On March 25th, two of our Monitors team ventured out into the dark London streets. By midnight they would both be reduced to pitiful piles of quivering misery, like a couple of catatonic jellyfish. Which is pretty much how Nicholas Burman and Kier Wiater Carnihan end every night to be honest, but this time the cause of their blubbering was not the usual crushing sense of futility, but the captivating melancholia of two of the best musical miserablists around: Angel Olsen and Nadine Shah.
In the blue corner, straight out of St. Louis, it’s ‘Weeping’ Angel Olsen, creator of one of this year’s saddest albums, ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, described by one casual listener as sounding like “a less cheerful Leonard Cohen”. In the other blue corner, Tyneside’s ‘Wailing’ Nadine Shah, creator of one of the last year’s saddest albums, the powerfully dark ‘Love Your Dum and Mad’. But who would prove to be the hostess with the emote-ness? Nick and Kier went their separate ways to find out…
Note: for ease of interpretation, we’ve ranked each gig in terms of tears (how sad it was), cheers (how good it was), and beers (how many we drank during the gig). Not sure why we’ve included that last category, but it rhymes so to hell with it.
Dingwalls is a weird little venue. The ‘feel’ of Camden seems distinctly false around the Lock, a bit like a goth who wears too much black make up to try and scare people, but doesn’t actually do anything that terrifying. The layered floors inside push people into little groups: there’s the ‘been here since doors’ lot at the bottom front and the ‘got here a bit late but still standing my ground’ group just raised behind them. Around the sides there are the likes of myself, who like being able to get to the toilet and bar in an equal amount of time. And then there are the people by the bar, who are, well, here for the bar.
Blog-tipped [although not by this blog – Ed] duo Honeyblood support. Musically they’re a meat-and-veg sort of affair, as duos often are. The drums keep it going, the guitars keep it a bit noisey, but it’s the vocals which intrigue most here, melodies winding around the grunge noise a lot more interestingly than this particular genre’s rebirth usually allows. I’m also a bit of a sucker for Motown-stylised backing harmonies as appear on the likes of ‘Choker’. The issue with bands this minimal is that the song-writing really has to do all the talking, and Honeyblood aren’t quite there yet.
Headliner and recent name-to-drop on the indie scene, Angel Olsen was ready to make the busy London crowd her own (which was a lot more bloke-y than I was expecting. Not in an “oh, there were men there” way, more like, “hmm, there’s a distinct lack of beards and Mi Pac backpacks in this audience”. I half expected some of them to request ‘Wonderwall’ for the encore). On recent album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the production pushes all the instrumentation right to the back of the stereo, making her voice the centrepiece of the record. And rightly so, it’s an intriguing and charismatic voice. Live, she doesn’t need to keep things as restrained. The drums (as is the nature of stuff getting hit) create a forceful noise but Angel, calm and deathly still for most of the show, only takes this as a cue to ensure she gives her voice extra oomph, and in the specific moments where she decides to turn it up to eleven it really makes you take notice.
The idealistic romanticism of her lyrics, especially in highlight track ‘Lights Out’, really comes out live. You feel her songwriting process being recreated, as every inch of lines like “if you really mean it baby stand your ground” sounds eked out of personal experience. Whether those experiences are first person or taken from anecdotes doesn’t really matter, Olsen makes it real. Not that this is fluffy, rom-com action – the tinge of passion is constantly balanced out with a strange sense of misery, Morrissey style (‘Hi-Five’ opens with the line, “I feel so lonely I could cry/but instead I’ll pass the time”).
Her music seems very much in the Americana vein, full of heart-on-sleeve realism and the folk tones of Joan Baez, but the combination of this with the Pitchfork (sorry!) aesthetic of the band, and the strange inclusion of garage rock elements (such as in ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’) probably makes Mac Demarco her closest current comparison – actually, a duet between these two would be ace, can we make this happen?
The highlight of the set is undoubtedly the stripped back, enigmatic performance of ‘White Fire’. The backing band leave the stage, Angel cutting a stilted shape as the repetitive nature of the guitar melody creates an eerie but engaging melodramatic backing for her idiosyncratic vocal style. It hits somewhere between Leonard Cohen’s length and Nick Drake’s melancholy. For the first time all night the crowd is totally silent, hypnotised by the real reason Angel Olsen has become so popular since the New Year. Harking back to my previous point about fewer band members making the songwriting all the more important, well it’s here, when she’s at her most exposed, that Angel Olsen really shines.
