Gig Review – Villagers – The Electric, Brixton 21/05/2013

On a blustery May evening in Brixton, on the tail end of the longest Winter in living memory, we hurried along to see the critically acclaimed “Villagers” at The Electric. Due to a backlog of albums from 2012 I have yet to pick up their newest LP “Awayland”. If you want the short review of this gig, here it is: I ordered the CD the very next morning.

Appearing onstage to no bombast beyond a cheering audience, lead singer Conor O’Brien opened with a soft finger picking number, to which the audience fell dutifully silent. This was an audience here to listen and absorb. Villagers are a lyric-heavy band and their fans are understanding of this. In return, Conor presents his vocals with a clarity of diction that is often lost in live performances. His stories were well told and we were brought along for the ride with every word.

His vocal is very well controlled, tight on pitch as well as articulation and he manages a good level of control over his break to his oft employed falsetto. The backing vocals from his band mates are well timed and complimentary, never intruding on his monologues. The sound overall was well managed; a solid nod to the sound crew here. Vocals cut through nicely while all the instruments sat open and refined in the hall, and volume was not needlessly pushed. A well behaved audience was of benefit here – a more raucous crowd could easily have drowned out the acoustic led moments, of which there were many.

But more surprising were the rockier moments, which came more often than expected. Primarily from the numbers I didn’t know and therefore assume reside on the new disc. The band manage a tight control over the classic “loud/soft” aesthetic of rock music and a few tracks were treated to a psychedelic outro, with fuzz guitar creeping up along with the vocal reverb to a sonic climax and sudden, jolting stop. These sections served to make the acoustic moments even more intimate, when they inevitably returned to their stripped down storytelling.

The drummer manages a brilliant balance of playing “to the song”, adding flourishes to the tracks without impeding on the all important narratives. The electric guitarist found plenty of manoeuvrability around the tracks and the bass often moved up the frets to add interesting counterpoints. The lead guitarist played the customary game of changing guitars between many of the songs,  whereas Conor stuck to his one, trusty acoustic throughout, sat high on his body for ease of finger-picking.

The new songs seem to be a little more adventurous in terms of arrangements and rhythms, with some great grooves underpinning some of the numbers in the second half of the set.

Conor is a polite front man, and is perhaps fortunate to have the audience he has (although there is a chicken and egg argument to be had here of course). His stage chatter is minimal and far more mumbled than his crystal clear singing voice. On the louder numbers and end-of-song crescendos his body starts to move more freely and I got the feeling he enjoyed these looser moments. Perhaps the need to remember his wordy numbers while playing and singing ties him, metaphorically, to the spot in front of his mic, eyes gazing towards to back of the crowd.

The audience was not a singalong crowd, or perhaps more reasonably, these songs are not singalong numbers. I was surprised by the omission of catchy-chorus led “That Day”, an encore shoe-in I had wrongly assumed. His lyrics are to be taken as they arrive, not pre-empted in the listener’s head and sung back at the band. The last track before the encore “Earthly Pleasures” was the stand out for me. A to-the-point chorus with a story led, near rap-style verse that spun a yarn far too clever for me to follow on first listen. I look forward to getting to know this song on the album.

A great venue, a cold cider and some lovely live music warmed the dreary May night outside. Good work lads!

Albums that matter to me – Volume One

A change for today’s blog. Every so I often I plan to write a selection of mini reviews of albums that have touched and influenced me. These will be albums from any time in my music fandom, and from whatever style takes my fancy.  Round one…



Björk – Vespertine

I am a huge Björk fan. For starters, she is both bonkers and brilliant. Two very good things to be in my book. Her classical background means her melodies often take odd routes around the chords backing her music, treading paths few others would dare take. On this album, perhaps my favourite of hers, the lush backings are simply superb, and proof that electronica can be both warm and a worthy vehicle for intimate, human vocals in popular music. Synths needn’t mean the machines are in control; they are but another sound source alongside guitars, pianos, etc.

And what vocals. Björk sings smoothly are carefully across the arrangements. In places the engineer drops all but the most basic of processing on her voice, and the intimacy of the close mic performances hit home, especially on a good pair of headphones. Breathing, gasping, hell even teeth chattering can be heard in these sections.

Björk is at her most sensual and sexual with this album, in her own way being as personal and upfront about her subject matter as she deems fit. The track “Cocoon” shows her clear yet carefully crafted poetry in action:

He slides inside

Half awake, half asleep

We faint back

Into sleephood

When I wake up

The second time

In his arms


He’s still inside me


Along with the electro, she had stated her intense love affair with the human voice with Vespertine (later in her career to be explored to much greater extremes with “Medula”). The choirs employed in the background of tracks such as “Hidden Place” really lift the production, with wonderful use of Stereo.

