Psychic Lemon, Corner House, Cambridge, 16 May 2015

Free entry to the Corner House pub to see two Cambridge guitar bands of individuality and distinction, that’s a good night out!

The British IBM (named after a line in a TV drama about the aspirations of computer pioneers in Cambridge) were minus their drummer and so chose to play with just acoustic guitar and bass.
I have seen the full line-up previously and heard many of these songs so I knew they are sharp and impressive, even in the ‘unplugged’ mode. The opening two songs ‘Animal’ and ‘Sugar Water’ are short segments of pop zest, with interesting lyrical ideas (…do you want to sell sugar water or do you want to change the world?…). ‘3 Years’ and ‘Cannibal’ are heavier and angrier and promising new songs from their delayed second album were also featured. The stately final song ‘The British IBM’ is exceptional, the recorded version with strings (and exemplary drumming!) has the feel of Oasis and The Beatles with an aching lyric of disappointment and longing. And a great hook-line chorus that lodges into your brain. Tonight it was the perfect finish to a great set.

Psychic Lemon, reviewed previously on this site, have a contrasting sound, twin effects-laden guitars and long instrumental sections recreate the atmosphere of heady 1960s experimental shows and they do it incredibly well. Opening track ‘Dilator’ blended seamlessly into the next two. ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ was lighter, then the rest of the set built up to the explosive finale of ‘TickToc’.
I think their intensity (especially the formidable drumming!) had increased since the last time I saw them, perhaps the bass and drums were a little muddy in the mix this time, but I love the music and the dedicated way they play it.
Hopefully an album is appearing soon?

Belle and Sebastian, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 7 May 2015

Belle and Sebastian formed in Glasgow in 1996 and despite several albums and live performances they have passed me by, so tonight at the long sold-out Corn Exchange was a chance for me to see what I have been missing…

Opening the show were Lower Dens from Baltimore, a four piece band fronted by the emotive voice of enigmatic songwriter Jana Hunter, the vocals sounding like a hybrid of Anna Calvi and Siouxsie Sioux. Musically dark and quite sparse, at times a variant on pop keyboard electronica and then taking a turn into bottleneck guitar loops. There was a gorgeous song featuring the unique tones of a fretless bass. The intriguing and compact set was well received (the Cambridge audience in place early as usual!) and lingered in the mind long after they had left the stage.

While the stage was being set for the headliners, we were treated to a documentary film about the history of Glasgow up to 1980. Fascinating stuff, then finally the string players arrived on stage, followed by the rest of the band, thirteen in total to reproduce the instrumental style and quirks of their recorded output with a combination of guitars, keyboards, cello, recorder, flute and more. Stuart Murdoch is one of the most relaxed and engaging frontmen I have seen for a while, starting seated at the electric piano for ‘Nobody’s Empire’, he was soon off the stage and walking along the tightrope of the front barrier, supported by the arms of the crowd (including me!?). ‘I’m A Cuckoo’, one of their more well known songs was followed by the disco-stomp of ‘The Party Line’ (an appropriate title for general election day). ‘Perfect Couples’ was sung by guitarist Stevie Jackson and like many of the songs this featured artfully designed back projections. Just for this show this included a quick view of ‘University Challenge’ while the string section performed the theme tune…

There was always plenty going on, scan the stage and see that the band had swapped instruments or something new to contribute to the sound had appeared. There was a big crowd reaction for the stripped back acoustic ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ which I think shows the key to their longevity; I heard that a fan said that whatever your emotional state or life-experience there was a Belle and Sebastian song that would describe it and their devoted fan base have bought into this. They are not always comfortable lyrics, as some of the slightly strange album and song titles indicate. ‘The Cat With The Cream’ was introduced as their political song, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ was high energy europop. Members of the audience were on stage dancing to the sixties hipster vibe of ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, some stayed up there for another song and somehow it just seemed part of the laid back celebratory feel of the evening.

‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’ is the new album, many reviewers say it shows a new direction but all the essentials are still there and they sound superb live…

Glass Animals, Junction, Cambridge, 27 April 2015

Four-piece Oxford band Glass Animals arrived in Cambridge for their sold-out show at the ideal venue, Junction J2. First on stage was Alicia Catling, a local songwriter/guitarist with a steadily rising profile. Playing a gently strummed and unadorned electric guitar her pure voice floats above, telling dream-like and dark tales.

