Category Archives: Reviews

Paul Draper

O2 Academy 2, Oxford
7th March 2018

The late-90s Chester-based Britpop band Mansun spectacularly imploded during the recording sessions for their fourth album, not long after a low-key UK tour in the late spring of 2002, the Oxford date of which your correspondent reported on in this very magazine – even standing in the same spot as tonight.

Since then, the band’s driving force, main songwriter and singer – Paul Draper – has been through the wars, his absence taking on a mystical, enigmatic quality (accentuated by his current Last Jedi-era Luke Skywalker hair and beard). This tour is the second outing for his debut solo album, 2017’s Spooky Action, plus a (fan-chosen) full set of Mansun’s debut, Attack of the Grey Lantern, twenty-one years after it topped the UK album charts.

Hopefully Spooky Action is catharsis – Paul’s gone on record to say that it’s about Mansun and the people around them – and the lyrics certainly allude to some dark times. Sonically, the seven-song mini set hints at how the Mansun sound would have developed: ‘Don’t Poke the Bear’ precedes anthemic rock squealing with a dissonant synth and rambling string introduction, and ‘Friends Make the Worst Enemies’, understandably self-indulgently, takes Mansun’s falsetto and vocal harmony style into more regretful and reflective territory.

Paul perks up and relaxes in ‘Taxloss’, three songs into Grey Lantern, as if the knowledge that everyone in the room knows every word, every cue and every backing vocal for the rest of the night is a comfort.

The night is the sum of possibly unnecessary yet welcome nostalgia for a fanbase who feared they’d ever hear Paul play again, but also a timely reminder of how a bizarre yet coherent ‘half a concept album’ about an array of inhabitants in a fictitious English village (‘Stripper Vicar’, ‘Dark Mavis’) struck such a chord with the British record-buying public two decades ago.

 

From Nightshift, April 2018

Jorja Smith

O2 Academy, Oxford
11th February 2018

The 2018 Brits Critics’ Choice Award recipient, 20-year-old Walsall-bred Jorja Smith, started writing songs at school – some of which form the backbone of her setlist tonight – but you can’t help but celebrate rather than begrudge her precociousness. Of the seventeen tracks performed, one (Frank Ocean’s ‘Lost’) is a cover and seven are as yet unreleased – bold, given that she is yet to release her debut album, but less of a risk now that live videos of the latter are already on YouTube and a lot of the audience thus already know the words.

On ‘Teenage Fantasy’ and ‘Imperfect Circle’, Jorja’s smooth, vibrato-tinged R&B voice and traditional keyboard/guitar/bass/drums backing setup calls to mind early-90s new jack swing; she doesn’t need star producers like Teddy Riley or Jam & Lewis to give her charisma, though. She has a good stab at making her vocals sound semi-improvised, especially on the empowering ‘Beautiful Little Fools’, but a lot of effort must go into making this all so effortless and laid-back. She excels when her voice is brought to the fore – by a single guitar on ‘Goodbyes’, piano on ‘Don’t Watch Me Cry’, and a skilful instrumental arrangement on the emotive string-heavy, Adele-recalling ‘Let Me Down’ – and when she takes advantage of the top of her range, though on occasion her riff intervals could do with more variety.

She doesn’t just sing, though: she talk-raps a critique of the government on the feisty extended metaphor ‘Lifeboats’ and scat-sings on ‘Blue Lights’, which is the highlight of the night both performance- and reception-wise: a Dizzee Rascal-sampling plaintive semi-ballad that counsels ‘There’s no need to run / If you’ve done nothing wrong’. Jorja’s wisdom-beyond-her-years is here underlined by an Air-esque glochenspiel-like synth, giving an innocent, music-box edge to the heavy lyrical material, and this sums up the night: playful yet accomplished.

 

From Nightshift, March 2018

Nathassia

The Bullingdon, Oxford
14th July 2017

The Bully is bedecked with mystical-symbol-and-fluorescent-fractal wall hangings in a quantity last seen at the closing-down sale of an incense shop in 1999; the promise is to take us ‘from our ancient past to the future’; ‘from Paganism to Transhumanism, Egypt to Nanotech and Third Eye to AI’.

Dutch-born Nathassia – tonight promoting her debut album, Light of the World – is a self-made package, unsurprisingly given the ambition of her premise. It all sounds how you’d expect it to sound, given the periods referenced: glitchy, drum&bass electronica and atmospherics that meander over and under Middle-Eastern strings and wibbly quarter-tones. The trick is not just to pick the best bits of both traditions, but the bits that work the best together, and unfortunately, based on tonight, Nathassia hasn’t quite got it yet. Experimenting is one thing, but a traditional song structure needs a memorable hook.

