Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The Futureheads at Camden Electric Ballroom

The Futureheads are currently playing like it’s their last hour on the planet – a fact (well, it’s as objective as I’ve ever tried to be) which surely can’t invoke anything other than histrionic praise. It’s a truly mind-blowing set where I marvel in the wonder of just where the undying fervour and force comes from. The stream of anthems emitting from the stage is endless, each one having its own matchless characteristic - from the “ooh-ooh-ooh” punctuating ‘Carnival Kids’ to the instinctual, homely beat holding together ‘Area’. And the tempo keeps building throughout, almost of its own accord.

They’re on top of their game, be it via straight-up stormer ‘Everything Is Changing Today’ or the frenetic syncopation of ‘Man Ray’. Only ‘Hard To Bear’ allays the undying pace, and it’s placed at exactly the right moment – the guitars chug like steam engines and the drums enter a quasi-tango phase, sometimes. It comes across so tender because of the preciseness of the performance - the contrasts are amplified as each bass flinch, each syllable, each uplifting coming together of harmony is put out there on a limb. Such a distinctive blend of sounds, another the reason this lot impress so much is their passion; simple, old-fashioned showmanship where the crowd are mere foils. It’s essentially four huge personalities buzzing off of each other into a mix of sound which is never contained. Back to the way that every little nuance exemplifies itself, the jostling interplay and sparser downbeat of ‘Skip To The End’ showcase the ambition of the band to prolific effect - especially when placed in a set of mostly feverish snatches.

A huge sense of self-assertion has encircled the band since I last saw them around the release of News and Tributes – there’s a new warmth to their once ramshackle, throw-it-all-in dramaticism. It only takes a glimpse at the contrast between ‘Broke Up The Time’ and ‘Stupid and Shallow’ – there’s warmth and humanity at one end, and abstract anecdotes at the other. And from that, there seems to be a sense of pride growing within their performance. The loudness and the fastness remains, but the guts behind it have undergone a change in substance. Each snatch is played out with swagger, framing the observations in protagonist-led social scrutiny.

It’s an absolutely perfect set, with the band’s relatively pared-down moments (notably, most of the second album) foregone in favour of a 15-song set of impossibly tight harmonies, spat out nuances and frenzied emotion – and that’s the master stroke, to be quite honest. For what it’s worth, ‘Sale Of The Century’ and ‘Alms’ are my choice Futureheads songs – but they just wouldn’t work in this context of full-on vigour without a let up. The only problem now is that every time I listen to the records I’m going to wish they were performing it before me instead. Kudos to the sound and lighting people too – it’s spot on, particularly the moments that feel like I’m watching the band through a red tint. Brilliant, symbiotic almost.

Where the heck to go next? Who cares. For now, this is a supreme masterclass in itself. Maybe one of these days I’ll choose to review a gig for DiS that’ll disappoint me… I’m not easy to please, promise.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Lykke Li - Youth Novels

Coming in at fourteen tracks, this album would have benefited from being a few tracks shorter. All the same, it’s a remarkably different debut; the vocals are fragile, the variation knowing. There’s an underlying - even superseding – minimalism that holds the songs together. And that’s why some of the offerings are so astonishing. The emotion is raw and fragile but the high, saccharine register gives it a confusing sugar-coating.Opening with Kraftwerk-meets-Madonna spoken-word mantra ‘Melodies & Desires’ isn’t the best idea – it’s overly pretentious, too consciously zen. “You’ll be the rhythm and I’ll be the beat/And I’ll be the rhythm and you’ll be the beat” sings Sweden’s Lykke Li; it’s certainly a fitting introduction to the key dichotomies throughout, but it’s also a false lead.

The album progresses rapidly through the twitchy, minimal tribalism and cowbell vacuum interludes on ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’; the flinches of bizarre percussion, comforting repetition and yo-yo vocals on ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’; and the beat-led, syncopated snatch ‘Let It Fall’. Throughout this strong and varied series of songs, one thing remains - a very slightly flat vocal which turns out to be a laudible stylistic trick. But that same flatness grates in parts as despite everything around it changing, it remains. It’s immovable and extremely out of place on more twee takes like ‘Hanging High’.

As the album continues, it begins to tire a tad - ‘Tonight’ feels too overwrought, ‘The Trumpet In My Head’ strangely evoking Sting. To elucidate, it’s because there’s a fine line between insubstantial and minimal. ‘My Love’ dances the line, veering towards the more favourable side of it after repeated listens. The Bossa rhythms and drifting harmonies are easy on the ear but it lacks immediate direction - albeit the song’s about waiting for a lover in a state of stagnancy, so it’s probably justified. So that’s a pretty circular point, but it’s fairer to say that the structure of sparse verse/broad-spanning harmony-punctuated harmony feels all too predictable five tracks in.

The song that got Lykke Li noticed, ‘Little Bit’, is of course a snippet of brilliance. It combines tropicalia, electro and low-slung folk with a shudderingly sexy vocal – it showcases just how emotions are laid on the line throughout this album, but more to the point has something extraordinary; a really special hook that lodges itself in the brain by reflex. And then there’s ‘Complaint Department’, the starkest contrast yet to Li’s syrupy vocal timbre – the words remain soft but the loops are bleak and damaged. It’s difficult to warm to though and despite the album never once staying in one place, it feels strange that this track has ever found itself here. It’s admirably followed by the nursery-rhyme feyness of ‘Breaking It Up’, with sounds of a children’s choir and all. Which is crying out for a Metronomy remix, may I add.

The closing three tracks don’t go down a treat, to be frank – the bare emotions are on display as ever, but without the idiosyncrasies El Perro Del Mar does a better job. ‘Time Flies’ equally lacks the contrasts found elsewhere but it’s still an admirable offering considering that this is a debut record - Bj√∂rn Yttling’s production is top notch too, making every uber-vibration count.
The hard-hitting contrasts between songs may prove isolating at first but if you give Lykke Li the chance, you’ll fall for her. The songs are dainty, sure – but there’s a sandpaper-rough edge around every note’s perimeter. Let’s hope she remembers the quality control button next time around – if she’d done so this time, this album would be a pop phenomenon of the finest calibre.