You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The xx - Coexist

What did you exxpect?
The xx do not owe us anything. That is something to keep in mind when listening to Coexist, their long-awaited second long player.
The strange, often complex relationship between band and fan is not one based on the owing or paying of debts. Expectation is the problem of the listener, not the band. But, when you wait three years after releasing a masterpiece, you may be asking for trouble.
That being said, as a single, standalone piece of art, Coexist is another mesmerising collection of songs, easily up there with their debut, maybe even surpassing it.
The building blocks that made that debut so special are all laid out once again, while experience has enabled producer and band member Jamie Smith to bring them together more seemlessly than ever. The trippy beats that slip in and out, the subtle and enchanting sounds that rise and fall and shift and morph with each listen, the juxtaposition of the cold, sparse arrangements with the warm, intimate lyrical content. The breathy and wondrous dual vocals. Atmospheric, hypnotic, elusive, lush - it’s all here.
This is in many ways an album that no other band could make. Sunset is up there with anything on xx and possibly the best ever combination of everything they do so well, Angels is a Romy laying herself truly bare for the first time in devastating fashion, while Oliver gets his chance on Fiction. And Jamie Smith brings in those delightful steel pans from his solo work on Reunion. After five back-to-back listens (which in no way seems a chore), a flaw is yet to be found in its 37 minutes.
And is that what causes the slight niggling feeling that comes with this album? Have they played it safe?
That is one of a number of interesting questions that this album raises. Second album this and that, the fact their Mercury win came a whole year after the first album’s release, for better or worse, gave them time, whilst simultaneously removing one pressure - finding success - and replacing it with another - replicating it.
Sure, they have had things to deal with. Coming to terms with the mainstream success and excessive touring, losing a band member. But, they still sound like the same amazing band that made that album in 2009. So why has this album, a consolidation rather than a progression, taken three years to produce?
A Kid A-style game-changer on only their second release would be too much to expect some might say. And they’ve created a sound that has brought the oh-so-rare combination of being unique, credible and popular, so why walk away from it?
But the feeling remains of what could have been? What more are they capable of? What can we expect from them next?
After waiting three years, the niggling lingers long after listening, like a soaring xx guitar. Angels was such a brave first single that it hinted at a complete disregard for expectation. Maybe by album three, they will follow through. Till then, we have a consistently beautiful piece to sooth and satiate us. What more could we expect?

Monday, 3 September 2012

Moseley Folk Festival 2012

I attended Moseley Folk Festival for the second time on Friday (31 August), which just happened to be my birthday. My ticket turned out to be an awesome present to myself, as a wonderful mix of live music, decent-ish weather and real ale made it another memorable day.

Kicking things off were Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch, natives of southern US musical hub Nashville, Tennessee. Abigail’s beautiful vocals combined with her banjo playing and Kai’s multi-instrumental backing provided a soothing start to the day. But it was by no means a down-the-line set, with Abigail in particular an entertaining figure. She impressed with several songs sung in Chinese, a bit of dancing, some fascinating back stories and many humorous comments.

Next up on the Main Stage, and bringing a rather more eccentric feel to the day were Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. With painted faces and bright costumes, they brought the same spirit that has seen debut album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose receive heavy radio play and an appearance on Jools Holland earlier in 2012. Their inter-band banter and energy was perfect for their afternoon slot, with Beth’s opening gambit including asking the audience if they had had a bowel movement yet that day.

But Beth isn’t just kooky, she has an brilliantly unique voice and is backed by an energetic and talented band. Her entertaining set was fun-filled and ended with her getting audience members on stage to dance with her and the band. This song is a particular favourite.

Switching to the Lunar Stage, Laura J Martin continued the alternative mood with an intriguing set that combined Kate Bush-esque vocals, Native American noises, loops, mandolin, and jazz flute that Ron Burgundy would be proud of. With her debut album, entitled The Hangman Tree, released earlier this year, she is a talent to watch out for.

The slightly bizarre had become the norm by now and was continued by The Destroyers, a 15-piece rag tag bunch from just down the road. An anarchic set of gypsy punk saw instruments thrown and juggled as much as they were played. Their frenzied early-evening performance brought renewed vigour to the day and the party was in full flow throughout their riotous hour on stage.

In comparison, the once-similarly eclectic Guillemots followed with a rather subdued but no less enjoyable gig. With the backdrop of a setting sun, an emergency bass player filling in and Fyfe Dangerfield rooted to a grand piano, they played a chilled show featuring some stripped-back versions of songs from their back catalogue.

Dangerfield, a Moseley native, still possesses a captivating voice, even if it was somewhat strange to see him so tranquil, but a set featuring a number of old favourites was a perfect precursor to the main event.

The whole day had been building to Echo & The Bunnymen, a band I’d been aware of for ages but only come to really like recently. I was excited to see them live for the first time, which set me apart from most of the crowd, largely made up of long-time devotees.

Compere Janice Long excitedly took to the stage to announce their arrival, revealing that singer Ian McCulloch used to be her neighbour, and even babysat for her son once upon a time. Her genuine and long-standing excitement for the band was reflected in the crowd when she asked how many of them had seen Echo at a famous Birmingham Odeon gig in 1984, which many had done.

Their blistering set lasted an hour and a half, relentlessly featuring hit after hit with minimal fuss in between. Highlights included traditional opener Rescue, Do It Clean, Seven Seas, Bring On The Dancing Horses, The Cutter and The Killing Moon. Over 30 years after their debut album was released, the band still sounded amazing, demonstrating a longevity few of their contempories have managed.

A perfect set to end a great day of eclectic live music. I will no doubt be there again next year. Thank you Moseley!