Glass Animals know how to put on a good show, the opener ‘Black Mamba’ sets the tone, with distinctive sparse introduction and haunting melody line eventually giving way to louder layers of synthesisers and drums. Singer Dave Bayley is a likeable frontman, he is a confident presence and you can tell that he and the rest of the band have total commitment to the music.

The surreal quality of the lyrics and mostly one-word titled songs continue, there is always something going on sonically with constantly changing combinations of keyboards, guitars and deep bass. Sometimes they become a more conventional indie rock band and rock out, but the dominant sound is multi-layered and spacious. Four songs in, the familiar introduction of catchy 6 Music favourite ‘Gooey’ appears, to huge crowd reaction. It is a standout song, the sound of endless summer on the way.

‘Walla Walla’ has a funky and percussive feel that could be an experimental David Byrne track, ‘Toes’ has a laid-back but relentless edge. The atmosphere created is enhanced by a coloured backdrop, four large tree-like structures and a subtle but effective lightshow; all indicating the effort being put into making this gig a bit special. Finishing the set with ‘Wyrd’ they returned for an encore of ‘Love Lockdown'(a Kanye West cover(!?)) then finally ‘Pools’, a strong closing song.

I think they will need a bigger venue the next time they come to Cambridge…

Public Service Broadcasting, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 25 April 2015

Public Service Broadcasting arrived at a sold-out Corn Exchange as part of their biggest tour so far. Support was from the excellent Smoke Fairies, playing dreamy, atmospheric folk-guitar based songs, the dual female voices blended carefully in the mix to become like another instrumental texture for most of the time, occasionally with a single lead vocal. Sustained bass and deep keyboard notes hovered over some mighty drumming and the atmospheric retro/future look of black and silver for simple stage set and costumes worked well.

Then there was an intriguing half hour while the stage was set, roadies and band members all up there fixing the bits and pieces. No doubt there was probably more technological power than that used to control the moon landings. The three bespectacled and necktied musicians of PSB, complete with visuals and effects co-ordinator opened with ‘Sputnik’ (including a satellite rising from the stage) and set the tone for a great show. They were playing live drums, percussion, various guitars, keyboards, loops, flugel horn and banjo (!)….on CD the music and sampled voices work well (see my earlier review), but beef up the concert sound and add the visuals too and it makes the band a formidable live attraction.

Two large screens at the back and flanking towers of retro TVs show images of the space race, film of the band as they played and in the most arresting and poignant section of the show, civilian preparations for World War Two and the development of the Spitfire. All communication with the audience was through pre-recorded then manipulated soundbites in a robot voice, which is either a subtle comment on the artifice of modern rock shows or actually just a very entertaining joke (why are robot voices intrinsically funny?).

I was stunned by the hypnotic roll of ‘Night Mail’, the rocking out of ‘The Now Generation’ and ‘Signal 30′, the pulsing electronica of ‘Theme From PSB’ and the newer space songs were woven in to maximum effect. Smoke Fairies were back on stage to add heavenly voices to ‘Valentina’ and the final Moon landing song and new single ‘Go!’ closed the main show. Back for the encore with the musically different and extra-funky ‘Gagarin’, complete with brass section and astronaut dancer. Finally it was ‘Everest’ (have the band peaked?!) and that was it, the crowd were very happy and it was one of the best shows I have seen at the Corn Exchange for a long time.

I think there is much more to come…

Motor Tapes : Count To Ten EP, released April 2015

Cambridge four-piece band Motor Tapes continue to record carefully crafted quality music as shown on their new EP. After many hours in the studio the resulting four tracks show a new and varied musical direction. So what do we get?

1. Everything. This great opening track was previously released as a single. The shimmering synthesiser introduction drifts in and out then gives way to pounding drums and a powerful guitar rock riff, lyrically it sounds like the resignation at the end of a relationship as the insistent chorus that ‘I’ve given you everything….’ is left hanging and unresolved. Musically every recurrence of the main theme has an extra twist, that synth garnish appears throughout and finally drifts out as it arrived.

