Monday, 21 December 2009

Review: Them Crooked Vultures, Sweethead - London Hammersmith Apollo, 18th December.

Oh, the rock supergroup. Throughout recent history, this coming together of celebrated musicians towards a singular endeavour has given ample opportunity both for expectations to be raised to dizzying, impossible heights and for that same lofty conjecture to be dashed with a dose of crushing realism. Troupes such as the cynically titled Audioslave come to mind, as does Dave Grohl's own ego-foray into collaborating with every metal vocalist of note, under the Probot umbrella. However for every Velvet Revolver there is a Travelling Wilbury's to inspire hope and provide counterweight. Whilst other genres enjoy collaboration freely (and I'm thinking here in particular of electronica's inbred remix culture and of hip-hop's willingness to cross-reference and intertextualise), for whatever reason (though I'd suspect ego plays no small part) rock and metal have embraced this concept with mixed results.

Tonight's gig, the second of two nights at London's Hammersmith Apollo theatre was arguably the hottest ticket in town last week. There is something in this unlikely trio which has captured the collective imagination. For most people, the very chance to witness Dave Grohl undertaking what many consider to be his true calling: playing, sorry, hitting the drums VERY HARD- would be reason enough to pay notice. And while stoner-rock master Josh Homme fronts the ensemble, it's afforded to the only Englishman on stage tonight to truly capture this partisan crowd's hearts. Yes, we're suckers for patronage when given the company of a bona fide British Rock Legend, and it's John Paul Jones' piano trills and smirking bass solos that receive the warmest applause throughout tonight's show.

Opening for the headliners was Sweethead- the outfit assembled by Troy Van Leeuwen (formerly of A Perfect Circle, now recording with Queens of the Stone Age). At a gig like this, it's hard to say to what extent the support band will even be acknowledged, let alone paid attention to. But the underlying tone of the evening is that it's a very cosy affair and having your friends' band to support you was a decent gesture on the part of Homme. But no token one. Sweethead offer a polished rock music, frequently dipping into moments of grungey distortion while never losing sight of melody. The band comprise a tight four-piece with Van Leeuwen grinding his axe to the left and marauding vocalist Serrina Sims stalking the stage. She's an enthralling spectacle, growling and hissing over doomy, thobbing riffs. By the end of their set, the sizeable audience has certainly been convinced.

And so, after the shortest of breaks- John Paul Jones walks onstage and collects his bass guitar from an clearly beaming roadie. Suffice to say, the immediate audience reaction to this sight was one of overwhelming, deafening approval. Grohl strolls out towards the kit, hands aloft, sticks high. Homme saunters casually towards the microphone and is joined by live member Alain Johannes. They don't launch into a track, there is no glitzy introduction. Them Crooked Vultures seem keen to dispell any preconceived notions of expectancy. "We're here to have a good time", extolls Homme, waiting for Grohl's count-in. Album opener "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I" is performed with a swagger, it's easy-blues giving way before long to a juggernaut riff that shakes the entire room. Homme sways as he croons, Jones bounces without ever breaking a sweat and Grohl, my god, is a sight to behold. Staring the audience down, teeth bared, arms and hair flailing- it's an entrancing sight, every beat pronounced with venom, every cascading roll performed with fire.

The first half-hour of their set was an utter joy- songs performed back to back, no respite offered. But, soon after this point- the concert begins to lose it's way, much in the same vein from which the album suffers. With specific regard to their songwriting, TCV have been accused of penning a fairly average record- and although it's certainly a great deal more convincing in a live context, the shortcomings of a limited set soon become evident. I'd personally argue that the album's flaws come from it's dependance toward Josh Homme's songwriting or vocal style. He's got a very particular sound and style, at once coy and bullish. His riffs and melodies are instantly recognisable, and while this is perhaps a decent trait to bear of yourself, a lot of Them Crooked Vultures set plays like Queens of the Stone Age b-sides; an outcome which you feel sells all involved a little short. The band play out the entire debut record and then indulge an 15 minute rendition of new song 'Warsaw' which I enjoyed immensely. Less a piece of articulate songwriting and more one of those jams you might have with all your bandmates at 2am, the track rolls and punches, builds and falls- the improvised nature of the parts bringing the band together onstage, their silent communication clearly evident in nods, smiles and interplay.

