Archive for March, 2008

Gig Review: The Twilight Sad @ The Night & Day Café, Manchester, 24th March 2008

The Twilight Sad @ The Night & Day CafeAfter the sparsely populated gig at The Phoenix back in September, it was great to see that there was an excellent turnout on what was a quiet, chilly, Easter Monday in Manchester. Openers Laymar did a fine job in warming up the crowd with their all-encompassing post-rock, though JustHipper was rolling her eyes at the sound of the dialogue from a radio transmission during the first song – a feature of the set that she had predicted beforehand. She’s not a fan of the genre but she knows how these things work. Nothing that could be labeled as “post-rock” has set my heart racing in the last few years and, though I love a bit of Mogwai, Godspeed and Labradford, I rarely find myself listening to them these days. Laymar managed to rekindle some of my interest and, despite some initial scepticism, I ended up really enjoying their set, especially the epic, resonating guitars of the lengthy closing number.

The first thing that struck me about The Twilight Sad as they launched into the opening “walking for two hours” was the uncanny resemblance frontman James Graham has to Ian Curtis. Not just his looks, but the way he holds the mic and the unflinching intensity of his performance. This had obviously occurred to other members of the audience as ironic shouts for “She’s Lost Control” and “Transmission” were bandied about at the end of the song. “Yeah, I know what you mean” admitted the singer. Instead they played “that summer, at home I had become the invisible boy”, a classic in its own right, which saw Graham snarling his vocals in the general direction of his guitarist, who was producing waves and waves of beautiful noise from his instrument. It was a thrilling opening salvo, and the band didn’t let up. At The Phoenix, Graham had spent the entire gig facing in any direction but towards the audience. Here, there were a few tentative glances in the first couple of songs but he soon gained the confidence to confront the audience straight on and even became quite chatty between songs, apologising for their “shite” performance at that earlier gig and reminiscing about being in the Night & Day on a previous trip to Manchester to see Morrissey at the Arena.

The wall of noise the band create live is pretty remarkable given that their are only four of them, though I did spot a laptop lurking towards the back of the stage, and their were definitely some sounds in there that weren’t being generated by any of the band members. A couple of new songs were played and sounded very good indeed but it was the closing duo of “i’m taking the train home” and “cold days from the birdhouse” that really impressed, the fierce a capella opening of the latter bringing the hairs on the back of my neck to attention. It was a fairly short set, and there was no encore, but I doubt that many people there left unsatisfied. There has been talk of a mini album release in the summer, comprising new tracks and re-recordings of some Fourteen Autumns… tracks, so it looks like the release of a new full blown long player is a long way off, which is a shame as with a full complement of new material at hand, the Twilight Sad live experience is likely to get even better.

The Twilight Sad – i’m taking the train home

The Twilight Sad – cold days from the birdhouse

Posted by The Ledge on 27th March 2008 at 10:31 pm | comments (10)
File under Gig Reviews,mp3,Reviews,twilight sad.

CD Review: Colin Meloy, Colin Meloy Sings Live! (Rough Trade, 2008)

Colin Meloy sings Live!Ahh, Colin Meloy. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I harbour a particular fondness for The Decemberists. I’ve seen them live on a number of occasions and enjoy the theatricality of their performances and the sheer amount of activity on stage and the mad swapping of instruments. As Colin Meloy has never brought his solo show (and hence, the chance to buy his solo tour-only EP’s – grr!) to the UK, scratchy bootlegs aside, we’d never had the opportunity to assess what one of his solo performances would be like.

Funnily enough, on his first solo album, Colin Meloy Sings Live!, we do, indeed, get the opportunity to hear him singing, in, shockingly enough, a live setting. The album is Colin, his guitar and an audience. It’s nice. He’s warm, he’s personable, he’s often very funny, and he gets the chance to showcase some of the quieter Decemberists songs that the band do not often play; songs which, to be honest, if they did play at a gig, I would wonder why they were playing them. Songs like, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” and “The Bachelor and the Bride” which would slow down the momentum of a Decemberists gig, as those are usually quite upbeat and festive, but which in this setting really brought out the stories in the lyrics. The tone is, as it must be when it’s just one guy and an acoustic guitar, distinctly more toned-down. Colin himself tells the audience that he wants a “campfire” vibe and he encourages a singalong, although you can only hear the crowd on the few occasions when he stops singing and lets them take over.

