Friday, May 23, 2008

Check mates


"We will drink the night away", sings Lewis Gordon on 'Held Hands', but even if he had photo ID you'd be hard-pressed to believe he is actually 18. Which makes the music he and his equally youthful band Gossamer Albatross play all the more remarkable - though the origins of their name does give a clue to the scale of their ambitions.

From the opener, a dark tale of stalking and paranoia, to the romantic and big-hearted 'Whispered Thoughts', their songs - complex compositions wrought of guitar, double bass and duelling violins - are a quiet revelation. Gordon comes across like Conor Oberst (were he even more fresh-faced than he already is) wedging a rocket up the backside of twee English folk.

The ignorant gobshites who seem to comprise the majority of the crowd aren't interested, but Jonquil's Hugo Manuel is - it's on his invitation that Gossamer Albatross have travelled over from Hereford. If the fruits of their recording sessions together turn out well, then they could really be in business - as it is, someone should get 'em signed up for a slot in the bandstand tent at this year's Green Man pronto.

(Incidentally, it was no surprise to discover that in enthusing about them, Simon's already beaten me to the punch on Sweeping The Nation.)

Chances are that if you’re in Oxford and come across a solo songwriter who goes by the name of Theo, he’s going to be a simply spiffing scarf-wearing chap, yah, who’s hit upon the novel idea of strumming a guitar sensitively as a way of attracting the fillies. Not Sam Knight, though. If I didn’t know that Worcester had a one-man math-rock answer to Ill Ease (and let’s face it, I didn’t – and neither did you), then I certainly do now.

But while Theo’s half-hour-long set passes without pause or break, it’s not all as good as the likes of ‘Invested In Defence’. The sense of wonderment and awe at the self-sampling technology and the uses to which he puts it gradually dissipates when you realise that every song consists of the same essential components: a guitar line by way of foundation, a more tricksy guitar line laid on top, and then a thrash about on the drums, his guitar slung around his back. Formulaic is the last thing you expect this type of music to be, but that’s what it comes to seem like.

The acid test is closing your eyes and asking yourself if it’s anywhere near as impressive – and the answer is, unfortunately, not really.

Opening my eyes, it’s at this point that I realise that Knight, like the male three-quarters of Gossamer Albatross, is wearing a check shirt - as are all three core members of next band to take to the stage, his current tourmates Hreda. Have I unwittingly stumbled upon some kind of bizarre kind of rock branch of the Freemasons where secret handshakes are replaced by a strict dress code, and am I about to get lynched as an outsider? Well, hopefully not - at least their part-time cellist Thom has opted for a sober grey jumper.

This is the second night of the tour, and after the disappointment of the previous evening's gig at The Windmill in Brixton - where they claim to have played to just three people - a hometown gig in front of a partisan crowd is exactly what Hreda need. In truth, it's far from perfect - too much imprecision (certainly in comparison with when I first sighted them) and too many shoulders shrugged in sheepish apology - but I can't help being a sucker for anyone who takes Explosions In The Sky as a blueprint. 'KHTC' again stands out, but this time 'New Pastures' is a close rival, drifting disarmingly along before pulverising and obliterating us with distortion at the end.

For a band whose founder member Hugo Manuel was previously in a post-rock outfit called The Modern, highly regarded local headliners Jonquil are slightly surprising in that they're neither post-rock nor modern. What isn't surprising is that several of them, including Manuel, are wearing check shirts...

The vast majority of the crowd might be here for them, but when Hugo decides to open with a quiet song they're shown exactly the same courtesy as Gossamer Albatross before them i.e. none whatsoever. It's only when stirring shout-along shanty 'Lions', the title track of their second album, starts up that all attention is suddenly drawn stagewards.

With their curious combination of experimental folk and feel-good bucolic anthemry, and their weight of numbers on stage, Jonquil exist at the place where Beirut, My Latest Novel and Broken Social Scene meet. (And what with various members moonlighting away from their day jobs in other bands, the latter comparison is particularly apt.) Factor in the facts that three of them run electronica / hip-hop label Crossword and that they effectively rewrite songs in learning how to play them, and you've got a pretty intriguing prospect.

Tonight the mix doesn't do them too many favours - though in the sound man's defence, there's so much going on that it must be a fiendishly hard job to keep track of it all - but even still the likes of the re-recorded 'Whistle Low' make it glaringly obvious why some people are tipping them to be the next band to graduate from Oxford onto the national stage. If they do, they'll be following in the footsteps of Foals, whose seal of approval was recently bestowed upon them in the pages of NME - and, as a second even more rousing rendition of 'Lions' is barked at the ceiling by nearly everyone in the venue to bring the evening to a close, you wouldn't bet against it.

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