Thursday, 24 October 2013

Live Review: Deptford Goth (Liverpool Echo - October 13)

Deptford Goth
Leaf Teashop (Liverpool)
19th October

‘Somber’ and ‘haunting’ are terms that surround Deptford Goth and the kind of delicate synth pop that the Londoner brings to LEAF Tea shop tonight. Since James Blake crooned his way into mainstream consciousness with his Mercury nominated debut, melancholy has always sat awkwardly amongst critical and commercial perception, swinging like a pendulum between derision and acclaim as artists fall on the right, or indeed wrong side of ethereal or dreary.

Life After Defo, Daniel Woodhouse’s tentatively acclaimed debut album, for all its warmth and heart, stayed indirect and ambiguous lyrically, instead using indistinct emotions and sentiments as a way of creating an sweeping, and at times very moving sense of uncertainty. The danger of this form of songwriting of course, is that it very much relies on the listener’s own sense of empathy and imagination, translating into insincerity, even laziness for those not looking to put the work in. Now some of the best songs of all time are built around ambiguity and being open interpretation. I mean just look at Motown in the sixties, Pop Music in the eighties and even more recently; Matt Berninger’s The National. Creating music that provokes emotion on a more expressive level relies almost entirely on the delivery. This is where much of Life After Defo as a record succeeds, as alluring synths and frostbitten chords coax these songs into a state of emotiveness beyond what Woodhouse is capable of achieving lyrically. It is fitting then, that this is where this evening’s performance all falls down.

Accompanied only by a Cellist, Woodhouse stumbles into Defo’s title track like a center back at a penalty shootout. Those little modified instrumental nuances that brightened the album, whimper hesitantly as a vocal line is mumbled to the point of where it could just be a continuous hum and no one would notice the difference. I’m being unfair, but it shouldn’t detract from the baffling indifference just dripping from every song that is rattled through. Feel Real is the Londoner’s only track that even comes close to danceable, so it is no coincidence that it represents the closest associations with pop music. That punchy, deliberate beat that anchors the song is reduced to a muffled footstep, and with it the blood and soul that kept it alive. Woodhouse and his Cellist eventually wake up during a wilted rendition of Years, but only to complain about the excessive chatter going on among the more unsympathetic members of the audience. I mean, even in a venue as open as Leaf, a talkative crowd has more of a reflection of the performance than the manners of those witnessing it.

Bloody Lip is one of the finest album closers this year, offering a startling and very poignant moment of self-reflection, leaving the listener with the sense that despite all the uncertainty, despite all the doubt, this is a man who has found some peace in all the darkness. That gorgeous refrain of ‘There has never been / And there will never be” is disarmingly vulnerable, almost like Woodhouse is on the verge of disclosing a secret but keeps changing his mind. Sung with such an alarming detachment this evening though, it’s almost as if he just can’t be bothered to tell us. A great show is meant to make you reassess an album, keeping it on repeat for the days that follow as the songs take on new forms and sizes. Throughout every song this evening though, I strain to try and mold the sounds emerging from the stage into the shapes I’m used to hearing on the record.

I love the album, so I take absolutely no pleasure in writing any of this. And of course, a record so rich sonically is always going to be difficult to perform live, especially without any sort of substantial tour budget. But with a sound built around such indirect, even apathetic lyrics, it’s the textures, the instrumental flourishes, the shifts in tone and dynamics that are relied upon to engage the listener. This evening is evidence that Woodhouse is the only one who doesn’t understand this. More worryingly though, it suggests that he isn’t being enigmatic or aloof, he just might not have anything to say.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Live Review: Bonobo (GetIntoThis)

02 Academy – October 3rd

Electronic music has always been guilty of creating icons too quickly. It’s relentless forward momentum and close association with youth culture makes the trajectory of producers unnaturally steep and inexplicably tenuous, creating an endless cycle of power rises and power vacuums until we don’t even know what the fuck we like ourselves. In a scene where 19 and 22 year old duo Disclosure can be considered experienced heads, 37 year old veteran Bonobo has traversed his way through contemporary UK Electronic music with a remarkable amount of staying power. And this year, with the release of his excellent fifth album The North Borders, Simon Green paints an unlikely figure at the summit of a long list of thriving, crossover producers.   

Kicking things off with a mercilessly high energy set is Liverpool University alumni Dauwd. The North Wales producer is part of a growing number of artists fudging the lines between house and techno, dressing abrasion in something a bit more approachable by bringing melody into the mix. Drawing largely on the excellent Ghostly EP Heat Division, al-Hilali incorporates that immaculate synth work and those tuneful basslines to create a set rich in aesthetics and diverse in textures.

Live electronic music is difficult. Artists and producers spend careers in the studio trying to make music that pushes sonic boundaries to their limits, utilizing extreme and complex recording techniques to create a sound that ultimately reaches beyond what can be reproduced live. Tonight Bonobo draws on a full band of multi-instrumentalists and rhythm section in an attempt to present one of the most intimate albums of the year to a buoyant and diverse O2 Academy crowd.

Bonobo’s unweaning popularity can be credited, largely, to his ability to synthesize classic electronic music with modern recording techniques, culminating in a sound that is memorable whilst remaining distinct. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he refrains from that kind of show stopping, widescreen production, in favour of keeping things tight and purposeful, like on the twitching, rhythmic Know You and the lo-fi, woozy Pieces. There are dense and intricate layers of textures at play here this evening, yet Green manages to retain that sense of space that makes his recorded output so rewarding. These are subtly challenging songs, made accessible to a wider, crossover audience by their infrequent nods to commercial dance music. First Fires could sit on an Oneohtrix Point Never album if it weren’t for that graceful melodic, verse-chorus vocal line. Emkay paints this ambient, sparse soundscape, but on top of a two-step garage beat making it dance floor ready as the feet begin to move. Despite the technical prowess demonstrated in the studio, tonight’s performance finds beauty in more natural, more humble places. The faint sound of woodwind teased at the end of Sapphire brings the song gorgeously into focus, and the strings that bloom in the closing moments of Ten Tigers offer this timid piece some vitality in a wonderfully moving display of human expression. It is these occasional instrumental flourishes throughout the set that allow these songs to be played live as their own entity, reinventing them as these dazzling arrangements and elevating them above the sum of all their parts.

Live electronic music often feels like an artist desperately trying to shoe-horn a live show into studio productions, playing one beat per bar on an electric drum kit as the rest of the track plays through their Macbook. It isn’t the artist’s fault; the growing popularity of UK electronic music and the decreasing value in recorded music has meant that electronic acts have to tour, have to play at festivals, have to play blog sessions and all the rest. I mean, there is no reason why a producer should be able to even mix live, let alone perform with instruments when an entire back catalogue can be produced using one piece of computer software. Werk Disk’s Lukid recently confessed to Fact Mag that despite being booked for numerous ‘live’ sets, all he does is play tunes through his laptop. There is no clarification on the boundaries and definition on what constitutes as live because largely, you don’t know the extent of this ‘live’ show until you are in venue. The natural habitat of electronic music will always be club nights, with packed sweaty dance floors, 4am curfews and crippling comedowns. Tonight though, Bonobo has embraced the finer, but essential live elements of his album by making it a performance rich in texture and instrumentation, almost as if his collective are a live act trying to incorporate electronic elements into their set. This is an artist who harbours a deep respect for the soul of each sound he uses, whether it is synthetic or from a live instrument, allowing the songs to become physical in a literal sense and creating a show that is undeniably human.    

Mike Townsend