The live show, along with enabling him to showcase some of the quieter Decemberists moments, also gives him the opportunity to play a couple of non-Decemberists tracks including an old Tarkio song, “Devil’s Elbow” which sounds like something Mark Kozelek might have written in his Red House Painters days, and some covers, most notably “Barbara Allen” by Shirley Collins, from his tour-only EP Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins. Strangely, on this track, he tells the crowd that on CD it has electric guitars and they should headbang in order to capture the harder feel he wants to evoke. Now, in my mind, if he can’t capture the song the way he wants to tell it, then really he should choose a different song. But it sounds nice enough, not having heard the Shirley Collins EP. He also plays what he says is the worst song he ever wrote. It is, in fact pretty bad – easily as bad as he says it is. Bad enough to have me thankful for “The Bagman’s Gambit.”

On the whole, it sounds like a great gig. “Red Right Ankle,” “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground,” and “A Cautionary Tale” come across very well and I found myself struggling not to burst out singing along to “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Red Right Ankle” and “The Engine Driver” as we were listening to the album driving across the Pennines from Leeds. I think my singing would probably have caused The Ledge to drive over the side of the M62, so I held back. As great as the softer songs sounded, “We Both Go Down Together” very much misses the full band, and the strange and sometwhat abrupt segue into the chorus of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac at the end of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” makes very little sense in the context of anything. The segue into a haunting, soft version of “Ask” by The Smiths at the end of “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade” works far better.

Ultimately, as great a performer as Colin Meloy is, both on his own and with The Decemberists, this live CD falls into the same trap as 99% of all live CDs in that listening to a live performance in the car, or sitting at home in your lounge or while cooking dinner, cannot possibly capture the atmosphere of the live performance and as a result always ends up either sounding sterile, or in this case, leaving me feeling like I’ve missed out on something. It’s essentially the same feeling as having a friend describe the amazing night out they had that you missed because you were home sick with the flu. This sensation was doubly emphasized by Colin explaining his stage set and the meaning behind it. While it gives the listener some greater idea of the setting, it also leaves the impression that something gets lost in the telling. I won’t spoil the comedy of the description by recounting it.

So, if you’re a Decemberists fan, this CD is certainly worth the purchase price, especially if you’ve never had the chance to catch them live. The acoustic renditions of the songs more than do them justice and are worth hearing. Ultimately, although I have no doubt that this CD is going to get worn out over the next few months from repeated listens, it just makes me a bit mournful about the tour that was cancelled last October and eager for either Colin on his own, or the whole band, to record a new album and get their backsides over to the UK.

Colin Meloy – The Gymnast, High Above the Ground (Live)

Tarkio – Devil’s Elbow

Posted by JustHipper on 23rd March 2008 at 2:28 pm | comments (0)
File under CD Reviews,colin meloy,decemberists,mp3,Reviews,shirley collins,tarkio.

CD Review: Destroyer – Trouble In Dreams (Rough Trade)

Destroyer - Trouble In Dreams
It’s over two years since the release of Destroyer’s last album, the utterly brilliant Destroyer’s Rubies, but Dan Bejar barely seems to have been away, releasing albums with The New Pornographers, Swan Lake and Hello, Blue Roses in the interim. Though I love his work with the New Pornos, I haven’t heard anything from the other two albums that would convince me to buy them. The release of a new Destroyer album, however, is something I have been looking forward to for some time.

