Having been around on the Brighton scene since the turn of the decade, Common Tongues have finally released a full length début album. Divisions captures the last two years of the group’s songwriting, seeing them emerge from the folky acoustic ballads of their early EP’s with a more contemporary rock sound, layering synthetic textures in amongst their acoustic instrumentation, lending them an epic pop edge that recalls the sounds of noughties groups like Foals and The Maccabees.
It has been six years since Fleet Foxes released their gorgeous album Helplessness Blues, and it has been a long six years. There aren’t many bands I find myself periodically seeking out news and updates online for these days, but Fleet Foxes have had me feverishly Googling late at night like an obsessive teenager, although any news has been light on the ground. Way back in 2013 Fleet Foxes posted a photo to Facebook of a home studio titled ‘step one’ and soon after followed it with a picture of a broken mandolin titled ‘step two’. I interpreted this at the time as work beginning on a new record and then being abandoned. News of main man Robin Pecknold enrolling at Columbia University for an undergraduate degree seemed to confirm this and, as their former drummer Josh Tillman started racking up column inches with his controversial utterances as Father John Misty, it started to feel like Fleet Foxes would be relegated to a footnote in his career.
Chris T-T has been a bit of a Brighton musical institution but now those days are coming to a close, it would seem. It feels strange referring to somebody who is so personable, so palpably human, with such a cold term but I feel it has some validity: it’s hard to imagine a Brighton music scene that doesn’t contain him in some way. It’s like he’s part of the furniture, almost, but maybe that was part of the problem. As Chris looked back over two decades of work in order to work out the track-list for his Best Of album, he told us tonight, he found that he didn’t like what he’d become – that something had been lost along the way. As he became better at playing and singing, he feels, some of the magic was getting lost. So he has decided to put an end to Chris T-T the firebrand, story-telling singer-songwriter in order to move on to pastures new and this night, barring a final final show in London later in the year (which hasn’t been booked yet), was to be his Last Waltz, only sans Martin Scorsese and with a lot less cocaine-fuelled guest stars.
Opening up for Chris on this special occasion were the charming Dear Everyone, a trio of songwriting women who had banded together to perform their individual songs with beautiful harmonies. Kelly Kemp, Helen Chambers and El Morgan have all released albums in their own right, but they decided to team up in a very egalitarian fashion to form this band. Tonight they share a single acoustic guitar, which is handed to the lead vocalist, and presumably the person who wrote the song, while the other two step back to play supporting roles. They really do have beautiful voices but what’s really great is their communal dedication to serving the songs. There’s no show-boating, as we are gradually introduced to their capabilities rather than slapped in the face with a slab of harmony from the first bar. There are songs where one singer barely sings a note, making the moments when they sing in unison all the more special. Passing the guitar also gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the different qualities of their individual voices, which are lovely and quite different from one another. They’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to tour with Chris, saying it’s a privilege to get to play ‘proper’ venues like Komedia on this tour, when normally they’re plying their craft in living rooms, folk festivals and small pub gigs. On the quality of their work I’d imagine that won’t be true for much longer, check them out if you get the chance.
Chris follows swiftly, for he’s got a lot of material to get through: 20 years of songwriting condensed into two hours. When I heard he was calling it a day I found myself a little regretful that I hadn’t paid closer attention to his career – having only seen him play live a handful of times I was surprised at how much of this set I remembered and how great those memories were as we were expertly walked through them in a room full of dedicated fans. He starts off, a little surprisingly, with some more mellow songs, they could have been introspective naval-gazers if the lyrics weren’t so great: ‘Open Books’ on the guitar and, a personal favourite, ‘Tunguska’, at the piano. From there he introduces us to ‘the biggest mistake’ of his career, a mistake he made twice! By releasing the album 9 Red Songs in 2005 he became known as a protest singer – inescapably linking his music to politics for the foreseeable future. A mistake he repeated last year with 9 Green Songs! This section of the show was really well worked out to tell that story of Chris’ musical history, in the process revealing a truth about it that might not have always been self evident.
