Brighton Dome, Sun 30th Oct
Martin Green day-jobs as accordionist with the contemporary folk trio Lau. (A classic case of an outfit I always intend to catch up with without succeeding.) For this one-off project he's got together an ensemble including Portishead's Adrian Utley, Mogwai's Dominic Aitchison, Becky Unthank and Arab Strab's Aidan Moffat. (Though the last only appears as a recorded voice-over.) Green's described Flit as “inspired by first hand stories of human movement around the world.” Songs are strung along polar opposites - past and present, parent and child, home and travel.
I confess to never having previously been sold on the Unthanks, but here Becky's voice served admirably and married well with co-vocalist Adam Holmes. She had a refreshingly direct, unhistrionic way of singing, as if merely intending to get the song over to you. (Green praises her for this in the programme.) The music moved back and forth between vocal-led sections and what I believe we are supposed to call folktronica, but remained measured and refreshingly sparse, never clever or fussy.
They were accompanied by stage design and visuals by white robot, predominant enough for the night to end with a cinema-like credit sequence. Yet at the same time they were equally measured and sparse. In fact with their brown paper packaging and folded-paper figures they had a home-made quality, more Oliver Postgate than Pixar. And animation, where objects and figures don't just move but morph and transform, worked well with the overall theme of human movement.
In fact the night's one weakness was Green's audience addresses, which if leavened by humour veered towards the pat. (Life is a journey, family bonds us and so on.) It could of course be said that folk musicians are inveterate explainers, that with a folk gig there’ll be an inevitable gap between the phrase “this next song…” and the actual next song which sometimes matches the length of the song itself. We expect this, and we go with it.
But that's a tradition built up around events consisting of one guy, an acoustic guitar, a barstool and a spotlight. While even some of those elements can be considered optional. Apply it to an ensemble in a multi-media event and it becomes not just superfluous but extraneous.
It could of course be said that Green’s ‘explanations’ might sound inadequate, but were merely reiterating what was in the songs anyway. But that seems all the more a reason not to repeat it all. Firstly, these were evocative rather than polemical songs. But more, there’s a reason why we have songs, or any other kind of art - they can say things better than saying them. They can reinvigorate what has been reduced to cliché. In one of the voiceovers, Moffat comments on finding a photo “from another country”. Of course, we recognise the well-known analogy for the past. But the fact that we make the connection, in the moment, while we watch, is important. (I did wonder if these addresses were merely padding, to stop the show being too short.)
Okay, having accused Green of pat philosophising it’s time to do some of my own. The songs more explore a terrain than develop an argument, a terrain defined by the track ‘The Wrackline’ - the line of debris left by the high tide, neither sea nor shore. And while folk artists forever try to pin a tune back to it’s source in their fool's quest for 'authenticity', these songs seem to stem from such an unplace. As in the lyric “railway lines and ocean liners, it never will be a home to any,” we live in a present that’s merely liminal.
And as such they’re haunting laments. It’s reminiscent of the way that several contemporary ghost stories, such as the recent BBC series ‘The Living and the Dead’, have inverted what might seem the genre’s most fundamental relationship – it's us who've become the ghosts who haunt the past.
But at the very same time there's a quiet assurance to them. Teresa May recently tried to court popularity by claiming “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. As if human movement is somehow a recent phenomenon, a fiction this show does much to dispel.
And even if we do live more on the Wrackline than once we did, if we are not tied to a place in the way people once were, that doesn’t make us the rootless cosmopolitans of Nazi, Stalinist and now Teresa May’s propaganda. It just means, in an image used in one of the songs, we carry our roots with us. And folk songs are effectively lightweight bundles for carrying such things around, sonic knotted hankies attached to download sticks. And if that’s become our identity we should embrace it.
And that’s perhaps best not raised in the lyrics but embedded in the music. The ‘folk’ and ‘tronica’ sounds are not ironically juxtaposed in some clever foregrounded way, but blended. You stop making a distinction between them fairly quickly.
I walked home past a church under redevelopment, under the sign 'giving the past a future'. Which is not such a bad idea. But our more pressing issue might be giving the present a past...
The animation for 'Strange Sky'...
The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 29th Oct
As the record shows, Expletive Undeleted's last appearance in Brighton just under four years ago was well received here in Lucid Frenzy Towers. Enough in fact to come back to the very same venue for more...
They're here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first album, 'Hidden World', by playing it right through. Their previous steps have been less surprising than previously inconceivable - playing with some similarly F-worded friends in the Festival of the Fuck Bands, covering 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and releasing a hardcore punk concept album where workers in a lightbulb factory discover love, revolution and metafiction in roughly that order. So playing an old album in the correct track order does seem strangely retrograde. Perhaps it's intended as a kind of double bluff, where the most unexpected thing for them to do now would be something expected.
Perhaps luckily for me it's not an album I really know, having bought it only shortly before the gig. And they are nothing less than a great live band. If the great frontmen of punk are like forces of nature which get unleashed on stage, sometimes you can pin them to a specific animal. Iggy would be a wolf, perhaps an urban fox, the Velvets cats.
But with frontman Pink Eyes you'd have to invent the creature – something supersized yet playful, a punk version of the Gruffalo. He's hyperactively all over the stage (and for that matter most of the auditorium), finding a Halloween pumpkin which he's soon adopted into a helmet, heading to the bar for a drink mid-song without missing a beat, high-fiving all the venue staff...
But while it was still a great gig, it was beaten by it's predecessor. And it was to do with that first album business...
Many bands found they soon had to abandon the punk sound, that what started as a jolt of energy soon became a musical straightjacket you needed to wriggle out of. Whereas for F And Five Asterisks they wear it like a suit of clothes they seem infinitely able to accessorise.
And that was already at work with the first album. Among the cacophony and bellowed vocals there's already a keen melodic sense. One of their fortes is great guitar surges, already in enough evidence that to house them it needed two nine-minute tracks. (Hardly a hardcore staple.) But it starts something was taken much further subsequently, they became more musically adventurous as they went on. (Underlined by both first and second album containing so many religious themes.) Going back to that first album now is like going back to your roots for a band whose beauty lies in their ability to flower. I never saw them back them, but it does feel like being timewarped to that point, where the band we knew were still budding.
'Invisible Leader' from Liverpool...