Trouble In Dreams doesn’t throw up any great surprises, and it doesn’t have the consistency, nor the intensity, of Rubies, but it is still an excellent album, as long as you give it the time of day. As with most of his work, central to the album’s appeal (to me at least) are Bejar’s lyrics and his unique voice. Though I haven’t a clue what he’s singing about most of the time, I love Bejar’s lyrics, the way that every once in a while a line will jump out at you from nowhere; and the almost arch manner in which he sings them, a bit like Dylan but with crystal clear enunciation so that you can hear each and every word. He seems to acknowledge the cryptic nature of his lyrics on the low-key, and ultimately disappointing, opener “Blue Flower/Blue Flame” when he teases the listener with “I’ll tell you what I mean by that / maybe not in seconds flat / maybe never”.

Second song in the album really gets going with the exhuberant “Dark Leaves Form A Thread” and builds from there. The gorgeous “Foam Hands” is one of the most straight forward, uncomplicated songs that Bejar has ever written, and one of the best. It’s followed by “My Favourite Year” which starts with a delicious guitar riff and halfway through has Bejar yelping the line “beware the company you reside in” over and over. Either side of this outburst are two cracking verses that contain the finest vocal melodies on the album and more of Bejar’s obtuse lyricism (“let me just sit here and eat these almonds”). But these are just appetisers for the main course which arrives at the album’s mid-point in the form of “Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape)”, an eight minute slow-burning epic that builds and builds and has another wonderfully simple guitar part running through Bejar’s words like a fresh water stream through a dense forest. It’s also full of the sort of lines that can jump out and hit you square in the face should your attention have been caught wandering – “Saw you down in Strathcona Square devouring an After Eight” (what’s with all the eating?) and “It’s not that I quit. It’s not that my poems are shit” being of particular note.

There’s no way left but down after this and the album tapers off, never again reaching the heights of those three previous songs. “Introducing Angels”, “Rivers” and “Leopard Of Honor” are all excellent but “Plaza Trinidad” and the closing “Libby’s First Sunrise” have yet to really sink in, though I’m sure I’ll warm to them eventually.

Trouble In Dreams is unlikely to bring in too many new fans in the way that Rubies did, but existing fans will probably devour it. Like an After Eight.

Destroyer – Foam Hands

Destroyer – My Favourite Year

Posted by The Ledge on 21st March 2008 at 1:17 am | comments (2)
File under CD Reviews,dan bejar,destroyer,mp3,Reviews,trouble in dreams.

Gig Review: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone @ Charlies, Manchester, 13th March 2008

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone @ Charlies, Manchester
I was hoping to bring you a review of Neil Young’s Apollo gig last Wednesday but my attempt to buy a ticket on Scarlet Mist fell through at the last minute. In stark contrast, on Thursday night we found ourselves in the rather tawdry surroundings of Charlies, a small bar at the bottom of a side street off Princess Street in the centre of Manchester. Tickets for the Neil Young gig were a whopping £75, a price that put me off when they were first released but I relented after I read a few reviews of Young’s tour – after the Apollo dates had sold out. Still, that left me with £75 to spend on a Leonard Cohen ticket. Expect a post/rant about the ridiculous cost of gig tickets in 2008 any day now.

The Casiotone tickets were about a tenth of the cost of the Neil Youngs and Charlies was full of the sort of serious looking indie types that we’ve come to expect from a Pineapple Folk gig, along with a couple of wasted tramps who had managed to somehow breach the fearsome Pineapple Folk security. Fortunately, the tramps didn’t cause the mayhem that I was half expecting. They danced to support band, The Rosie Taylor Project, a quiet five-piece from Leeds who, JustHipper and I agreed, sounded “nice”, which isn’t a great complement, but they did. The songs were melodic and undeniably twee although the band were missing a guitarist who, hopefully, would have added some balls to their sound, though I’m not sure there would have been any room for him on the tiny stage.

There was plenty of room for Casiotone For the Painfully Alone as he is just one man, Owen Ashworth – albeit quite a big man: think Keith from The Office crossed with E from Eels. He had a pretty bad cold and began by apologising, which prompted heckles to “get on with it” from one of the resident tramps, much to Ashworth’s chagrin. You could hear his voice breaking up in the opening “Cold White Christmas” but it made the performance even more affecting. Ashworth’s vocals tend to range from deadpan to morose but the tiny cracks in his voice speak volumes in his sad, but often funny, vignettes of smalltown life and love. The only problem with the early part of the set was the lack of volume, with his vocals being occasionally drowned out by the beats and beeps from the small array of electronic devices set out before him, especially during “Nashville Parthenon”. When he wasn’t singing he was hunched over his electronics, applying real-time effects to sequences, triggering samples and playing chords on what seemed to be a tiny keyboard.

