Gig review: The Lemonheads, Metro Theatre, 11 December 2014

Starting out as a rough-edged hardcore-influenced band in the fertile Boston scene, The Lemonheads eventually morphed into a kind of country-tinged and beautifully messy amalgam of garage rock and laidback indie pop which became huge on college radio and then spilled over into mainstream success.

They’ve been far from prolific since their glorious early 90s peak, though these songs have dated better than anyone could have expected and benefit from the fact that the laconic songwriting of Evan Dando and friends has few contemporaries.

This Metro show proved a warmly nostalgic affair with many songs spontaneously turning into mass sing-alongs. It kicked off with Dando alone on stage playing the gently funny ‘Being Around’, before being joined by a full band including the prolific Chris Brokaw on guitar for a set packed with classic Lemonheads songs like ‘Confetti’, ‘Rudderless’ and ‘Style’.

Dando’s voice may have weathered over the years, but there’s still an appealing mellowness to his vocals and ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Hospital’ were particularly gorgeous.

The encore paid tribute to the band’s heavy Australian influence with the wry Tom Morgan-penned ‘The Outdoor Type’ and an energetic version of ‘Alison’s Waiting To Happen’, written about the drummer from Smudge.

Even after the house lights go up, people are still baying for more. Two decades after The Lemonheads’ unlikely brush with commercial success, affection for these unassuming but casually brilliant songs remains undimmed.

Gig review: The Preatures, The Hi Fi, 5 December 2014

It’s been quite a year for The Preatures, having successfully completed a jump to the major leagues with their hook-filled debut LP. The slickness and pop sensibility of these newer songs are a long way for their early days as a more rockabilly influenced band, but the retro sensibility and unbridled energy live act remain thankfully intact.

Shrugging off some early technical difficulties, they’re soon into stride in stomping, muscular style. They’re a heavier proposition live – even something as lush as the spectral pop of opening track ‘Blue Planet Eyes’ is given a harder edge in the live setting.

The retro pop of ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Cruel’ have even the people on the upstairs balconies dancing, spurred on the energy of frontwoman Isabella Manfredi. Whether cartwheeling across the stage, dumping water over her head or just generally rocking a leather jacket like 80s Joan Jett, she’s a rock star through and through.

She can do vulnerability just as well as strutting though, and the uncharacteristically downbeat ‘Two-Tone Melody’ and a solo turn on ‘Business Yeah’ show her range. For the most part though, it’s a celebratory high-energy affair with the choppy rhythms and soaring chorus of breakthrough hit ‘Is This How You Feel?’ and the fist-pumping ‘It Gets Better’ proving ideal Friday night fare.

The encore provides a reminder that The Preatures have a second formidable singer in the shape of Gideon Bensen who belatedly takes centre stage on a gleefully raw version of old chestnut ‘Take A Card’. It’s yet another facet of a band whose rapid ascent shows no signs of slowing down.

Gig review: Future Islands, Oxford Art Factory, 27 July 2014

One of 2014’s most enduring musical moments is likely to be Future Islands’ performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on the Late Show with David Letterman, a star-making turn that seemed to catapult them from cult favourite to near-ubiquity overnight. The hype has barely subsided since then – and now, with killer record Singles in tow, their overdue victory lap continued at Sunday’s long sold-out Sydney show.

Read the full review at Time Out Sydney

Sydney Film Festival review: Pulp, A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (d. Florian Harbicht, 2014)

It’s a bold gambit opening the film with live footage of Common People, voted the best song of the 90s by NME. But it’s also the logical starting point, being the ultimate distillation of the band’s ability to take real angst and venom and blow it up into something anthemic and communal. The very next scene sees bandleader Jarvis Cocker changing a tire on a car in a tired looking street. In a low-angle shot, Cocker’s gangly frame fills the screen. This clash of triumphant celebration and ordinariness is the heart of the film, and the heart of Pulp’s enduring appeal.

This isn’t just a film about Pulp, though, it’s about the city that spawned them and how they fit into it. Sheffield is seen as a place where it’s always overcast and the highest praise anyone doles out is “it’s alright”. Yet it has its charm. Bomar, a musician seen sitting on the side of a canal in a fur coat, tells of how he once left his hometown for London, only to be mugged twice in a day and find himself sitting in a puddle screaming about his squalid new surrounds. He got a bus back to Sheffield, where a friend nursed him back to health with booze and a Pulp CD on a pub’s PA. In Sheffield you still get mugged, he explains, but at least here you usually know the person mugging you.

