SPIRITUALIZED / THE SHORTWAVE SET, 13TH OCTOBER 2008, OXFORD ZODIAC
Somewhere, most likely back in Cardiff, I've got a Shortwave Set album. The fact that I couldn't have told you what it was called should be some indication as to how much impression it made on me i.e. next to none. You might expect a record bearing the title The Debt Collection to demand your attention like a short, hard rap on the kneecaps as inflicted by a 6ft 4ins shaven-headed baseball-bat-wielding lunk - but no.
Tonight, disseminating songs and videos via Bluetooth is about as in-your-face as they get. Well connected they may be - The Debt Collection's follow-up, this year's Replica Sun Machine, features contributions from Van Dyke Parks and John Cale, and was produced by Danger Mouse - and a couple of the new tracks ('No Social' and 'Glitches N Bugs') have a bit of spark, but for the most part the idiosyncratic pop they concoct with guitar, laptop, cymbal, heavily treated vocals and Ulrike Bjorsne's miniature briefcase of tricks is too slight to deserve much more than the polite applause it gets.
And then Spiritualized. OK, let's get the handful of gripes out of the way first.
1. The vocals are by and large too loud throughout.
2. With the exception of 'Sweet Talk' the new material, outshone at every turn by brighter and more spectacular moments from the firmament of their back catalogue, underlines the fact that latest album Songs In A&E is a disappointment, and possibly even evidence of a band on the wane, at least creatively speaking. The single 'Soul On Fire' in particular makes the familiar grand gestures but, to these ears, sounds rather empty at its core.
3. There's no room in the two-hour-long set for classics such as 'Electricity', 'Lord Let It Rain Down', 'Take Your Time' and my personal favourite 'Medication'.
But am I glad that when Death came a-knocking back in 2005, Jason Pierce hid behind the sofa and pretended he wasn't in? You betcha.
Pierce's near-death experience is underlined tonight by 'Death Take Your Fiddle', which features the sound of his respirator in the background and is performed on a stage bathed in clinical green operating theatre light, and the song that follows, which finds him earnestly beseeching Jesus for a sense of direction. But if that suggests a fragility, there's little fragile about the opening of the set, a rendition of 'Amazing Grace' over squalling guitars giving way to the angriest and most bitter track on Songs In A&E, 'You Lie You Cheat'.
The song which follows, 'Shine A Light', sets the overall tone for the performance, though - the set moves at a slow, stately and hypnotic pace but with inexorable momentum through such delights as the title track of their 1997 Mercury Music Prize winning album Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and Spacemen 3's 'Walking With Jesus'. My personal highlight is probably 'I Think I'm In Love', though 'Lay Back In The Sun' is also a real treat given that Pure Phase, with its blend of blissed-out beauty and experimental interludes, is the one Spiritualized album I just can't get enough of.
As anticipated, all this foreplay builds to an explosive climax, with 'She Kissed Me And It Felt Like A Hit' (still one of the best song titles I've heard), 'Come Together' and another Spacemen 3 song, 'Take Me To The Other Side', roughing up against each other, the blitz of noise and strobe bringing about ecstatic grins and mindmelt aplenty.
By way of a post-coital cigarette, they encore with 'Lord Can You Hear Me?', the understated music and plaintive, slightly desperate tone of Pierce's lyrics a perfect counterpoint to the strident and frenzied conclusion to the main set. Regardless of whether Pierce is now a spent force in terms of songwriting, that he's still alive to perform his heavenly music on earth is cause for considerable celebration.