The volume picked up when Jenn Herbinson took to the stage to sing a few songs, including an exquisite “Grandmother’s Pearls”, excellent new song “Ice Cream Truck” and the brilliant “Love Connection”. It was a fine cameo, but Ashworth trumped it by closing out proceedings with a glorious cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, stripped down to its bare bones with just a drum beat, an impenetrable wall of organ and Ashworth’s gruff vocals. Illness may have precluded and encore, and the likes of “New Year’s Kiss” and “Young Shields” were notable for their absence, but it was eight quid very well spent.

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Love Connection

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Cold White Christmas

Posted by The Ledge on 18th March 2008 at 10:33 pm | comments (7)
File under casiotone for the painfully alone,Gig Reviews,mp3,Reviews,the rosie taylor project.

Gig Review: Gary Numan @ Manchester Academy, 8th March 2008

Replicas - Tubeway ArmyIt all started with Gary Numan. On 26th September 1979 my mum took me and two of my three siblings to the Manchester Apollo to see the man whose Top Of The Pops debut a few months earlier had been the talk of the school playground the following day; the jarring, alien nature of Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was like nothing you’d ever heard before. A week later it was number one and for the next few months my copies of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle were never too far away from the turntable. The Apollo gig was my first ever. A few months earlier I’d been given the opportunity by my dad to see Dire Straits at the same venue but had turned it down, knowing that one day the topic of my first ever gig would come up in conversation and that my indie cred might be at stake. My brother wasn’t so lucky.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Replicas the album has been re-released with all the usual extra tracks and Numan is touring, playing tracks from the album as well as the b-sides and rarities that make up those album extras. The last time I saw Numan live was at the first V Festival in Warrington in 1996, during his goth metal phase that I’m not entirely sure he’s out of yet. Prior to that, my brother and I saw him a number of times during the 80s, always at the Apollo, where he would return year after year with a new album and a new look. These shows were always highly enjoyable; they had great sci-fi stage sets with synth players sitting atop huge towers of light and drum risers that rose halfway to the ceiling. By the time he released Strange Charm in 1986 I was rapidly losing interest, my attention now focused on the likes of The Smiths, R.E.M., The Go-Betweens, The Replacements and all manner of exciting indie guitar bands. My brother hung on in there for another decade but I got the impression that Numan’s best days were far behind him.

So, Brother and I arrived at a packed Academy for a night of pure, unadulterated nostalgia. After a half-hearted attempt to get to the bar we found a decent spot about halfway back and watched the last few songs of support band, Daggers. I’d seen Daggers a few years ago at the Roadhouse, when they were called Bureau, and they were pretty good, if I recall. At the Academy they went down very well with the aging crowd,which is not surprising considering that they are exactly the sort of synth pop band that began popping up everywhere in the early 80s on the back of Numan’s inital success. What we saw was, again, pretty good and brought back memories of Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and Human League among others.

Songs aside, I didn’t really know what to expect from Gary Numan. He is prone to drastic rearrangements of his older material, which is understandable if you’ve been playing the songs for 20 years, but I am happy to report that he gave us as faithful a rendition of each song as I had hoped. The atmospheric “Replicas” kicked things off in great style as I struggled in vain to remember the song’s title (my more knowledgeable sibling put me right after the gig). Not the words, though: I was surprised to find that I remembered almost every word to every song on an album I hadn’t heard for 20 years; and most of the b-sides. “Me! I Disconnect From You” was next and it was great to hear it again as it’s one of Numan’s very best with its brilliant synth melodies and soaring vocals. Unfortunately – and this was the case for quite a few songs on the night – those synth parts that should have been booming from the speakers and filling all four corners of the room, were all but drowned out by the bass and guitars. Numan’s vocals were excellent, however, sounding better than they did back in the day, and it’s fair to say that, despite the fact that this gig was taking place on his 50th birthday, he barely looked a day older than he did in the late 80s, at least from where I was standing – I’ve no idea exactly how thick a layer of foundation he was wearing.

