Review | All Tomorrow’s Parties

ATP

ATP, Minehead Spring 2012

So here we are at All Tomorrow’s Parties, the festival in a holiday camp so beloved of the tent-n-mud-averse musos of a certain ilk. This particular Party, curated by Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, seems at first glance to be fanboy heaven – not just Mangum but Sebadoh, Scratch Acid, Jon Spencer, Thurston Moore, ex-Minutemen etc.: hey, just gimme indie rock! – but our mission here is to redress the balance and seek out the girls.

Luckily there are plenty of bands besides the obvious female-fronted acts that include women musicians (drummers, guitarists, violinists, cellists) in their line-up, as if we really were living in a world where women in music weren’t just decorative fluff but experts in their field. There are many great girl moments over the weekend: not just getting to see all-grrrl heroines The Raincoats, but also witnessing the sheer pizzazz of Yoshimi P-We and her cohorts of massed (and a good proportion female) guitarists of the frankly staggering Boredoms ; Low’s Mimi all a-glitter with her spangly drums and Elena of The Fall beaming beyond her keyboards; the strange but wonderful Yamatanka//Sonic Titan girls, all drama and magic and Noh make-up; the fiddler in Thurston Moore’s band, complementing his top-end harmonics with her scrape and thrum; Claudia and Shirley, the warm and witty women who sing, ukulele and autoharp for Magnetic Fields… Yup, the path we wove through the festival, collectively and separately, resulted in some very happy – and at times rather over-excited – thegirlsare.

Young Marble Giants are a curious proposition to someone unfamiliar with their recordings. We can well imagine how much those who’d first fallen for their sweet slow minimal precision decades ago would have sold their firstborn to be here tonight, but coming at this fresh is an entirely different experience. So while we can see the love in the air, can feel the nostalgia and the excitement reverberating in the room as if they were extra harmonics in the stately bass-lines and two-note keyboard melodies that trip themselves lightly into YMG songs, we are also at one remove from the thrill. We’re not getting all there is to this experience. Alison Statton’s vocals might ring with unaffected/un-effected charm but we can hear echoes of all that came after them and not how gloriously, prettily, plain they must’ve sounded in a world of shouty punks or disco divas. This is all new, truly new, not futuristic thirty-plus years old new and, as such, we find ourselves wondering what this delightfully simple music, these child-like synth-plunked melodies, these tunes that bounce with unadorned naivety would sound/feel like played for the first time by actual youth, rather than (extremely cheerful and clearly delighted) oldsters. This is Youth without youth; intriguing, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking in its poignancy. While we’re charmed, we find ourselves regretting our unfamiliarity with Colossal Youth and wanting to go back a couple of decades, gen up and come back soaked in years of loving this stuff.

The Raincoats, YMG’s almost exact contemporaries, are a slightly different matter in that their songs, their style, their sounds are more immediately recognisable; they haven’t the elemental strangeness of YMG. But they too are affected by the particular and slightly disquieting experience of watching songs dreamt up by scrappy young things played out so many years later by the comfortable middle-aged. What does this mean, this age thing? What does it mean, particularly, for songs that are drenched with inexperience and excitability and fantastic, creative ineptitude, to be played again – note for note – by the older versions of their creators?

Well, for a start, the Raincoats are not note-perfect! Hurrah! They re-start songs, only remember to turn on amps three songs into the set, trip up and fluff up… but this is great. They are having fun. The audience is fond and smiling and forgiving. They play the whole of their 1981 album, Odyshape, with gusto. The scrappiness remains; they are bursting with unfettered enthusiasm, as far from proficient cock rock as a skateboard from a Lamborghini. Whether this is quite enough to make them marvellous is debatable: their age-old cover of ‘Lola’ is still stroppily ace – cheerful, dirty, ratcheting the sexual ambiguity up a notch or two from the Kinks’ original – and the sound of Vicky Aspinall’s fiddle is as full of itchy joy as ever, lassoing new wave to its folk allies. But live and in 2012, the Raincoats don’t appear quite as peculiar a thing as the recorded Odyshape does, with its curious, musicologically-savvy demotic harmonies and percussion (Charles Hayward and Robert Wyatt both contributed) and its subsequent cult-status among the indie it-crowd of two decades ago. There’s too much noise, both cultural and aural, and not quite enough poise. But that’s how these things go: reforming and performing (and Raincoats have been playing together again on and off since Kurt Cobain’s championing of them in 1992) without new material does funny things to a band and to its audience.

And so to The Fall, another outfit contemporaneous with YMG and The Raincoats, but with the crucial difference that this one, this rolling rock of ages, this mutating beast, has come snarling and lurching down the years since the late 70s in a state of continual revolution. The Fall is not here to feed nostalgia-bunnies; there’s no pandering to the warm and fuzzies. They may play old material – they have several entire careers’ worth of back catalogue to pick from – but they’re here as a current outfit not to feed the ATP look-back bores.

