"The album’s strength lies in its vitality…the compelling force that permeates throughout."
My review of the new Japandroids album Celebration Rock is on thequietus.com now.
On a grim Monday morning, a double decker tour bus parked outside the Princess Pavilions provided the only clue to Graham Coxon’s arrival in Falmouth. Before long, however, Coxon’s presence came into more dramatic focus as internet reports named him as the celebrity survivor of a massive fire that had engulfed the seafront hotel in which he was staying. Coxon, meanwhile, was actually safe across town buying a pasty, but as pre-gig preparation goes, the build up to this - the final date of his UK tour - was not ideal.
By the time he takes to the stage that evening, the seafront has been cordoned off as hordes of firefighters battle the inferno. Coxon, meanwhile, seems unshaken by the day’s drama. “Do you like my guitar?” he asks the crowd, grinning. “It’s well good, innit!” Coxon has endured enough turbulence in his life to take this sort of thing in his stride; indeed this sort of infectious resolve has come to characterise an increasingly enthralling solo career.
Tonight, it also lends a completely different lease of life to tracks from his new album A+E. Live, the new songs shed the claustrophobia of the record. Tracks burst with unexpected freedom, an explosion in volume - both aural and spatial. At times four guitars play simultaneously; far from being overwrought, the outcome is as nuanced as it is powerful.
Following the cut and paste fuzz of set (and new album) opener Advice, Coxon thrashes out a raucous trio of tracks from 2006 album Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (Don’t Let Your Man Know, Can’t Look at Your Skin, Standing on My Own Again), before turning his attention to A+E material. “Those were just to warm you up…consider yourselves warmed”, Coxon says, narrowing his eyes in mock menace as a wail of feedback signals the start of A+E track The Truth, a song whose live incarnation takes the recorded version’s dark, lo-fi stomp and imbues it with a muscular blast reminiscent of Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails, albeit led by Coxon’s childish exuberance.
In all, nine of A+E’s tracks are aired tonight (the exception being the eerie Knife in the Cast)and for all the talk of a dark shift in Coxon’s songwriting, the pop spirit of “Freakin’ Out” (a song which unsurprisingly receives the best reception tonight) still permeates the newer tracks, creating what feels like the purest expression of Coxon’s creative ambition yet.
Single What’ll It Take is a descendant of Blur’s punkier material adorned with agitated synth bleeps and a pummelling outro, hammered home by Coxon shouting “what’s wrong with me?” with such exuberance that you get the impression that whatever it is, he’s not that bothered. Meet and Drink And Pollinate is a beefed up, distorted cousin of its album equivalent, as is A+E and main set closer Ooh, Yeh Yeh, which abandons its country edge in favour of chaotic blues. Bah Singer, meanwhile, deconstructs The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, creating a bar-brawl stomp teetering on the edge of collapse. In the midst of this, Don’t Wanna Go Out and Spectacular fly a defiant flag for the older material.
Tripping Over, from 2009’s Spinning Top, feels like the only misstep, the original’s warm, off-kilter acoustics abandoned in favour of Champagne Supernovaesque rock-balladry that feels flabby in comparison. However, this minor blip is long forgotten by the time Coxon brings his set to a triumphant close with a spiky version of debut album track “I Wish” (aided by lyrics displayed on a crew member’s mobile phone). Falmouth’s picturesque seafront might have been devastated tonight, but just up the hill, with an exhilaratingly joyful performance of some of his most challenging music, Graham Coxon has shown that, more than a mere survivor, he is a force of nature.
“We’re going punk tonight. It’s going to be fucked”, bassist Ben Chisolm tells the crowd. It’s not looking good. After half an hour spent wearily looking on as her bandmates prodded despairingly at a broken laptop, Chelsea Wolfe is slamming guitar cases onto the cobbled floor in front of the Green Door Store’s stage. That Wolfe and her band take to the stage at all is a surprise.
Pushing six foot, dressed head to toe in black and with dark rings of makeup all but shrouding her eyes in ghoulish shadow, Wolfe ‘s presence mid stage is imposing, and for the first few songs the crowd seem unsure of the Californian’s moodiness. A mumbled greeting and apology are the only acknowledgement Wolfe makes as she and her band dive into the doomy blues of Noorus.
Over the course of four songs, Wolfe is initially a frustrating watch, her music immersive and enthralling, but the sulkiness between songs distracting. The initial gloom of Pale on Pale builds to a climax of powerfully interweaving layers that thunder intently below Wolfe’s troubled, gothic soprano. Bounce House Demons adds pace and menace to the darkness and seems to mark Wolfe and co’s triumph over the earlier, technical demons.
The jewel is fifth song ‘Halfsleeper’, a strikingly fragile solo turn from Wolfe that proves a showstopper in more ways than one, Wolfe abruptly ending her set at the song’s close. For those five or six minutes though, the air crackled. Wolfe’s floating vocals and a fractured, jarring arpeggio invoked heartbreak, but soared with fearlessness. The song ended with ghostly layers of Wolfe’s sampled moans, drifting in the darkness. “We’re streaming in the wind”, she had sung, “records playing memories”. The audience was mesmerised. But then she stopped, casting the audience adrift, just as she had captured their attention.
No such drama surrounded 2:54’s headlining set. Off the back of a well received stint in the US and collaboration with Nine Inch Nails producer Alan Moulder, the buzz surrounding the band is quickly growing. Despite this, the band – led by sisters Hannah and Colette Thurlow - struggled with muddy sound that had a crew member running between stage and sound desk early on.
2:54 have risen off the back of a reputation for shimmering, atmospheric rock music that is as instant as it is carefully layered. That might have been more apparent in a different venue, but tonight subtlety and nuance echoed and collided, getting lost amidst the redbrick arches of the Green Door Store - though it would be unfair to solely blame a venue whose acoustics had earlier served Wolfe’s reverb-heavy sound well.
