Photos by James Hjertholm (jameshjertholm.com)
Cold Specks is an artist who has experience significant musical development in a very short period of time. She started out with solid songwriting ability, but with the release of her second album, Neuroplasticity, she capitalized on the ability to write more complex arrangements. Backed on stage at Vega by a full band including keys and woodwinds, it’s the new album and the new energy that she wants to put forward, that she wants to make people move.
Yet there are many quieter moments where her songs border on spirituals, especially the a cappella songs (and I’ll go on record saying that I’ll happily buy a record of Cold Specks lullabies, because when she sings a cappella you want her to sing everything a cappella) but there is also a great intimacy to her solo guitar performances. This involves delving into her first album, despite insisting that she rarely plays her older songs, and it’s her older songs that lend themselves more to this feeling, that are weightier lyrically and more minimal in arrangements.
But then she peppers her stage banter with off-handed obscenities and laments that playing guitar requires her to take off the intricate silver cuffs on her wrists, and this lifts some of the earnestness away. The mood in the room is largely positive, the crowd is respectful (which means they’re quiet enough to appreciate the solo songs), and she continues to open up as the set progresses.
There is a moment, however, when the air is sucked out of the room. Cold Specks has worked the protest refrains, “Hands up, don’t shoot, I can’t breathe” into different songs in recent months. Tonight it was in “Blank Maps,” and it’s heavy and heartbreaking because it’s so sadly perfect.
It feels like a turning point in the evening, because the response to “Blank Maps” is so positive, the applause extends noticeably, that from that point forward there is no longer an atmosphere simply of respect but of support. Not even a Nick Cave cover is received so enthusiastically. From then on, it’s clear that she could hit us with whatever she has.
Winter has fallen suddenly on Copenhagen. It’s only in the last week that the temperature dropped those crucial few degrees to make it feel properly cold, that the wind picked up enough to make the cold really bite, that everyone has been chased indoors.
So people clustering themselves in Ideal Bar to see Icelandic trio Samaris seems wholly appropriate on different levels. People are sitting on the floor in a ring, leaving walking space between themselves and the stage. The band, with their downtempo music and gentle movements, inspire similarly subdued reactions from those who are standing. There is no threat of anyone getting stepped on — so much the better for those who have taken off their shoes.
Even though Samaris build their songs around loops and echos like an aural reflecting pool, there is a decided ambient quality to their music. The sounds produced from the table of gadgets manipulated by a floppy-haired boy are mostly subdued, lulling, and even when the beats kick in it’s all very relaxing. The conflicting pattern in “Lifsins Ólgusjór” unfortunately demonstrates how delicate the balance is, how easy it is to throw off the groove, but things fall back into step.
The one other instrument, a clarinet — also looped and delayed — provides an organic counterpoint to the electronics, and to synthesizers in general. It’s really an under-utilized instrument in alternative music. When the electronics angle towards noise, the clarinet is lost, and that applies to the vocals as well. But these are clearly strategic decisions, and singer Jófrídur’s voice is mostly up to the challenge.
What is it about Iceland that produces singers with voices that are atmospheric in their own right? Jófrídur could be the linch pin that pulls the electronics and the clarinet together, but then it all feels like it’s been perfectly slotted together. The sense of what’s been scaled down from what could be — kimonos instead of costumes, fake yoga poses instead of choreography, a cosy bar instead of a theatre — is still tailored specifically to this experience. That if we’re going to sequester ourselves from dark and cold, minimal, chilled out electronica is exactly what should soundtrack the escape. It’s going to be a long winter, and this is a good way to ease into it.
However confessional her music is, Sharon Van Etten isn’t a minimalist singer-songwriter. Her live performance, though uncluttered, isn’t minimalist either. Switching between different guitars and omnichord on each song, she is rarely still for very long, always occupied with tuning or adjusting levels as much as she is with singing. Most of her set is taken from her latest album, this year’s Are We There, with non-album tracks “I Don’t Want to Let You Down” and “Tell Me,” plus an unrecorded Karen Dalton cover from a forth-coming compilation thrown in for good measure.
What is perhaps the best aspect of Van Etten’s live show is that she preserves the vocal harmonies that are so carefully crafted on her albums with the help of her bandmates’ backing vox. Songs like “Break Me,” with its interwoven lyrics, shine through because of it. But because Van Etten is so egalitarian about the harmonies, it isn’t until she is on her own with just her guitar that the true, overwhelming depth of her voice is apparent. On her own, it’s her voice that fills the room, that whispers and warbles and could knock anyone flat with its strength.
It’s not surprising that Van Etten is a formidable performer, but the way she talks to her audience is. There is a seriousness to her recordings that leads the listener to imagine the delivery with a straight face and maybe a raised eyebrow, whether she’s making reference to a relationship or defecation. But there is an affable goofiness that comes out between songs. The longer she’s on stage, the more rambling her chatter becomes. It’s the increasingly relaxed demeanor that has her talking about which songs her parents like best, giving reviews of local restaurants, and admitting that people call her “ADDSVE.” It’s a different kind of emotion from Van Etten, and it’s endearing. And really, who among us couldn’t use a recommendation for a good Italian restaurant?
Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)
From the first notes of opener “Fall Forever,” it is clear that Honeyblood are a live band. They write off kilter indie pop songs around guitar and drum parts that translates smoothly to live performances. with the only noticeable differences between from the recordings coming in minor tweaks in delivery by singer Stina Tweeddale.
One of the first great impressions the band make is with Tweeddale’s voice. Neither she nor drummer Shona McVicar play timidly, so it does take significant vocal muscle to be heard so clearly over the music. And the clarity of her voice holds whether she hits the prettier melodies that carry most of the tunes or those with a rawer edge.
The other immediate impression Honeyblood make is their energy. With only a debut album under their belts and a few other songs that didn’t make the cut, it was always going to be a relatively short set, but they bounce through it with a consistent delight. Drummer McVicar has a smile on her face that sometimes is contorted by the furious effort of her playing; one particular turn in the middle of “Super Rat” earns her enthusiastic cheers mid-song. When she’s not playing, she can be seen dancing slightly from the seat behind her kit.
They are also very charming, if very negative about their native Glasgow, as initially evidenced when they introduced the track, “(I’d Rather Be) Anywhere But Here,” as being about their hometown. But this self deprecation comes without any real negativity. They probably represent themselves better through the banter that revolves around drinking beer. For a band with a punky edge, the room has a very friendly vibe.
The audience is also curiously obliging. When the band ask them to step forward, they do. When they ask them to do dance during a song, they do. When Tweeddale asks them to sing a bit of encore “Kissing on You,” which she plays solo, they do. And when the evening ends on the early side, Honeyblood’s request that people come talk to them after the show is also readily met.
Photos by James Hjertholm
Yann Tiersen is the curious sort of solo artist who doesn’t give the impression of being a solo artist. His live show, like his records, is often dominated by guest vocalists. He is very present in his performance, and yet watching him on stage at Vega, it would have been easy to forget that the gentleman at the piano or playing the violin was the one leading the band.
As Tiersen’s records are filled with guest vocalists, prerecorded vocals feature throughout the set. The show opens with Aidan Moffat’s disembodied brogue on “Meteorites,” though it’s disappointing when the former Arab Strap frontman doesn’t appear on stage when the rest of the band walks out.
Flanked by four other multi-instrumentalists, Tiersen and his band unceremoniously put down and pick up instruments throughout the set. There is so much equipment on the stage — previously meant to be crammed into Lille Vega — that it is a miracle that they can move so seamlessly, that they can move at all without tripping instruments or people.
While there are classically influenced songs scattered throughout, the focus of the evening is far more on his electronically fleshed out songs. Synthesizer and marimbas in particular make up much of the texture of the songs, in addition to the more anticipated piano. The mostly respectful audience (who still ignore the request that photos not be taken) recognizes the melodica substituted in for accordion on “La Dispute,” featured on the Amélie soundtrack, and freaks out at what would probably have otherwise been a pretty mellow turn. But they are all quick to hush up in these few especially quiet moments.
For the few songs with live vocals, Tiersen doesn’t sing on his own, but instead allows his voice to be blotted out in harmonies — sometimes four vocals deep — from his backing band. When there are vocal solos, they’re provided by one of his sidemen. It allows Tiersen to take up his violin or to shift from his piano to a synthesizer or a guitar, and it speaks of an ear attuned to other musicians’ strengths. But it’s not the behavior you’d expect from a solo artist.
Photos by Tom Spray
Pulled Apart By Horses are the kind of band that you would think is made up of tough guys until you see them live. And there’s no disputing that they are a force to be reckoned with — but there’s also no denying that they are quick to paint themselves as non-threatening.
They have a new album out called Blood, but their guitarist is wearing a fake mustache. They explode with an energy that borders on violent while they play, but the audience and the thank yous are all quite civil (with gratuitous mention of a day off to spend in Christiania). They are surrounded by Dr. Marten’s advertising, but make no mention of it.
They have benign between song banter that is often amusing and awkward in equal turns, and takes a lot of the edge off of the screaming, flailing and head banging that is the is the heart of the show. Because what PABH promise, and deliver, is volume; borderline hardcore on the older songs and borderline rock on the new ones; shouting so raw you wonder how any of them have voices left; and yes, lots of careering around, knocking over mic stands, and generally proving themselves to a band that would be difficult to roadie for.
The interaction also carries offstage with frontman Tom Hudson staggering around the audience during “I Punch a Lion in the Throat” and later again during the cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But still, most of the raucous behavior is confined to the stage. It takes until the final song, “High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive,” to actually get a pit going. And it’s just that level where people bounce around instead of fully ricocheting off of each other. It’s appropriate. And it’s all harmless fun.
