Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Call of the Wyld - Review of the Year 2013

Julia Holter

When I say that it has been a poor year I am only referring to the feeble showing that I have put up this last twelve months. My gig attendance has been way down on previous years.

A lot of this has been down to the general encroachment of age. It has been ever harder to get a quorum of pals together to go to concerts, particularly if an event is on in the middle of the week. We're of an age where we are not as resilient as we were in the past and we don't bounce back into shape as quickly as we used to. Frankly, if I'm out more than once a week, things start to drop off and roll away.

That said, there's been plenty of good stuff that I have seen this year.

2013 started off in the fur-lined bowels of Mother, to fulfil a lifetime's ambition and see Punishment of Luxury. They were better than I dared hope they could possibly be and set me off on a year long rendezvous with acts and performers who are still gamely plugging away and showing that there is plenty of life in the oldest of dogs.

This year I've enjoyed sets from Adam Ant, the B-52's and Sparks. The pick of all of these returning heroes was Siouxsie at the Festival Hall. She was just magnificent and arguably the best that I have ever seen her - stalking the stage like the goddess that an enraptured audience insisted she was.

Other veteran acts doing good were Yo La Tengo playing in a shrubbery at the Barbican and Wire finally getting round to the business of performing the songs that had been earmarked for their fourth studio album at Heaven.  

I also enjoyed the music and hospitality of Shonen Knife, serving up fast food and fast tunes on a Saturday afternoon at the Brixton Windmill.

There were return appearances from more recent favourites. I enjoyed Savages at the Electric Ballroom in the days before they took off into the stratosphere of critical adulation, and The Virgins returned after a long absence to showcase their new direction - which seems awfully close to Dire Straits' old one.

This was the year in which my most favoured band of the last few years, Drop Out Venus started out with a new glamorous and glitzy sound, gained a new member and then split up. Iva G Moscovitch is still out there somewhere and I'll be there when she returns. Skinny Girl Diet were great all year, but particularly at the last DOV gig.

It's been a grand year for psych rock. I was whirled away by the windswept whoosh of Gnod and danced myself daft to the tribal rhythms of Goat. Their Electric Ballroom gig was just fantastic and the band have now released the entire set as a live album. It's a record that transcends the usual 'souvenir' nature of most live recordings.

I enjoyed Suuns ticking away at XOYO and Cold Cave's gangling assault at Electrowerkz. I saw Purity Ring nurdle to themselves in an East End church.

It's been an um… interesting year for Sky Ferreira. I caught her early on at Madam JoJo's when she seemed caught between America's Got Talent balladry and something much darker. Catching her later in the year in an Oxford Streetdepartment store, she was definitely embracing her inner rock chick, something borne out by her excellent album. She finished the year being involved in a drug bust, so she may have to rein herself in a bit.

In March I saw Divorce and Her Parents turn the Macbeth into a seething cackling nexus of noise and distortion. Divorce in particular were pretty much the same as watching the bowels of hell crack open and demonic beings croak and writhe within. They didn't look or sound even human. Magnificent stuff.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum came a wonderful performance from Julia Holter, who wowed the Village Underground with a beautiful show that was somehow pop, jazz and classical all in one package.

So, it's been another great year. 2014 will bring Neutral Milk Hotel and Miley Cyrus, (for whom tickets have already been purchased) and who know what else?. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sparks at Union Chapel - 02 December 2013


It's a near run thing. We squeak into a packed Union Chapel a handy three minutes before Sparks come onstage.

This is the third and final of a trilogy of dates at this venue wherein Ron and Russell Mael take a wander through their vast back catalogue of songs. As when I last saw them, this is a performance that is pared down to bare essentials.

Ron Mael, as imperturbable and inscrutable as ever, sits behind a keyboard as rigid as an automaton. He looks exactly the same as he did when Sparks emerged in the 70's.

Brother Russell is dressed for comfort in a black polo neck, cut off pants and training shoes. His hair is a black mass that sits precariously on his head, looking as though it may gradually slide down the side of his face. He's armed with a microphone. This is all that we need.

Russ starts off with "You Call is Very Important to Us", looping his voice back and forth to create a cacophony of interrupting accents. It's actually the only vocal trickery deployed this evening. All subsequent songs are delivered uniquely via his still-startling falsetto and occasional faux-French accent.

Tonight's show is primarily aimed at the hardcore Sparks fan. I'm familiar with the band's hits and have their last three or four albums too, but even so much of what is played tonight is relatively new to me, comprising in the main album cuts from their early career.

This is both a blessing and a pity. The lyrical inventiveness and humour of early Sparks is extraordinary, but the verses are so intricate that songs require multiple listening to fully unpack and appreciate. Listening to a track like 'Big Boy', ‘Popularity’ or ‘Nicotina’ is akin to the patter of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta; you admire the sheer dexterity and cleverness as much as the music.

The brothers also perform works from their current (ish) venture, 'The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman'. This is a long-gestating film project which they are pleased to announce has now attracted sufficient funding to finally get made.

The highlight -among many- for me tonight is 'No 1 Song in Heaven', a joyous clap-along that seems entirely fitting in this spectacular setting. Russ' voice soars to all corners of the chapel and it is a wonderful and emotional sound.

At the end of the evening Ron and Russell are so overcome that they cannot bring themselves to leave the stage, standing dazed as parts of the audience start to file out. Russell gets Ron to take his picture against the backdrop of a sea of beaming faces in the pews.

It's a lovely, intimate moment for two of the nicest guys in show business.