2. Falling Away. A bit deeper and darker, with a deceptively simple melody and drum pattern that sticks in your head. Again the arrangements and sonic textures keep changing slightly around the tune; by the end of the track so much has been crammed in you are surprised that it was only just over three minutes.

3. What I Want. Clipped bass and a pulsing synthesiser to the fore, drums start calm then let loose as if striking all the objects found in a forgotten attic. Sharp unnerving guitar interjections weave into the mix. I am not sure of the lyrical message, or is the vocal used as another instrument, punctuating with cut-up words?

4. Count To Ten. Lots of keyboards again with some prog-rock style deep bass sustained notes. This could be Gary Numan (with a better voice) fronting dour indie popsters The Twilight Sad for slabs of keyboard delight and images of death and foreboding. This is my favourite track, you hear some extra chord directions and adornments creeping in when you play it loud. As the track ends there are some spoken voices in the background, annoyingly indecipherable and hopefully not some satanic hidden messages…

All good stuff, the best recordings they have done so far. These tracks sound great live and loud and will there be more new songs soon?

Marika Hackman, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 14 April 2015

With just a range of guitars and her haunting voice, Marika Hackman held the packed Portland audience in rapt attention. It was a master class in the power of well-crafted songs, intricate yet subtle playing and an engaging personality. She was clearly pleased to be on stage and appreciative of the audience reaction, there was a genuine short smile at the end of each song.

She has roots in folk, but the dream-like textures and sinister overtones of some of her lyrics have a style all their own. She manages to faithfully recreate the echoes and delays of the vocals of her current album, ‘We Slept At Last’ and second song in we were treated to one of the standout tracks ‘Drown’. ‘Monday Afternoon’ is a mellow tale of pastoral delights with unexpected death thrown in. There are also similar ominous feelings in new single ‘Ophelia’.

I have an obsessive fondness for songs of all genres in waltz time and ‘Claudes’s Girl’, a lullaby tribute to Claude Debussy did not disappoint. There was a cover version of ’81’ by avant-garde folk harpist Joanna Newsom then the thoughtful soundscape of final song ‘Cinnamon’ left us a bit breathless. I’m not sure if an encore was usual or expected but she came back and played folky and jokey ‘Bath Is Black’ to send us off into the night…

Johnny Dowd, The Bank, Eye, Suffolk, 13 April 2015

In the picturesque village of Eye, the former bank has been converted to a coffee house/performance venue, the ideal intimate space for the alternative country blues and spoken meanderings from the long life experiences of Johnny Dowd.

Opening the show was talented singer/songwriter Mark Lotterman from Rotterdam, playing gently on acoustic guitar and performing ballads mostly on the sad side. There was the more up-tempo black humour of ‘Indie’ then the final song the powerful and heartfelt ‘I Miss You’ hit a poignant note emotionally and sounded like it could have been from an early Tom Waits album.

I was not sure quite what to expect from Johnny Dowd, quotes like ‘coming on like a flu-ridden Texan undertaker singing broken folk laments for a dead dog he never cared much for anyway’ and similar are easy to find and perhaps over-emphasise the dark side of his lyrics. So when he took to the stage and the first two songs featured doom-laden deep guitar loops and images of death and the devil (‘The Devil Don’t Bother Me’) I thought we were in for an intense, challenging and possibly downbeat evening. But a few songs in and a few exchanges with the audience and I realised what a likeable, charming and musically interesting performer he is. Tales of small-town Americana, peculiar relatives, law breaking, horses, graves, all delivered with absurd lyrical twists (..’all of the ladies loved him, he was the town mortician…’).

A temperamental drum machine accompanied or fought against the guitar loops on some tracks, then he was joined on stage by a second guitarist for some noisy interplay. This included the title song from the new album ‘That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse’ and my favourite track from it ‘Why?’, a tender showcase of voice and ascending chord sequence, a potential classic. We were also treated to some poems about Jerry Lee Lewis and forgotten actor Peter Lawford, a cover of R&B standard ‘Louie Louie’ and an encore of ‘Separate Beds’, another impressive song and probably the nearest to traditional ‘country’ music that was played.

Johnny Dowd did not start recording until 1997 (aged 50), with his many albums and live shows he has carved a unique niche for himself, the epitome of the ‘cult’ performer…