Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book Clwb


My fourth gig in Cardiff, and my fourth different venue. Having sampled the Barfly, Chapter and one of the three university venues, it was about time I ventured to the legendary Clwb Ifor Bach - and what better reason than to see the band whose album currently holds sway over my stereo ahead of the likes of Mogwai, Cat Power and The Strokes?

It's a slightly disconcerting start, being asked who you've come to see at the door - surely the staff should know who's on? But all is well - it turns out that Clwb has two different small venues, and there are gigs taking place in both tonight.

By the time we make it up the stairs and into the right room, Lone Pine have just struck into their first song. They'd probably prefer to be labelled alt-country, but there's not too much alt about them - fairly straight bar-room boogie which is melodic if a little dull, mixed in with some slower-paced songs. Cardiff's answer to My Morning Jacket? Perhaps.

But, while they might sound fine on record, the problem with seeing them perform in the flesh is that they just don't look like a band, a coherent unit. Vocalist / guitarist Dan Catherall is the one wearing the cowboy-style shirt and hat, and it's clearly very much his band, the rest simply a supporting cast who play along without a great deal of visible enthusiasm. Superficial yes, but these things matter. (More on them later.)

You certainly couldn't accuse Semifinalists of not looking like a unit, or of being dull. For the first fifteen minutes of their set I'm convinced they're the most original band I've seen for some time - and I'd not been expecting that, the name conjuring up a bunch of dour indie losers from a provincial northern town.

The three members - Ferry Gouw, Adriana Alba and Chris Steele-Nicholson - met at film school in London, and it shows. They play against a backdrop of brilliantly vibrant projections, avoiding most of the usual post-rock projection cliches (collapsing buildings, power lines etc) and focusing instead on images from the natural world. At times it feels like watching an episode of 'Planet Earth' with a live soundtrack. The effectiveness of the visuals is enhanced by the fact that all three are wearing white, so they become part of the screen themselves, the images playing themselves out on their bodies as they perform.

The projections owe something to The Flaming Lips, and I gradually revise my initial judgement of their originality - towards the end of the set there are a couple of very Lips-esque songs, the diminutive and spectacularly fringed Gouw singing with his arm outstretched towards the ceiling in a manner very reminiscent of Wayne Coyne. But there's also something else going on in there, a punk spirit which approaches but never quite approximates Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And there's an eccentricity too, the last song morphing bizarrely into a half-speed snippet of Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody'. I'm certainly sufficiently impressed by their performance to be disappointed that they only have vinyl on sale at the merchandise stall.

Now, My Latest Novel. With a name like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that they're either an awfully earnest and downright awful emo band or an awfully earnest and downright awful bunch of schmindie bedwetters. Thankfully they're neither (though the lyrics to 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done' about wearing pyjamas and dancing to 'Footloose' do raise the spectre of the latter). The moral of the story being don't judge a book by its cover (arf arf).

The Glaswegians' debut LP Wolves, which comes conferred with the Bella Union seal of approval, is stunning. The Arcade Fire's Funeral is the most obvious point of comparison (the person previewing the gig on the Clwb site somehow managed to skilfully avoid mentioning the Canadians), but there's so much more besides: Mogwai's more refined moments, the stomp 'n' folk of Sons & Daughters, Delgados style epics, spoken-word narratives a la Arab Strap (though conspicuously without any sordid details about sexual shenanigans - see again 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done'). They even manage to make me consider revisiting or at least investigating Belle & Sebastian further. Yes, it really is that good.

What tonight's show suggests, though, is that they're not always quite sure what to do with it, and look a little nervous and awkward on stage. The set comprises nine songs in total, all but one of the tracks from Wolves making an appearance, and it begins with the first three songs from the album as well as ending with its parting shot, recent single 'The Reputation Of Ross Francis'. It's as though they don't yet realise they have the freedom to deviate from the album template and mix things up - perhaps it's a matter of confidence.

Ambient opener 'Ghost In The Gutter' and 'Pretty In A Panic' drift by before things really catch fire with the climax of 'Learning Lego', four of the five band members shouting in unison into their mics as the music gradually fades out. This is followed up with 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done' and 'When We Were Wolves', both of which depend for their impact on a similarly impassioned chorus effect, before the slight but beautiful 'The Hope Edition' and 'Wrongfully, I Rested' appear to soothe.

It's a near-perfect platform for last year's quite remarkable debut single 'Sister Sneaker Sister Soul', which begins life with an indiepop twinkle in its eye before revealing a real fire raging in its belly. A suitably stirring rendition of 'The Reputation Of Ross Francis' and its rousing chorus about "fighting tooth and nail" later, and that's it, drummer Ryan King - unfortunate to be obscured throughout by his front-of-stage bandmates - unscrewing his cymbals to scotch any possibility of an encore.

Never less than impressive, then, and with flashes of absolute brilliance. That lingering awkwardness will disappear before long once they get some more touring under their belts - and when they start to play in front of more people who own the record, which (if there's any justice) will be very soon.

One final word on the crowd - and it's a "talking at gigs" rant I'm afraid. The venue has a bar in a separate room, so why those who have decided to spend £6 each on a gig ticket and then talk throughout rather than just going to the pub for free couldn't have done their nattering in the bar area is utterly beyond me. To make matters worse, the loudest voices during My Latest Novel's set belong to members of Lone Pine. You'd have thought the Scots could have at least expected respect from their support act if no-one else - but no, Lone Pine are too busy guffawing to themselves to care. Fuckwits.

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