Archive for February, 2015

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Liverpool Guild of Students – Monday 16 February 2015

Posted in Live, Music, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by David Hall

Perhaps the word ‘legendary’ is overused, but it seems appropriate in the case of The Jesus and Mary Chain. The band retains a definite mystique to this day, something a cut above acts treading the nostalgia circuit with one founding member, or the stadium-stomping dinosaurs they shared theatres with in the 1980’s. Maybe it’s their sparse studio output which makes them such an interesting proposition; with just six albums to their three-decade career, their output feels distinguished in its rarity. Maybe it’s their apparent willingness to implode at the least provocation. Stories of their chaotic, drug-fuelled early live shows, the band standing with their backs to the audience wringing sheets of feedback from their amps for just twenty minutes before storming offstage and prompting riots are shocking even today.

At any rate, a February 2015 performance from the… well, legendary… Jesus and Mary Chain feels like something of a relaunch for the Liverpool Guild of Students. Following a revamp totalling £14.5 million, the venue reopened in November 2014 to host acts such as Jamie T and Example, and now looks forward to welcoming Placebo, Ryan Adams and Catfish and the Bottlemen shortly. There’s an echoing element of recommencement for the Mary Chain themselves, returning to the stage tonight following a near-three-month hiatus in their touring schedule.

Mountford Hall – Liverpool’s second-largest gig venue – certainly looks the part, still all but smelling of new paint, though poorly signposted with many wandering lost in search of the toilets. Even as tonight’s support act Bathymetry take to the stage, I look forlornly towards my former regular spot on the right-hand wall by the side door, now rearranged with the bar moved into the main hall and occupying this position. Following a cancellation from Eagulls (perhaps conscious of early JAMC gigs being punker than punk, but also evidencing that frisson of tension seemingly permanently associated with the Scots), tonight’s support slot has been hastily arranged with an emerging local act, as with every other UK tour date this month.

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Although Bathymetry are a bit of an odd pairing with tonight’s headliners – all melodic basslines, funny rhythms and jazzy 3/4 time signatures – they’re more than worth checking out. Just don’t baulk at ‘Goblin Fruit’s Christina Rosetti-inspired lyric first time around and enjoy guitarist Ariel’s high capoed, hand-strummed technique at times taking on more of a textural role.

Promoting the thirtieth anniversary of their seminal debut – another overused yet appropriate term – tonight’s Jesus and Mary Chain performance consists of a short set of hits and curios, followed by Psychocandy played in its entirety. At least, that was the plan. But what should have been a short, punchy and explosive mini-greatest hits set feels overlong, plodding and at times a little under-rehearsed.

The band enter, shambling through wafts of smoke with the barest acknowledgement to the considerable but not sold out crowd, singer Jim Reid arriving at centre stage and dolorously explaining tonight’s format. With his microphone levels characteristically way down, Reid might as well be talking into a gale both here and in between songs. Still, the band offer up powerful takes some of the Mary Chain’s more anthemic material, opening with ‘April Skies’, followed by ‘Head On’. But from there any gained momentum is lost; the band stand around awkwardly as guitarist William Reid seems to have a tuning issue, but does little to sort it. “Are we gonna play something or are we just gonna stand here all night?” Reid the younger spikily but pertinently asks in the needless, endless pause between ‘Head On’ and a consequently defanged ‘Psychocandy’ as the crowd grow restless. This is followed by an updated version of ‘Up Too High’, from the band’s 1983 demo tape; the original is an embryonic, ill-advisedly synthy Depeche Mode-light moment, its live incarnation sounding far more impressive. Nevertheless its obscurity assures a lukewarm response. It was a low, but one the Mary Chain managed to pull themselves out of from then on.

Pedals are appreciably trodden on as the band switch it up into ‘Reverence’, sounding much more menacing than its studio version, Reid snarling its nihilistic lyric over a hypnotic bassline, before going full-on white noise with ‘Upside Down’ to end the beginning.

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The band return after a short break, those audience members heading for the bar finding their visit over-ambitious and missing ‘Just Like Honey’s timeless, chiming intro. The Mary Chain return to the stage and confidently do their signature track the justice it commands; restrained and beautiful, it’s almost magisterial.