To paraphrase Vashti Bunyan, some names just stick in your mind. While we may have mobile technology like Shazam to rely on these days, when you listen to hundreds and hundreds of songs every week it’s impossible to keep track of who the hell they’re all by. Particularly, it has to be said, when a large proportion of them are rubbish. Yet even without meticulously noting and tagging every bit of musical gold that dimly glitters in the stream of shit that floods the airwaves and cascades through my email inbox, my brain will usually delegate just enough memory to help me remember a name, if not the music itself.
Although it’s not always that accurate. Many’s the time I’ve questioned my own judgement when listening to something that I swore I liked the first time but resembles an trough of rotting swill on the rewind. So it was with just a smidgeon of trepidation that I agreed to accompany my flatmate Lauren Geoghegan (who I’m mainly mentioning by name on the off-chance any of you fancy buying some handbags) to see Nadine Shah play XOYO. I knew that I thought I liked her, you see, but couldn’t be completely certain I actually did.
After having decided to listen to Shah’s debut album properly beforehand, I realised before the first track had finished that, yes, I did like her. By the time the album had finished, I really liked her. By the time the gig finished, we were at like² and rising.
Main support James Brute set the scene fittingly, producing an atmospheric wash of feedback with a fellow guitar-toting accomplice before launching into a brief but engaging set. Brute used to be the frontman of recently disbanded rock ‘n’ roll hooligans The Brute Chorus, and while his solo work is significantly less brash, it still has an undeniably ballsy strut – the tags “fuck-blues” and “doom-wop” on his website ring true enough. I really like the first two numbers, Lauren is won around by the last two, and Nadine Shah later professes a fondness for the handclaps and footstomps of the track in between, so it seems there’s something for everyone. What really makes the set though are the gorgeous vintage guitar tones and some perfect vocal reverb, which makes certain heavily-emphasised syllables cut right through the air.
The skill of XOYO’s sound engineer is made even more apparent as soon as Nadine Shah kicks into her opening number, ‘Used It All’, a song that immediately makes the already dark venue suddenly feel pitch black. However, the bleakness is immediately shattered, as it is several times throughout the night, by Shah’s between-song patter. An endearingly nervous smile stretches across her previously downcast face, and her rich, sonorous singing voice is replaced by a chatty Geordie dialect. The contrast between the statuesque gravitas of her stage persona and the self-effacing warmth when she speaks should be jarring, shaking the audience out of their absorption, but instead it’s utterly charming.
Having just returned from touring France, she asks if she can sing the chorus to ‘Dreary Town’ in French, largely to prove to her brother (who’s in the audience) that she can. And by god, she can. Maybe it’s the linguistic switch, but the chorus absolutely explodes in comparison to the studio version – Edith bloody Piaf couldn’t have done a better job. Early single ‘Aching Bones’ then sharpens the atmosphere, with high-pitched piano stabs ringing out like warning bells as the bass rumbles like something horrifying is about to emerge from the floor. As with Anna Calvi, the Nick Cave and PJ Harvey comparisons that follow Shah are a little misleading – both of their voices are too distinctive to draw strong parallels – but this track definitely has a Cave-ish sense of drama, while following song ‘Floating’, a deft exploration of madness, wouldn’t sound out of place on Harvey’s To Bring You My Love album.
However, the dreamlike electronics of ‘All I Want’ show that there are several sides to Shah’s art, while set-closer ‘Runaway’ is simply breathtaking. However, for all that she casually dominates the stage, her band are equally impressive. Looking like deadpan extras from an Aki Kaurismäki film, their combined sense of dynamic control is vital to provide the platform from which her voice can launch. Nothing ever sounds like it’s barging in where it shouldn’t, yet you never have to strain to pick out any particular element either. It’s what helps Shah switch from chat to performance so smoothly – as soon as each song starts it’s like a curtain coming up, and the audience is instantly enraptured once again.
After coming back for an encore and promising that a new album of “howling banshee music” would be on the way soon (“don’t worry, I’m still miserable!”), the band depart to leave Shah to sing a cover of Julie London’s ‘Cry Me A River’. The song’s not a particular favourite of mine, but her treatment of it is typically captivating – when it comes to creating another world with only her voice and a piano, fellow Londoner Dooks is the only one who can challenge Shah right now.
At one point it looks like she’s close to tears – and I’m sure several people in the crowd are too – but she’s soon sporting that familiar grin as she exits triumphantly. Her music may be melancholy, but hearing her play it made me happier than I’ve been in weeks.
Beers: 2 (+ a whiskey)
Kier Wiater Carnihan
Pretentious or non?
Here at The-Monitors we strive to not disappear up our own arse. If, at any point, we have, you can Tweet us thoughtless abuse over at @themonitorscom.