…but I need to archive these reviews somewhere, and here’s as good a place as any. These all appeared in t’local paper in the last couple of weeks – but either they never made it to the website, or else they were only published in a heavily edited state.
With the sold out NME Rock’n’Roll Riot Tour lined up for tomorrow, and The Divine Comedy scheduled for November, Nottingham Trent is clearly serious about re-establishing its Shakespeare Street building as a venue for “name” acts. After a gap of over a decade, this is welcome news, as the hall lends itself superbly to live music. The stage has been shifted onto the long wall, allowing the crowd to spread itself out, visibility is excellent, and the acoustics are spot-on.
None of this was enough to lift Mumm-Ra’s support set out of competent mediocrity. The band cut their teeth with two-hour experimental Krautrock jam sessions in village halls – but such experimentalism is long gone, replaced by the sort of tame orthodoxy which has characterised far too many of this year’s bands. They need to get their Krautrock back, and fast.
Thankfully, The Automatic took the evening to a new level, aided by excellent lighting from the impressive rig, and an inventive series of brain-scrambling animations on the cinema-sized screen behind them, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Super Furry Animals last came to town.
It would have been understandable if they had been weighed down by Monster, their ubiquitous mega-hit of the summer. (Indeed, it was cheekily introduced as a “Status Quo cover version”.) However, a tight, energetic, confident set showed that the band have stepped up to the mark admirably, and are already at ease in larger venues.
An unexpected highlight was a cover of Kanye West’s Gold Digger, which had the irrepressible keyboardist Alex Pennie rapping over vocalist Rob Hawkins’ flute, in a kind of hip hop/Jethro Tull soundclash (ask your Dad).
If straight-up, student-friendly, NME-approved guitar rock has begun to bore you, then The Automatic are the hugely enjoyable exception to the rule.
When first encountering Duke Special – the stage name of Peter Wilson, an outlandishly dreadlocked singer, songwriter and pianist from Belfast – the inevitable first point of reference has to be Rufus Wainwright. Not only do both singers use similar phrasing (complete with that same slightly nasal quality), but they also share a certain theatricality, with deft orchestral arrangements and stylistic nods to Gershwin, Weill and vaudeville traditions.
What sets Wilson apart from Wainwright – aside from his pronounced Irish brogue – is a lighter, warmer, more straightforward approach to his songwriting. There’s little arch, artsy self-consciousness to be found in these instantly accessible melodies – alternately rousing and reassuring – which engulf the listener in a kind of genial bear-hug. For despite a certain wounded quality here and there, the aim of Wilson’s songs – like those on the new Badly Drawn Boy album – is to tell you that everything is ultimately going to be okay. In his own words: “I want to capture something that sounds like Christmas smoking through an old wooden radio.”
When you consider how much mileage could have been extracted from his family connections, it is to Sean Lennon’s credit that he has followed a more low-key, unassuming career path. Indeed, this is only the 31 year old’s second album, and his first in eight years.
Unlike its more stylistically adventurous predecessor, Friendly Fire sees a move towards more conventional song structures. The overall mood of these ten mid-tempo love songs is gently plaintive, as a resigned Lennon sighs over the loss of his girlfriend, and the betrayal of the friend who snatched her away.
Perhaps this would have been an angrier album, were it not for the real-life fate of the friend in question, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after Lennon penned the vengeful opening track, Dead Meat. Consequently, most of the album is drenched with a regretful melancholy, which – despite some attractive arrangements from Jon Brion – becomes increasingly monotonous.
None of this is helped by Lennon’s puny, strained, curiously inexpressive vocals, which – like the album in general – are a pale shadow of his father’s grit and passion.
Stand by your bass-bins: it’s the Battle of the Retro Rockers! With those flash-in-the-pan upstarts The Darkness already a fading memory, there are only two serious contenders left standing. Representing Australia, it’s Jet, with their newly released second album. And in the New Zealand corner, plucky underdogs The Datsuns are trying to claw back lost ground with their third, self-produced effort.
Jet may have the cheekbones, the column inches – and, well, the sales – but at least The Datsuns have a comparative maturity, and a deeper commitment to the core values of head-banging, hard rifffing, Jack Daniels swigging, Led Zep ripping, Good Time Rock And Roll. Unlike Jet, there are no sappy Beatles-esque “sensitive” ballads to be found here. Perish the thought!
Instead, this is a swaggering, stomping, merciless assault, with hefty dollops of slide guitar and swampy Southern boogie thrown into the usual hard rock stew. You will search in vain for subtlety, substance, originality, or indeed any sense of musical history much beyond 1975 – but if tunnel vision’s your thing, then Smoke & Mirrors will serve you well.
This multi-racial seven-piece collective from West London specialises in something called “broken beat”. If you thought this was an esoteric sub-genre, of interest only to serious-minded chin-strokers, then think again: there is nothing “broken” about this good-natured, accessible and thoroughly likeable music, which mixes the best elements of funk, soul and electronica into an infectious brew which deserves a wider audience than the clued-up Gilles Peterson crowd from which it originates.
Now promoting their long overdue debut album Back In The Doghouse, the band are finally taking their live show to the rest of the country. After a competent but lukewarm start, heavy on the groove but light on actual songcraft, things clicked into place from the fourth number onwards.
Despite the large number of people onstage, the music was mainly generated from three keyboardists and a live drummer. In the back corner, the band’s resident DJ had the cushiest job. Never touching his decks, he contented himself with occasional light percussion duties. Nice work if you can get it.
The Bugz belong to that fine tradition of eclectic home-grown funk which stretches back from Basement Jaxx to the Brand New Heavies and Soul II Soul. Some of their most effective material evoked classic early 1980s acts such as Shalamar and Evelyn King. Their powerful re-working of Don’t Stop The Music ignited the crowd, as did all the material which is currently showcased on their Myspace page – an increasingly common phenomenon.
An encore of Sounds Like turned into a celebratory extended jam, with three band members attacking the drumkit, as the DJ cheekily lapped up the applause from centre stage. With Basement Jaxx beginning to falter, and the reformed Brand New Heavies desperately trying to claw back lost ground, the opportunity for the Bugz to break through is wide open.
Coming soon: New album releases from Isobel Campbell (a respectful shrug) and George Michael’s latest “greatest hits” collection (a well-deserved kicking).
Not coming in a month of Sundays: My wince-makingly corny David Essex gig review. There’s “respecting your target readership” by not being a sneery snobby show-off… and then there’s stepping over the line, into full-blooded Light Entertainment cheese. (“The enduringly fantastic Gonna Make You A Star sent us home smiling.” Aaargh! My soul, my soul!)