“Undo” see’s broken, 8-bit sound employed to musical effect, and the stand out “Pagan Poetry” is particularly sublime. The warm, lush harp against the hard waveform of the synthetic sound melds where it shouldn’t, and vocals are layered without excess rearing its ugly head.

A beautiful example of sound craft and writing coming together.


Sheryl Crow – The Globe Sessions

Her debut album had “All I wanna do” in tow. Her second, self titled LP cemented her to international  stardom with a slew of hits. Both albums I love, but it is her third that will always be my favourite.

Released at the apex of her “cool” period, where the rock chick/chic hadn’t yet succumbed to the more hearty Country references of later albums, this is arguably her most personal work. Her second album showed a penchant for writing about characters rather than herself, but with “The Globe Sessions” it is all about her.

The production is top draw, the nod to the recording studio in the album’s title perhaps a sign of pride here. The production, playing, music and vocals are all the finest in her catalogue. This is what singer-songwritery is all about for me. Each track flows into the next, with a unique sound yet a cohesion that is sometimes lost on albums with a wide range of sounds and players.

Arrangements build and drop. “Am I getting through” is a great example of a track with multiple layers, ending in an almost impromptu sounding punk rock ending, fuzz guitar to the fore.

The Bob Dylan penned “Mississippi” shouldn’t work in the context of the album. The lyrics are dense and clearly Dylanesque. But it does work, a highlight in fact, and the vibe suits the album perfectly, the harsh country edge working in tandem with her multi-tracked rock sound.

“Crash and Burn” is one of my favourite songs of all time. Here I feel she moves away from her (admittedly very good) reliance on pithy couplets, to instead feel each line individually. Each line stands alone.

It’s laughter that comes up when I close my eyes

I left my universe standing there / Holding the hand of my best friend

Love might be great, but why lose your head?

This track is so very good I can even forgive the use of an electro acoustic-guitar on the recording (a personal pet sonic hate of mine!)

A perfect album? Nearly.

In the UK the finally track is a relative dud, “Resuscitation”. The US fares worse, with her cover of “Sweet Child O Mine”. Some songs should simply never be covered.


The Beatles – Revolver

Time for an obvious choice. But these things are obvious for a reason!

So why Revolver? No, it wasn’t an easy choice from the options. But I decided that Revolver has everything I look for in a perfect disc. This album showed them as masters of the Popular song. Yes, they had arguably done this with the preceding year’s “Rubber Soul” (also a stunner) but here, they go one step further. Not only have they mastered the popular song, they started to rewrite the rule book…

Artistry had taken a firm and unshakable grip on the Fab Four. The arrangements were more luscious than ever, and studio techniques meant that they were clearly no longer shackled by the four piece set up of their earlier works, instead layering upwards till the song was complete. Reverse instruments, slowed down tape, electroacoustic addictions… the list goes on. George Martin’s role as the “fifth” Beatles really became undeniable here on out.

Chord sequences hit the sublime. With both “Here, There and Everywhere” and “For No One”, jazz substitutions and descending runs rarely heard in Pop Music before this time begat era defining songs that still sound fresh today.

For No One has a particular place in my heart, and I still cover this song often: Check out my live acoustic version on YouTube here:

Harrison had really gotten to grips with his guitar solos, and guitar sounds in general were becoming more ambitious and brave. “And Your Bird Can Sing” has perhaps the most raucous fuzz of any Beatles track to date and sits wonderfully against the melody lines.

My personal love for headphone listening has always been at odds with The Beatles Catalogue. Save investing in the albums for a third time in their “Mono Remaster” guises, the Stereo is always so very harsh on cans, especially the first half of their catalogue. But this is simply a better excuse to blast the discs from the home stereo!

Revolver is free of padding. Each song is exactly as long as it needs to be before moving politely aside and letting the next track through. The songs are short but never cut short. As writers, we should remember that a song needn’t go past 3 minutes if it has done all it needs to do. In the sixties, they had conventions to help them with this, but, I feel they wouldn’t have extended these pop gems regardless.

Timing errors, Production hiccups and even Yellow Bloody Submarine cannot dethrone this stunning album. The innocence of Ringo’s performance is perhaps charming enough to let it pass, and it is a great kids song. A gateway drug perhaps?

The Stereo Remasters are quite something. Everything is as warm as the original recordings, but the clarity and boost to the general fidelity really lifts the work on modern hifi systems. It puts many remasters to shame (Let’s not get me started on some of the awful late 90s Bowie reworkings!) “Love You To” kicks in with a punch that no recording from 1966 has any right to.

Kudos, Sir George Martin and team for such great work here.