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The War Against Intelligence

John Williamson's web stuff

Month

May 2007

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse
ABC1, Glasgow

There are many surprising elements to Modest Mouse’s recent success (a number 1 album in America no less), but an hour an half in their company makes it no easier to disentangle the reasons for it.

With an audience that looks, on average, about fifteen years younger than the band members, the sudden mass appeal of their dense lyrics, cluttered arrangements and intense, verging on overwrought, performance is simply, baffling.

Indeed, Modest Mouse seemed to be the exclusive domain of U.S. college students and fellow musicians, destined to release numerous albums on indie labels before throwing in the towel in the face of overwhelming public apathy. Why them, rather than Guided by Voices or Superchunk, have endured and propsered is part of the mystery.

They have a level of technical ability that is, of course, laudable. With two drummers and two amazing guitarists (as a musician, Brock does not always play second fiddle to Johnny Marr, though the latter seems to have been elevated to almost co-frontman status) it is hard not to feel that the end result should be much greater than the sum of the parts.

The words are largely indecipherable, and with the exception of the singles, ‘Float On’ and ‘Fire It Up’ and the opening salvo of ‘Paper Thin Walls’ there is little in the way of memorable tunes, only some occasionally wonderful guitar motifs from Marr.

If it means that Modest Mouse have succeeded without compromise, then credit is due, but to do it in a manner that is at once largely soulless, faceless and humourless makes for a show that easy to appreciate but impossible to love.

Nouvelle Vague

Nouvelle Vague
ABC1, Glasgow

vagues

Nouvelle Vague’s instigators, Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, have stumbled on something that must have exceeded even their greatest commercial expectations.

On paper, the idea of Billy Idol done bossa nova style or a samba Soft Cell smacks of a gimmick that was unlikely to make it beyond some one off singles purchased by friends and collectors.

Instead, they have sold over a quarter of a million records, and have made a second album, ‘Bande a Parte’ which consolidates the concept.

Where novelty cover outfits have floundered in the past, Nouvelle Vague succeed with a combination of musical dexterity, charm and sense of the absurd that is not always evident on the recordings.

Singers Melanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer offer differing qualities: the former with sincere, fragile and nearly reverential takes on The Smiths’ ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ and Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen In Love,’ the latter with a more extravagant take on more awkward material in the form of Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ and Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’

Nevertheless, it works for both fans of the originals and those too young to spot the source materials. An equal part mix of pastiche, karaoke and musical vision, they are both peerless and priceless.

Manic Street Preachers

Barrowland, Glasgow

msps
It says something for Manic Street Preachers that eight albums, two solo albums and a missing member into their career, that not only are they an enduring and still hugely popular live act, but also that they have become a reliable, largely unsurprising outfit, something that would have seemed highly unlikely in 1991.

Back then, they were the polar opposite: polemicised, punky and volatile. These days they cut a dash as the most solid and committed of mid-level rock groups. Yet it would be wrong to eulogise their early fire and follow the orthodoxy that suggests their best work was in the early, Richey Edwards days.

Indeed, if there is anything that comes across in an hour and forty five minutes and twenty-two songs, it is that the band is more about songwriting than performance, and that it is in the former function that they excel.

Splitting the show evenly between greatest hits, tracks from the current album ‘Send Away The Tigers’ and a handful of less obvious album tracks, suggests a consistency of songcraft that stretches from ‘Motown Junk’ and ‘Born to End’ through to new songs like the single ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’ and the catchy ‘Winter Lovers.

Throughout, the tension and focus of the playing rarely drops, apart from a short acoustic interlude. Here, James Dean Bradfield’s perfunctory run through ‘Yes’ and ‘Ready for Drowning’ highlights their enduring flaw – a lack of real stage presence or charisma.

At least, towards the finale, Nicky Wire offers some element of performance in his micro-skirt behind his feather-boa mike stand, but for the most part, Manic Street Preachers are more fun to listen to than to watch.

Brett Anderson

Brett Anderson
Classic Grand, Glasgow
2 stars

A rock star tantrum always makes for quality entertainment, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of it.

Playing at a smaller than intended venue with a sound engineer and crew that seem barely competent seems to rile Brett Anderson, and by the end of ‘Dust and Rain’ a roadie has had an earful, an audience member had mic stand hurled in their direction and the venue’s walls have taken a blow from the sole of his size 10s.

For an intelligent and sometimes engaging performer it makes for a sad spectacle, and one that serves only to highlight the gulf between his current activities and the career peaks of the nineties.

Yet the flaws in the show are not solely down to technical mishaps. The band, with the exception of long-term cohort, Mat Osman on bass, seem hideously mismatched to the generally subdued and solid material from the debut solo album that provides nine of the fifteen songs. Guitar histrionics drown the vocals and Anderson’s tendency to over-emote grates throughout.

After the tantrum there is no shortage of contrition or effort, but it is strangely unfocused. Suede songs feature, but are hardly done justice. Favouring an audience singalong approach, ‘By The Sea’ and ‘Beautiful Ones’ retain some charm, though the acoustic, solo run-throughs of ‘So Young’ (which is curtailed prematurely) and ‘The Wild Ones’ are perfunctory.

The crux of the problem may lie outside in a tour bus that is nearly the size of the venue itself – Anderson holds on to stadium dreams and seems only to be able to connect with large, impersonal throngs. He may perform a song called ‘Intimacy,’ but it is not something he does well.

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