Thursday, March 04, 2010

Girls @The Deaf Institute, Manchester Tuesday 2 March 2010

If 2009 was the year for girls, maybe 2010 will be a year most remembered for Girls. Weirdo San Francisco duo Chris Owens (pictured, right) and Chet “JR” White (left) aren’t a skinny, blonde girl from new York, or Hampshire for that matter. And thank god for that. The past year may have brought us gems like Florence, but now we’re scraping the barrel with Ellie blooming Goulding, maybe we should call it quits.

Tonight, onstage, the duo set up their equipment so innocuously for a packed, shoulder to shoulder audience, that they could be roadies. They catch me totally by surprise when they begin playing ‘Laura’. It’s a pretty representative of their album, last September’s slab of California surf-pop ‘Album’. It’s a heady mix of young love, Beach Boys melodies and psychedelic, Spiritualized-influenced interludes, delivered by a singer channelling Elvis Costello or Buddy Holly, which is much better for being heard live, as opposed to on their admittedly imperfect debut.

They continue the set with ‘Ghost Mouth’, and as I listen closer, it strikes me how classically American their sound is, so traditional. Lead singer Chris Owen he says he was fed the classics when growing up, Elvis and the Beatles. And you can clearly hear that 50s US sound in there, that Elvis/Orbison axis. The fact that it is done with an arch, weird quality, psychedelic effects (and drugs, fuck yeah, lots of drugs), and punk attitude is what makes it so captivating.

And believe me, the overfilled room is captivated. They stand in silence most of the night, but it’s not the silence of boredom, it’s the silence of rapt attention and even reverence. Even when Girls switch up a gear, as bassist Chet “JR” White suddenly switches up the pedals on his guitar and knocks out a fat, overdriven bassline, and they suddenly turn, momentarily into the Stooges, only a few people start swaying at the front.

Perhaps it’s because skinny, fragile-framed, long haired Christopher Owens is so compelling and sincere as a frontman. So many musicians affect being deep or “tortured” as a badge of sincerity, but with this guy, you absolutely believe it. With his heartfelt blues, fucked up inner life, long blond hair and Oxfam-reject cardigan, he reminds me in many ways of Kurt Cobain tonight. Owens’ life has the makings of an bestselling biography in itself, with his childhood as a member of Californian cult Children Of God, a particularly disturbed group whose hobbies included prostitution, child abuse, and murder. Since absconding at the age of 16, and washing up homeless in Frisco, Owens met his musical partner JR and developed a prescription drugs habit which runs to this day.

For all the sadness in his life, and the heartbreak in the songs, Owens doesn’t come across as a sad person, instead someone in the process of turning things around. As the band encore with a nursery-rhyme style song with the refrain “it all comes back to love”, it’s clear there’s an immensely hopeful quality to his story, and that this band offers a form of personal rebirth. And, as his former cult family might say, amen to that.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Heligoland – Massive Attack (Virgin)

You may have had enough of 80s revivals until you never want to hear a synthesiser or electro beat again, but is today’s music scene ready for 90s revival. Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledge that pop will eat itself, and, given that, we are destined to revisit the decade that brought us Britpop, grunge, g-funk and an explosion of dance music that exploded and mushroomed into a thousand different genres.

Anyone younger readers wanting to get ahead of the game and discover the best artists that the decade had to offer could do a lot worse than start with the Bristol collective of Massive Attack. Their trio of 3 classic albums in 90s defined and changed the face of music forever. Beginning with 1991’s Blue Lines, the sound they pioneer was ripped off a millionfold, and emulated everywhere. One only needs to listen to the top 40 now to find several tracks that borrow from their musical ideas (Timbaland has been a particular offender), in particular their post modern use of lush string arrangements and pianos over hip hop beats and scratched, sampled sounds. It sounds so obvious now, but back then, they were one of first to do it.

There was a moment in the mid nineties when they were considered to be the most achingly cool act in music. What made them cool was their extraordinary dynamism, their ability to cover so many different styles and sounds across a record, with effortless cool and ease. There was something uniquely British about them – white and black kids influenced by Jamaican dancehall, soul, dub reggae, US hip hop, and later, rock, willing to take on and subsume any sound. In this way, they sounded so modern, putting down a marker for the a new 21st century British identity that we could all subscribe to.

Fast forward to 2010, and MA are elder statesmen on the music scene. This outing sees the return of Daddy G to the fold, and a host of guests, including the usual suspects such as Horace Andy, as well as newer guests, including Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio. The former is provides one of the weaker songs on the album, through weak production which is no fault of his own, while the TTOR man starts the record with a downbeat, mournful opener ‘Pray For Rain’. Their contribution is welcome, as the changeup of newer acts brings a different feel to the album, making it clear this is a record for today, rather than a memorial to the past.

It’s an eye opener to see multi-talented, multi-project extraordinaire and 90s posterboy Damon Albarn on there collaborating on ‘Saturday Come Slow’, to provide one of the stronger songs, while Tricky collaborator Martine Topley-Bird also provides melodic vocals and biting breakup lyrics on Babel, another standup number.

While it’s unfair to expect them to meet the heady heights of former glories, Heligoland does provide some decent noughties thrills, though it’s difficult to say if it will bring them to a whole new audience or sink without trace. It is however reassuring to see one of the great acts that this country has produced moving forward than trading on former glories.