Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Many happy returns


(Forgive the laziness, but this is an unedited version of the review I've put together for the next issue of the local Oxford listings mag Nightshift.)

Before the homecoming heroes, the homecoming heroes. Just as folk has somehow fallen back into popular favour with Noah And The Whale and Mumford And Sons, Jonquil appear to have abandoned the idea of carving out a niche for themselves as a pastoral folk-indie troupe. Tonight the only real nod to their former incarnation as an Arcadian Arcade Fire is holler-along anthem ‘Lions’, received fittingly enough with the biggest roar of the set.

Not that the brighter, bolder Jonquil 2.0 – an unusually on-the-same-page Broken Social Scene merrily marching along to Afrobeat – could be said to be fleeing from fashion. There remain some constants: the strength of Hugo Manuel’s vocals; Kit Monteith’s fluid, loose-limbed drumming; the sextet’s status as one of the most accomplished and consistently fascinating bands Oxford has produced in recent years.

And so to another. Nightshift has long championed the various projects of Yannis Phillipakis, only for his latest to schedule (and sell out) a gig on the same night as our very own Punt. There’s gratitude for you…

Tongue removed from cheek, though, the timing couldn’t really be much neater. Not only have Foals graduated from the local scene in the same way that all those playing the Punt are aspiring to do, but as revered alumni they’ve also gone on to shape it. And you will know them by the trail of influence, and all that. Yannis takes time to express his thanks for our support along the way, even if he can’t quite bring himself to crack a smile.

So, what of the reason that’s brought them back home, second album Total Life Forever? Interviewed in the last issue, Yannis stated “We didn’t feel like we needed to repeat ourselves” and alluded to a new-found appreciation for “the traditional craft of song-writing” – both of which claims seem, on first impressions, to be borne out by the new material.

Every element feels as though it’s on a shorter leash, operating within itself, reined in in the service of a greater good. The portentous swell of ‘Spanish Sahara’ is typical of the album’s grander gestures, but compared to the songs that won them such a fervent fanbase – like tightly-coiled springs, compact but full of potentially explosive energy and force – the likes of ‘This Orient’ come across as (sacrilege alert!) a touch bland. Might ‘Big Big Love (Fig. 2)’, Antidotes’ tantalising toe-dip into electronica-of-sorts, not have signposted a more interesting alternative future?

Perhaps that’s yet to come. For tonight, though, as well-received as the new tracks are, Antidotes continues to supply the cornerstones of the set – the pinpoint rhythms of ‘The French Open’; the whipcrack snare and unexpectedly heavy guitar interchanges of ‘Cassius’ and ‘Two Step Twice’; the exhilarating drum-and-strobe frenzy of ‘Electric Bloom’ – and helps ensure that Foals end the night exactly as they started it: the Crown Princes of Cowley Road.

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