Fighting a losing battle
HOWLING BELLS / THE JOY FORMIDABLE, 5TH MARCH 2008, OXFORD ZODIAC
My first trip to the Academy since Carling passed the baton on to O2, on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day - so has it turned into a princess or an even bigger pumpkin?
Neither, as it happens.
Though the deliberate switch away from Carling marks something of an improvement, drinks at the bar are still overpriced, and when the Tuborg runs out mid-pint, I'm asked in all seriousness "Do you want me to top it up with Carlsberg?" Now, let me think about that for less than a split second - er, NO.
For her part, Jen eschews the drinks altogether in preference for a tub of local George & Delilah's ice cream, and there are few complaints from her.
I'm still wondering whether the Zodiac signs affixed to the doors are new, a desperate attempt to fool former regulars they're back in the venue in its previous non-corporatised incarnation and also to profit from the Regal's apparent troubles, when The Joy Formidable start up. Like tonight's headliners, they've relocated to London (though only from North Wales), while they've recently toured with the latest bunch of white, glum, misunderstood Editors fans, White Lies, and debut single 'Austere' has apparently featured on that bastion of yoof TV 'Skins'.
So far so meh - and indeed by the end of their set meh is still my overriding response. The trio have been - and no doubt will be again - compared to My Bloody Valentine, to which I'd say my bloody arse. Recent single 'Cradle' is a case in point - noise pop goes to the stadium, oversugared and puke-inducingly sweet. On record it's got a bit of power, but live it's thin, flat and, like the rest of their set, holds no surprises. The breakdowns are perfectly choreographed, the songs themselves not much cop.
As they leave the stage, someone in front of me claims vocalist/guitarist Ritzy Bryan was "their one saving grace". Jen, so often a sharper and more unforgiving critic than me, is far from persuaded of even that much, labelling her as "am dram" and mocking the way she "plays at being a rock star" with her "textbook flounce".
Their album - quite apart from having perhaps the worst title I've ever heard, A Balloon Called Moaning - is currently available to download for free. Even then, I won't be bothering.
What follows is almost painful to recount.
To recap, in 2006 Howling Bells came from nowhere (well, Western Australia, to be precise) to release what wound up being the SWSL Album Of The Year. That self-titled debut had grit and glamour, it smouldered and flamed, it seduced and snared.
And now, what seem like three very long years later, they're back with a new album, Radio Wars. And, judging by the evidence of tonight, it's mostly awful.
So, what went wrong?
Well, they've left Bella Union, the label founded by Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde that gave them that initial break, and where they were part of a roster that included such luminaries as The Dirty Three and Explosions In The Sky (as well as My Latest Novel, themselves responsible for an incredible album in 2006), and signed to Sony-affiliated Independiente, home of Travis and Embrace.
Yes, you guessed it: it's a classic case study of watering down and polishing up in pursuit of sales, and one that's markedly less successful than (for instance) either The Duke Spirit or Sons & Daughters achieved last year. If their first album had the roots of its ragged, dusty blues firmly in the country, its successor has a sickly urban sheen, the result of exposure to too many neon lights. It's as though a skin has been shed.
Not that this would necessarily be an issue, if the new material stood up to broad comparison with what went before - but it blatantly doesn't. The four songs from their debut that do make it into the set ('Blessed Night', 'Broken Bones', 'Setting Sun' and 'Low Happening') are a mocking commentary on the quality of the songs on Radio Wars. Little wonder they omit 'Velvet Girl' and 'A Ballad For The Bleeding' - the likes of 'The Golden Web' and the truly dire encore song would sound even worse in that company. If, as the album title implies, Howling Bells are thinking of taking on the big hitters of the mainstream airwaves, then it'll be like facing machine-gun fire with nothing but a policeman's truncheon.
Juanita Stein - tonight wearing (presumably coincidentally) the de rigeur Oxford uniform of check shirt, albeit worn as a dress over leggings - remains a magnetic frontwoman for fairly obvious reasons, and still has a great voice. But, now with little of interest to distract musically, it's clear that her lyrics rarely stand up to scrutiny other than as strings of cliches.
It's not all bad, inevitably - 'Digital Heart' is passable, while 'Cities Burning Down' comes closest to approximating the intensity of their first record. But then that's hardly surprising - it was written around the same time, and was even part of the set two years ago.
"Come on Oxford - give us something, anything", implores Juanita at one point. She's not the only one left wanting a lot more.