Monday, 23 January 2012

The Curious Case of The Antlers

The Antlers

One of the strangest musical experiences I had in 2011 was trying – and failing - to listen to highly-praised Brooklyn-based indie rock band (ouch: there's a phrase guaranteed to strike ennui into the heart of any music lover) The Antlers. They've been getting good reviews from the usual suspects and are playing on sought-after bills. But an unfortunate convergence of band names in the last couple of years - Deer Tick, Deerhunter, Deerhoof, Chrome Hoof, Crystal Antlers, Crystal Fighters, Crystal Castles, Crystal-Antlered Wolfdeer etcetera etcetera - didn't help my confusion about who they were or what they sounded like so I did what I usually do when tipped off about a band: opened a YouTube video in a new tab and carried on replying to emails, browsing Facebook, reading online newspaper articles.

The odd thing about listening to The Antlers was that time and again the track would run its course and I’d notice eventually that it had stopped. It had run its course without leaving a single trace and I’d failed dismally to discover why it was being promoted by whichever media entity had brought it to my attention, where to locate its particular click or to contextualise the damn thing ... so I’d “huh” a bit to myself and press replay, try again. The track spun itself out over and over; I’d get distracted by whatever else the internet was shimmying in my direction and I’d get to the end of the song none the wiser.

This happened five or six times. The track was sliding down the wall without sticking at all. Not a single little clawy hook to lodge itself in my head, no grit, no grain, no grab. Every time the song finished I’d be left as ignorant of who and what had just played as when I started. If forced at gunpoint to say something about the Antlers I could have bodged a line about white boys and guitars - I knew it wasn’t Chinese funk or an orchestra of theremin – but that was about all.

It was disorientating.

I gave up eventually. Yes, I could’ve stopped all that email-reading and smart-arse Facebooking to focus entirely on the song but really! If after six plays of a song you are left with absolutely no idea what it sounds like it has surely failed some kind of crucial test; it could perfectly well have stopped me in my frittering tracks and forced me to sit up and pay attention to it. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t have hummed back the tune to you: I was left without any recall of the tone of the thing. Immediacy isn’t everything but however much you may loathe Fleet Foxes (I don't) you’d have been able to say “tremulous man sings pretty folk rock backed by multi-layered vocal harmonies” after a single listen to ‘White Winter Hymnal’, no probs. The Antlers? Er...

I did try to get a grip on those slippery cervine bastards a couple more times during the year, letting other tracks of theirs run past me, but even though I have (as a good conscientious music crit) listened yet again this morning, I’m still left with a great big smear of meh where I should be getting a picture.

I am prepared to admit the fault might be mine; there's got to be a reason why other writers are getting the thrill. Maybe I have faulty Antler antennae. Maybe my whiteboysandguitars receptors are failing. Maybe I have a psychic head cold which has reduced The Antlers’ delicately-flavoured aural bouillabaisse to wallpaper paste. Maybe highly-praised Brookyln-based indie rock bands are actually Doctor Who aliens that can’t be looked at head on, whose features turn to generic lost-in-a-crowd blankness when observed and have the power to beam positive reviews into the heads of music reviewers. I must've been wearing a tinfoil hat that day.

The Antler Effect is not restricted to this one band: I am similarly un/effected by Noah And The Whale and Grizzly Bear inter alia, despite the fact that NatW’s (insert appropriate adjective here; since I can’t recall what the hell they sound like, I’m obviously not the woman for that job) rock has sold by the warehouse-load and that both Grizzly Bear and The Antlers have had streams of positive words written about them while I’m left standing all forlorn at the side of the dancefloor.

I'm still willing to be convinced on The Antlers. It's perfectly plausible that I'm missing something remarkable and need a critical prod to set me right. But until then I'm left thinking that if music isn’t extraordinary I can’t be bothered with it. There’re billions of songs in the world and not enough life left to listen to the merely average: I'm going to limit my remaining ear-time to songs I can crush on desperately, songs I'd want to wrap around me forever, songs whose names I’d remember in the morning.

