The Jericho Tavern
3rd September 2021
After the exciting promise of their 2019 EP Shut Out the Sun, Low Island finally released their debut album, If You Could Have It All Again, in April. It was very much a DIY endeavour, as the band had no management, no label and no outside producer, recording it in a makeshift studio in France. This Jericho gig is their first headline show in two years, and a true homecoming, as a lot of the album was written down the road.
They’ve obviously spent a while perfecting their performance of songs they’ve never played live before, as their show is as curated as the album. They start with its opener, the slow-building tribute to hope “Hey Man”, end with the last track (“What The Hell (Are You Gonna Do Now?)”, a sombre chronicle of hindsight and regret) and only briefly visit their other, earlier material. However deliberate this is, it gives a picture of the band as an artist in the fullest sense of the word “art”: it’s apparent that Low Island are very good at creating and crafting moods.
Tonight’s repertoire quite effectively captures, for lack of a more appropriate cliché, the zeitgeist. Every song evokes a feeling, be it by way of the relentless drudgery of repetitive synth toplines and basslines, or fin-de-decade ennui of lyrics – coming to terms with the end of the 2010s, accepting the milestones that are inevitable with the onslaught of ageing, and even the relentless uncertainly we’ve all been through with Covid. The album is somewhat of a concept album – the narrator is a loose character looking back at the last decade – and through the sometimes rambling and disorientating layering of synths and guitars, each song is a chapter, and each chapter comes to a crescendo of nostalgia, confusion and – overall – ultimately redemption.
Nocturne Live, Blenheim Palace
22th June 2019
Tears for Fears have a history with Blenheim Palace. Roland Orzabal explains that they once did a live broadcast from here to Japan after playing four nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was presumably a double dollop of Britishness for the Japanese, though the duo – as their name suggests – managed to translate their more international influences of Arthur Janov and existentialism into chart success. In fact, in tonight’s show – part of the Nocturne Live concert series – the duo prove that their status in British pop music’s heritage is befitting of the beautiful surroundings. Their most well-known hits – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Mad World”, “Change” and “Shout” – are tonight welcomed by a respectful but enthusiastic audience, with the heavy cold-afflicted Curt Smith’s voice is still distinctively clear.
It’s not simply a stick-the-greatest-hits-on-and-play-long performance. Their cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” – appropriate given the locale, but actually currently a mainstay of their live show – is menacing in a way their other songs aren’t, not reaching a crescendo or really ever giving in to its fury. A few songs have different formats to their original counterparts: “Head over Heels” is the medley version with “Broken” from Songs from the Big Chair, and “Secret World”, from the charmingly titled post-reformation album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (Roland and Curt having parted ways after The Seeds of Love), is somewhat bizarrely punctuated by snippets of Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” (more recently known from the Postcode Lottery advert). “Woman in Chains” has an abstract funk intro, with the Oleta Adams slot filled by Carina Round, who complements Roland’s vocals in a different but no lesser way than the deeper-voiced Oleta did.
The sprawling “Badman’s Song” might have fitted in on the famously troubled epic jazz/blues jumble that was The Seeds of Love, but it feels self-indulgent tonight; they can be forgiven though, given the strength of their back catalogue, and the fact that they’re still here, together and smiling.
Released 21st April 2019
Described by Tiger Mendoza’s Ian De Quadros as “A remix album. Of sorts”, New Ideas takes the collaborations forged across previous EPs – 2017’s “Old Ideas 1” and 2018’s “Old Ideas 2” – and explores a kind of reciprocal collaboration alongside two new tracks.
There are four versions of the originally grungy hip-hop “Maverick Souls” from “Old Ideas 2”; Asher Dust’s earnest vocals get a variety of interpretations, the most striking of which is the swift two-minute remix by Didcot’s hardcore punkers Worry, who cover it with a wall of frantic sampling and noise.
The remix by Carterton’s Dan Clear of “Missing You” – with vocals from Lucy Vee and rapper Half Decent – becomes an even more blissed-out stark juxtaposition of choppy rap and the ethereal, while “Jazzer” is transformed by REELS from what Nightshift originally described as a “hypnotic afro-hop babble” into a starker, more frantic house number, and by Breezewax into a slower and surprisingly even more hypnotic piece that gives the beautiful the acoustic guitar and orchestral backing of the original more prominence.
