Friday, April 06, 2007

Some blessed night


Don't you just love it when a plan comes together?

Having rated Howling Bells' self-titled debut album above all others released last year, I was quick to snap up tickets for their visit to the Point - and subsequently discovered that their first support band would be The Spencer McGarry Season, a band I've been trying (and failing) to see ever since clapping ears on their contributions to the This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us and Quench Local Mixtape compilations ('The Unfilmable Life And Life Of...' and 'To The Liars Take Me'). Serendipitous indeed.

The Cardiff-based new wave pop trio, led by Spencer himself (tonight sporting a fine pair of braces), have set themselves the task of producing six albums, each in a different style. They're currently working towards Episode 1, the tracks for which find them drawing inspiration from XTC and The Kinks. Tonight is probably not their finest hour (not helped by a crowd as yet more interested in alcoholic lubrication than in onstage goings-on), but 'To The Liars...' and the Talking Heads pigeon funk of penultimate song 'When Stupids Come To Town' suggest they could well be the next band to make a name for themselves outside of the Welsh capital - and most likely the first to include footnotes on their setlists...

Far more deserving of the crowd's apathy are Stoke-on-Trent's The Alones. Dressed like The Rakes, they are fronted by vocalist / guitarist / songwriter Stuart Whiston who looks like Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, sounds like Richard Ashcroft and proclaims in the chorus of 'Silver' that "You need heart and soul and love". A shame, then, that amidst their blandly generic take on early Oasis, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Killers, heart and soul are conspicuous only by their absence. C'mon lads, are you really content to drift through the motions and surf the post Arctic Monkeys wave while waiting to picked up by a major label and get a big wodge of marketing cash behind you? A bit of imagination wouldn't go amiss.

Thank god for the headliners.

Aussie exiles Howling Bells played Cardiff at least three times last year, and on every occasion circumstances contrived to mean that I missed out. When I finally caught up with them at Summer Sundae in August, it was a bittersweet experience: on the one hand, they were utterly mesmerising, but on the other there was at times "that sense of mystery demystified, of seeing how a delicately flavoured and lip-smackingly delicious meal has been rustled up in the kitchen". The sweetness outweighed the bitterness, though, and suffice to say that I was markedly less articulate and intelligible about their set when I drunkenly zeroed in on the band's unfortunate guitarist Joel Stein later that day...

The foursome have now been touring their start-to-finish-splendid debut almost incessantly for well over a year, with this being the last night of their current stretch. That could potentially have meant a brisk and disinterested run-through without feeling, but instead it seems as though the long period on the road has had a more positive influence. There's less stiffness, more looseness about the performance which benefits the songs and which suggests they're increasingly relaxed and comfortable together. Joel, whose deft fretwork is integral to their sound, pulls shapes while to his right, in the centre of the stage, his sister Juanita, formerly an ice maiden, has thawed. Her languid hip-shimmying is as seductive as the songs themselves - no wonder the spotlight is trained on her all set long.

The gently flickering lights which garland stetsonned drummer Glenn Moule's kit are a neat visual representation of Howling Bells' songs. 'A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts' is a case in point, smouldering dimly, then bursting into bright flame, before fading gracefully out into darkness. Their evocation of their native Australia seems markedly more tame and less visceral and violent having heard The Drones' Gala Mill, but it remains sensuous and inexplicably beguiling.

If there's a disappointment, it's that we aren't afforded any real glimpse of new material. The encore-less set consists of that first album in its entirety except for 'I'm Not Afraid' plus one non-album track two songs in, which was also aired at Summer Sundae. While 'Across The Avenue' loses a little something in performance and singles 'Broken Bones' and 'Low Happening' are the best received songs of the night, my personal highlight is 'Setting Sun', its chorus a blazing triumph that stays with me as we drift out into the night.

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