Despite the minor gripes about the sound almost everything from Replicas was a great success and went down a storm with the crowd, particularly the menacing “Down In The Park” and the guitar-driven power pop of “You Are In My Vision”. Interspersed between the album tracks were the b-sides and other songs from the same era. “We Are So Fragile” and “We Have A Technical” were two of the high points of the night while “The Crazies” and “Do You Need the Service?” were less successful.

After a slight mid-set lull, exacerbated by having instrumentals “I Nearly Married A Human” and “When The Machines Rock” played in close proximity, the set gathered great momentum to reach its inevitable conclusion of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”. Again, the guitars smothered what is Numan’s most well known and influential synth riff, though his vocal performance was as close to the original as you could get, only the annoying “whoa-o”s from the audience putting a dampener on things, drowning out yet more marvelous synth work.

We were left wondering what he had left to play for the encores when he came out to announce that it was 10:30 – the exact time he was born 50 years ago. Cue the surprise appearance of the wife with birthday cake, the rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the thousand strong audience, and a few tears from the man himself. He muttered a few words of thanks before launching into “Cars” – slightly off the gig’s chosen path but as rapturously received as you would expect. Then we got “Every Day I Die” from Tubeway Army’s eponymous debut and another great jolt of nostalgia from a song that I won’t be hesitating to put forward when The Guardian’s Readers Recommend section finally gets round to Songs About Wanking, which should be any week now.

He finished up with, I believe, “Prayer To The Unborn” from Pure, released well after I jumped ship but sounding pretty darned great and fitting in well with all that had come before. Still, I won’t be rushing out to buy those later albums; there may be some decent songs there but they won’t come attached with wistful links to my formative years. Should Numan tour, say, The Pleasure Principle or Tubeway Army or Warriors or Dance, then I’ll certainly be back to see him.

Tubeway Army – Me! I Disconnect From You

Tubeway Army – We Have A Technical

Posted by The Ledge on 14th March 2008 at 5:18 pm | comments (4)
File under gary numan,Gig Reviews,mp3,rampant nostalgia,replicas,Reviews,tubeway army.

Gig Review: MGMT @ The Night & Day Café, Manchester, 1st March 2008

It would have been nice to end a great week of gigs on a high, but it wasn’t to be. We bought tickets to see MGMT at the Night & Day as soon as they came out on the understanding that the brilliant Scottish trio Frightened Rabbit would be supporting. A few days before the gig Frightened Rabbit disappeared from the listing on the Night & Day’s website and we were left umm-ing and aah-ing as to whether we should bother to go at all. The weather was shit for a start: it was pissing down and freezing cold, but we eventually made a break for the bus stop and arrived in town with enough time to grab a margarita at Rodeo in the Northern Quarter. We hadn’t been to Rodeo for a good few months but in that time they seem to have completely forgotten how to make a decent margarita, which, for a bar that specialises in margaritas, is worrying. No wonder there weren’t many people in there at 9:00pm on a Saturday night.

Later, at the Night & Day, lone support band, Virgin Passages, singularly failed to capture the imagination of a packed audience, and it was no wonder with them being a quiet six-piece experimental folk combo from London supporting some psychedelic electro popsters from Brooklyn. We were standing close to the stage but could barely hear them over the collective indifference of the vast majority of the crowd, though what we did hear sounded ok.

MGMT didn’t sound much like the psychedelic electro popsters we were expecting. They sounded pretty dull, to be honest, more conventional indie rock than anything, with guitars being the dominant instrument in their live sound rather than the keyboards and sequencers that seem to dominate their records. “Time To Pretend” had none of the sparkle of its recorded version, with its signature synth riff lost somewhere in the poor sound mix. The 70s disco of “Electric Feel” fared a little better but by then the night had defeated us. JustHipper was not enjoying it at all and was convinced that every song sounded exactly like The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”; obviously the effects of a bad margarita. We left after about six songs. At least the rain had stopped by then.