New track “Find You” has vocals from Kate Herridge from Reading’s Ocean Ruins; her shaky “Am I not enough?” refrain loops over heavy beats and reverbed synths – and eventually crunchy guitars – to create a mesmerising whole; the other new track, “Perish The Thought”, which will feature on Asher Dust’s upcoming final album, is an off-kilter hip-hop meld of seemingly detuned guitars and Asher’s trademark paradoxically menacing yet comforting vibrato voice.
The sheer variety of approaches explored justifies the rationale of giving a track of one genre to a musician from another and seeing what they come up with. The album is therefore well worth exploring, especially since the profits from the release will go to The Oxford Foodbank. Above all, however, New Ideas is a fresh testament to the cohesion of and bonhomie between the Oxford music scene at a time when such harmony and unity is sorely and sadly needed.
Released 31st January 2019
Low Island have been banging out interesting electronica for a while now. A repeating melody and busy ostinato bassline (think a more frantic Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”) makes “In Person”, the latest instalment, perhaps more commercially accessible than their other, more atmospheric and disorientating electro-pop stuff; saying that, the way it builds on this repetition – initial bare voice and bass, to which their now trademark double-track octave vocals and plinky synth chords are introduced, only to drop out periodically before the fraught electro-jam climax – is still unsettling. The whole thing exudes Friendly Fires-esque nonchalance, but controlled rather than extravagant. The lyrical argument about people feeling decreasingly connected to each other in a world of increasing digital connectedness is emphasised by the tension between the retro analogue-sounding synthesisers and modern production techniques; somewhere between the advent of popular electronic music and now, bonds have been loosened and relationships skewed.
If Low Island’s output continues in this poppier vein, they might find themselves reaching Years & Years-type heights, though their back catalogue suggests a formulaic path is unlikely. Whichever way they’re producing all this lovely stuff, they must keep it up.
South Park, Oxford
26th May 2018
There is apparently more than one Boney M line-up knocking around these days – each featuring at least one ‘original’ member (today’s being Maizie Williams) – which is fitting, given the studio-based, dancer-fronted foundations of the band. They’re a collection of songs, really; whoever did or didn’t sing on their records and mime at performances was immaterial, as was (and is today) any pretence of a backing band.
They still work extremely well as a franchise; their songs are so universal that even younger audience members know them, partly due to their catchiness (‘Hooray! Hooray! It’s a Holi-Holiday’ – once heard, never forgotten) and the sort of oddness you’d be hard-pressed to get away with these days (a song about a Russian monk, another composed of lyrics from Psalms, and ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, anyone?). Even their up-tempo cover of ‘No Woman No Cry’ is welcomed. Cheesy, inoffensive, memorable yet throwaway pop to which everyone can sing along: the perfect warm-up for the acts to come.
Since their late-90s heyday, Morcheeba’s legacy has been a mood and a sound, and their mastery of these has made them perhaps better remembered than their lower-reaches-of the-top-40-dusting singles should allow. Skye Edwards’ exquisitely soulful voice floats and shimmers across South Park in a comforting and almost soporific way; it’s perfectly suited to their early evening timeslot (either side of 6:30) and the warm late spring weather.
Their slightly incongruous appearance in today’s Disco Day line-up probably has more to do with their new album release than anything else, but it works (aided by their quite-energetic-for-them cover of ‘Let’s Dance’, which puts their wah-wah pedal to good use); their trip-hop vibes are never anything less than pleasant, as the wide use of tracks such as today’s stand-out ‘The Sea’ in TV syncs testifies.
Given their age and reputation, the Jacksons could be forgiven for turning up for the bank transfer and going through the motions in a kind of worldwide decade-long Michael eulogy. Instead, we get a strong reminder they were a race-transcending phenomenon in their own right. Through coordinated dance moves to archive footage, sparkly military outfits of the style that Michael used to favour, Michael-esque breathing-friendly ‘point, grab and shuffle’ moves, and balanced lead vocal-sharing, they seem determined to honour the legacy of their late brother (‘Gone Too Soon’), are as enthusiastic about their music as they have ever appeared to be, and even throw in some lesser-known gems (such as the set-ending ‘State of Shock’) to please die-hard fans.
There is an element of self-indulgence – an over-long ‘Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)’ includes an impressive Marlon solo dancing spot, and we do get a (surprisingly not too bad) solo track from Tito and his guitar – and ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘ABC’ are sadly relegated to a medley, but it’s genuinely a privilege to celebrate talent and success like this in person.
Photos: © Kirsten Etheridge
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.
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
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