Friday, 28 July 2017

Oddfellows Union

Charlbury Riverside this weekend, Supernormal the next; in their very, very different ways, the two best festivals to be found in Oxon, and quite possibly soe way beyond.

IRREGULAR FOLKS SUMMER SESSION, Victoria Arms, Old Marston, 1/7/17

Irregular Folks say they don’t do headliners, and when the very first act on the bill is the outstanding Yorkston Thorne Khan, we’re apt to believe them.  As we’re alternately buoyed up by Moving Shadow influenced double bass swells and snarled in dense brambles of sarangi we watch a special gazebo being set up to stop anyone mooring up a punt and getting in for free, which has to be the most Oxford piece of security ever – we feel bad about sneaking in drugs inside our Brideshead teddy bear, now.  If we wanted accompaniment to such well-heeled crime capers Jack Cheshire’s artful, bucolic English prog is the perfect choice, a gyroscopic blur of prog-pop that spins jazzily somewhere between Wilco and Fridge.  Occasionally a tiny bit prissy, but overall entrancing, and all enhanced by some Stornobass.

A bugbear of ours is journalists who only ever compare female musicians to other woman performers, but there are no male equivalents to the tastefully breathy kookstimme of someone like Joanna Newsom, let’s not beat around the Bush.  Laura J Martin’s tastefully looped pop tapestries are actually at their best when she swaps the wide-eyed vocals for some percussively cheeky Herbie Mann flute workouts, anyway.

Oly Ralfe’s meandering piano fripperies are the only mis-step in the musical schedule, but he does allow us to recline on the satiny cushions of the bordello-kino on Mini-Movie Island, a home for short films whose highpoints are leftfield comedies, reminding us that Buxton and Serafinowicz are as responsible for bringing as much quirkily literate originality to British popular culture of the past quarter century as Welsh or Cocker.  Not that the Brits have cornered the market, as proved by a talk in the consistently excellent Odditorium lecture-yurt about cartoonist B Kliban, forgotten influence on the syndicated surrealism of Gary Larson or Rupert Fawcett.  And of course there is the genius of Paul Foot, who MCs the whole day with the spiralling manic desperation of a teaching assistant failing their workplace assessment.

With her sparse programmed backing Hannah Bruce at first reminds us of fellow Oxonian Esther Joy Lane but soon has us thinking of mid-80s Carly Simon and the airbrushed windswept vistas of vintage Chris Isaak, and so keeps us fascinated even when we’re not entirely convinced.  There’s more stately, minimal pop from Rozi Plain which would probably sound harmlessly pleasant if you were enjoying the sun and the Vicky Arms’ ales, but which is spellbinding when you give yourself up to it:  we’ve heard of acts rewarding close attention, but Rozi Plain pays out like a banjaxed one-arm bandit, their dinner party kraut subtlety drawing us in more with every track, until they sound like The Sundays played by To Rococo Rot.  Doing a Sun Ra cover makes you awesome; doing one so it sounds like The Cardigans languorously evaporating in a greenhouse made of spun sugar makes you the best act of the day.

Go Dark is the new act featuring Doseone, alt hip hop yarnspinner and abstract geek hyper-poet whose style is ADHD meets AD&D.  Musically the duo, with fellow button puncher and mike wrangler Crash, is brasher than much of Doseone’s older work, supplying stuttering glitch treatments of shiny sass-pop that sounds like a Flying Lotus remix of Gwen Stefani’s greatest hits or a version of Basement Jaxx’s Kish Kash made on a cubist SNES, and the presentation is more brazen by a factor of about one squillion – the camp stagewear with rainbow arm insignia is as much Bucks Fizz as it is Buck Rogers.   No wonder the event programme writes the band’s name ALL IN CAPITALS, you can’t miss this Dayglo sonic explosion, and you shouldn’t miss next year’s Irregular Folks session, either – how many gigs feature great acts and a fireworks display and a TED talk on werewolf erotica, eh?  Book your getaway punt now, and join us in 2018. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Minus (Ur)sine

With Irregular Folks and the Cowley Road Carnival in diary this weekend, festival season has begin: Cider, walk with me.