Quite apart from anything else this is a pretty clear example of why we still need music writers to take such aurally-challenged dolts as myself by the hand and show us the dance moves one careful step at a time. It’s entirely irrelevant to my ability to appreciate the Antlers whether or not music is readily available on the internet, whatever the guy from Spin wants to froth about.

Having the notes at hand to hear isn’t even half the story.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Unthanks perform the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty @ The Dome, Brighton

This is a more complicated affair than first appears: Mercury-nominated folkies The Unthanks are already better known for their canny interpretations of traditional folk songs than for their original numbers but it’s curious that they’ve chosen to sing the songs of those who are not primarily famed as songwriters themselves. Antony Hegarty is a regular guest vocalist/collaborator, lauded for his remarkable, querulous, avian tones, while by far the best-known song Robert Wyatt ever recorded was written by Elvis Costello and much of his output has been co-written with his lyricist partner Alfreda Benge.  So despite initial assumptions there’s not really any place for the auteur here: the Unthanks are a truly collaborative effort – a band not just sisters – and this evening is a demonstration in practice of interpretation as a creative act in its own right. Once you stop frowning pointlessly over who’s responsible for the song or where exactly the magic is located (in the voices, the words, the instruments, the arrangements, the chords, the melody, the occasion itself?) you can just let the beauty of the moment wash over you.
The first song in the Hegarty half of the show, ‘You Are The Treasure’, gets eyes prickling with tears and the second (‘Another World’) is so shivery with melancholy and imminent loss that it provokes strangers to grin at each other, delighted that they’ve been privileged to witness something so very special. The Unthanks’ voices are extraordinary instruments; as unaffected as childhood and as lovely as a bright clear morning on the Northumberland shore. There’s something intensely touching about the grain, the burr, of their voices, because it reminds us that this glorious sound is coming straight from fallible, fragile human throats. This is the very opposite of unearthly; it’s grounded, ringing with stone and sea and wind and it’s as moving as fuck. Becky Unthank could sing the phone directory and make it sound like sunshine over storm-tossed oceans.
Their performance of ‘You Are My Sister’, as Rachel confesses, verges on the saccharine; there isn’t the darkness and tremble of Antony’s version, but it does end with the sweet sight of the two sisters reaching out to touch fingertips. Without their originator’s presence, his story, his fragility, his soaring tremulous tones, Hegarty’s songs don’t quite have the dynamics to carry the first half entirely successfully; after those first two gut-wrenching glories, they come across en masse as pretty but flat. There’s the slight tinge of the cruise ship jazz band about proceedings, balding bearded men in waistcoats tempered by the all-female, be-frocked string quartet.
It is in Wyatt’s delightfully quirky compositions that this project really comes alive. There’s ‘Dondestan’, clog-danced and chorused into merry existence; ‘Free Will And Testament’, an articulate polemic bemoaning the lack of free will which is turned into a gently heartbreaking Unthank anti-hymn; Alfie Benge’s ‘Out Of The Blue’, in which a man walks through the remains of his bombed-out Beirut home, all violence and surreal imagery, and which has at its core the repeated phrase “You have planted everlasting hatred in my heart”; words which take on a different tone when sung with sweet ferocity over dissonant strings by young women rather than in a squall of noise by a grizzled old man. The result is subtle and chilling and here’s where the real art of the cover lies: in the transformative effect of new voices, new context, new tones that can deepen, clarify and reconfigure familiar songs.
Of course ‘Sea Song’ is what brought us here In the first place. It’s a slow unwind of a thing, even more measured and luscious than the 2007 recording of which Wyatt himself famously and heartily approved, Rachel’s softly sibilant vocals washed by piano cords and the odd sharp clog click until the whole song breaks like surf over the beach, in massed “aahs”, strings and beautifully spiralling trumpet.
It’s a lovely occasion, a proper concert in a proper hall with disorientatingly proper, dressed-up, people. There’s cheery banter and moments of shivery delight: the acapella ‘Paddy’s Gone’ when the ten members of the band cluster front of stage to sing in layered harmonies for us; the only non-Wyatt/Hegarty number, ‘Tar Barrel In Dale’ a New Year carol written by their dad, George Unthank, which the audience joins in on. There’s nothing like communal carolling to warm the cockles and so we are sent off into the December night, ablaze with song.

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