Tag Archives: bitter tang

REVIEW – Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ EP, 2014 (“a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine”)

8 Apr
Bailey Cremeans: 'Celestial City' EP

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ EP

Here’s what I hold against the all-conquering Coldplay – they write, and perform, the inflated ghosts of songs.

This is not, in itself, a problem. Songs don’t necessarily need clarity – nor do they need to sit foursquare on solid points, like well-built houses. Sometimes all they need to be are eerie, moaning rags blown by on the wind; or they could be dream-pop memory-blurs, a murmur of what might be or might have been felt. Yet with Coldplay you get the worst of both worlds (a thunderous arena-sized vagueness, a song which is all brightly-smudged outsides) and it means that when I draw comparisons between Bailey Cremeans and Coldplay, it sounds as if I’m setting him up.

Much like Chris Martin, the young Missourian’s a piano balladeer at heart. Despite the occasional damascene synth wash or passing organ-cloud, he keeps coming back to the sound of black wood, ivory keys and felt hammers on strings; everything pared back to a soft, lonely, reverberant toll. His rich, slurred high-tenor voice makes him sound like a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine. It can sing and shade a lyric all the way down from a heartfelt question into a dissolving liquid texture. It suggests that, like the Coldplay boys, he’s copped a listen to dream-pop’s narcotic meld of boy/girl, solid/disintegrating – but unlike Coldplay, Bailey never lets a song run away into outright vapour. These songs have body – they use the heft and strength of the piano. Sometimes they slump against its laquered wood, desperate and bereft, gripping for dear life. Sometimes they bloom out of it, their faith absolute – “you, my stars, my sun. / You, my lover, the one.”

Five songs. Five songs of the kind of reflective, raw-boned feeling that’s increasingly anathema to today’s meticulous pop. Tides is the kind of grief-stricken torch song I’d’ve cried myself empty over when I was seventeen: a slowly burning sailing ship carried on gliding multi-tracked harmonies, as Bailey struggles to hold his fractured memories and dignity together in song. “The tides rushed in. / Your hands were on my skin. / If you had told me then I wouldn’t have believed it… / Was just a sad, confused boy. / And you got what you wanted from me – / and now I’m free.”

Bailey himself is still only in his teens. It’s tempting to hype him as a ghostly, spontaneous child-man, bleeding himself out on every passing thorn – something self-spun out of a faded diva gown, who creeps quietly into abandoned theatres to carol over the wreck of a concert grand. Unfortunately, too many bits of truth get in the way. Theres’ the bright and bubbly Bailey whom you can track down on Facebook; those Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding covers on his Soundcloud page; the stint playing keyboards for an American Idol contestant… It’s hard to project lonesome Gothic fantasies onto someone when he networks so cheerfully. You end up wondering how the little bastard has the right to sound this sad – or to sound as if he knows so much – whenever he starts to sing his own songs, putting all of the high-school smiles aside and becoming the naked soul who calls on the stars themselves for comfort. “Orion, this air is wearing thin / and I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been. / Won’t you save me? / Won’t we burn bright? / Orion, I’m losing this fight – / promise I won’t be alone tonight.”

And then you don’t question – you’re just glad that he does sound that way. Great pop music’s just perverse like that.

Well, if you’re looking for songs of preening, there’s always Rufus Wainwright: and, while you’re at it, forget Coldplay. Bailey’s songs have more in common with that skeletal, devastatingly sad album of piano crooners which Paul Buchanan salvaged from the wreck of The Blue Nile a couple of years ago. You could throw in some other names, credible or otherwise – the Christine McVie of Songbird; the early, pre-glitz Elton John at his most open; a freshly-bereaved Francis Dunnery overlapping crafted pop and primal howl on ‘Man’. These are men and women who bring a helpless and beautiful tone to those songs when they sing them, as if the emotion is being flooded out of them in an soft and unending surge. Bailey sings lines like “face to face / This story is ending, we’re free in our hearts. / Wounds are mending, we’re never apart / No tears in your eyes, my love. / No tears in your eyes, my love,” with the same blend of heart-torn sorrow and fervent faith; each turned in on the other.

