Thursday, October 24, 2013

Age inappropriate


First up, Jeff Wode. A band named after a 317lb shot-putter referenced in Withnail & I. A dapperly dressed guitarist who jerks around as though he's being electrocuted. A growling bassist who dons a gold lame jacket to deliver a thrash-punk-cum-dub-reggae-cum-lounge number called 'David Sushi'. A song they made up last night ('Dear David Rose'). Another that carries the take-home message 'Ian Brown Is Not Your Dad'. A five-second-long cover of Backstreet Boys' 'Everybody' to close the set. Safe to say that, against all the odds, the Cellar Family may have some competition as Oxford's most entertaining oddballs.

No Age are also non-conformists, punks in the purest sense, who refuse to play the record industry's games and are unafraid of biting the hand that feeds out of a fierce determination to maintain their own independence. This is a band who last year interrupted a Converse-sponsored set in Barcelona with what they termed "planned contradictory action": namely, a 15-minute-long video criticising the ethics of the company's manufacturing practices.

The title of new album An Object and the various punctuation marks which follow it on the fluorescent orange and green cover - full stop, exclamation mark, comma, question mark, inverted commas - mark it out as both a critical comment on the debasing corporate commodification of art and a celebration of the album as a real physical artefact rather than as intangible files streaming on Spotify. When Dean Spunt and Randy Randall (real names, not porn names, in case you're wondering) decided they wanted to literally make the record, the follow-up to 2010's Everything In Between, their label Sub Pop were initially exasperated by the duo's apparent determination to make things difficult for themselves, but were nevertheless sufficiently understanding to indulge them, and the pair duly packaged and shipped 5000 LPs and 5000 CDs personally.

That wilful attitude is evident in the album's content too. Everything In Between and predecessor Nouns, both superlative records, had established a style widely branded dream punk, a label that seemed unsatisfactorily contradictory but that nevertheless did some justice to No Age's filtering of hardcore through a mesh of effects and samples and embellishing it with lush ambient interludes. In that context, An Object is a deeply unnerving record, consisting of songs that feel like pencil sketches rather than washes of watercolour. One reviewer was moved to comment that as a guitar and drums duo, they appeared to be attempting to phase out the guitar and drums - you don't get much more ambitious or experimental than that. Or more foolhardy and potentially alienating, depending on how you look at it.

So it's something of a conciliatory gesture to the crowd that tonight's show opens with the album's two most conventional punk songs, the single 'C'mon, Stimmung' (which seems to be hampered by a sample that's either misfiring or submerged beneath the general din) and 'Lock Box'. The latter is reminiscent partly of Fugazi but particularly of Wire, and I suspect that identifying sonic and ideological parallels with Colin Newman's iconic post-punkers has helped me to make more sense of An Object than most.

Mid-set we get 'No Ground', 'Defector/ed' and 'Circling With Dizzy' back to back, for which Spunt steps out from behind his kit, playing bass on two of them. Performing the three tracks sequentially is clearly a tactic to ensure he doesn't have to be continually standing up and sitting down, but it does mean that the absence of his propulsive drumming is more keenly felt, momentum is temporarily lost and you can detect audience interest starting to wane before the pair pull it back around with an old favourite.

And therein lies the rub. The older material - especially the superb 'Eraser' and 'Teen Creeps' from Nouns - lends itself much more naturally to the live environment, where it doesn't matter if any subtleties are obliterated with sheer volume (volume sufficient to disturb those tucking into their rainbow trout at Loch Fyne next door, Spunt speculates). Shows of years gone by have been an unadulterated joyous blast, whereas tonight some of the new songs douse the flames. The omission of Weirdo Rippers' two-note classic 'Everybody's Down' in favour of the jaded newie 'I Won't Be Your Generator', for instance, signals that No Age are growing up. Time will tell if An Object proves to be a stepping stone to better things (or even a great album in its own right) rather than a baffling misstep, but in a gig context at least I'd prefer they remained punk Peter Pans.

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