Psychic Lemon, The Grapes, Cambridge, 13 Dec 2014

I saw Psychic Lemon playing recently at the Mill Road Winter Fair, an event that is one of Cambridge’s best kept secrets. It was a challenge to entertain at 11am in freezing conditions in the car park in the shade of the railway bridge but the appreciative crowd gradually grew and stayed. The Grapes on a Saturday evening was a more comfortable prospect, a welcoming pub with stage and dance floor at one end, bathed in red and green spots of light throughout.

They opened with ‘Dilator’, a strong statement of dual guitar, pulsing bass and drums (interesting to see an electronic drum kit). As in many of the songs tonight, the vocals are often short and to the point, the sound is dominated by a compendium of guitar effects recreating and updating the psychedelic vibe, usually establishing longer instrumental passages.

‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ and ‘Skin’ strayed into dance funk territory with some shades of Talking Heads, the amiable Grapes audience responded by being far more animated than Cambridge audiences can tend to be. Some songs showed darker, claustrophobic edges, the bass becoming more anguished and prominent in the mix as the set proceeded. Final song was TiCkToC, already released as a single and blending many of the elements from the other songs into a satisfying whole.

To quote from Psychic Lemon themselves….

‘The band got together at the end of 2013, everyone looking for a new musical challenge — to write and play the music they want to play, and not be held back by the expectations of others. However, if other people like it too, then that’s great: The band’s goal is to entertain without compromise.’

On the evidence so far, this seems to be happening…

Fat Cat Records 2014 Compilation

End of year sampler CD from Brighton based record label Fat Cat Records….

1. Traams ‘Selma’ Good opener, punchy drumming, spiky guitar and forlorn vocal giving way to a singalong chorus. The lyric is a bit deranged, the sound a bit retro and all over too quickly.
2. Mazes ‘Astigmatism’ My favourite track on this disc, the lead song from the third Mazes album. A rolling riff, punctuated with some strange backward sounding guitar lines and intriguing words about obscured vision and devotion. ‘You are a winning quiz team, you are a morning sun…..beam’
3.The Growlers ‘Big Toe’ A 5-piece band from California, describing their sound as ‘beach goth’. This is a jaunty pop song, jangling guitar belying a lyric of post-relationship dislike. Quite intense dislike really. ‘Her love’s so uncomfortable, she strikes down like a hammer on your big toe’ and plenty more…
4. Paws ‘Owl Talons Clenching My Heart’ A great title from this Glasgow trio and another difficult relationship in the lyrics. Super-low thumping bass and fuzzy distorted vocal with a frequent chorus line packs a strong punch. It reminds me of The Wytches, another dark but sensitive trio.
5. The Twilight Sad ‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ Formed in 2003 and described by one reviewer as ‘perennially unhappy Scottish indie band’ this is another tale of love gone wrong, with the repeated phrase ‘she’s not coming back’ over layers of stadium keyboards and booming drums. Quite addictive in an unrelenting way.
6. C Duncan ‘Silence and Air’ New Scottish talent Chris Duncan with a meld of vocal and distant choral effects over a soothing multi-layered instrumental background.
7. Vashti Bunyan ‘Across the Water’ Recording her first album in 1970, influential folk legend Vashti Bunyan restarted her music career 35 years later. This new release from her 2014 album Heartleap is a lovely song. Gentle acoustic guitar, flute sounds and strings float by, blended with her ethereal voice, taking the listener to another place and time.
8. Tlaotlon ‘Myriade’ A contrast to what has come before, this is frenetic electronica samples and loops. A challenging listen, any logical patterns or structure dismantled as quickly as they arrive.
9. Gentle Friendly ‘Shake Up’. Not sure about this one, some electronic drones, drums and vocal from this London-based duo. Claustrophobic and a bit relentless, I may have to listen to a few more of their recordings.
10. Honeyblood ‘Super Rat’. This is more like it, Number 20 in the NME Top 50 tracks of 2014 and not even the best track on their album. The two members of Honeyblood make a rich dense sound with just guitar and drums and certainly do not hold back on the lyrical vitriol, ending with ‘I will hate you forever, you really do disgust me’. For the brighter side of HB, see my live review on this site…
11. We Were Promised Jetpacks ‘Safety in Numbers’. Nostalgic band name, sound and song. So many influences here, it starts with a pure voice and keyboard weaving around then bursts into life with a big Indie rock flourish, well honed since their debut album in 2009.