Director Florian Harbicht and company must have talked to some people that didn’t come out with absolute gold, but none of them have made the final cut, a lean 90 minutes. There are brilliant vox pops with unfailingly eccentric Sheffield residents, footage of fans congregating on the steps of their farewell shindig, people sweeping up confetti at the end of the show, the tour manager corralling the band and Cocker organising medicines and ointments for the various ailments of his aging bandmates. Here, the mundane and the logistical are just as essential as the soul-stirring. Pulp… is a film that centres around a triumphant farewell show but isn’t dominated by it. Better than most music films, it acutely understands that the band themselves are only a small part of something greater than the sum of its parts.

Gig Review: Arctic Monkeys, Qantas Credit Union Arena, 6 May 2014

“Something’s gonna happen Sydney, you’ve got that look in your eye” Alex Turner tells the packed arena. If anyone should know a menacing gleam when he sees it, it’s Turner, whose Monkeys have morphed into world leaders in a delicious brand of unease. The exact kind of ominous pent-up energy that runs through their opening song ‘Do I Wanna Know?’.

Read full review here

Five essential twee pop albums

The word ‘twee’ is still sometimes thrown around as a pejorative in music criticism, but dig a bit deeper and you will find a rich treasure trove of melodic goodness ripe for rediscovery. When twee pop bands began to appear in the 80s. some hated them for their apparent wimpiness or girliness, but in retrospect they had more in common with punk than top 40 pop – like those bands many of the twee popsters relied on their ideas and spirit rather than musical virtuosity.

Twee pop was also notable for rejecting the masculinity of mainstream music as well as its crass commercialism: these records were passed from fan to fan, promoted at DIY gigs and through fanzines. While it remains an underappreciated genre, it was hugely influential, with bands like Belle and Sebastian and Cults drawing on its mighty legacy. Here are some essential records to get your collection started:

HEAVENY – LE JARDIN DU HEAVENLY

Heavenly’s singer was Amelia Fletcher, a key figure in twee pop history who was also the vocalist in Tender Trap, Marine Research and Talulah Gosh, as well as being awarded the OBE for her day job work as an economist. This was her greatest (musical) moment though, a no-filler collection of sunshine-dappled jangle pop. ‘Starshy’ and ‘Sort of Mine’ are eminently hummable pop gems and ‘C is the Heavenly Option’, a duet with indie legend Calvin Johnson, is a cheeky, clever look at the dating quizzes in girls magazines. Not to be confused with the classical metal band of the same name.

THE FIELD MICE – WHERE’D DO YOU LEARN TO KISS THAT WAY?

“I’m not brave, I’m not special, I’m not any of those things” Bobby Wratten sighed on ‘Fabulous Friend’. The Field Mice were special though, perhaps the ultimate twee pop band. While some caricatured them as forever lovelorn saps, The Field Mice were far more diverse than their detractors allowed, moving confidently across genres such as shoegaze, acid house and blue-eyed soul and working in moods ranging from rainswept heartbreakers to mood-lifting, incessantly catchy pop. Highlights of this collection include proto-gay rights anthem ‘This Love is Not Wrong’ and ‘Emma’s House’, an evergreen pop gem. Varied as it is, what ties their work together is a rare sense of intimacy, as though you’re listening on someone’s most secret thoughts.

ALLO’ DARLIN’ – ALLO’ DARLIN’

Named after the greeting favoured by workers at the fish markets, Allo’ Darlin’s first record was rich in tunes and charm. They’re led by unassuming genius Elizabeth Morris, an Australian who moved to London and recruited members such as Bill from the wonderfully named Moustache of Insanity to flesh out her songs, which are at once both light and whimsical and intelligent. There’s something of the wordplay and warmth of fellow Australians The Lucksmiths and a real sense of playfulness and joy: check out ‘My Heart is a Drummer’, an earworm with a melody reminiscent of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

TULLYCRAFT – DISENCHANTED HEARTS UNITE

If The Field Mice are twee pop royalty, then Tullycraft are its court jesters – few bands have ever made music this purely fun. All their records sound like rallying cries for their devoted fanbase, but this is their best overall collection, inspired by everything from 60s novelty songs to punk and girl groups. ‘Our Days in Kansas’ is a heartbreaking, finely-observed portrait of a relationship gone sour, ‘Rumble With the Gang Debs’ is like the musical equivalent of an Archie comic and ‘Fall 4 U’ is a dinky little pop song you’ll never get out of your head. Then there’s ‘Molly’s Got a Crush On Us’ which shows their refusal to take themselves too seriously: “Well we’re the best band you’ve never heard / We almost always play to crowds of twelve”

