Tag Archives: O2 Academy Oxford

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


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

Charli XCX

O2 Academy, Oxford
30th March 2015

Charlotte Aitchison started work on her (unreleased) first album at 14, was signed in 2010, delayed her second album (True Romance) until 2013 to work on it with the now ubiquitous Ariel Rechtshaid, and is accompanying the UK release of her third (Sucker) with this, her first full tour. However, despite four top ten hits to date, collaborations with Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora, and songs on YA film adaptation soundtracks, she says she didn’t know how many people would turn up tonight as she doesn’t usually play outside of London and Manchester – and indeed, the O2 Academy isn’t full.

Sucker is apparently an attempt to give girls a sense of empowerment by the way of a punkier pop sound, and those who had this sort of thing thrown at them twenty years ago will find the Shampoo vs Republica vibe of the title track familiar. Breaking Up and Body of My Own have a Bow Wow Wow influence too.

Charli doesn’t care what she looks like on stage. Her dancing is energetic and even aggressive, but she always looks like she’s having fun; there’s no Lady Gaga-style disingenuity. It feels like the newer stuff is deliberately anthemic, which makes an interesting contrast with some of the odder offerings from True Romance (Nuclear Seasons and You (Ha Ha Ha)), and I don’t suppose anyone here tonight cares that Hanging Around is the stroppy teenage offspring of NKOTB’s Hanging Tough and Five’s Everybody Get Up, or that So Over You sounds a Let Loose cover.

I can see why so many young kids like Charli – something she cheekily acknowledges when she tries to get everyone clapping with “Come on you parents!” in Break the Rules – and she’ll develop and reinvent her image and sound as they grow up. But she’s quite inspiring for the older audience too, and if she keeps churning out bangers like SuperLove and Boom Clap, I’ll still be on board.


From Nightshift, May 2015

Rae Morris

O2 Academy 2, Oxford
8th February 2015

Blackpool native Rae Morris has a beautiful voice; reminiscent of Emiliana Torrini, Ellie Goulding and sometimes even Björk (especially on Skin) in tone, its apparent ethereal vulnerability and emotion belies its strength and confidence. Now 22, she signed to Atlantic at 18, and she’s been crafting her life experiences into her debut album, Unguarded, since then.

She has been widely compared to Kate Bush, given her effortlessly versatile voice and piano playing and the Running Up That Hill-like heartbeat throughout Under the Shadows, though I get more of a Fleetwood Mac vibe from it. In general, she’s more soulful; Do You Even Know? reminds me bit of Lena Fiagbe, and there are shades of Sade in Closer.

Rae recorded most of her album with the American producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who has recently worked with HAIM, Charli XCX, Vampire Weekend and Madonna. Even just on the basis of tonight, it sounds like he’s taken Rae’s voice–piano formula and invigorated it into something a lot more poppy, while retaining the smoothness and glassiness of her style – even when, in songs like Don’t Go, the instrumentation is sparse. Rae does however apparently credit Fryars – her support act tonight, and with whom she co-wrote and duets on the oddly autotuney Cold – for guiding her from being an acoustic piano singer-songwriter to her current, more electronic incarnation. She’s even written and recorded with Clean Bandit, though the unexpected dubsteppy drumming in her rendition of their collaboration, Up Again, jars a bit.

It’s a shame that the apparent concentration on instrumentation and production has taken the focus away from the interaction between Rae’s voice and her piano; she has enough songcrafting talent and imagination to be more like Tori Amos in this respect. However, her strongest songs are the faster, more anthemic ones like Love Again and Under the Shadows, and I end up wishing for more of these.


From Nightshift, March 2015


O2 Academy, Oxford
21st January 2015

Irishman Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s career so far has been characterised by slow burn. A former member of the Irish choral group Anúna, he dropped out of a music degree at Trinity College Dublin to sign a development deal with Universal Ireland, sang with the Trinity Orchestra (big on the festival circuit apparently) and was also involved with an avant-garde bossa nova group and a soul-funk-rap group (haven’t we all).

His ultimate aim, however, was to be a singer-songwriter, and he retreated home to County Wicklow to write what became his eponymous album, with Rob Kirwan picking up his demos and co-producing. The title track of his debut EP, Take Me To Church, was released in September 2013; nominated for the Song of the Year Grammy, it’s still in the UK top ten tonight – the first night of his extensive 2015 tour.

Hozier’s musical bases have been a slow burn too – hundreds of years in the making. The faith-based background of both gospel and the Anúna congregational choral vocal sensibility underpins the night; blues is the other main reference point, most overtly in To Be Alone and Work Song, with soul, folk and jazz interacting variously. The sexual and religious themes of his biggest hit so far pervade other songs, like Foreigner’s God and the lulling 5/4-time From Eden, sung from the devil’s point of view.

Hozier and his band – including a cello – use dynamics and contrast beautifully; delicate vocals float over a menacing rumble in tonight’s opener, Like Real People Do, and the anguished tone of Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene works masterfully with its simple backing.

He does admittedly veer towards tired Commitments-esque arrangements at times, but Hozier’s strength lies in his contemporary interpretation of – and obvious love of and respect for – blues, soul, folk and jazz formats.


From Nightshift, March 2015

La Roux

O2 Academy, Oxford
15th November 2014

Around the time the seminal 2009 BBC documentary Synth Britannia was first shown, OMD’s Andy McCluskey memorably spat, “People ask why I don’t like La Roux and I say it just sounds like a woman warbling, badly, over an old Depeche Mode record.” And lo, in the early 80s synth revival in the late 2000s, as someone who profoundly reveres Depeche Mode, I was predisposed to think La Roux was a bit, well, naff. Chiptune might be more widespread now thanks to the popularity of videogame soundtracks and retrogaming, but to me then, La Roux’s first, eponymous, album was derivative, too trebley, too plinky – and Elly Jackson’s falsetto was just gimmicky.

Five years later, having shed her bandmate Ben Langmaid half way (though he has co written a lot – the best – of the second album, Trouble in Paradise), Elly is in Oxford with a full band. This band give a new depth and emotional dimension to the old stuff – especially in the wonderful harpischordy chord progressions of Tigerlily; I’m Not Your Toy becomes less music-box and more cry-for-help.

The 80s vibe is still evident (Silent Partner would have fitted snugly into the Flashdance soundtrack), and the new stuff is infused (spiritually if not visually) with a more relaxed, Miami Vice-era, seedy – though observant (Sexotheque), not decadent – sensibility. There’s less falsetto; less putting on a persona.

To me it’s clear that Elly’s more content with this Roxy Music-esque fuller sound; it feels like she’s discovered that a SID chip might not be the most satisfactory way to express herself. To borrow and clumsily twist a line from Colourless Colour, 2009 La Roux was like a new build with eighties décor: in vogue but transient. Now she’s more comfortable as a suburban semi with Chic retro influences; less divisive, more content – less distinctive, but ultimately triumphant.


From Nightshift, December 2014