Nathassia herself has a beautiful voice, but her vocal quirks – over-rolling her ‘r’s, ending lines with what sounds like bird calls – are unnecessary affectations. The journey taken in the eight songs is too short to make a convincing concept album (a genre notably very forgiving of bizarre narratives). The leap from ‘Egypt’s Queen’, about the ancient bust of Queen Nefertiti that the Germans won’t give back to Egypt, to the future when AI will merge with consciousness and we’ll all communicate with each other in our heads (‘Telepathically’) is too quick. ‘Turning Headz’, about a future when we’ll all see each others’ points of view, is the best-formed song tonight, a Pendulum-esque romp that’s desperate for a Pendulum-esque tune.

This is all accompanied by two costume changes, taking us from peacock feathers to LED-covered wings: an interesting development but too grand for the context.

You have to admire Nathassia’s aspirations, and apparent budgetary restraints. She just needs to make everything – the songs, the look, the narrative – cohere better.

Photo: © Kirsten Etheridge

 

From Nightshift, August 2017

Soulwax

Electric Brixton, London
8th April 2017

I’m at a gig, but everybody else here seems to be at a club night. For them, Soulwax are a dance act, whose ground zero was 2005’s Nite Versions, a remix/reworking of their 2004 album, Any Minute Now; for me, a fan of 1996’s Leave the Story Untold and 1998’s Much Against Everyone’s Advice, Nite Versions is the point at which the remixing took over. The Belgian Dewaele brothers, David and Stephen – plus original member Stefaan Van Leuven, three drummers (one ex-Sepultura) and an idiosyncratically stylish geometric and monochrome stage set – do seem to acknowledge their ongoing metamorphosis, as tonight’s rendition of ‘KracK’ falls somewhat between the Any Minute Now original and the Nite version; it’s lower in pitch than the latter, and heavier, but nowhere near as crunchy as the original.

Even before Nite Versions, Soulwax were eminent remixers and, in the Dewaeles’ 2manydjs guise (in which they relentlessly tour), mashup remix/DJs extraordinaire; the latter’s live shows – production sets in which they spliced together a huge variety of rock, electro, dance, hip hop and other pop classics – introduced the accompanying animated ‘musical films based on the record sleeves’ visuals that formed the twenty-four one-hour mixes in the Radio Soulwax internet radio show and free app. Apparently that nearly bankrupted them, but it the result was commendably and enjoyably innovative and inventive.

Meanwhile, the As Heard on Radio Soulwax compilations – collections of shows done for various radio stations across Europe – were highly sought after, especially the ones they they couldn’t get the clearances for and thus couldn’t officially release.

As the 2manydjs shows were properly an experience, so are these ‘Transient Program for Drums and Machinery’ shows: the concept is so polished that they recorded the new album, From Deewee, in one take.

If the fact that all the modular synths, samplers, occasional guitars, drums and vocals are live isn’t enough, the tightness of the drummers is a revelation, especially on ‘Is it Always Binary’ and ‘Missing Wires’. It’s all delightfully analogue; the sheer joy of the crowd at the energy and the imperceptible yet soulful rhythmic variations created by the three drummers alone is visceral.

Stephen Dewaele’s vocals – not very strong on record to start with – get even more lost within the mix tonight, but vocals (and lyrics even more so) seem incidental to Soulwax’s remixes and live shows; they’re not an essential part of the song form, and not treated as such. This is a shame, as they are often poignant (as in ‘The machine has taken all your cash / All the fun is happening somewhere else’ in ‘Masterplanned’), but where they do have power, it’s as an iconic motif – ‘There’s so much bullshit coming out of your mouth’ from closing number ‘Goodnight Transmission’, for example, or the repeated spoken lines ‘Part of the weekend never dies’ and ‘It’s not you, it’s the E talking’ from the Nite version of ‘E-Talking’.

From Deewee isn’t strictly the Dewaeles’ first new material since Any Minute Now; they wrote and produced all sixteen tracks on the soundtrack to last year’s Belgian film Belgica under fictional band names. ‘Inward’ by Noah’s Dark, the only track from that album played tonight, is – in the brothers’ own words – ‘apocalyptic yet danceable’, and – intentionally, yet ironically – sounds like a cover version.

Tonight leaves me conflicted; I’m despondent that Soulwax aren’t the pop/rock/indie band they were in 1998, but euphoric that they’re the successful, unique electronic experience they are now. Their late 90s slightly off-kilter charm is still there somewhere in the new stuff; amid the loops and beats and arpeggios and gurgles, the downbeat and understated ‘Trespassers’ has some of the trademark chord changes – and feeling – I fell in love with back then.