Violet Woods, released Nov 2014

Track by track review of the recent self-titled LP/CD from Cambridge band Violet Woods. An adventure in indie psychedelia…..

1. Electric Fascination. A strong, brooding opening track. The shimmering 12-string guitar figure opens the song then persists through variations as the echoing vocal competes. It is a walk through the trees (woods) on the LP sleeve with occasional glimpses of the brighter sky.
2. Over the Ground. A companion piece to track 1, again with a sinister guitar phrase dominating, backed with descending organ and vocal layers. A fuzzed electric guitar solo takes us to an abrupt end.
3. Here. A resolution to the first two songs, an optimistic pop song with a heartfelt statement of contentment. A simple and affecting lyric, the title barely mentioned but the sentiment very clear. Uplifting guitar lines and well judged sustained keyboards.
4. The Dancer. Appropriately titled, a bit funky this one, when played live it is an energetic high point of the show. Skips around at first, light touch on the bass, then from nowhere a big noisy finale.
5. Take Your Time. A low key ballad, but definitely a grower. Singer Xavier Watkins delivers one of his best vocals on the album, plaintive and subtle. Guitar, drums and organ given plenty of time to build on a repeated phrase at the end.
6. What I Need. Mid-tempo compact structure based around a staccato drum pattern, passes along nicely but not quite the same immersing ambience of the other songs.
7. Raw Love. The band’s debut single from late 2012. A carefully crafted catchy pop song, radio-friendly hook line, if only all radio was as good as 6 Music.
8. Driftwood Royalty. I really like this one, so laid back, could be from the sixties or eighties, it floats in and out again like some sort of impressionist reverie.
9. The River. The rest of the album paves the way for this track, it draws on all the others to create a complex epic, musically driven by military precision drumming, punctuated by restful passages with underlying tension. The last two minutes of the song goes into drumming and guitar overdrive before the final sustained note, tempting us back to track 1…

Overall an accomplished debut, excellent production and deserving of repeated listens (it sounds good live too!)

Robert Plant, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 20 Nov 2014

The crowd were in early for the sold out show with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, the latest of the many performing incarnations of the former Led Zeppelin frontman.

Support trio The Last Internationale played American blues rock, underpinned by folk and protest roots, a sort of Billy Bragg with louder guitars. Delila Paz opened the show with solo acoustic guitar and a soaring powerful voice, singing ‘Workers of the World Unite’. The rest of the set was electric and punchy, showing how sometimes the basic combination of guitar bass and drums is all you need for a satisfying sound. ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood’ was the standout track and their covers of an Elmore James blues and Neil Young’s ‘My My, Hey Hey(Out of the Blue)’ went down very well with the audience too.

Robert Plant is a legend in rock music, his modest and relaxed stage presence and still stunning vocal talents deliver a superior show, a mixture of material from the latest album ‘Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar’, blues standards and reworked Zeppelin classics. The band is superb, all given individual personalities by Robert’s jokey asides and having many opportunities to bring their musicianship into the spotlight. Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson’s prowess on the acoustic guitar duetting with Justin Adams on mandolin and the eerie sounds produced by Juldeh Camara playing a ritti (one-stringed fiddle) were among the many highlights. Other eccentric stringed instruments add variety to the harder-edged sound that showcases Robert’s distinctive voice to perfection.

When an emotionally draining ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ gives way to the opening riff of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ the audience go crazy and we know we will leave the show happy. Then the icing on the cake, an encore of ‘Rock and Roll’….

Pere Ubu, Junction, Cambridge, 17 Nov 2014

Pere Ubu at Junction J2, the enticing prospect of an evening of experimental excess from long lasting leaders in the genre, originally formed back in 1975 in Cleveland, USA.

The first half hour was semi-improvisational, David Thomas the only founder member still in the band sits at the front of a semi-circle of the other musicians, directing and suggesting as each player takes turns to start off a themed piece (eg ‘Martian Lounge Music’!). Clarinet, keyboards, theremin, guitar and drums with fragments of lyrics create a rich seam of ideas, with potential for mining for future full songs. It is an instrumental blend that could feature in a Tom Waits show, where there is always space within the complex sound. It is a challenging listening experience but not inaccessible, just get absorbed into the mood.