On many levels, the very existence of this band is a indulgence; the boyhood dream of playing with an idol, shared by Grohl and Homme. But regardless of justification or cause, the members seem to be enjoying themselves and a large proportion of the crowd leaves believing they've witnessed a special moment in history. Whether or not Them Crooked Vultures's music truly lives up to it's billing seems almost an irrelevance by the end of the show. Yes, half the songs are naff. Yes, Josh Homme has a tendency to overbear. But take it with the whimsy with which it's delivered: when they're good, they're very, very good.

Album of the Year: Charles Spearin - Happiness Project

It is perhaps a disservice to the merit of my chosen album that I should begin extolling it's virtues with a disclaimer, but there's something about 'end of year' lists that doesn't sit particularly easy with me. Subjective responses delivered with the assumption of authority- such declarations of conclusion can seemingly never please everyone, and accusations of bias, clique-ism, or narrow-mindedness usually follow such posts. Arguably, the format serves to inspire debate as much as to cement an album's place in the 'canon of whatever year'. So, it is with these concerns in mind that my choice for Album of 2009 doesn't aim to be the last word on the year's music, nor to allude to the objective 'best'. I've settled on a record which has not garnered mainstream press and is in itself the smallest of statements.

Having cut his teeth in some of Canada's finest (Do Make Say Think, Broken Social Scene, Valley of the Giants) Charles Spearin's solo debut album of sorts is a perfectly formed album of revelatory moments and life-affirming sentiment. Furthermore, you are unlikely to hear an album composed in this style ever again. It started as an experiment: to record audio interviews with the neighbours on his street regarding their perceptions of happiness. Having acheived this, Spearin listened to the recordings over and over- identifying interesting moments of cadence, turns of phrase, incidents where meaning of sentence and musicality of voice uplifted each other. Instrumentation was inspired directly from the inflections in voice that gave it 'a sing song quality'. And so came about eight pieces of music that wove interview and songcraft together with staggering success.

Spearin presses a small cross-section of society on the subject. Schoolchildren, the elderly, a women who has only recently had surgery to correct her deafness, a lady who works with the mentally ill- all give fascinating and articulate accounts, entirely subjective and borne of experience- that each provide small revelatory meditations on one of life's most involving philosophical questions. What is happiness? How does one attain or hold onto it?

The recording was pure chance, and must have been a deeply humbling and engaging process for Spearin and his neighbours. This record was the very antithesis of superstardom, it's composer merely facilitating the creative process. Furthermore, the album pertained to write itself or play out by serendipity. Spearin was a party to the album's compositional unfurling, and had no way of foreseeing how successful, if at all, the project would be. What struck me about this record more than any other released this year is that it sought, perhaps without knowing it, to rearticulate the creative process. What does it mean to be a recording artist in 2009? Whereas certain aspects of culture have only grown more gargantuan, allowing artists to speak to us from pedestals of spectacle and multi-media, the democratisation of recording technology has also allowed for an unprecedented return to music's more community-based roots, music as social glue, as 'event'. What's most lacking in our societies these days is community, and Spearin's album has reflected both the merits of brave experimentation and of talking to your neighbours.

Best track on album: Mrs Morris (reprise).

Opening and closing the record, Mrs Morris wonderful summation of love, happiness and gratitude is here set against dreamy guitars awash with reverb, an underlying beat and a playful Saxophone solo. Simplicity in itself and an utter joy.

Any improvements that could have been made:

Arguably, the album's most succesful moments are those in which the relationship between spoken word and musical turn of phrase are most evident. And certainly, the album is a real curio- released on a small independant and in no way seeking the mainstream approval. As with the artist's recording history- it will reward those who take time to discover it.

Best of the rest:

The XX:

A masterclass in simplicity and 'mood' - something far too many albums seem to have forgotten these days. And it's an excellent album, lyrically beautiful, addictive and unique.

Raekwon - Only Built for Cuban Linx II:

Proper 1995-sounding hip-hop like they don't make anymore. A truly refreshing reminder of class in a genre dominated by Floridas and Lil Waynes.

Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster

Having spent half the year criticising her out of hand, I had something of a Damascus moment. We're now agreed: Alluring, shameless, dirty, self-aware, ironic, disgusting, indulgent, a disgrace and reflection of part of society, art in it's truest sense and truly postmodern pop.

First published in the Sound Screen end of year review.