Monday, 2 April 2012

Jeff Mangum's All Tomorrow's Parties, Minehead, UK, 9-11th March 2012: Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, The Fall, Joanna Newsom

(photography by Michele Wade)

Young Marble Giants are a curious proposition to someone unfamiliar with their recordings. I can well imagine how much those who’d first fallen for their sweet slow minimal precision decades ago would have sold their firstborn to be here tonight, but coming at this fresh is an entirely different experience. So while I can see the love in the air, can feel the nostalgia and the excitement reverberating in the room as if they were extra harmonics in the stately basslines and two-note keyboard melodies that trip themselves lightly into YMG songs, I'm also at one remove from the thrill. I'm not getting all there is to this experience. Alison Statton’s vocals ring with unaffected/un-effected charm but while I can hear echoes of all that came after them I can also imagine how gloriously, prettily, plain they must’ve sounded in a world of shouty punks or disco divas. This is all new, truly new, not futuristic thirty-plus years old new and, as such, I find myself wondering what this delightfully simple music, these child-like synth-plunked melodies, these tunes that bounce with unadorned naivety would sound/feel like played for the first time by actual youth, rather than (extremely cheerful and clearly delighted) oldsters. This is Youth without youth; intriguing, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking in its poignancy. While I'm charmed, I find myself regretting my unfamiliarity with Colossal Youth and wanting to go back a couple of decades, gen up and come back soaked in years of loving this stuff.

The Raincoats, YMG’s almost exact contemporaries, are a slightly different matter in that their songs, their style, their sounds are more immediately recognisable; they haven’t the elemental strangeness of YMG. But they too are affected by the particular and slightly disquieting experience of watching songs dreamt up by scrappy young things played out so many years later by the comfortable middle-aged. What does this mean, this age thing? What does it mean, particularly, for songs that are drenched with inexperience and excitability and fantastic, creative ineptitude, to be played again – note for note – by the older versions of their creators?

Well, for a start, the Raincoats are not note-perfect! Hurrah! They re-start songs, only remember to turn on amps three songs into the set, trip up and fluff up… but this is great. They are having fun. The audience is fond and smiling and forgiving. They play the whole of their 1981 album, Odyshape, with gusto. The scrappiness remains; they are bursting with unfettered enthusiasm, as far from proficient cock rock as a skateboard from a Lamborghini. Whether this is quite enough to make them marvellous is debatable: their age-old cover of ‘Lola’ is still stroppily ace - cheerful, dirty, ratcheting the sexual ambiguity up a notch or two from the Kinks’ original - and the sound of Vicky Aspinall’s fiddle is as full of itchy joy as ever, lassoing new wave to its folk allies. But live and in 2012, the Raincoats don’t appear quite as peculiar a thing as the recorded Odyshape does, with its curious, musicologically-savvy demotic harmonies and percussion (Charles Hayward and Robert Wyatt both contributed) and its subsequent cult-status among the indie it-crowd of two decades ago. There’s too much noise, both cultural and aural, and not quite enough poise. But that’s how these things go: reforming and performing (and Raincoats have been playing together again on and off since Kurt Cobain’s championing of them in 1992) without new material does funny things to a band and to its audience.

And so to The Fall, another outfit contemporaneous with YMG and The Raincoats, but with the crucial difference that this one, this rolling rock of ages, this mutating beast, has come snarling and lurching down the years since the late 70s in a state of continual revolution. The Fall is not here to feed nostalgia-bunnies; there’s no pandering to the warm and fuzzies. They may play old material – they have several entire careers’ worth of back catalogue to pick from – but they’re here as a current outfit not to feed the ATP look-back bores.

How does The Fall fit into my woman-centred remit? They could appear as male as they come; the notorious online Fall forum is thick with “I found a Fall track that the missus likes!” comments. To which, well… ugh.  But times change; the last couple of times I’ve seen them the crowd has been noticeably mixed, including here at ATP where the hipster girls in bird-print dresses are shaking their hair to ‘Psychic Dancehall’ as if they knew every note. And it’s right and fitting that they are, because despite the grumpy-old-manness of their long-term fans (and I say this with considerable affection for Fall fans; if someone loves the Fall you know you’re in for an interesting ride) the band itself has never been “boy”. From the very start there have been capable women involved: Una Baines, Marcia Schofield, Kay Carroll, Julia Nagle and several others are among the great roll call of the Fallen, not forgetting - how could you forget?! - MES’s ex-wife Brix Smith with all her sparks a-flying, and his current wife, Elena Poulou, who has been with Smith and the band since 2002. It’s actually quite something for a long-running band to have included so many women in such a low-key and unremarkable way, as if (here we are again) women just belonged in bands.

