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…

Courtney Barnett, Junction, Cambridge, 7 April 2015

Courtney Barnett returned to Cambridge after a sellout show at The Portland last year, this show was originally scheduled for the cosy J2 venue but was moved due to demand resulting in a full house for the much larger J1. There was a huge atmosphere of anticipation and both support acts did her proud, starting with singer/songwriter Fraser A Gorman, all the way from Melbourne. A powerfully strummed acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica were the accompaniment to well-delivered tales of love and life, with a bit of self-deprecating humour between songs, including reference to any perceived similarities to Mr Dylan…

The venue was virtually full (Cambridge audiences get there early…) when Spring King took to the stage. A four piece from Manchester with a singing drummer, two guitars, bass and all four contributing anthemic vocals. Wow. From the first note it was fast, raw, with a loud post-punk simplicity belying some sharp musicianship, a bit like some speeded up mid-period Clash. The short set was a high-energy onslaught, ‘Can I?’ and ‘Better Man’ being standout tracks. Dancing started in the crowd, it was an irresistible sound.

Having seen Courtney Barnett at the much smaller venue I wondered if the intimacy of the lyrical observations and compactness of the band would translate to the echoing chamber of J1, but I need not have worried. There was even a billowing tent-type ceiling angled over the stage, making it smaller and lower and acting as a screen for projections of strange growing plant patterns and psychedelic colours.
Much deserved praise has been written about her way with words, her rambling narratives and wry observations. This was all in place, such as in the opening song ‘Elevator Operator’. Hearing live versions of nearly all of the new album ‘Sometimes I Sit…’, the music shines through too. Bones Sloane on bass plays preposterous low rolling notes on ‘An Illustration Of Loneliness’ creating an atmospheric song that you don’t want to end. A simple two chord structure on ‘Small Poppies’ is developed musically and as you lose yourself into the intoxication of it, fortunately this one never seems to end.

Courtney and the band can rock out, she can extract some adventurous noise from her guitar and drummer Dave Mudie adds the pyrotechnics when necessary. There are quieter times, ‘Depreston’ is mellow and resigned, ‘Debbie Downer’ is a straight down the line pop song. There was easy relaxed interplay from the band with each other and the audience, then gradually the set picked up pace, building towards a finale of ‘History Eraser’ and ‘Pedestrian At Best’ and a bit of crowd surfing from the guitarist from Spring King and others was good to see.
An encore of short burst of energy ‘Aqua Profunda’ and a cover of ‘I’ll Make You Happy’ by the Easybeats and they were gone.

As Courtney’s lyric says ‘Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you…’
On this form, I don’t think there will be any disappointment.

Gang Of Four : What Happens Next, released March 2015

In the heady days of late seventies post-punk and new wave, the Gang Of Four emerged from Leeds, an angry four-piece memorably named after a Chinese political faction. Their debut album ‘Entertainment!’ is still cited as a long-lasting classic from the era of ‘Marquee Moon’ by Television, ‘Fear of Music’ by Talking Heads, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division and many more. Their mix of social comment, political thought and the ultra-spiky guitar of Andy Gill was and still is a hypnotic cocktail.

The band have undergone line-up changes, including a proper reunion of the original members in 2004. More upheaval has now left Andy Gill as the only original member and the driving force behind the new ninth album ‘What Happens Next’. Opening track ‘Where The Nightingale Sings’ starts with a pounding bass thud, guitar figures punctuates in and out and builds well into some strange apocalyptic imagery of London. Alison Mosshart, singer in The Kills and collaborator with Jack White takes on lead vocals in the rocky ‘Broken Talk’ and ‘England’s In My Bones’.

‘Isle of Dogs’ pulls no punches, an insistent guitar backing and distorted lyrics about corporate shenanigans. Successful German actor and singer Herbert Grönemeyer is guest vocalist on a contemplative track ‘The Dying Rays’ (and ‘Staubkorn’, the same song sung in German(?)). ‘Obey The Ghost’ is a gentle introduction into a nightmare vision of media control set to strident bass pedals and layers of industrial metallic fuzz. ‘First World Citizen’ features soaring guitar and a brittle chorus, almost catchy. Robbie Furze is another guest singer on ‘Graven Image’ then there is some heavy riffing from collaborating guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei on ‘Dead Souls’.

So it is a challenging listen, not comfortable in many ways but certainly an antidote to the anodyne lyrical concerns and painless musical meanderings of some other bands. It sounds like the band still have an explosive live show too…

Ryley Walker : Primrose Green, released March 2015

Ryley Walker, a guitarist and singer/songwriter from Chicago follows up his 2014 debut album ‘All Kinds Of You’ with a new collection of jazz/folk/rock songs, built on his percussive acoustic guitar picking and subtle accompanying instrumentation.

Some commentators have compared him with Nick Drake, I think that is because of a desire to find such a person rather than the reality. His free-form pieces have more in common with some of the more experimental work of John Martyn, but he is taking any influences in a new direction, adding a rockier edge too. This is most evident in the epic ‘Sweet Satisfaction'; it starts off like a track from Martyn’s classic album ‘Solid Air’ then the emotional lyric and acoustic vibe tangles up with a distorted electric guitar and drums building to an exhausting, relentless finale. Brilliant.

This is followed by the gentle string sounds of ‘The High Road’. A roving double bass introduces the instrumental passage of ‘Same Minds’ before the vocal soars and glides above it all. ‘Griffiths Bucks Blues’ is a zesty instrumental, ‘On The Banks of the Old Kishwaukee’ is a bluesy slice of Americana. In contrast, ‘Hide In The Roses’ could almost be from the soundtrack to sinister British horror-flick ‘The Wicker Man’. The opening track ‘Primrose Green’ has many of the good ingredients of the rest of the songs with a more mellow vocal performance.

So it is moving in a different direction from his first album, more loose and moody. I look forward to seeing him in concert..