How does The Fall fit into the thegirlare remit? They could appear as male as they come; the notorious online Fall forum is thick with “I found a Fall track that the missus likes!” comments. To which, well… ugh.  But times change; the last couple of times we’ve seen them the crowd has been noticeably mixed, including here at ATP where the hipster girls in bird-print dresses are shaking their hair to ‘Psychic Dancehall’ as if they knew every note. And it’s right and fitting that they are, because despite the grumpy-old-manness of their long-term fans (and we say this with considerable affection for Fall fans; if someone likes the Fall you know you’re in for an interesting ride) the band itself has never been “boy ”. From the very start there have been capable women involved: Una Baines, Marcia Schofield, Kay Carroll, Julia Nagle and several others are among the great roll call of the Fallen, not forgetting – how could we forget?! – MES’s ex-wife Brix Smith with all her sparks a-flying, and his current wife, Elena Poulou, who has been with Smith and the band since 2002. It’s actually quite something for a long-running band to have included so many women in such a low-key and unremarkable way, as if (here we are again) women just belonged in bands. So we’re claiming The Fall for the girls are whether they like it or not.

And Elena is fantastic. Pretty, petite and chic, she marches onstage in a classy coat and plays her keyboard with a handbag tucked under her arm the entire time, as if being in The Fall were a drinks party which she deigns to grace with her presence, all politesse and sparkle. She is endlessly patient with Smith who is up to his usual knob-fiddling tricks throughout the set, turning guitarists down and adjusting mics, and, during uproarious closer ‘Sparta FC’, banging out duff notes on her keyboard while she is trying to hold down the riff, all pretty horrible until he eventually finds a line to stick to. And through all this, she is smiling sweetly at him, a marked difference from the poker-faces of the long-suffering guitarists. The set ends with Smith cackling and Elena whooping, an arm flung up in triumph. Perfect.

If you don’t like the Fall or recognise none of these songs you’d be forgiven for hearing nothing but Smith’s tuneless drawled yelps and the din of a riff-based rock’n’roll band trying to stay afloat; you’d have good reason to believe that the gnarled old man who prowls the stage bothering the help in dress trousers and shiny shirt – looking every inch the Butlins performer on home turf but sounding anything but – has an increasingly tenuous relationship with functionality within the unit. Fair enough. But afterwards the talk is that the band are on top form: they play a happy-making mixture of old and new songs, the current line-up is stable and tight and they’re not in the least bit murderous towards each other. ‘I’ve Been Duped’ is a splashy/thrashy Elena-led bop. ‘Bury’, with its stupendous percussive backbone, grinding riff and double-dose of synthy sneer is simply awesome, a recent Fall song that stomps its way to classic with every shouted chorus. Above all, they are clearly revealed as a total groove fest, a trancey, motorik monster that has the packed venue in a sweaty moshing roil; they are, in fact, a great big shiny dance band! It must be Butlins. Carry on Falling, Mr and Mrs Smith, carry on.

Friday ends with boys rocking out: Thurston, David Yow, Jon Spencer, Watts and Hurley… It’s all a big dark guitarry whirl and we go to bed happy.

SATURDAY

Saturday is a breeze compared to Friday’s schedule-clash anxiety. The afternoon is full of the miraculous Boredoms and once their mega-kit is cleared off stage (it takes over an hour either side of their performance to do this) we wander back up to Centre Stage to watch Joanna Newsom, all alone with her harp on a big dark stage. It seems wholly appropriate that she plays before a black cloth dotted with stars to a packed and hushed house; she’s all about the beauty and wonder. She is almost unbelievably lovely: she wears her pretty dresses and her Alice in Wonderland hair down and the girls are photographer, Michele, confesses to being mesmerised by her glitzy heels, stamped with elegant precision onto harp pedals. Not that her loveliness (musically or otherwise) is uncomplicated and, OK, so you might have to work at getting over the voice; if you think that this is all contorted affectation then you’re going to struggle to fall in love as you should. But once you do, oh! Newsom catches up the strings of our heart and strums them into submission. Her songs (indeed, her sets) are rolling wonders, streams that sparkle and run, sometimes eddying round a particularly pretty phrase but then hurrying on, never to return to it. Her lyrics are a delight; she spins a silken string of meticulous bons mots for the crowd to hang on; we have skeins of words looping round our heads for days after: “And down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender, you and I, and a love so tender/Stretched-on the hoop where I stitch this adage/Bless our house and its heart so savage …”

There’s a uniformity to the texture of her songs that makes both her sets, although she doesn’t repeat herself, somehow monochromatic despite the tumbling iridescence. Sometimes we recognise tracks, sometimes it’s just the narrative that holds us, but it’s clear that Joanna Newsom, for all her winsome ways, is no simple soul. The textual complexities of her songs both belie the peculiarly childlike quality of her voice and reinforce the sense of a small wide-eyed someone screwing their face up in a huge effort to wring just the exactly the right words out of themselves. It’s a trick that perhaps only Björk amongst Newsom’s contemporaries manages to pull off. Catch her if you can.