Out of the twelve songs they play, highlights include ‘I’ve Been Duped’, a splashy/thrashy Elena-led bop, and ‘Bury’, which, with its stupendous percussive backbone, grinding riff and double-dose of synthy sneer, is simply awesome, a recent Fall song that stomps its way to classic with every shouted chorus. And Elena is fantastic. Pretty, petite and chic, she marches onstage in a classy coat and plays her keyboard with a handbag tucked under her arm the entire time, as if being in The Fall were a drinks party which she deigns to grace with her presence, all politesse and sparkle. She is endlessly patient with Smith who is up to his usual knob-fiddling tricks throughout the set, turning guitarists down and adjusting mics, and, during uproarious closer ‘Sparta FC’, banging out duff notes on her keyboard while she is trying to hold down the riff, all pretty horrible until he eventually finds a line to stick to. And through all this, she is smiling sweetly at him, a marked difference from the poker-faces of the long-suffering guitarists. The set ends with Smith cackling and Elena whooping, an arm flung up in triumph. Perfect.

If you don’t like the Fall or recognise none of these songs you’d be forgiven for hearing nothing but Smith’s tuneless drawled yelps and the din of a riff-based rock’n’roll band trying to stay afloat; you’d have good reason to believe that the gnarled old man who prowls the stage bothering the help in dress trousers and shiny shirt - looking every inch the Butlins performer on home turf but sounding anything but - has an increasingly tenuous relationship with functionality within the unit. Fair enough. But afterwards as people tumble out of the venue all hot and happy, the talk is that the band are on top form: they play a decent mixture of old and new songs, the current line-up is stable and tight and they’re not in the least bit murderous towards each other. Above all, they are clearly revealed as a total groove fest, a trancey, motorik monster that has the packed venue in a sweaty moshing roil; they are, in fact, a great big shiny dance band! It must be Butlins. Carry on Falling, Mr and Mrs Smith, carry on.

Friday ends with boys rocking out: Thurston, David Yow, Jon Spencer, Watts and Hurley... It’s all a big dark guitarry whirl and we go to bed tired and full of music!

Saturday is a breeze compared to Friday’s schedule-clash anxiety. The afternoon is full of the miraculous Boredoms and once their mega-kit is cleared off stage (it takes over an hour either side of their performance to do this) I wander back up to Centre Stage to watch Joanna Newsom, all alone with her harp on a big dark stage. It seems wholly appropriate that she plays before a black cloth dotted with stars to a packed and hushed house; it’s all about the beauty and wonder. Newsom is almost unbelievably lovely: she wears her pretty dresses and her Alice in Wonderland hair down and TGA photographer Michele confesses to being mesmerised by her glitzy heels, stamped with elegant precision onto harp pedals. Not that her loveliness (musically or otherwise) is uncomplicated and, OK, so you might have to work at getting over the voice: if you think that this is all contorted affectation then you’re going to struggle to fall in love as you should. But once you do, oh! Newsom catches up the strings of our heart and strums them into submission. Her songs (indeed, her sets) are rolling wonders, streams that sparkle and run, sometimes eddying round a particularly pretty phrase but then hurrying on, never to return to it. Her lyrics are a delight; she spins a silken string of meticulous bons mots for the crowd to hang on; we have skeins of words looping round our heads for days after: And down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender, you and I, and a love so tender, Stretched-on the hoop where I stitch this adage, Bless our house and its heart so savage …”

There’s a uniformity to the texture of her songs that makes both her sets somehow monochromatic despite the tumbling iridescence. Sometimes we recognise tracks, sometimes it’s just the narrative that holds us, but it’s clear that Joanna Newsom, for all her winsome ways, is no simple soul. The textual complexities of her songs both belie the peculiarly childlike quality of her voice and reinforce the sense of a small wide-eyed someone screwing their face up in a huge effort to wring just the exactly the right words out of themselves. It’s a trick that perhaps only Bj√∂rk amongst Newsom’s contemporaries manages to pull off. Catch her if you can.

A version of this review was originally published by www.thegirlsare.

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