MGMT – Time To Pretend

What we missed:

Frightened Rabbit – The Modern Leper (from the forthcoming album Midnight Organ Fight)

Posted by The Ledge on 8th March 2008 at 12:45 am | comments (12)
File under frightened rabbit,Gig Reviews,mgmt,mp3,Reviews,virgin passages.

Gig Review: Band Of Horses, The Cave Singers @ Manchester Academy 2, 24th February 2008

We arrived at the Academy 2 the Sunday before last, full of anticipation. Not just for Band Of Horses, who were excellent at the Music Box last year despite Ben Bridwell pulling a strop towards the end, but with The Cave Singers’ brilliant debut Invitation Songs being on heavy rotation at Indie Cred HQ, we were expecting as much from the support as from the headliners.

The Cave Singers @ Manchester Academy 2
We arrived in time to catch the last couple of songs from Tyler, who turned out to be a member of Band Of Horses and was very impressive, playing some beautifully laid back country rock and providing excellent vocals and guitar. I kind of wished we’d got down earlier to catch the rest of the set but The Cave Singers‘ set was soon under way and Tyler was forgotten for the time being as the Seattle threesome went about their business of more than living up to their promise and gaining a whole lot of new fans in the process. It’s incredible to think that this trio come from hearty indie rock stock as their backwoods country sound and look is so authentic. The repetitive, rhythmic guitar patterns of ex-Pretty Girls Make Graves bassist Derek Fudesco is perhaps the key element of their sound, driving the songs along in a such a way that the lack of a bass player in the band becomes irrelevant. Indeed, the guitar part on the opening, gorgeous, “Seeds Of Night” is essentially a bassline played on an acoustic guitar. They sounded just as good live as they do on record, and perhaps even more accessible as Peter Quirk’s voice sounded smoother and much less nasal than it does on the album. The instrumentaion on the album is so minimalistic that it was fairly easy for them to replicate the sound on stage, occasionally adding the likes of melodica, banjo and a hint of synthesiser to their basic drums-and-two-guitars set up. The audience lapped it up and there were huge cheers as they left the stage.

Band Of Horses @ Manchester Academy 2Band Of Horses were on imperious form. They started at a canter with a blazing reading of “First Song” and rarely let up as they blasted through a good selection of tracks from both albums. It was great to see a band enjoy themselves so much on stage; Ben Bridwell looked to be having the time of his life as he threw himself into the songs, while bass player Bill Reynolds – looking like he should be on stage with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the 70s – wore a look of permanent glee. Their obvious enjoyment of the proceedings certainly rubbed off on the audience who grew more vociferous with each passing song. Even faced with a JJ Cale cover followed by an unfamiliar new song, sung by keyboard player Ryan Monroe, the crowd’s ardour didn’t relent, and when a slight lull became apparent during the quiet “Marry Song”, the band followed it up with full on versions of “Ode To LRC” and “Weed Party” that brought any wandering minds sharply back into focus.

There was some light relief in the abortive start to the encore of “Our Swords” when the guitar tech, whose birthday it was, fucked up Bridwell’s bass tuning – a mistake that might have had Bridwell bristling a year ago, but he was all smiles here. Then came the excellent “Window Blues” from Cease To Begin – the best song My Morning Jacket never wrote – and they ended the night fittingly with a storming cover of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy”. Band Of Horses have come on leaps and bounds in the past year or so and, even if you were slightly disappointed by the MOR tendencies of their latest album, live, they are not to be missed.

The Cave Singers – Seeds Of Night

Band Of Horses – Ode To LRC

Posted by The Ledge on 6th March 2008 at 11:31 pm | comments (7)
File under band of horses,Gig Reviews,mp3,Reviews,the cave singers.

