Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Here comes the rumour mill big time*


The Barfly is my kind of venue: underground, dark and dank, sticky-floored and with a DJ spinning The Jesus & Mary Chain and the Bloc Party remix album between slots. The archway gives it a particularly unusual feel, as though the gig's taking place underneath a railway bridge (of course, the massive pillar is a major obstruction to any view of the stage, but I manage to position myself advantageously). They even flyposter their own toilets.

Tonight it's pretty much packed to the rafters, but there's little difficulty in finding elbow room and getting served at the bar. It's over 16s, you see - which means huddles of youngsters conspicuously without pints in their hands making the rest of us wonder where our own youth went. Bitter? Moi?

Sadly there's no International Karate Plus, the sudden departure of vocalist / guitarist Rich having forced the hometown heroes to pull out at relatively short notice. Instead we have Shy Magnolias, who start off impressively. To invert that old muso hack's cliched description of a band sounding "like X on drugs", they're like The Coral off them - less paranoid and also less imaginative.

But I'm tapping my foot hoping the real killer song is just around the corner when the fuzzy-haired keyboard player switches to bass, the erstwhile bassist to second guitar and it all goes horribly pear-shaped. Of course, the tedious indie of the remainder of the set (not entirely dissimilar to that of another band I could mention...) is all the more disappointing given that initial promise.

We've not been in Cardiff long, but it's already apparent that the city boasts a clutch of sonic terrorists. Take The Martini Henry Rifles, for instance. Given what preceded them, they might be regarded as akin to Al-Qaeda, striking indiscriminately and without warning in order to cause maximum impact.

Every song - an unholy union (I use the term loosely) of drum machine, ultra-heavy distorted bass and guitars - is a devastating incendiary device. I've never heard Big Black, but this is how I'd imagine they might sound if dreamt up in an art-school cafeteria. It's not hard to believe their album is called Superbastard.

As tracks like 'John Wayne's Old Man' and 'Asian Swimmer' fly past, I'm troubled by the same question that always occurred to me when watching Nottingham's Wolves (Of Greece!) live: are they actually any good? I'm not sure. "Punishing" is the word that springs to mind - and to be punished this hard we must have been very, very naughty.

The set ends with 'Chinese Seagull' - I'm sure they couldn't sustain it for much longer than the twenty-odd minutes for which they're on stage. Afterwards at the bar, I overhear the Robinson Crusoe lookalike barman telling bassist Fudge that if they work on their choreographed moves they'll really go places. He laughs. Don't expect this lot to be bothering the charts anytime soon.

I'm sure there's an awful lot being written about The Young Knives (a great name, incidentally, but one which might sound foolish in a few years if they stick around - cf Sonic Youth) at the moment, but I approach them having read nothing but one gushing live review and heard nothing but recent single 'Here Comes The Rumour Mill'. Sometimes coming at things with fresh ears and eyes is best, and so it proves tonight - though of course I might inadvertently end up parroting what has been said about them elsewhere, for which I apologise.

Some bands just look like bands. Unmistakeably so. You know the sort. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The Cooper Temple Clause. The Strokes. The Young Knives, it's fairly safe to say, do not. Think not of carefully styled hair and so-hip-it-hurts clothing, but of swotty prefects dragged behind the bikesheds by their school ties and forcefed strong cider from green plastic bottles until they turn a strange shade of green. Guitarist Henry sports a burgundy tank-top, ferchrissakes. Meanwhile, bassist The House Of Lords - a plumper Ross Millard of The Futureheads - has opted for a shabby suit, tie and ghastly orange shirt. Fellow frontman Henry jokes that he's on the pull. Watch out: this man just might become the most unlikely sex symbol since, well, ever.

Enough of the sartorial analysis. What about the music? Well, it's good. Very good indeed. There's more than a hint of Sunderland's finest about the wiryness of the songs and particularly the vocal harmonies, but also a heartwarmingly English eccentricity and sense of humour. 'Here Comes The Rumour Mill', which appears mid-set, is the obvious stand-out, but there are plenty of other fine tunes to rival it, not least 'Part-Time' and 'The Decision' (a single last autumn). Even when one song is introduced by Henry as "one I wrote when I was 14 - it's a bit shit" ('Elaine'), there's no drop in quality.

The band The Libertines could have been? Perhaps - it's too early to tell. The encore song features the chorus "You were screaming at your mum, I was punching your dad" (or something very like it). If, unlike Doherty and Barat, they can steer clear of internal frisson and channel any aggression elsewhere, they've got the potential to avoid a messy collapse and subsequent lapse into self-parody.

Not that the crowd seems to recognise a genuine prospect when they see one. Many people have disappeared by the end (would it be malicious to suggest it's past their bedtime?), and those that remain are strangely and surprisingly unappreciative. Somehow I doubt it will be long before those who came out and stayed out are dropping into conversation that smugly superior aside: "Of course, I saw them in a small venue before the album came out...". I'll just get it out of the way now, then, shall I?

* Well, it's better than the other option, "The geeks shall inherit the earth"...

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