MINUS THE BEAR/JOAN OF ARC, Future Perfect, Bully, 9/16/17

Bright math twiddling.  Thick bubbling synths that could be slowly achieving consciousness in Herbert West’s laboratory.  Insectile lops and insistent drum tattoos.  Periods of drone stasis and sonic wave therapy.  Some floppy old second tier Britpop glam.  Oh, and it was all going so well.  Joan Of Arc set up some wonderfully eclectic and enticing music – think Parts & Labor with a smidgen of Bardo Pond and a dash of Tomaga’s dub-inflected churn, for starters – and then, intermittently, some clumsy sub-Molko vocals parachute in and ruin it all.  There’s even some frankly worrying vicar in a youth club gyrating.  It’s as if the band felt they needed some vocals to make the music acceptable, no matter how unsuitable.  If so, the singing adds legitimacy whilst being actively unpleasant.  A bit like the DUP, perhaps.  Still, there’s more than enough great stuff to enjoy here, and Joan Of Arc repay attention with a varied sound that could be four different bands battling for supremacy over 30 minutes; let’s hope the three good ones attain ultimate victory.

Minus The Bear might come from Seattle, but they could have been bred in a petri dish to please Oxford musicians.  They have a post-rock veneer, with some jerky guitars, staccato keyboards and vast punnetfuls of pedals, but beneath it they make big, old-fashioned yearning rock music, all impassioned choruses and reverby star-seeking solos.  There are times when their slick wide-angle rock resembles the articulate, post-Radiohead bounce of Maximo Park, and there are times when their brief tics and stutters fail to hide unashamed stadium bombast, like Zooropa era U2.  At the final whistle, what looked to be a close fight at first becomes a walkover, glitchtronica references floored by guitar solos on the crash barrier, enveloping textures thrown aside negligently by tastefully epic vocal angst.  Like our own Kanadia magnified, Minus The Bear are very good, but we wish they’d just give up the half-arsed post-rock pretence, buy some proper smoke machines and a big fuck-off fan and kick Brian May off the roof to take become the unfettered, billowy-bloused rockers they are deep inside. 

Monday, 29 May 2017

Oh! What A Lovely Wardrobe

I suggest you read this review quickly, before the election references go out fo dat.  Or read it in 5 years, either works.


If this review were broadcast by BBC News this paragraph would be accompanied by an unnecessarily flashy infographic illustrating how new wave is an attempt to resolve the opposing forces of melody, energy and sloppiness.  Self Help may have a little developing to do, but at their best they stumble across this sonic tightrope impeccably.  “Won’t You” has the insane catchiness of Os Mutantes’ “Bat Macumba”, the cheery steamroller bludgeon of your favourite Buzzcocks classic and the droopy-eyed delivery of a band who just woke up from a week-long kip.  “Gooey” is a lost Wannadies hit delivered with the lackadaisical cool of The Strokes, albeit once the New York glamour’s been scrubbed off with lager-anointed chip paper.  There are superfluous moments – the odd guitar solo, and a tendency to decelerate every song to a teetering stop – but if Self Help can hone down to the glowing pop core of their music, they’ll be a glorious band.

Bristol’s Springbreak also pull in different directions simultaneously, but although they are the more intriguing band, the success rate is slightly lower.  Most of the set consists of sweet, perky indie pop lost behind an ambient peasouper of malleted cymbals and Cocteau Twins guitar shimmer, sounding like The Sundays would if you left them in your hip pocket and put them through the wash.  Although coming across as about the nicest and most ethical band you could hope to swap coloured vinyl with, there are times when the music feels frustratingly mismatched, but feminist rant closer “I’m Walking Here” pulls them over the victory line, the shoegaze fug acting as shimmering backdrop to the song’s euphoric anger, rather than obscuring veil.  Cue swingometer swoop.

You’d think that Atlanta punk trio The Coathangers would have no room for variation in their scrappy brattish bashing, but, in contradiction to every punk show played in history this set actually becomes more interesting as it goes along.  Sure, the first half is good, Ramones directness and Stooges scuzz played with the tinny-fuelled bonhomie of the post-record industry house show generation, but the second half is superb. Somewhere around the time of the most economic diss of Oxford on record (stare down the crowd; intone “Harry Potter” in a quavery voice; giggle), the band starts swapping instruments, loosening up, wobbling into a pseudo-rap territory and generally becoming more childishly joyous than is decent.  By the time of the last number, essentially a dumbass solo for squeaky dog toy, we’re reminded of ultra-early Beastie Boys, albeit with a more enlightened agenda.  We did have an animation to illustrate the journey this gig took, but someone’s sprayed a big pair of boobies on the monitor.  Landslide victory for the iron(y) ladies.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Floppy Disc

I hate those narcissists, they want to take a long hard look in the mirror.