As he guided us through sing-alongs with ‘Love Me, I’m A Liberal’ and ‘#Worst Government Ever’, via an amusing detour into the misstep of ‘You Can Be Flirty’, into a trio of career spanning songs that all take place on the same little patch of the M1, we found that his political songs are often underpinned by their personal nature. The story-telling and the humour giving them an appeal that helped him to rise above more dour voices attempting a similar thing. Then with ‘Preaching To The Converted’ he unravelled the whole thing: the problem with protest singers is their audience. There’s a certain futility when your craft is telling people who already agree with you, stuff they already know. What’s great about Chris is his ability to recognise this and turn it into a fantastic song, that’s self-deprecating as much as it is challenging for people who work in those circles, and it was funny enough for him to get away with it without bruising too many egos.
Towards the end of his main set, before the extensive encore, Chris played another song which seemed particularly relevant to his struggle to continue working as the solo singer-songwriter. ‘Words Fail Me’, which is six-years-old now, sees Chris opening up honestly about the personal difficulties people wouldn’t necessarily imagine when they see this man up on stage, so bold, telling stories with such ease you can hardly imagine him being troubled by doubt and insecurity.
“I can still hear the drums-a-beating
But I never did a business meeting where I didn’t feel six inches tall
I did a lot of driving and not so much arriving
Getting lost on purpose so I didn’t have to be where I was really meant to be going.”
It can be easy to forget that the lone song-writer’s journey is an emotionally taxing one, especially if it’s not landing you bucket loads of cash and mainstream recognition. For every Passenger there are a few dozen singer-songwriter’s out on the road, touring small venues in a beat up car with only their acoustic guitar for company. And, for every one of those few dozen there are hundreds more who never pluck up the courage to leave their bedroom to play their heartfelt efforts. For every night filled with rapturous applause, most who’ve tried it have faced many more chattering rooms filled with indifference. It’s a hard slog and you can sympathise with Chris reaching a satisfactory end-of-the-road now, going out on a high, with a fantastic Best Of album and a loving tour full of friendly faces. With politics, ‘preaching to the converted’ is an easy trap to fall into, with heart-on-your-sleeve singer-songwriters it can provide a place full of comfort and recognition. Komedia became that place on this night, but I imagine the conflict between those two polarities may just have become too much to maintain any forward momentum.
Still, I’m getting all too serious and the laughs that filled the room through the first encore numbers, ‘Dreaming Of Injured Popstars’ and ‘Drink Beer’, did a lot to remind me this was a celebration not a funeral. Chris T-T’s 20 years of work is certainly something worth celebrating and this was a night I won’t soon forget. In fact I think I’ll have to pick up a copy of his Best Of, just in case those memories start to fade. Thanks to Chris for a wonderful night and so many wonderful songs.
Oh how I love Ron Sexsmith! This must have been my sixth or seventh time seeing him play live, but even before I arrived I had the highest of expectations for the night. It was the first time in a long while I’d seen him on tour accompanied by his full band. He’s just released a new album, The Last Rider, which is easily up there with his best work, and the guys playing on the stage tonight were all involved in making that record. Particularly his drummer and harmony singer Don Kerr, who co-produced the album and has been playing alongside Ron since 1987. As a result, I found this to be a show which leant much more heavily on songs from his latest release than previous gigs I’d been to – but this was no bad thing. The Last Rider material sounded fantastic and I got to hear a bunch of songs that have been rattling around my head these last few weeks played live: ‘Breakfast Ethereal’, ‘Worried Song’, ‘Who We Are Right Now’, ‘Radio’ and ‘Man At The Gate’ stood out in a set of stand-out moments.
I’m going to be honest with you folks, I didn’t really know what to expect from a Charlatans album in 2017. The last time I was really paying attention to the band was way back in 2001, when Tim Burgess surprised us all with the gorgeous falsetto of ‘A Man Needs To Be Told’. But, despite my tardiness, The Charlatans have continued at a steady pace releasing a new album every two-to-three years, almost like clockwork, despite the loss of a second founding member in the form of drummer. Jon Brookes who lost his three year battle with brain cancer in 2013, a second major tragedy for the band who lost their original keyboard player, Rob Collins, to a car accident in 1996. But these indie-rock stalwarts are one of those ever-present, reliable features of the music scene. Nothing holds them back for long. They clearly love what they do and continue to please their loyal fan base with every new release, expertly walking the tightrope between innovation and expectation. Never stepping too far from the mould whilst still keeping things interesting by experimenting with new ideas, approaches and collaborations.
