I turned up at HMV Ritz at 7.05pm sharp (blame the .05 on the new Strawberry and Lime Bulmers – hopefully that sentence doesn’t commit my feelings towards it one way or another) expecting to walk in a few minutes late to a set by Young Dreams, but it turns out the other support spot that was meant to go to the Swedish supergroup The Amazing has disappeared. So it turns out I get to see the full set from this other Scandinavian group – not so super.
My knowledge of Norwegian music pretty much begins and ends with the sublime folky duo Kings of Convenience (with a brief detour down a-ha’s Take On Me) and though it might be unfair to pick a band pretty much out of thin air to draw comparisons with, there are some similarities between the two. Both sing in English – and because you know they’re foreign, their mastery of our turns of phrases manages to come across as both impressive and a little disconcerting. Across the lilting riffs of the Kings, it’s charming. For Young Dreams, it’s a bit too much part of the glossy sheen that coats the whole package.
What could have fallen nicely between Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes comes across more like The Lion King. It clearly channels the same kind of natural empathy despite not having a name for the menagerie, but the arpeggiated synths cannot rescue this from its Disneyfied bleach-out. The drums ring out like they’re accompanying a herd of gazelles across the Savannah. Although I can see it’s a bloke singing – and he seems like the kinda bloke your parents would approve of – I can’t help but think he sounds like when they get women to play the parts of boys in animated shows. It’s pitch-perfect, but it has no character, or worldliness. The vocal harmonies are sometimes interesting when the structure gets a bit more free-form but they’re not close to, say, Dirty Projectors, or even The Beach Boys, which I’ve seen them compared to.
But probably the biggest mistake of all is how the synths lead the entire show. In most of the songs, there’s a sixteenth-beat keyboard part dictating the pace. Should synths lead a band? They leave no room for manoeuvre, little room for expression. And yet it seems they have come to be relied upon – one song was noticeably out of time when the synths came in after taking a short break. All in all, this was disappointing. Perhaps it would have been better listened to in the background – there’s certainly nothing ugly about the sound, like most Scandinavians they are apt at evoking landscapes and painting in broad strokes – but when engaged with head to head, it didn’t offer much.
Also late to stage were headliners Tame Impala, seemingly because of problems with the massive projected spirograph behind them. Before I get on to the music, that spirograph was great. It was clearly reactive to the music but cleverly seemed to take on the varying textures as well as the rhythms of the songs. Great accompaniment.
Though I know their 2010 debut album Innerspeak well, and am getting to grips with this year’s follow up Lonerism, it struck me that surely no familiarity is needed with these songs to appreciate the fluency of their sound and its sheer darn catchiness – its pop-sensibility. It’s amazing how many of their songs sound like hits, and that’s pretty much down to project leader Kevin Parker’s amazingly designed guitar riffs. The way he has managed to recreate the self-inflicted sounds of the albums with a new cast is frankly stunning. That’s not to say the live audience don’t get a few treats too. A lengthy jazzy drum ‘solo’ at the end of ‘Elephant’ is a good example of how the live act have come together the reinvent the breakdown.
But at other times it’s very much faithful. The set begins as Lonerism does, with ‘Be Above It’. Keyboardist Jay Watson is responsible for the mantra-esque ‘gotta be above it’ chant, and marks the first early moment that we get see how Parker managed to put together all the individual elements to make a coherent sound. If that sounds to you like it ruins the magic like a DVD extra does to your favourite how’d-they-do-that SFX, be not afeared – it does nothing but enhance it. It’s in the next song ‘Solitude is Bliss’ that you see the set-up come alive. Drummer Julien Barbegello appears to be sat well above his kit but though I don’t get the reasoning, we do get to see him strike every snare and trip about the kit in each of the many perfectly-designed fills.
‘Music To Walk Home By’ precedes ‘Elephant’, and the two songs together support the theory that Innerspeak songs were better than Lonerism songs tonight. ‘Music To Walk Home By’ isn’t the most clearly defined song anyway, and lost me to the Spirograph on occasion. And perhaps it’s exposure to ‘Elephant’, but it seemed to lack a bit of the grit and dirt that makes the song so identifiable when it comes by on Radio 6. But they are small complaints, and the next song ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, with the bonus of a little reggae-style intro, is great. Parker completely plays the part, breaching his shell, with a sultry performance, arms outstretched and all. The high register of the voice plays into the androgyny of it all, and though that might not seem like the most appealing description, it makes what is quite a simple song absolutely captivating.
‘Lucidity’ and ‘Alter Ego’, both brilliant songs, follow, and sum up Tame Impala perfectly. To get a bit technical for a second, the ‘home’ chord of the song, the one that it keeps returning to in the verses, isn’t the root triad – basically, that’s where those arching waves of sounds come from, the feeling that you’re constantly surfing along and never quite settle. The other key elements are also found, the memorable lyrics; ‘I know where you went but I don’t know how you got there’ is both revealing and neatly nebulous. And the driving drum rhythms that allow the songs commas but never full stops.
Though this is intelligent and impassioned music, be under no illusion – this is rock and roll. The Manchester crowd are happy to surf the crowds and throw near-empty glasses across each other as an attempt to recreate a festival atmosphere successful enough to draw comment from the band – ‘this is our first non-festival UK girls-on-shoulders gig’, apparently. The slow drum fills that introduce ‘Mind Mischief’ are a suitably sexy follow-up, but a particularly raucous ‘Desire Be Desire Go’ makes the recorded version seem almost flat in comparison.
‘Apocalypse Dreams’ finishes off the main set. It’s incredible. Speeding up is a common way to convey a song’s increasing intensity, but what works better? Slowing down, of course! Imagining cycling up a mountain, sweat and clouds clinging to you. You’re listening to this song, and it slows gently, matching your every weary push of the pedals. Then, suddenly, the clouds part, the ground falls away behind you, and you’re pedaling effortlessly into the stratosphere. There encore is ‘Half Full Glass of Wine’, introduced with the throwing of Smarties out into the audience (‘Taste the rainbow!’) – it’s from their debut EP which I haven’t listened to, but it’s a clever advert for their least-known output.
I know I’m not making any great insight when I comment on the juxtaposition of the internalism and self-critique in Parker’s songs (just look at the names of the albums, for crying out loud) with this very outward, public display of affection. It’s easy to imagine how the songs could have fallen apart when strewn amongst half a dozen performers, but they don’t. There’s enough brilliance here for a hundred bands, and knowing so much of it came from one man makes me comfortable calling him a genius.
1. Be Above It
2. Solitude is Bliss
4. It’s Not Meant To Be
5. Music To Walk Home By
7. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
9. Alter Ego
10. Mind Mischief
11. Make Up Your Mind
12. Desire Be Desire Go
13. Apocalypse Dreams
14. Half Full Glass of Wine
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