For much of their set, 2:54 seemed to plod around the same mid-tempo beat, leaving little structural or rhythmic drama to come forward in place of the textural complexity that had already been lost in translation. That said, it may have just been a slow start; latter songs saw a more powerful rhythm section rumble below the Thurlows’ soaring guitar and vocal work (the latter, compared almost inevitably to that of Florence Welch, is in reality far closer to Shirley Manson’s). On songs such as Scarlet and recent single You’re Early, the fusion was compelling.
This was a night where potential – but not consistency - came to the fore. 2:54 showed that they are capable of creating a substantial and impressive wall of sound. If the intricacies that adorn it are obscured, however, it risks becoming a barrier between band and audience.
Much is made of the doom surrounding Chelsea Wolfe’s music, but there is a spark that shines brilliantly amidst that darkness. Unfortunately, a dodgy laptop and uncontained frustration meant that tonight it was snuffed out before it had the chance to properly take flame. When it does, however, Wolfe is going to have everyone’s attention.
In my local town centre, a withered old man in a yellow raincoat sits on a fold-up chair outside Sports Direct. Hunched over a sequin-encrusted mandolin hooked up to a tiny amplifier, he plays improvised, scratchy blues with the amp’s overdrive turned to max. His eyes remain closed and his only visible movements are the slight shifts of his fingers. He meanders through dead notes and dissonance for hours at a time, oblivious to the stares and giggles of Saturday shoppers and hip teens. He is the antithesis to every mistake made in guitar music’s grim last few years.
A combination of uninspired songwriting and an increased focus on synth-fuelled pop and alternative music has left the idea of using a guitar to change the world looking decidedly uncool. However, it is not the instrument itself that is to blame, far from it in fact. The problem lies in motivation. In the rough-around-the-edges Nirvana film “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!”, Kurt Cobain describes what he sees as the essential for good rock music. “As long as it’s good, and has passion”, Cobain says, then it is worthy.
The Nirvana frontman’s viewpoint may seem characteristically simplistic, but his point highlights exactly the sort of vitality that is lacking from far too much of today’s alternative music. Music should be about more than just haircuts and denim. The songs should be life-affirming, they should inspire us to create something in turn - whether it be more great music or just a loud, drunken howl of wild appreciation.
The problem is that passion suffers an image problem. Picking up a guitar to nervous silence for the climax of gigs on his last tour, comedian Stewart Lee bemoaned the fact that “People find nothing more embarrassing than the sight of someone trying to do something sincerely and well”. Image is everything, and passion seems dangerously unselfconscious. There are lots of decent electronic artists pushing the envelope at the moment - far more than there are good guitar bands. But sometimes electronica can be stark, clinical and calculated; it can register the disconnection between music and creator, and possibly – dare I say it - between product and passion.
Of course, many of those brandishing guitars are partly to blame. For every decent act there are 1000 indie bands united only by haircuts and a lack of soul. It is music dictated by the adverts in fashion magazines, when it should be the other way around. To some extent our heroes make us who we are. Our adoration moves us to try and emulate them. Now, no one wants legions of Nirvana copyists out there - we tried that 20 years ago and it was rubbish - but absorbing the spirit of our heroes can drive us to do incredible things. But what if our heroes are nothing more than the limp, tweed-clad ‘discoveries’ of increasingly nervous record labels. Who wants heroes like that? Does anyone really want to worship Mumford and Sons?
There are bands around that get this.
Titus Andronicus’ 2010 album The Monitor is a concept album based on the US Civil War ship of the same name. Try telling me that sounds cool. The thing is, the songs on The Monitor bleed and screech passion. The vocals don’t always hit the notes they aim for; guitars drown in their own feedback. There are saxophone solos, bagpipes; long spoken word samples interrupt the songs. The album is too long - the last track alone clocks in at over 14 minutes. And all of this makes The Monitor the album that it is: a raucous, defiant, and at times beautiful listen.
The Men are another band revelling in the possibilities of six strings, as demonstrated on 2012’s Open Your Heart - the title of which alone serves as an apt rallying call to the alternative music community. They are not afraid of loudness, neither are they afraid of placing 7 minute Sonic Youth-country-rock instrumentals alongside black metal freakouts. They have been dubbed Thurston Moore and the E-Street Band, and while the crossover between fans of the Sonic Youth guitarist and those of The Boss may not be notable, the combination of genre-busting experimentalism and all-comers-welcomed blue collar rock suggested by the nickname is not far wide of the mark. In the hands of bands like these the rock template is left twisted and broken – a testimony to the impulses and flaws of a truly honest group of musicians.
There are plenty of other honourable mentions. No Age are three albums into a nicely developing career championing free-spirited and increasingly mature silliness; young bands like Iceage and embryonic Londoners Savages are displaying an adeptness for fuzz and urgency; Black Keys have been plying their trade admirably for some time and their apparent storming of the mainstream could well position them as the Pied Pipers that lead the scenesters back into that dark, damp pit where rock’s true soul lurks.
Good things are happening.
Cathy Pellow, the head of LA-based label Sargent House - who themselves boast an admirable roster of up and coming young rock acts - tweeted recently “Is it just me or are the hipster blogs and magazines finally giving heavy music some props?” It isn’t Pellow’s imagination, nor is it just heavy music. There are deeper rumbles in alternative music’s undernourished belly, a rediscovered longing for some substance, for some meat to devour. And while that repast may not come in the form of a wizened space-blues mandolinist from Truro (though I for one don’t see why not), his is exactly the sort of uncompromising passion and off-kilter obliviousness that today’s acts must have if they are to whet the appetites of discerning music fans.