Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cults: Daydream pop with a heart of darkness

Cuter than you.
First published in Loud And Quiet

Jim Jones had a band named after him and so did Charles Manson. The exploits of Anton Newcombe and Brian Warner respectively have tended towards the eccentric aesthetic of both those terrifying cult leaders, if not to the same grisly extent. So you'd expect Cults, the Californian two-piece of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, to be ploughing a similarly deranged furrow of dark music for dark people.

Erm, wrong. One listen to 'Go Outside', the song that brought Cults to the attention of Gorilla vs Bear and Pitchfork this time last year, and you'll know that West Coast sunshine is embedded in the bones of this couple, who met while studying film in New York. Xylophones sparkle, a girlish voice cries out for you to get up and live your life. Except – just who is that grainy voice in the background, warning you that living is treacherous? Oh yeah, it's Jim Jones.

“We just casually chucked it on the front of 'Go Outside' one day, and then we ended up writing the lyrics. He says death is not a fearful thing, it's living that's treacherous, and sometimes everyone feels that way,” they explain.

Cults are in London playing one of their first UK shows. In the back room at The Lexington, Madeline and Brian (real name Ryan) are brimming over with the eloquence of young Californians who know their Antonioni from their elbow. Though Cults got together little more than a year ago, they're preparing for a big U.S. tour before the debut album comes out on In The Name Of in May. Has their rapid ascent been damaging to the band's evolution?

“It's hard adjusting to,” says Madeline. “For a year of playing shows we're confident enough,” adds Brian. “It's just better stepping up, better to take risks.”

For a while they tried to avoid the internet hype-mill with a hard-to-Google name and no MySpace page, but their reticence only fed the insatiable hunger of the indie blogosphere, perversely creating even more buzz around a band who have released just three songs. “When all that happened we had a bunch of songs we could have put out,” explains Brian. “But we realised instead of letting it eat itself alive, we should just take a break, become a band, play shows and focus on touring.”

Unsure of what Cults was even going to be, they ignored the press and focused on putting a band together, which now includes Madeline's brother (lying on the sofa next to us, trying to get some shut-eye) as well as old friends and even Madeline's mum as manager. “We were film school students, not musicians, so we think about our band as more of an art project. When we write songs we're thinking more cinematically about them than like, y'know, jamming them out,” says Brian. “And we try to translate that visually too rather than just being the dudes in the band that show up in the flannels and rock out,” he laughs, saying that they are so steeped in film they're too afraid to make a video.

Last year a glossy promo for 'Go Outside', featuring James Franco's brother and Julia Roberts' niece, popped up on MTV as part of a creative project run by the music channel. Verdict? “Off the record?” asks Brian. “It's exactly what we expected it would be,” Madeline says. For an MTV production with celebrities in it, you mean? “Exactly!”

But treating Cults as a simple artistic outlet gives the songs a breezy, vivacious quality that more single-minded musicians might struggle to create. Light and dark elements freely interweave as Madeline sings about wanting to live life, not “stay inside and sleep the light away.” 'Go Outside' is about “battling against yourself, being lazy, being a procrastinator, and the fear of growing up,” says Brian. “Madeline and I would be graduating from college now – that's the mindset we were in while making the record, like, if this doesn't work out we're going back to school!”

You could always join a cult, of course. What'll it be? “I guess I'd be a Scientologist, 'cos that'd mean I had a lot of money,” laughs Madeline. Brian opts for Heaven's Gate, “just 'cos it's a San Diego cult. My friend was neighbours with them.”

“And they ate all the food that was my favourite,” Madeline offers. “They had like, vanilla pudding, Doritos...” So you'd join on the basis of the menu? “Yeah!”

“I wouldn't wanna be in any cult that actually murdered someone,” Brian adds. “They were just kinda peaceful freaks that went over the edge.” They both laugh, long black hair falling into their eyes.

Peanut butter pop: Nodzzz live in Dalston

Nodzzz at The Victoria, Dalston
12th March

First published in Loud and Quiet

“I don't wanna! Smoke marijuana! I just wanna get high....on another drug!” American twee may be louder than British twee, it may have retro guitars in Formica colours and crashy, clashy, garage stylings, but as Forrest Gump might've said, twee is as twee does.
And talking of Gump, Nodzzz singer and guitarist Anthony Atlas has really committed to those high-waisted trousers, paired splendidly with check shirt and dorky specs. They say he was voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' in his 1968 high school yearbook. Hot!

More to the point, Nodzzz have also committed to that niche brand of sub-two-minute lo-fi-pop-ism plied by bands like Grass Widow and tour buddies The Mantles (who are “delirious” with jet lag but excellent tonight), with a handful of songs about girls, smoking, karaoke and their hometown San Francisco.

Other discernible influences come from the early years of punk rather than '60s garage rock – the squareness of Jonathan Richman meets the playing-dumb of Ramones, Buzzcocks or Television Personalities – with lightweight, off-key solos and melodies as weak as diluted orange squash. How much of this punk-pop finger food you can stomach will depend on your taste for bite-size treats and quirky flavours. See also: Reese's Pieces.

