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The War Against Intelligence

John Williamson's web stuff

Month

April 2004

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Mum, Animal Collective
Tramway, Glasgow.

Changes are afoot in Animal Collective. With five albums already to their name, the duo that toured last year with Four Tet has gained a member (on drums) and swapped the acoustic guitars for their electric equivalents.

Opting for one lengthy song cycle, the music is still as perplexing, but has a dynamic that was previously absent from their live shows and which remains discreet on their recorded work. Reference points are hard to pinpoint, but the territory is somewhere in the chain that links Captain Beefheart to the Dog Faced Hermans.

Mum are no less easy to unravel, but the Icelandic trio (supplemented for the purposes of this show by four additional multi-tasking musicians) have a more defined sound: one which is relentlessly downbeat and sad. If the tempo rises from time to time, the mood alters little. It is the fragility and beauty of the music that makes them a surprisingly engaging live act.

To recreate their current album, “Summer Make Good,” cannot be easy. Recorded in an Icelandic lighthouse, parts of it are so quiet and unassuming they are barely audible, much of it takes repeated listens to fully appreciate.

It is achieved by the dextrous use of a range of instruments. The guitars are supplemented by cello and trumpet on most songs, with violin, banjo, accordion, glockenspiel and melodica all deployed intermittently. This is underpinned by some Power Book generated electronica that owes a little to the Aphex Twin and a lot to Plaid.

With her twin having departed the band, Kristin Valtysdottir is as close as Mum has to a focal point, though her vocals blend in to the instrumentation rather than stand out from it. The words are one of the several tangential links to folk music, yet “The Ghosts You Draw On My Back” and “Nightly Cares” are hardly likely to appear on the Mike Harding show any time soon.

Instead, they evade categorisation and remain much the prettier for it.

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Eric Clapton
SECC, Glasgow

There can be few musicians operating at the level of technical proficiency and enduring popularity that cut a less endearing public profile than Eric Clapton.

Leaving aside the dubious politics (he is still defending Enoch Powell in the latest issue of Uncut), and that his most recent UK appearances have been at “Party At The Palace” and to collect a C.B.E., the first part of this most tedious spectacles is spent pondering just how many years have elapsed since Clapton last produced a passable tune.

It begins reasonably with one of the contenders – “Let It Rain,” from 1970, which displays a real pop sensibility at the expense of the inevitable soloing, but the hour which crawls by before he reaches the crowd-pleasing finale of “Badge,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Layla” and “Cocaine” is abysmal.

In spite of employing a superb band, which includes Steve Gadd, Billy Preston and Nathan East, the perfunctory nature of the renditions of “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and a batch of Robert Johnson covers (including “Milk Cow Blues” and “Kindhearted Woman Blues”) is as disappointing as it is predictable.

The musical tedium is not helped by Clapton’s approach. Dialogue between the songs is restricted to “thank you,” the band are not introduced, and when Clapton leaves the stage he gives what looks, for all the world, like a royal wave to his audience.

During the solos, which are plentiful, the eyes are shut and faces contorted. Only Preston and the two backing singers give any sense of actually enjoying be on stage – for the others, it appears a routine exercise in showing off and soaking up the acclaim.

Ending with another blues standard (“I Got My Mojo Working”) this is tax exile rock star economics at work– how to make the most money from as many people with as little effort as possible. On this level alone, the show is a triumph.

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Calexico
Carling Academy, Glasgow.

Support bands are rarely as arresting as Blanche, a five piece from Detroit. Dressed like characters from a mid-seventies sitcom set in the mid-West, they play a deadpan amalgam of blues and country, complete with banjos and accordions, that is laced with dark humour.

A reworking of The Gun Club’s “Jack on Fire,” is excellent, but sits comfortably alongside original compositions from their debut album, “If We Can’t Trust The Doctors.”

By contrast, Calexico’s reputation is already secure. Emerging from Tucson, Arizona in 1996 as an offshoot of Giant Sand (Calexico mainstays Joey Burns and John Convertino serve as the rhythm section in Howe Gelb’s outfit), each of their four subsequent albums has produced an exponential quantity of acclaim and sales.