My heart mourns the guitar riff from ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’, the earnest beauty of ballad ‘When Logics Die’ and the rest of the lyrics of ‘E-Talking’ (surely ‘Rockstar paid me well to lie’ is a lyric too good to drop?), but my head wouldn’t want Soulwax to change any part of the exquisite whole of tonight’s show.

Photos: © Steve Dawson (top), © Jill Faure (bottom)

Goldfrapp

O2 Academy, Oxford
20th March 2017

Goldfrapp are not a band of extremes. The velvety comfort of their pulsing, trippy electro dance beats, overlaid by Alison Goldfrapp’s sensuous and silky voice, is tightly controlled; they never give too much away. This restraint is also apparent live. Alison first appears backlit, and we don’t really get a good view of her for a few tracks; in fact, I can’t see the full four-piece backing band until about half way through.

Tonight is basically a showcase for Goldfrapp’s most recent album, Silver Eye – their seventh. Ocean is a gorgeous reverby Depeche Mode-esque stomp, and Moon in Your Mouth is a sumptuous juxtaposition of ethereal chords and a muffled, primitive-sounding drum machine, but the highlight is Become the One, a charmingly repetitive and hypnotic chugging number about becoming the one you know you are – or something; it doesn’t really matter, because Alison’s voice, as essential as the synths and beats are to Goldfrapp’s sound, has taken me away to somewhere warm and fuzzy.

The subject of the songs is very often at odds with its upbeat tone – for example, they start with Utopia, about genetic engineering, and finish with Strict Machine, about lab rats – but they are communicated by lyrics sung so mellifluously and breathily that you can be forgiven for being swept away by the beauty of the song rather than the despair it forewarns. I know I should pay more attention – I had been humming Strict Machine to myself for a good fifteen years before I found out what it was about – but it’s hard not to miss the point entirely.

The new material played tonight proves that there’s enough variation in Goldfrapp’s formula for their output to be easily ascribable but not bore their fans – and that’s all you can ask for, really.

 

From Nightshift, May 2017

Sal Para – Her single

Released 6th January 2017

Sal Para started as a solo project by Ted Mair, but has now apparently expanded to a four-piece live band – which is a little surprising, given the claustrophobic nature of Her, the lead song of their debut single, which has been released by new local independent label Tremor Recordings. This almost six-minute-long track presents itself quite neatly in three parts. In the first, a sparse, stuttery beat is overlaid by soft synth chords before the quiet, hesitant vocals float in and out. The second part fades in around a third of the way through as the tempo is doubled by a fuller set of drums; these depart two thirds in, leaving a single beat with a rather beautiful Jean Michel Jarre-esque arpeggiated sparkly synth melody for a while, before the pulsating chords return.

The vocals seem incongruously and disingenuously off-kilter and detached to begin with, but insinuate themselves subtly via Arcade Fire-like octave double-tracking and repetition; the apparently strophic single-line lyrics are given a slightly different character each time by what’s going on underneath, and the more you hear the refrain “I only think of you”, the more earnest – yet still mysterious – it comes across.

Oddly, when heard as a complement to the main event rather than an alternative, the Rancid Jazz remix of Her seems to work better; at least to begin with, it presents the vocals – and sentiment – at the distance from the listener they feel they are intended to be, more hidden and lost than in the original.

 

From Nightshift, March 2017

Vienna Ditto – Ticks EP

Released 13th May 2016

Vienna Ditto, the best Tarantino-esque duo to have never soundtracked a Tarantino film, have followed up their 2015 album Circle with the EP Ticks, with whose generous seven-track length they are really spoiling us.

This collection is as eclectic as Circle was a neat, coherent summing up of the voodoo sci-fi blues they peddle. The EP’s title track is a menacing rockabilly tale of identity theft; Tiny Tambourines wouldn’t sound out of place amongst Depeche Mode’s early 2000s glitchy blues electronica; and Frank Account is a slinky dollop of sinister Andrews Sisters harmonies.

They cover two Negro spirituals – Motherless Child and Go Down Moses; while their rendering of the former is beautifully restrained, its melancholic marriage of voice and twangy guitar more reflecting the isolating misery whence this song came than the comforting togetherness its performance was intended to achieve, the latter becomes a Chelsea Dagger-style romp – yet they make both sound as if they’re original compositions.

The gems here are the gloriously unsettling My Way of Missing You, a Sergio Leone-homaging and apparently Adam Curtis-inspired triphoppy triumph, and Come Back, a frenetic rock n’ roll drum machine anti-love song, whose cosmic synth wig-out outtro signs off this genre-melding audio embodiment of unease and impudence perfectly.

 

From Nightshift, May 2016