‘Just Like Honey’ is talismanic, almost characteristic of aspects which impress so much tonight. The JAMC are more than capable of holding back, and producing gorgeous moments such as the ‘60s girl group intervals of ‘Cut Dead’. ‘Sowing Seeds’, after a false start, is equally shimmering, although dismissed as “some sort of fucking jazz version” by a wryly-smiling Jim Reid after he got the key completely wrong. But the main draws are of course the tempestuous swirls of noise such as ‘In A Hole’ or ‘Never Understand’, all but their most strident chord changes cloaked in squalls of feedback. The frequent monitor whistles just add to the atmosphere of the gainy sound, always teetering on the very brink of control, threatening to plummet at any moment into a hellish cacophony but never quite doing so. William Reid rakes the strings of his guitar right on the bridge, stalking up to his amps and thrusting the instrument at them, producing tortured howls of feedback from the equipment. Even thirty years on, it’s exhilarating stuff. Meanwhile little seems to defy Jim Reid’s inscrutable gaze, who mostly props himself up on his microphone stand. At times he wears the semi-apologetic look of a man who has stepped into your eyeline as you chose bananas in Tesco. At others he’s the epitome of the aloof frontman, looking smart in all black, barely able to make himself heard over his brother’s shrieking guitar but seemingly not caring.

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I find a certain correctness to Psychocandy, an appropriateness if you will. Everything from the title up seems to fit into a niche perfectly, describing the record’s bittersweet nature; it’s aggressive bubblegum, abrasive pop. It’s like sugar coated with… I don’t know, sulphuric acid, but Psychocandy is a pop record at heart, just like the JAMC are a pop band. There’s a similar inevitability to the Mary Chain sound; as if every chord change could only have happened one way, as if every lyric has only the rhyme they chose. It’s simplistic, primitive stuff and rightly influential on almost every noisy indie band of their day (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and Pixies to name a few), or on the dubious genre of shoegaze as a whole. Whether it’s the cut-‘n’-paste drums, channel upon channel of guitar or barely comprehensible lyrics, there would certainly be no Loveless without Psychocandy and even more so Darklands. Perhaps that record will also receive the thirtieth anniversary tour treatment in two years’ time.

So The Jesus and Mary Chain shamble off the Liverpool stage as they did coming on, Reid Snr. managing to stumble over some equipment onto his hands and knees upon exit. Please note that a ‘You Trip Me Up’ joke placed here would be trite and tasteless. The accident however seemed symptomatic of a gig that wasn’t a disaster, but a little beleaguered sounding in places. Far from perfect then, but there isn’t a lot of work to be done by the band which should see them sharpen up for the remainder of their dates.

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Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love [Album of the Month; January 2015]

Posted in Album, Music, Review with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by David Hall

No Cities To Love

Stop me if I’m wrong, but the decade-long gap marking Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus really hasn’t seemed that long. Actually with creative projects like Portlandia, Wild Flag, Corin Tucker Band and Quasi keeping their fanbase occupied, the period has fairly skipped past. With tension possibly eased by their split always feeling more like a placed bookmark than a fallen guillotine, the Oregon three-piece’s welcome return was marked with a new album to begin the year. Immediately, No Cities To Love has asserted itself proudly as an exceptional entry in the catalogue of one of America’s most vital alternative acts.

As Sleater-Kinney have so successfully refined and subtly reinvented their sound on each album, No Cities prompts a question from the very first listen; which version of the band has been captured here? The retro, rootsy denim jacket-wearing The Woods version? Or perhaps mark One Beat, loose, genre-hopping and brimming with confidence. Maybe their feral beginnings, or their taut alt rock middle period, exemplified by the couplet of The Hot Rock and All Hands On the Bad One. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s none of those; not quite, anyway. Instead we’re treated to another subtle but distinct metamorphosis.

No Cities To Love marks an uncompromisingly leaner, tauter incarnation of the band, who have produced an unmistakeably bold and listenable record. Longtime Sleater-Kinney producer John Goodmanson collaborates once more to coax a more nuanced sound from the trio than during any of their previous work together. There isn’t an ounce of fat on the album, none of its ten curtly-titled tracks lasting past the four minute mark. It’s a lean, spirited, clever listen; this is a smart, savvy, and very switched-on version of riot grrl. What’s most impressive about No Cities however is that the album sounds full of singles, potential set-opening songs and firebrand tracks bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

‘Price Tag’ is a perfectly understandable choice as the album’s opening, with searing dual vocals that soar throatily in the chorus, Corin Tucker hitting gorgeously vibrato-infused notes that rattle with passion over Janet Weiss’ propulsive rhythm. Nevertheless, there are other tracks bristling with energy which could arguably have lead off the album far more readily. ‘Price Tag’s awkward hammered-on riff improves with each listen and its socio-political commentary centring on retail jobs feels welcome with the recent rise of zero-hour contracts, all unfamiliar territory in terms of lyrical themes. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of previous opening tracks such as ‘Start Together’, ‘The Fox’ or Dig Me Out’s incendiary opening salvo. That’s no indictment to say that ‘Price Tag’ isn’t the strongest track here, more reflecting the potency of the following nine.