It’s not often that you get to hear someone who can sing into the core of simple words like this the way that Bailey does: illuminating them but making them bleed, putting flesh onto the old lines and making them ache again. He deserves huge success. I just hope that, if he gets it, it doesn’t hollow him out.

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’
Bailey Cremeans (self released, no catalogue numer or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 6th January 2014

Get it from:

Free or name-your-price at Bandcamp, Freemp3fan.com or Soundcloud

Bailey Cremeans online:
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CONCERT REVIEW – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

10 Apr

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
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Michael J. Sheehy online:
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Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
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Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

13 Jul

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

REVIEW – Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’ EP, 1999 (“fifteen minutes before the machine blows”)

14 Jun
Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: 'Random Blinking Lights'

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’

“Accept that you cannot find your friend – / accept defeat and step inside.”

Welcome to the Crumbler. It’s what Guns’N’Roses might have warned you about had they been singing about an older, tired-er city than L.A., minus even the toxic smoggy sunshine. Delicate AWOL capture the worn-down feel of London’s scrag-end districts pretty well: the blinded indifference of railway arches, the crumbling cliffs of Victorian brick, and the washed-up bewildered old communities herded aside by no-stopping rat-runs. Their restless, borderline-sinister art-rock could’ve been made for the King’s Cross snarl-up.

There are a few touches of The Fall and Throwing Muses here, a bit of disaffected Banshees too, perhaps. But with its hard-bitten lyrics of frustration (and the spurts of noise-guitar, like aural graffiti tags, on the corrugated-iron lines of the riffs) this music is most clearly the heir to the sounds Margaret Fiedler and Dave Callahan violently worried out of the original Moonshake: eyeball to eyeball and teeth in meat. ‘Random Blinking Lights’ is a sour but arresting low-life bar vignette, with a bleak tune that cuts like glass on a lip. Underneath a low ceiling, guitars clank like homicidal vacuum cleaners busting a gasket. Meanwhile a cast made up of embittered barmaids, and of sundry people who’ve come in to duck out of the light, continue to cadge and haggle with each other – all of them out for whatever relief they can get.

A rancid dissatisfaction bleeds through the song. “Cosy cashmere wives sitting at home are unaware / that their husbands visit here / when they say there’s extra paperwork…” No mention of what the men are after. Whores? Gambling? The sharp anaesthetic tang of a coveted drink, or just the chance to pull themselves in and away from the tugging hands? Caroline Ross (sliding and seesawing her voice around the spilled ashtrays, stale air and puddles) brings all of this to life,. Now she’s as strident as a bingo caller; now hovering behind people’s shoulders and murmuring drips of frustration into their ears (“When are you gonna see two feet in front of you?”); now closing her eyes and drifting off – all objective – for a second. She catches the tedium and pressure of trapped lives and brings their nagging internal questions up close: like the first venomous rumble of steam, fifteen minutes before the machine blows.

As you’d guess from this – and from song titles like Unreleasable Fear – Delicate AWOL seem fascinated by feelings of trappedness. Only an unhindered Mogwai-ish instrumental called Belisha (and recorded under their side-project name, 40 Shades Of Black) provides relief. They generally observe the whole trap from the side rather than – as hardcore heroes might – howling from the centre of the condemned cell. Unreleasable Fear itself caps compressed, Slint-y dot music with a keening chorus; wary gentleness skirting the surges of a panic attack. For Plateau, a vertiginous organ hangs queasily in mid-air while Jim Version’s pointy, serrated guitars jump like startled cats and peer suspiciously round corners. The whole thing sways back and forth on the edge of a forbidding brink as Caroline rasps “it’s not what you wanted it to be, / and never will be… / I’ve come to the end of my wisdom… I’ve come to the end of my plateau.” Compelling.

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’
day Release Records Ltd., DR101CD (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

Tori Amos @ Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, London, 9th March 1996 (“the Raisin Girl is not communicating”)

15 Mar

It shouldn’t be like this. Call Tori Amos kooky, pretentious, over-precious, almost anything you like – but don’t call her boring. Not possible. A woman whose mouth and piano strive to out-motor each other, a torrent of perverse creativity, a handful of sharp pins in satin – Tori is riveting even when she’s being irritating.