Lucy Cage

The girls are were lucky enough to see Low play last year during their tour promoting their 9th studio album C’mon. Despite seeing them so recently we could not have been more excited for this set at ATP. Originating from Minnesota, Low consist of founding members Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk and newer addition Steve Garrington on Bass.

“Any Syrians out there? This one’s for Syria” is Alan Sparhawk’s first address as he appears on stage in a white T-shirt and blue jeans. This politically-tinged greeting adds to the characteristic tension present in Sparhawk’s stance and voice during the first song played ‘Nothing But Heart’. This tension, whatever the cause, continues to spill through the set to varying degrees, tempered only by Mimi’s divine voice and considered drums. Sparhawk’s distorted guitar drones are broken up by Parker’s heartbreaking crystalline harmonies and steady rhythm, giving the impression that without Parker to reign him in, Sparhawk would get lost in noise, such is the power of the duo’s dynamic. Please don’t take this as criticism, the slight tension that exists throughout Low’s live sets is what makes them (to these ears at least) one of the most accomplished live bands in the world.

Low’s set consists mostly of song from 2011’s C’Mon, but they play one new song where Sparhawks brings out a Les Paul Gold Top guitar and a melody that gets stuck in my head for the rest of the evening. The rest of their set is made up of a handful of material from older albums. There seems to be slightly less joy in the playing of C’Mon’s songs than the rest, forgivable considering how many times they’ll have played these songs over the last year or so.

Watching Low always brings the girls are to a place of reverence; they work with silence and space in a way few other artists know how. This is demonstrated perfectly with ‘Shame’, our highlight of the set; a heart-bleeding song from second album Long Division (just re-issued on vinyl- good news for all us Low geeks). Such is the sparseness of this performance that electronic act Blanck Mass could be heard through the floorboards from the room downstairs. Thankfully the interruption was minimal.

A mention must be made here of Mimi Parker’s voice, often overlooked in reviews. Understated and full of integrity, it really finds itself tonight in the performance of ‘Especially Me’ towards the end of the set.

Sparhawk’s most amusing stage talk was an invitation to join him for a run at 1pm outside Butlin’s gates ‘depending on how tonight goes’. The girls are would have been tempted but for the fact we only brought 80s jewelled slouch boots this weekend, nothing to do with our fitness levels of course! We later find out that the run did in fact take place, Alan gathered a 30 strong crowd for a run along the Minehead seashore.

Low’s performance tonight ends with ‘From Your Place on Sunset’, a stunning hazey song that was the B-side to ‘Murderer’ and later appeared on the Drums and Guns album. A fittingly beautiful ending to a perfect set that left us very excited for their show at Royal Festival Hall on April 3rd. Get there if you can.

Elisabeth Oswell

SUNDAY

There’s really only one band on Sunday we need to see once we’ve had our heads rattled in a second round with Boredoms and that band is Versus.

Versus is mythical. No reconstituted cash-in, these indie-rock Goliaths never stopped (for too long anyway), yet they’re so very hard to find, marking up around four shows a year. Catching them at the Jeff Mangum-curated ATP, we feel like we’re seeing the Last Unseen Band.

Versus is a fight. Two boys versus two girls, a divided band with empty spaces inside, they emit the frequencies of some fraught history. They open with the sombre ‘Deep Red (Hatchet Murders)’, a perverse introduction to such a long-awaited dream-guitar-pop display. And their clipped, depressed 2012 take on ‘Glitter of Love’ with its defiantly swallowed hook makes us wonder, what has happened here?

Versus is shy. Oblivious to devotion, guitarist Richard X. Baluyut mutters self-effacingly between songs, bassist Fontaine Toups and drummer Ed Baluyut seem nervous, and keyboardist Margaret White stays out of it. They’re not helped by a haphazard sound, and it looks like they can’t hear each other. Yet they don’t hesitate to drop the cheeky pop bomb of ‘Lose That Dress’. No-one said the shy can’t be outrageous.

Versus, a word so ubiquitous as to be barely visible on the internet – they might as well have called themselves the. But bands born in 1990 had no prescience of their potential place in a global morass of zeroes, ones and optimised searches. Will they always be out of reach, even when they’re right in front of our eyes?

Versus is the sound of unrequited love, yet they make the melodies that stay and stay. Throughout the first half of their set we can’t help wondering if they’re gonna pull through… but they do. They pull through with the hits. When Fontaine takes the lead vocal on ‘Forest Fire’ there’s a turning point, and she emerges phoenix-like to take on the rest of the set, including the vulnerable, damaged ‘Blade of Gras’s. Four tracks from The Stars Are Insane, three from Secret Swingers, one from On the Ones and Threes, but with so many glimmering tunes they never played, we’re left wistful and wanting.

Versus wins with the gorgeous tunes. And we demand a rematch.

Karren Ablaze!

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