Following on from the interval the band returned for the ‘professional band’ part of the show, featuring songs from their latest album ‘Carnival Of Souls’ and many others. Conventional rock guitar riffs are soothed by the clarinet then hijacked by twisted keyboard effects, bursts of drums and the aggressively slicing theremin. At the centre, the focal point is Thomas’s voice, sometimes tortured and edgy, sometimes being distorted through a telephone handset, always surprising. At times it reminded me of the tone of the late, great Kevin Coyne. In between songs David Thomas has many wry observations and anecdotes, including why the band did not want us to clap. This seemed to create a strange atmosphere at first but by the end seemed perfectly reasonable and quite liberating, even though the audience were trying to break the rule when the songs were as good as ‘Caroleen’.

After a break off-stage the band returned to play ‘Irene’. Beginning with keyboard effects like hailstones rolling down a window, beautiful clarinet lines underpinned a plaintive and gently sung vocal performance making it the highlight of the show for me. The final improvised song/statement was urging us to ‘Buy More Merchandise’, after wading through the many layers of irony of this I bought the CD. I did the right thing. I think….?

Violet Woods, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 7 November 2014

This was the launch party for the new album by Violet Woods, a Cambridge based five-piece led by vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Xavier Watkins. The psychedelic tone was set by DJ Rich Hero, playing very obscure and ultra-cool vinyl singles from the late sixties and early seventies, accompanied by oil slide projections on the ceiling.

The opening act were Riverane, previously reviewed on this site as support to The Hot Lights and moving their sound on into darker territory since then, as the vocals of lead singer Gabriel Coulter twist around the continually varying musical moods.

Violet Woods hit the stage with an instrumental introduction, then straight into ‘Over The Ground’ from their self-titled album. It is a retro sound, lovingly recreating and extending the late sixties pop/rock/psychedelic vibe with some modern edges. On record it is mostly fairly smooth and relaxed but live there is no holding back, with added echo to the voices, over a powerful instrumental backing, such as when 12-string guitar and organ are thrashing away in the ending of ‘The Dancer’. To make a Cambridge early Pink Floyd connection, it is definitely more ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ than ‘Grantchester Meadows’…

Probably my favourite song, ‘Electric Fascination’ is based around an eerie descending 12-string figure, repeating and competing with distant vocals. The guitar wins in the end… The reassuring chord structure of ‘Here’ is a neat pop song, ‘Driftwood Royalty’ is an optimistic dreamy lyric. The epic ‘The River’ ends the set, going through changes before an exhausting instrumental onslaught. It was a great advert for a confident and impressive debut album.

Johnny Marr, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 21 October 2014

Imagine being in an indie guitar band and being on tour with the man who wrote the hymnsheet/instruction manual/bible of how to play the whole genre. Anyway, support band Childhood from South London rose to the occasion with style and swagger. Singer/guitarist Ben Romans-Hopcraft led the band through many of the tracks from their confident debut album ‘Lacuna’, much praised in the NME and given some extra energy in the live performance, filling the rafters of Cambridge’s most cavernous venue. There was a warm reception from the growing crowd, their set was a real bonus to the evening and Johnny Marr was to praise them generously later on..

To a rapturous ovation, the winner of the NME ‘Godlike Genius’ Award in 2013 took the stage, the backlights spelling out the name of the new album ‘Playland’, the title track being the opening song. Extra guitar, occasional keyboard and tight and rock solid bass and drums from his band were a secure backing through the evening but it was the guitar moves of Johnny Marr that we all wanted to see. In case anyone wondered how the old songs would fit in, Smiths classic ‘Panic’ was next, with its prophetic ‘Hang the DJ’ refrain..(of course the DJ playing the Damned/Roxy Music/Talking Heads/Magazine vinyl singles during the interval should certainly escape that fate…)

The next 90 minutes followed this in a similar way, great punchy songs from JM’s two solo albums and more Smiths songs too. A highlight was the quieter ‘New Town Velocity’, a thoughtful, nostalgic tale of alienation. Building up to a finish with Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’ and then the distinctive opening strum of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, sometimes known as ‘The National Anthem of Smithdom’ and quite simply one of the greatest pop songs ever.
Five songs in the encore, including a cover of ‘Lust For Life’ and ending with the unmistakeable tremolo layers of an extended version of ‘How Soon Is Now?’, another classic and a great ending to the show.