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE OF HEART – BELONG

After staking out their turf with their self-titled debut which included puntastic tales of getting it on in the library (‘Young Adult Friction’) and skuzzy candy grunge (‘This Love is Fucking Right!’), the New York group made a play for the big leagues with this irresistible second full-length. Burying gorgeous melodies under noisy guitars and teaming with a big name producer for the first time, the Pains went for a bigger sound on Belong, but they didn’t lose what made them special in the first place and this is an endlessly replayable collection of songs for outsiders.

Gig Review – The National, Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 7 February 2014

Few bands are good enough to release an album as brilliant as 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me without it causing much of an uproar. While it was a well-reviewed record that built on The National’s already considerable fan base, it seemed to have a strangely low-key presence compared to many more hyped records of the year. Perhaps that’s because it surprised almost nobody with how accomplished it was. It’s almost boring how consistently good this band has become. Almost.

As tonight’s sold out audience attests, The National have now become a genuinely massive band. Though they have risen to prominence without compromising the essential darkness at the heart of their music one inch.

They start strong with the aching ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, moving quickly onto other Trouble Will Find Me -cuts like ‘I Should Live in Salt’, a swelling song of lingering guilt, and ‘Demons’ which features a couple of startling confessional moments: “I am secretly in love with / Everyone that I grew up with”.

It’s not just the striking, impressionist lyrics and rich baritone of the self-described “Eeyore figure”, Matt Berninger, that makes them compelling of course. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner are among the classiest guitarists in contemporary music, capable of both of providing elegant, supremely tasteful backdrops (‘I Need My Girl’) or stealing a song with pedal to the floor intensity (‘Abel’).

As the sun sets over the harbour, there’s plenty of older favourites, like the lump-in-the-throat poignancy of ‘Slow Show’ which crumbles into a painful lament and High Violet standout ‘Sorrow’, one of their many songs which feel weighed down by a sense of creeping dread and inevitability.

The latter half of the set tends towards their more wistful side, with the flat-out beautiful ‘Pink Rabbits’ and a hushed, gentle ‘About Today’. Restraint is always a key word with The National, but restraint is pointless without some sense a band can really cut loose if they want to – and a manic version of ‘Graceless’ is a welcome reminder that they can do fierce as well as they can do pretty.

The encore features what may be a sneaky contender for their finest moment, ‘Mr. November’, and the freewheeling passion and cathartic energy of that song is only amplified by Matt Berninger wading through an adoring crowd.

He’s back among the fans for ‘Terrible Love’, a song which amplifies self-doubt into something huge and stirring and completely changes the energy of a mostly sedate evening. “If you see some glasses down there” Berninger says once he’s returned to the stage “well…they’re ruined”.

The final song is the now familiar but still spine-tingling unplugged version of High Violet finale ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. What feels like the entire audience, not to mention a gathering crowd in the gardens upstairs, joins in for a haunting singalong.

One of the recurring clichés of rock history is that of the band that makes compelling music about their early struggles, then becomes fat and happy and out of touch with the unhappiness which originally fuelled their music. Despite the fame that has propelled them into extraordinary lives, rubbing shoulders with Barack Obama and all, The National still seem to have a mainline into a seemingly endless well of ordinary fears and doubts that made them so vital in the first place. It might be easy to take them for granted these days, but they remain a truly great band.

Gig Review – Frightened Rabbit, Metro Theatre, 6 February 2014

From the opening chords of first song ‘Holy’, Scots Frightened Rabbit are greeted with feverish devotion, the audience lapping up their emotionally charged missives with a fervor that suggests a real connection with their spirited back catalogue.

Many of their songs explore similar terrain, but few bands have staked out their patch of turf as effectively as Frightened Rabbit and on songs like ‘Dead Now’ (dedicated to their “old school fans”) and the rousing ‘Old, Old Fashioned’ they make music as raw as an open wound.

There’s plenty of older songs to please their long-term fans, like ‘Fast Blood’, ‘The Modern Leper’ and a rousing ‘Head Rolls Off’, all plucked from the emotionally charged and strongly autobiographical ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ and all great showcases for Hutchinson’s warm, expressive Scottish burr.

