they get worse but that they get better. They become tighter, more professional, and lose the looseness – the unstable elements that had made them so idiosyncratic and unpredictable.”
Some of those present who'd seen her before did suggest she has got better in this way. Though she could have been born better for all I'd know. All I can say is betterness beset her that night.
Embedding disallowed but follow this link for actual gig footage.
Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...