December 1995 – live reviews – Anna Palm + Mandalay @ Upstairs at The Garage, Highbury, London, 20th December (“Anna Palm.. as full of explosive energy as a pan of popping corn (but) as far as being a singer-songwriter goes she still doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself… Mandalay’s style (is) stately, kaleidoscopic and coolly hallucinatory”)

22 Dec

Oops. I’ve come to what I thought was a serious, arty gig to find exotic scarves hanging from the ceiling and a little green-nylon Christmas tree sitting in the corner. What with this, the candle-lit tables and the cheerful little greetings flyers under said tree, I get the feeling that I’ve crashed someone else’s Christmas party.

This particular party’s being thrown by violinist-turned-singer-songwriter Anna Palm, known for a journey that started with busking in Covent Garden and Chelsea and went on to a stint with acoustic punk-folkers Nyah Fearties, a handful of albums and singles on One Little Indian, and support contributions to a variety of artists from YesSteve Howe to New Wave synth poet Anne Clark, ascerbic dream-pop realists Kitchens of Distinction and avant-Goth experimentalist Danielle Dax. It’s an interesting resume. Well, I hate to bad-mouth my hostess, and maybe it’s unfair to judge an artist from an event coming across very much as a fun gig, but I’m decidedly underwhelmed. Despite an indie all-star band (with various members of The Farm, Loop Guru and Kitchens of Distinction taking time out to back her up) she fails to shine.

It’s not as if she doesn’t try: a Violet Elizabeth figure in a frilly little-girl party dress, she’s as full of explosive energy as a pan of popping corn, exhorting people onto the floor to dance, singing with verve (if not always great pitch) and sawing acrobatically at her violin. But the band is under-rehearsed and scrappy, falling apart much too often. Anna’s songs, too, lack individuality and the delivery to make them memorable. A shame, as when she sets bow to strings some spirited and slyly lovable playing emerges.

Anna’s obviously a good player, but as far as being a singer-songwriter goes she still doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. File under “needs work” and leave it at that for now. However, the mess does yield up one unexpected delight – a dance-groove version of Kites, compelling and grin-inducing, with Anna’s riotous violin scurrying over an early-’90s style baggy beat and the whole thing carrying a strong hint of I Will Survive. A novelty, perhaps, but it’s good to see Simon Dupree’s old hippy hit hopping onto a modern groove and feeling right at home. These particular Kites really fly. I wonder if the Shulman brothers (who notoriously hated their early Dupree-ism despite its success) might ease up and grin and bop along if they were here to hear this.

The real reason why I’m here is a duo called Mandalay, hiding further down the bill: it’s the new project by multi-instrumentalist and electronica aceSaul Freeman, who used to perform a similar role as half of the band Thieves alongside stratospheric singer David McAlmont. Thieves are long (and acrimoniously) split now, with what would have been their debut album a little uncomfortably repackaged as the stunning McAlmont debut (and if you haven’t heard that, you missed one of the most vitally progressive pop records of 1994).

Now Saul is quietly rematerializing, in partnership with singer Nicola Hitchcock, to reclaim some of his lost thunder. But although it shares the glittering crystalline texture of Thieves’ songs, Mandalay’s music is nowhere near as easy. As with Thieves, Cocteau Twins should be mentioned (especially when listening to the effects-swallowed guitars of Enough Love); so too should the frozen sadness of Portishead (especially on the chilly trilling of Enough Love). but Mandalay is more involved and intricate than either. These are multi-dimensional songs, Nicola’s frail but enthralling vocal melodies elevated from the ground on staggeringly complex musical architecture courtesy of interlocking blurry sequencers, obsessively repeating samples and eerie guitar treatments. Saul stands impassively amongst his host of computers and effects racks, gazing absently down at his guitar and its network of pedals. Every now and again he’ll tap and flick at the strings and a second later a whole web of music will swell from the speakers.

Mandalay’s style – stately, kaleidoscopic and coolly hallucinatory – is best exemplified by the silvery net of sampled vocals, the stabbing kick drum and the harmonica-skank guitar of More Than Venus: Nicola’s whispering Bush-y enunciation gives the perky melody an awkward, appealing sensuality. Walk By the Sea rumbles by on an ominous 3/4 riff, double-looped spiral claustrophobia and panic-pitch piano plinking. The Waiting gives full reign to Saul’s subtle space-age guitar work: cunningly-placed “brang”s and attenuated bell-notes amongst the fabric of a languorous techno-warble.

There’s plenty of pop in this (and, despite the duo’s clear and ineluctable whiteness of manner as well as appearance, more than a helping of trip-hop) but Mandalay are also decidedly post-rock. They’re part of the astonishing movement which also includes Moonshake, Laika and the late-lamented Disco Inferno, and which junks the conventional hierarchies of rock instrumentation in favour of the uncanny textures of digital sampling and electronic ensemble processing. This might not sound appealing to the traditionalists out there, but believe me, Mandalay are much more than noodling experimentalists. Try to think of their songs as angst-under-amber, refracted into confusing multiples by an unearthly light. Unsettling but beautiful pop for an uncertain info-saturated future. You want progression? It’s happening here.

Anna Palm online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Last FM YouTube Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Mandalay online:
Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Amazon Music

Additional notes: (2020 update) Anna Palm now lives and occasionally performs in Stroud. Mandalay recorded two albums for V2 Music before splitting in 2002: both Nicola Hitchcock and Saul Freeman have continued intermittent solo careers.
 

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