Holistically it’s as if the reins have been taken off the band and they can make every song compete with the last for the title of most ecstatic and unrestrained. ‘Surface Envy’ for instance orbits thrillingly around its staircase tumble of a riff, resolving itself into a picked open-sounding chord progression and clashing cymbal hits. It’s a clarion call and would make an excellent set opener to their live show, “We’ve got so much to do; let me make that clear” Tucker demands as Weiss’ hi-hat creeps open and the track winds up into a rallying cry of a chorus, “We win, we lose; only together do we break the rules”. As declarations of unity go, ‘Surface Envy’ is pretty unwavering. Similarly the existential musings of the title track recall the bands’ hitherto loftiest watermark ‘Get Up’, the airy verses of ‘No Cities To Love’ revelling in their starry-eyed lyricism, “a bright flash, my body is a souvenir” Carrie Brownstein sing-sighs, before making an even firmer and more outward-gazing declaration of alliance, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love/It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love” Brownstein and Tucker both finally rejoin, seemingly with a nod and wink.

A historically bass-free band, S-K nevertheless continue to find new and inventive ways of finding lower registers in their sound; some familiar, such as downtuned guitars or Weiss’s frequent tom hits, some unfamiliar. Goodmanson wrings a depthy, distorted growl from ‘Fade’s guitar tracks for example, but ‘A New Wave’ also makes the grand gesture of slamming a bassline right in your face, in a jokily high-timbred post-punk motorik riff. Bass has been used and hitherto undisguised so far, but is shoved right up front on ‘A New Wave’, everything but bass, drums and voice dropping out for its furious verses. Frazzled, distorted guitars frantically chop away occasionally until the chorus unfurls and Brownstein’s solos duel in the fadeout, unique in each channel.

Elsewhere bass is featured less prominently, as in ‘Fangless’, which also brandishes an updated, more restrained drum sound from Weiss’ kit and technique than Dave Fridmann’s trademark open-mic’d The Woods interpretation managed. Bass in ‘Fangless’’ verses chugs the track onwards through staccato, argumentative guitar lines until a seemingly endless chorus is launched into. Brownstein takes over on vocals as Tucker steps backwards, slashing wildly at her guitar following Weiss’ lead, who whisks the song up into a thrashing, full-on rock-out.

The band’s lyrics are stronger than ever, check out ‘No Anthems’ (“I want an anthem/A singular anthem/An answer and a force” Brownstein and Tucker rowdily duet after a strutting verse) for clear evidence of this. ‘Gimme Love’ is slick, soulful, bluesy, heavy, at times all at once, a little like the album in microcosm, Tucker’s voice wild and primal yet rich and beautiful. ‘Hey Darling’ recalls the scaling lead guitar work and half-spoken, half-sung chorus of ‘Oh!’, but even that One Beat standout doesn’t go for the sucker-punch ‘Hey Darling’ manages, its chorus melody sung wordlessly in the outro for one of the record’s many stand-out moments.

Finally, just when you think No Cities has surely given up all of its secrets and settled into a big, mid-tempo scorcher as a finale in ‘Fade’, the band defy all expectations. Contorting into a tempo change, call-and-response guitars ricocheting off each other; “Unbelievable masquerade/ Never revealing your truth” both vocalists chime in falsetto, resounding across a clattering, complex drum part. Sleater-Kinney have classically specialised in great closers (check out ‘Sympathy’ on One Beat, or ‘The Swimmer’ on All Hands as notable examples), but here they truly excel themselves. “Oh, what a price we have paid/ My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end” Brownstein shivers plaintively over the album’s dying embers, her voice cracking exquisitely.

As previously mentioned, No Cities To Love marks a subtle metamorphosis, a honed, clutter-free version of the Sleater-Kinney sound. There’s a dash of the wig-out bombasticism they learned on the previous album to enjoy, like the gleefully struck chords in ‘Fangless’’ middle eight. There’s also an effortless air to the whole affair, strongly recalling One Beat, but there are also highly-strung moments that render No Cities if not bipolar then certainly revelling in its light and shade. The band seem more assured of themselves than ever, their reunion album feeling joyfully baggage-free and is all the more of a treat for that.