The return of PJ Harvey: Angel of Death

PJ Harvey at the Troxy
27 February 2011

First published in Loud and Quiet

An Edwardian angel of death glides onto the Troxy stage, feather headdress bobbing, widow’s weeds swishing, leather tightly binding a bird-like chest. PJ Harvey's captive audience whips itself into a frenzy of earnest fandom at odds with the singer's sombre exterior. “Polly, you look wonderful!” they burst out, ejaculations met with disapproving shushes from embarrassed grown-ups.

And grown-up is the tone of the evening. Harvey tackles the none-more-serious topics of war and nationhood on her acclaimed new record, Let England Shake, which makes up the bulk of tonight's set. Her new higher register marries well with the thorny subject matter as she wavers between control and hysteria like a rock & roll Hecuba, twisted and vulnerable.

But you'd think wearing half a bird of prey as a hat while strumming an autoharp in an East End bingo hall would suggest a playful sense of theatricality, perhaps? Nope, we get barely a word. Harvey's static, almost functional performance and the makeshift atmosphere of the Troxy (Sunday afternoon's roast dinner is wafting round) weaken the emotional punch, with the exception of 'England', a haunting hymn to a nation that never really existed.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Arbeit Macht Frei with Fleet Foxes

This new Fleet Foxes track is really very beautiful and it's even getting some mainstream radio play. I think I prefer Local Natives in terms of earnest, flannel-shirted, West Coast adult-pop, but I'll give props to FF for sheer skill, musicianship and whatnot. Sometimes there are bands who you can't love, but you can easily admire. On this side of the pond I might place Elbow in that niche.

But hear this: I have some serious grievances with those lyrics, poetic as they are. The sentiment of 'Helplessness Blues' - unless I have massively misconstrued this - comes from the mind of a person so blindly privileged, so steeped in lazy, developed world luxuries and Oxfam-donating platitudes that it would be offensive even to a working class American, let alone one of the world's billion people living on less than a dollar a day.

The idea that anyone would want to escape a life of writing smart arse love songs and touring the world in order to spend their days doing manual fucking labour in an apple orchard while their girlfriend waits tables is so embarrassingly facetious, so idiotically sexist, so creepily Soviet, in fact so positively fucking Stalinist that I can barely believe they recorded it.

No matter how insignificant and meaningless you feel your life is, as you wander round downtown Seattle/Montreal/Brooklyn/Hackney drinking Americanos and sighing as you open your MacBook Pro for yet another grinding 5-hour day of checking Twitter and pissing around on Final Cut, let's GET A GRIP HERE PEOPLE. You are not picking rubbish off a poisonous dump. You are not mining koltan in the Congo. You are not pulling turnips out of a frozen field in East Anglia, you are not even working in a bloody supermarket or driving a bus or anything that might be considered a PROPER NORMAL JOB with sick pay and benefits - and if you really, really want to work on an orchard you can fly off to have a HOLIDAY on a FARM!

Life isn't always easy, but let's not glamorise fruit-picking, waitressing or arthritis in old age as though it's somehow the more noble and honest choice. That way lies the labour camp, my friend. Wow, I sound like a fucking neocon technocrat here. Ah well, I'll risk it.

Please, have I missed the point? Is there a whole level of irony that has passed me by? I'm more than willing to step off my soapbox if presented with the evidence. Take a listen.

"If I had an orchard
I'd work til I'm raw
If I had an orchard
I'd work til I'm sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store"

OMG! with S.C.U.M., live at The Garage

Upstairs at the Garage
11 February 2011

First published in Loud And Quiet. FYI, I didn't want to bring up the girlfriend thing, but it just couldn't be ignored. And then I saw our humble frontman's bashful guest appearance on OMG and wished I'd actually got my claws out.

With high-waisted wide trousers and spivvish greasy locks, Tom from S.C.U.M. is like Christmas-come-early for uninspired Topman designers. No wonder he's attracted a certain 'celeb' girlfriend, whose 100,000 Twitter followers must be delighted to receive daily photo updates of their budding love story.

Is that unfair? I wish I could say so, but tonight S.C.U.M. are thoroughly failing to live up to their early potential, when they took their performance cues from the alienation-as-spectacle style of Suicide or ATR, and also failing to sound anywhere near as good as they do on record.

Having been on the scene a couple of years they've now smoothed off the abrasive noisenik prickliness of their early shows, back when they were part of a mini-zeitgeist of London bands associated with Offset festival, like O Children and the late Ipso Facto.

Heck, this gig is even part of an HMV-sponsored series, Next Big Thing (oh, the irony). Instead we get a performance that's very nearly commercially viable, but all the more boring for it, with the detail and atmosphere of the recorded material impossible to discern in this sterile mishmash of New Wave synth and industrial rhythms, while Tom's almost vaudeville vocals seem lost in the mix entirely.