There’s also some highlights from last year’s storming ‘Pedestrian Verse’, notably  ‘December’s Traditions’ which spells out their stoic approach:  “Months of grieving / Fuck the grief, I’m leaving”.

In a mid-set interlude, the band leaves the stage to leave just singer Scott Hutchinson and his acoustic guitar. He takes requests from the crowd and from a cacophony of suggestions settles on ‘Nitrous Gas’ which starts bleak (“Shut down the gospel singers and turn up the old heartbreakers”) and proceeds to quiet desperation: “If happiness won’t come, hand me the nitrous gas”.

‘Poke’ also gets the acoustic treatment. It’s one of the most beautiful Frightened Rabbit songs and makes a sublime transition to this more stripped down form. A further request sees the defiant ‘Fuck This Place’ played, to a massive response.

If you just read through the lyrics of Frightened Rabbit’s work, you may conclude that they’re the most miserable band on earth. It’s telling that when Hutchinson introduces one song (‘Dead Now’) as “about wishing you were dead”, it could refer to a number of their tracks.

Yet there is absolutely nothing mopey about this music, which is not so much played as ferociously attacked and infused with such conviction and passion that the effect is completely stirring and cathartic, purging themselves of pain and regret rather than wallowing in it.

The love for the band goes up a notch when they return for an encore with the jerky guitars and soaring chorus of the ferocious ‘Woodpile’, which features some of their best heart-on-sleeve guitar shredding.

Then there’s an impassioned version of the much-loved, anthemic ‘Keep Yourself Warm’, with its famous refrain: “It takes more than fucking someone you don’t love to keep yourself warm”

It’s the last Frightened Rabbit show for the year, and Scott Hutchinson is determined to make it an epic. “If you’ve got to go to catch the last train or whatever, you can go, but I want to make this last” he tells the crowd.

Nobody goes anywhere of course, and the faithful are rewarded with a howling ‘The Loneliness and the Scream’. They may be heading into a long hibernation, but this stirring show proved once again their ability to fashion seemingly miserable music into some of the most life-affirming song craft around.

 

Favourite Gigs of 2013

 

Neutral Milk Hotel

Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band

The Gaslight Anthem

My Bloody Valentine

Veronica Falls

All Tomorrow’s Parties I’ll Be Your Mirror (My Bloody Valentine & Godspeed You! Black Emperor)

Sharon Van Etten

Mono

The XX

Billy Bragg

Martha Wainwright

Ash play 1977

Cat Power

Vampire Weekend

Cloud Nothings

Bob Mould

Bat For Lashes & Japandroids at Laneway

Olof Arnalds

Sleepmakeswaves

Perfume Genius

Favourite Songs of 2013

BEST SONGS

1. Veronica Falls – Teenage

2. Veronica Falls – Buried Alive

3. Josh Ritter – New Lover

4. Phosphorescent – Song For Zula

5. Lorde – Royals

6. Low – So Blue

7. Daft Punk – Get Lucky

8. Saturday Looks Good To Me – Polar Bear

9. Superchunk – Me & You & Jackie Mitoo

10. Eleanor Friedberger – Echo or Encore

11. The National – I Need My Girl

12. Camera Obscura – Do It Again

13. Tullycraft – Lost in Light Rotation

14. The Avett Brothers – Another Is Waiting

15. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

16. The Ballet – Feelings

17. Lily & Madeleine – Sounds Like Somewhere

18. My Bloody Valentine – Only Tomorrow

19. The Preatures – Is This How You Feel?

20. Deafheaven – Dream House

21. Kanye West – Bound 2

22. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Wide Lovely Eyes

23. Vampire Weekend – Step

24. Say Lou Lou – Julian

25. The Knife – Wrap Your Arms Around Me

26. Sigur Ros – Isjaki

27. Scott and Charlene’s Wedding – Clock Out and Leave

28. Jason Isbell – Elephant

29. Parenthetical Girls – Sympathy For Spastics

30. Beyonce – XO

31. Vampire Weekend – Hannah Hunt

32. The Fireworks – Runaround

33. Future Bible Heroes – Keep Your Children in a Coma

34. Math and Physics Club – Thank God I Met You

35. Savages – Shut Up

36. Haim – Falling

37. Billy Bragg – Handyman’s Blues

38. Dick Diver – Alice

39. CHVRCHES – We Sink

40. Fuck Buttons – Hidden Xs