Indeed, it is the success of last year’s “Feast of Wire” which has brought them back to the U.K. The album’s imagery is present throughout in the backdrop and film footage, and its best songs, “Sunken Waltz,” “Quattro (World Drifts In)” and “Across The Wire” are more powerful in a live setting.

Their sound, which combines Central American folk music with a thorough knowledge of seventies’ rock and the more obscure corners of Morricone’s film soundtracks, is warm and comforting, nowhere more so than on the instrumental, “El Picador.”

It is also possible to marvel at the musicianship: without being oppressively virtuoso, the sense is that there are more than the six (occasionally seven) musicians on stage, such is the expanse of the music and the amount of instrumental multi-tasking that is going on.

Yet this is also Calexico’s weakness. They are their best when at their most pared back and filmic, but when the trumpets are let loose on their more conventional songs, the closest reference point is The Waterboys around their “big music” period.

The line between bombast and beauty is one which Calexico surf throughout, but exemplified by their respectful but nevertheless great version of “Alone Again Or,” they usually fall on the right side of the divide.

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Seal
Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow

Though Seal’s return, some five years after his last album and more than a decade since his biggest hits, is far from the best gig that this venue will accommodate this year, it offers an oddly endearing insight into the insecurities of stardom.

With millions of records sold, a mantelpiece full of awards accumulated during the early nineties and a decent turnout considering his recent inactivity, it is surprising to find that Seal is a nervous, hesitant and unconvincing performer.

He continually re-iterates his delight at still having an audience, and makes a crowd-pleasing opening gambit by playing his two biggest hits – “Crazy” and “Killer” in the opening fifteen minutes. The four other musicians look and sound good, but their clinical efficiency adds little edge to the proceedings and Seal spends much of the first hour trying to find a groove.

There is no doubt that he is in possession of a fine voice, in the tradition of great seventies soul voices like Billy Paul and Bill Withers, but he seems to be constantly navigating a course between faster, slightly histrionic songs like “My Vision” and “Bring It On” and his more typical, mid-tempo fare.

The key problem is the mundanity of the songwriting. “Dream In Metaphors” and “Heavenly” are typical of the type of song in which Seal specialises: superficial and sonically excellent, but lacking any real depth or emotion.

Indeed, the other remarkable aspect of this show is the way in which Seal’s music has been resolutely untouched by any of the innovations in black music during the nineties. In this instance, paying more attention to the production techniques employed by Outkast, Timbaland and The Neptunes would perhaps make Seal seem less anachronistic.

By saving his best song, “Future Love Paradise,” until last, Seal manages to maintain interest, but also serves to remind that great pop hope of 1990 has never fully developed or exploited his talent.

originally published in The Herald

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Cat Power
Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh

Knowing that Cat Power’s “You Are Free” was one of the best collections of songs released last year makes disentangling the wreckage from one of her live shows all the more dispiriting.

Like the slightly more disciplined shows with a band last year, Chan Marshall’s solo performance is an engaging spectacle, but for all the wrong reasons. The fascination comes from trying to second guess what is going to happen next – at which point the songs will start, when the incoherent ramblings will end and at what point the patience of those who have paid their money to be entertained will snap.

Nearly fifteen minutes elapse between wandering on stage and her first attempt at a song. In the interim, spirits are consumed from a bottle, cigarettes are smoked and a monologue that somehow connects French and Saunders, DMX and Mariah Carey around a non-existent song called “Sitting on a Ruin” takes over. In turns it is funny, frustrating and completely incomprehensible.

A combination of nerves and drink fuel the remainder of the show, punctuated by repeated apologies for the ineptness. “Y’all mad at me?” is Marshall’s mantra in response to the increasing audience agitation.

Most of the set is unrecognisable to even the most ardent fan. “Six Feet Underground” is a mournful, reflective tune, and a glimmer of hope comes in the form of “Names,” though she barely makes it thorough the first verse before deciding instead to embark on a rambling explanation of the life stories of each of the characters in the lyric. As her attention wanders, the song never recommences.

Only the cover of “Satisfaction” works, highlighting the elegant whisper of her voice, but it all ends with more chaos. Support act, Entrance, and a random audience member join her on stage, while she sings like a drunk relative at a karaoke night. Great artist, horrible spectacle.

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