Gig Review: Eels at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 27th February 2008

I’m not really sure where to begin this review because it needs to encapsulate not only the stunning performance by Mark Everett (or E) at the Bridgewater Hall last week, but also his recent “Best Of” collection, the b-sides compilation released at the same time, his moving autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, and the documentary he made for BBC4 about his father, the renowned physicist, Hugh Everett.

I remember hearing E’s first single, “Hello Cruel World” on the radio around 1991 or so, back when he was calling himself “A Man Called E.” The single was pretty good, but when I borrowed the album from a friend, I was less than impressed and thought nothing more of it until about 1996 when “Novacaine for the Soul” hit MTV. The song was catchy and unusual, considering everything on MTV at the time was either bad rap or even worse grunge. Something about the too-slick video and the slightly too-trendy indie haircuts on the band made me wonder if they were a one-trick pony, but when I spotted the album for a bargain $7 in Best Buy I bought it anyway. It was much better than I’d anticipated but still had this air of immaturity and lack of seriousness about the songs. “Susan’s House” has always annoyed me a little and there was something overly cute about masquing angst and depression behind comic book descriptions of “beloved monsters.” Nevertheless, when Eels played Lollapalooza that summer on the smaller stage, as we’d shelled out $30 to see James and Tricky, I figured I’d see what they were like on stage. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

For starters, they opened with their big radio hit, “Novacaine for the Soul” doing it as a spoken-word piece, which I thought was immediately gutsy because the crowd of frat boys and metalheads seriously didn’t appreciate it. Then as they worked their way through the album, the songs were almost unrecognizeable, they made everything sound different live. It was unusual, it was playful, and to me it suggested a set of serious musicians who were experimenting with their music, who saw songwriting as fluid and adaptable to their current mood, and it suggested a lack of preciousness and an ability to critique themselves. Other members of the crowd were less appreciative. One fellow, either stupid or just late to the set, kept screaming for “Novacaine for the Soul.” After a few minutes of this E responded by asking “Do you mean this?” and playing the guitar hook. As the crowd screamed “yay!” thinking the band were going to play it “properly” he said “We’ve done that already, you should have got here on time.” Then he made the guy get up on stage and play the jingle bells.

To me that has pretty much summed up what I expect from E as a songwriter. He’s always experimenting with his own songs. Although you may know what to expect from an Eels album, lyrically at least, live it’s a mixed bag. One tour he may bring an orchestra, another he’s in full-on rock mode. Songs get sped up, slowed down, tried in different forms, sometimes renderded unrecognizeable, but it’s always fascinating, entertaining and up-front yet it is never, ever predictable.

One of the things that sets a truly great artist apart from an average one is the ability to really open up and be vulnerable and truthful. Few songwriters achieve it – Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave – and E is amongst these great songwriters. What is more striking, and what comes out in his recent autobiography, is that he doesn’t recognise that in himself. The book is a simple account of his rather unusual upbringing and the chaos, trauma and death that have followed him from the time he was a child. He writes quite plainly about his lack of a relationship with his father, who simply did not relate well to people; the shock of his father’s death; his sister’s depression, her drug problem and suicide; his mother’s battle with cancer; and most of all his long struggle to find himself, to feel worthy of anything, his brushes with drugs, alcohol and the law growing up, and his eventual decision to take a chance on his songwriting abilities. What struck me the most about the book were:

1) his descriptions about how, even now when he has produced some amazing albums, has a large cult following and can sell out venues the size of Bridgewater Hall, he still has to fight to release albums that record companies don’t find “commercial” enough. You don’t mess with genius. Seriously. When big labels die a death it will be in part because of their inability to grasp this, and to admit that sometimes their artists know best.

2) his amazement that artists like Neil Young and Tom Waits see him as a songwriter worthy of their patronage; and

3) his remark that he gets angry mail from fans who say they are betrayed every time he changes his style a little. Do these people really understand his music at all?

This tour was in support, then, of the book as well as a career retrospective which consists of a Best of CD and a two-CD collection of rarities, live tracks and b-sides which really does put the spotlight on how much he tinkers with the sound of his own music. The night, however, started with a showing of the documentary about his father. E was never close with his father and until recently never understood his father’s most important work, which has only been recognised as groundbreaking since his father’s death, nor has he ever really understood his father. In the documentary, he set out to try and grasp not only his father’s work, but to find out more about his father as a person, so he could feel closer to his roots. He succeeds on both counts.