GET LOOSE – GET LOOSE (Self released)

What does it mean to play within accepted stylistic boundaries, and is there a difference between working in a tradition and embracing a genre?  For everyone who respects improvisations on established carnatic ragas but thinks trad jazz bands are dead-eyed rehashers, there’s another who bigs up old skool hip hop revivals whilst sniggering at morris dancers.  The truth is, some musicians get inspired by playing to a previous generation’s rules, and some get inspired by breaking them, and that’s fine; what’s weird is those who do one thing whilst being sure they’re doing the other.   Take Get Loose’s press release, which claims their album ranges “from R&B you can dance to through to darker pychedelia”, when what it ranges from is mid-tempo blues rocking to the end of the record.

On the plus side, it’s pretty decent mid-tempo blues rocking.  The opening pair of tracks offer chunky-knit “Immigrant Song” style cantering in “Forgive Me” and Chuck Berry flavoured...err...cantering in “Ride It Out”.  The riffs and rhythms kick along nicely, the vocals are understated and pleasingly free of pantomime mid-west growls, and the solos are fluent yet concise.  The lyrics won’t win any awards, but they’re far from the most egregious examples of priapic platitude in rock’s canon, and may have a little sly inversion of sexual boasting in “King Bee” (if not it means the claim they are “able to buzz all night long” is meant seriously, and that the boys need to learn a little more about apian sexual hierarchies).  Best to ignore that stuff and just nod your head to the incessant cowbell crunch of “Bullet”, our favourite track.  Get Loose is a very solid, reliable heavy blues album.  That is both its victory and its curse, depending on where you’re standing.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Yaaba Ranked

Bit of a starry-eyed entry today.  I thought it was important to record how I acually felt at this gig, but also important to identify what was down to the performers and what was down to the atmosphere and the contrast to my earlier experiences.

Of course, the irony is that on a different night I'm sure the frugging neo-hippies and west Oxford world music yoghurtistas would have driven me to an acid rage.  I am fickle.

No I'm not.

YAABA FUNK, Bossaphonik, Cellar, 3/3/17

Some gigs feel like more than nights out.  Having wrestled our way out of a cashpoint mugging at the hands of a man in black tie – as neat an image of Britain in 2017 as we can imagine – we stumble into The Cellar to find a smiling Bossaphonik crowd.  Old, young, street smart, backpacker scruffy, black, white, male, female, blurring the division between the two, and all dancing happily I(if not necessarily aesthetically).  It’s at times like this we feel that Nightshift’s Oxford is a better version than any you’d find on celluloid or tea towel.

Even for those not having a minor emotional epiphany this gig offers a top flight band to make the night special.  Depressingly, a funk gig  is often just bread and circuses crowd-pleasing, little more than a mass of blues change ballast between overlong solos and silly shirts, whereas great funk is taut, minimal and sometimes disorienting.  One of the most extreme examples is Fela Kuti’s afrobeat, with repeated riffs extending for whole gigs and LP sides like huge landing strips for politically charged sweat soaked sentiments.  Brixton’s Yaaba Funk understand this perfectly, and although they have bouncing, high life influences, their longform pieces stretch into the distance, riveted intermittently by stainless steel horn stabs.  The vocals have the simple immediacy of slogans chanted from a barricade, four square but always no the edge of impassioned abandon.  Conversely the brass section spins off into improvisation (ribbons of Ben Webster sax and Dizzy-ing trumpet spirals) but always returns to tight punching just when the music threatens to get flabby.

And that’s it: repeat until euphoric or revolutionary, whichever comes sooner.  There’s a brief period in the doldrums three quarters of the way in, a call and response section going to seed and growing ugly and untameable over 5 long minutes, but this is the only misstep.  We’ll support any band that uses its double agogo tattoo to call a room of punters together despite their differences, when so many outside the Cellar are trying to drive us apart because of them.