So why am I spending so much time – up here in the balcony seats – bored? Why the itching urge to check my watch, when on previous tours I’ve been hanging on the edge of my seat?

The reason is that tonight the Raisin Girl is not communicating. Webbed up in the twinkling Santa’s-grotto lights of her stage set, leaning hungrily into her piano or capering over the keys of her harpsichord, Tori is playing resolutely inwards. Hips raked backwards, fingers thundering out melody, head and neck curved to the hovering mike, her face is turned out to us with that familiar elfin, ever-so-slightly ruthless expression. Despite the thrumming love emanating out to her from the capacity crowd, despite the on-stage company of Steve Caton and the soft, sly voices of his textural guitar, she’s never seemed so alone.

For someone who’s opened herself up to us as much as Tori has, this is sad. It’s particularly sad when you consider that she’s playing in Britain, the country that cradled her when she was the unknown émigré and winced as it took the charged barbs of ‘Little Earthquakes’ to its heart. At certain gigs you can feel the heart of the audience, as if it were one huge collective animal. Here, as at all of the Tori Amos gigs I’ve been to, it feels like the love borne for someone you know intimately, quietly, unreservedly.

Tori, though, is having none of it. We sit patiently through some of her recent interminable doodlings (Little Amsterdam is not longer slinky, just tedious; Not The Red Baron is beauty in search of obscurity) and specks of nonsense (the pointless verbal confetti of Space Dog). She plays on. This year, she’s not responding.

No, it’s not blandness that she’s offering us. The fury in her songbook is served well: a scorching rampage through Precious Things with a carnal girl-growl, a twitchy Crucify. The demanding sarcasm of Leather and the tingling, surfing buzz of Cornflake Girl (in which Caton kicks up a silvery storm of rhythm guitar) kick in with that familiar strength. But the sharing that used to set Tori apart from the herd… gone. That grueling romantic break-up with her engineer and onetime confidante Eric Rosse; the red-tinged and ruthless period which spawned the ‘Boys For Pele’ album; both seem to have left her wired and defensive. There have been too many considered steps back from the poised-tenterhook tenderness of Silent All These Years (which, significantly, she doesn’t play tonight.

Maybe this is why Bells For Her – previously a trembling inward coil of twisted, conflicting love played out on a treated piano – has somehow changed into a horrifying banshee curse now that she’s conjuring it out of her harpsichord. Maybe this is why few songs tonight sound as flat-out relished as the vicious, vampiric Blood Roses; why the more restrained snarl of Doughnut Song falls flat; why her infamous, languorous cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit (still missing that essential final verse, but this time with a capricious insert from ‘South Pacific’) seems like a letter abandoned too soon. Oh denial, oh denial.

Tori can still touch and be touched, though. We’re reminded of this in a mutually terrifying moment, one that we’d rather have avoided. Her first-person rape account, Me And A Gun, brings an absolute silence down into this huge hall – and a sense of stretched, time-slowing horror. Suddenly, about four-fifths of the way through, she stops. Dead. Her hand moves to her face in a movement that seems to take forever. A century passes – a terrifying gap into which our attention tumbles. Then she pulls herself together, finishes the song. Swallows the last word, stumbles offstage into darkness and tears.

At a time when she’s professing the most arrogant creative strength, Tori actually seems to be – more than ever before – walking wounded. Despite an assured China, the encores fail to restore confidence. Putting The Damage On trembles and falters; the love-regrets in Baker Baker now seem as detached as a pallid watercolour. Sweet Dreams breaks off as she drums out the rhythm on the lid of the harpsichord and the words slump out of her memory. A harmonium finale of Hey Jupiter is broken-backed, limping off-pitch, beaten down beyond the point of hope. She may have claimed to grab the perverse power of the volcano goddess – from here, it looks as if it’s burning her up from within.

But… so much love filling that enormous Victorian barn. If only she could have brought herself to reach out and accept it.

Tori Amos online:
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The Royal Albert Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter

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an absurdist review blog

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FormerConformer

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