THE BESNARD LAKES / ERLAND & THE CARNIVAL, 26TH MARCH 2010, BRISTOL ARNOLFINI
An imposing stone building in a harbourside location? A selection of fine continental lagers and real ales? A gourmet bar menu that if you look hard enough must surely include the words "drizzle" and "jus"? The Arnolfini is certainly some way removed from your average Academy, and naturally all the better for it.
The stage, which occupies a generous proportion of what is a relatively intimate gig venue, first plays host to Erland & The Carnival. This unlikely-looking quintet feature a frontman (Erland Cooper) and bassist (Danny Wheeler) apparently on loan from a youthful haircut indie outfit straight from the pages of NME and, on guitar, a coolly bejacketed and slightly slimmed-down John Sessions who turns out to be Simon Tong, whose CV credits include The Verve (most famously) but also more recently Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad And The Queen.
Tong's latest vehicle's musical vision is a vaudevillian one which lurches rather uneasily between ponderous Pentangle goth-folkiness (at their worst) and mannered 60s psychpop (at their best), set closer 'You Don't Have To Be Lonely' pleasingly recalling something from The Coral's first record. More curious still is exactly why they've chosen to half-inch the chorus to The Connells' '74-75' for their own 'Trouble In Mind'...
The Besnard Lakes' last album, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, couldn't have been much more aptly named. They came from out of nowhere to steal up on the rails and - if you'll allow me to rewrite history as it should really have been written in the first place - claim the #1 spot in the SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2007. From the instant the gentle strumming, violin and falsettoed opening couplet ("Baby, I've got some words for you / When you get up in the afternoon") of 'Disaster' hit my ears, I was utterly smitten and realised - not for the first time - that I'd forever owe a debt of gratitude to the esteemed blogger who'd pointed me in their direction.
Skip forward three years and there was no chance whatsoever that ... Dark Horse's successor The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night was going to catch me unawares. What could potentially have been a major let-down has turned out to be a triumph - another masterclass to all the current legions of lame chancers on how to take My Bloody Valentine's legacy and do something genuinely interesting and creative with it. Inclined almost as much to post-rock and baroque pop as to shimmering shoegaze guitar washes, Besnard Lakes songs are carefully textured, rich and enveloping, and seem to exist in their own universe, operating according to their own rules and at their own stately pace.
At the heart of the band are a husband and wife combo - guitarist/vocalist and Les-McQueen-gone-to-seed-in-a-cowboy-shirt Jace Lasek playing the Thurston Moore to woolly-hatted bassist Olga Goreas's Kim Gordon. At first Goreas isn't quite in sync with drummer Kevin Laing, and neither is the sound perfect, the dramatic shifts in opener 'Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent Pt 2: The Innocent' somewhat blurred.
Meanwhile, 'Devastation' - which on record gives The Arcade Fire's 'Wake Up' a run for its money in the sounding fucking ENORMOUS stakes - might have been expected to shake the walls and rip the roof off, but it comes across a little tame, shorn of the extra instrumentation and choir of the recorded version. Perhaps what we're witnessing is only going to underline the importance of the production craft of Lasek and Goreas? Perhaps, outside the studio, the band are the proverbial fish out of water?
But, as the set segues through recent single 'Albatross', 'Land Of Living Skies Pt 2: The Living Skies' and bobbing rocker 'And This Is What We Call Progress', there's a subtle but incremental improvement. And, by the time we arrive at the aforementioned 'Disaster' and its splendid and similarly epic cousin from ... Dark Horse 'And You Lied To Me', they're firing on considerably more than all four cylinders, the magnificence of their records replicated to awesome effect.
But - "thanks" to the fact that Tunng are to follow and so they've only got a short slot - that, sadly, is that. As if I needed another reason to dislike the headliners...
So we flee the Arnolfini before Tunng unleash their surfeit of wacky instruments on us, and I find myself wondering why. Why aren't The Besnard Lakes better known? Why has their genius largely only been recognised by the critics? Why the hell are they being forced to play second fiddle to Tunng? And then I'm reminded of the words of Lasek's alter ego: "It's a shit business". That it is, Les, that it is.