His father was a quantum physicist who took the idea that electrons moving quickly can be in two places at once, to come up with the idea that these electrons emulate all matter which means that, in essence, people can be in two, ten, a thousand places at once. His idea is that for every choice we make, an alternate universe splits off in which we made the other choice, so that an infinite number of alternate realities exist as a result. His theory has seeped into popular culture in science fiction, literature and cinema – Dr. Who leaving Rose Tyler in a parallel world, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s evil vampire Willow being two prime examples. As E spoke to colleagues and friends of his father, the documentary shows him coming to grips not only with the genius of his father, but also with a greater understanding of what made his father into the person he was, uncommunicative with his children and seemingly unhappy. When he finally discovers some cassettes of his father talking he is visibly moved as he is able to connect the man he knew to the personality described by the people who knew other sides of his father. The end result, perhaps, is his admission in his book that he now realises that him and his father are very much the same – very sensitive and emotional but both shy loners who find it difficult to connect with others on a one-to-one level. I suspect the difference lies in the fact that a performer as open and honest as E is not somebody who shuns emotional connection with others, in fact he seems to be constantly reaching out for it, even if he is not always successful.

When E emerged onto the stage around 9pm he was unaccompanied. He was introduced by a voice telling him that “This is your life” so we knew there was going to be a staged element of comedy to the show. He opened with “Railroad Man” from Blinking Lights and played “Ugly Love” on his own, before introducing The Chet, who accompanied him for the rest of the gig, rotating between them through a range of instruments including three different keyboards, guitars, drums and a saw. On the whole the songs were fairly true to their album versions – as much as they could be with only two musicians on stage – except “Bus Stop Boxer” which was, in contrast to the distorted rock of the original, slow, quiet and acoustic.

In between songs E was as charming and funny as ever, thanking us for coming to see the son of a physicist and breaking up the music by reading through first some fan mail which began with two letters praising him and ended with one calling him a “cunt” for not coming to a particular fan’s hometown. Then he read through some reviews, pretending to get upset when they talking about The Chet’s musical prowess before ending with a review of The Eagles, in true comedic form. Then The Chet gave a couple of short readings from Things the Grandchildren Should Know, donning a pair of thick glasses when speaking in E’s voice, driving home the point that this evening was about E as much as Eels and his past and how he’d come to this point.

All the hits were there from “Souljacker” to “Last Stop: This Town” to “I Like Birds” and included what I think is the first rendition of “Novacaine for the Soul” where he actually sang, not spoke, the lyrics. “Flyswatter” even included a great instrumental moment where E and The Chet swapped instruments without missing a drumbeat, E taking over on drums one stick and beat at a time, sending The Chet to the piano, before The Chet came back and resumed his spot. The Ledge was thrilled to hear “Jeannie’s Diary” off Daisies of the Galaxy, which often doesn’t get a live airing, and I was thrilled to hear “Climbing to the Moon” which is one of my favourite moments off Electro-Shock Blues.

So often best of compilations are either a way for a record label to finish a band’s contract or a way to capitalise on a few extra sales from Christmas or some such event, but what this gig highlighted (as well as the CD releases it was promoting) is the depth and breadth of E’s back catalogue and exactly how much his music has seeped into public consciousness – I hear it in TV shows all the time these days. Unlike many artists as well, his songwriting keeps getting better, he keeps pushing himself to experiment with the range of sounds he uses, the musicians he works with and even with various parts of his back catalogue. Far from being an ending point to a great career, it still sounds to me like Mark Oliver Everett is just getting started and I very much look forward to trekking down to the Bridgewater Hall in 30 years time to see him performing forty years worth of hits from what is sure to become a legendary and groundbreaking career.

Eels – My Beloved Mad Monster Party (Live at the BBC)

Eels – I Like Birds (Live)

Eels – Railroad Man