This year I was off-duty from the main Great Escape Festival, leaving it in the capable hands of our growing team of writers and photographers (and writer-photographers), I instead dipped into the free festival which runs alongside the main event every year, taking over any left-over scraps of venues which the behemoth of Europe’s largest new music festival has yet to absorb. In fact, as I found myself involved in three different performances as a musician, I didn’t get too much time to explore but I did see some great bands over the three days nonetheless.
At The Drive-In have finally returned with in•ter a•li•a, their first album in more than 15 years, and it’s a beast of a record. Exactly the album long-term fans will have been hoping for. When the critically-acclaimed Relationship Of Command was released, way back in 2000, it was a complete game changer. Lead single 'One Armed Scissor' affected me personally in a big way. Chaos pumping out of the speakers at my local indie club at 1am on a Tuesday evening. Suddenly I realised I could no longer tolerate the melancholic melodies of indie wet blouses like Ocean Colour Scene and Cast. What I needed now were Cedric Bixler-Zavala's impenetrable William Burroughs-esque venomous lyrical barbs, screamed into the microphone with throat-ripping aggression, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's crazed chromatic riffs, propelled by the amphetamine-fuelled, off-kilter rhythm section of Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos. These guys were the perfect band for me at that moment in my life, so I was devastated when they went on an indefinite hiatus the following year. I hadn't even seen them live, although I’d read enough live reviews to know I was missing out, and my explorations of their pre-Relationship back catalogue was largely disappointing, with the notable exception of the Vaya EP.
There was an electricity in the air as a rowdy, sold-out Brighton Dome waited eagerly for Future Islands to take to the stage. I was there as a recent convert, having been swept up in the excitement surrounding their performance of ‘Seasons’ on Letterman. It was that performance that made their fourth album, Singles, into a break-out hit in 2014. It was Letterman that let the world know about singer Samuel T. Herring's unique dance moves: totally absorbed in the music, over-flowing with passion. I have to admit, as someone swept up in that viral explosion, I was here as much out of curiosity to see him in action first-hand as I was a fan of the sounds this electro-pop quartet produce. Feeling a surge of excitement as the band's entrance drew closer I was a little nervous that I might be found out by the devotees. My fears were quickly allayed as a couple shuffled into the empty seats besides me and introduced themselves. They were eager to know how long I’d been into the band, and I confessed my Letterman based neophyte status. It turns out they’d discovered Future Islands supporting The Strokes at Hyde Park a mere two years ago, and were completely blown away, becoming quick fans.
Everyone loves a transatlantic indie-rock supergroup, right? There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm a couple of years back for FFS: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand united together in 2015 and created some really compelling tunes. I don’t know if Eric Pulido from Midlake had that in mind when he came up with the idea for BNQT (pronounced ‘banquet’ – like a smorgasbord of musical treats). There are certainly obvious parallels, Alex Kapranos for starters, but Pulido’s group takes a pair of songs from each of the five songwriters recruited, tempers them through the Midlake machine and then throws them back out as a clever, constantly shifting and yet perfectly anchored album. Volume 1 works far better than you might expect. We’ve got Pulido, alongside McKenzie Smith (drums), Joey McClellan (guitar) and Jesse Chandler (keys) of Midlake; and the guest-writers Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Fran Healy (Travis), and Ben Bridwell (Band Of Horses).
When I heard that Ron Sexsmith was going to be sitting in the producer's chair for the first time, alongside long-time collaborator, drummer and vocal harmony man Don Kerr for his fifteenth studio album, The Last Rider, well, I was not expecting it to sound quite like this! For some reason I had imagined that we’d see him stepping far away from the high-end studio production values (or some detractors might say auto-tune nightmare) of Bob Rock’s production on Long Player Late Bloomer, and return to the rootsy, often percussive, sound of his early albums with Mitchell Froom. I felt like the sound of these two men, Kerr and Sexsmith, playing off one another, was the beating heart of a life-long career of music making. The sound of their two voices singing in harmony, or indeed Kerr’s drums finding interesting grooves to hold beneath Sexsmith’s dexterous acoustic guitar, seem to create an atmosphere and magic all their own. I’ve seen that magic first-hand, in a number of treasured evenings where I’ve been lucky enough to see Ron live with his band. So what was I expecting? A return to acoustic melancholia in the vein of Ron Sexsmith. And what have we got? At first listen it sounds more like a Paul McCartney solo album from the early 80s, or that first posthumous Roy Orbison album, King of Hearts, typified by the Jeff Lynne-produced big single, ‘I Drove All Night’ with its in-yer-face compressed drums.