Wasn’t Born to Follow, a celebration of all things progressively out-of-step in music, took over a day at Pumpehuset with a strangely diverse but suitable line-up. An earlier, free portion of the day included a set from the Garden, a duo consisting of drummer an bassist, invoking a goth image, playing stuttering punk, with the exception of a hip-hop interlude. The pair tumbled around the stage pulling ridiculous faces, often shouting absurd lyrics about rainbows. It’s intentionally ridiculous, but undeniably entertaining, if for the wrong reasons.
After a break for some rock ‘n’ roll bingo, the main portion of the event begins with Chelsea Wolfe. She walks on stage to a drone of bowed bass and viola, which immediately silences for her to perform a wordless vocal loop. She’s an enigmatic performer, a single muttering of “thanks” is her only audience interaction, but she’s still mesmerizing. There are minimalist moments when the noise breaks, when her guitar is prevalent, when keyboards provide atmosphere, but it slides back into droning for her departure from the stage. It’s also necessary to mention that her drummer is incredible. There are times when you’d swear it was a preprogrammed track if you weren’t watching him play. Even then, there’s a cognitive dissonance.
There’s a huge shift in pace to Big Ups, a New York hardcore punk band bringing a completely different kind of noise. In between songs their singer talks about how excited they are to be playing the show and makes self deprecating comments about the band’s technical skills. While they do embody certain DIY ethos, they are also more tuneful than an amateur hardcore band, and at least embrace dynamics between the singer’s quiet, half-talk singing style and his full on screaming. It’s youthful and angsty and satisfying in the way that sets that expend their performer’s energy are.
Compare that with the youthful energy of Canadian indie rockers Ought, who end up being the most pleasant surprise of the evening. They play bouncy, jangling pop music, delivered by a singer affecting Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes while he moon walks in his socked feet. While his bandmates serenely bob up and down, he’s flailing his arms around and breaking the strings on his guitar, and then on the guitar he kept in reserve in case he breaks any strings.
Alternating between the two stages at Pumpehuset, there are times when the main room feels too big, and other, such as when Lust For Youth play, that the smaller stage feels way too small. The space is packed for the Danish representatives of the evening, and there are a lot of familiar faces dancing along to their dreamy, New Wave-inspired set. Everyone is swaying into one another, and in the moment it feels like they should be in the other room. But everything runs to schedule with enough time in between to get a drink, so there isn’t much to complain about.
Back upstairs for Perfect Pussy, the room is mostly empty for the DC-inspired punk group. Singer Meredith Graves channels no one as much as Henry Rollins, straining her voice and her muscles, and posing a very real threat of a boot to the face to those down in front. Any of ideas of having seen energy or flailing limbs in the course of the evening are completely mistaken when compared to Grave’s wild kicks and lunges across the stage. The problem, however, is that for all of her straining, her voice cannot be heard over the crunch and drone of her bandmates. Even when she asks the sound man for more vocals, there’s no improvement. It’s a shame, but a technical problems aside, there is the feeling that those who skipped this set really missed out.
It’s understandable why bands have whole albums tours. Maybe it’s an anniversary, maybe those are the songs the crowds shout for at gigs anyway, or maybe, in the case of Television and Marquee Moon, it is a landmark work worth trotting across the globe decades later. Whatever the motivation, the formula makes sense.
But why do crowds go to whole album shows? Even if they saw the band when it originally toured around the release of that album, this is not the same effect. What in this nostalgic urge makes seeing the whole album performed live better than reminiscing at home with the record, knowing that other favorites only have the slightest chance of making it into the encore?
In the case of Television, it helps tremendously that they play Marquee Moon out of order, and thus makes the evening at least somewhat less predictable. They do begin with album opener “See No Evil,” and it’s not the strongest of starts. Tom Verlaine’s voice sounds shaky on the chorus, but as they recover from this, it becomes apparent that his voice is no longer able to hit the high notes.
That’s hardly a death knell for the performance. Guitar solos are more integral to their sound, and it’s so easy to lose yourself in any of their ambling outros. There are a few surprises, such as the outro of “Torn Curtain” where Verlaine scratches his guitar strings and unexpectedly affects the sound of violins. It is no surprise, however, that “Marquee Moon” closes out the main set. It is the logical conclusion, and really, a ten-minute epic — stretched to 13 minutes on this occasion — would have been the logical conclusion to the recorded album.
There is one thing making it difficult to enjoy the show, and that is the overwhelming heat. Though it’s breezy and cooler in Copenhagen than it’s been in a week, it is Seventh Circle of Hell hot in Pumpehuset. It’s sweat dripping down every inch of you even though you’re not moving hot. People are standing as far away from each other as possible, and the air is so thick and so still that there’s a breeze when a person walks past you. How much this contributes to the general low energy in the room is hard to say, because it’s kind of hard to breathe. But that’s hardly the fault of Television.
Photos by Ronald Laurits Jensen
The Raveonettes released their latest album, Pe’ahi, this week. It’s a nice surprise for fans, who weren’t informed that the album was coming out until its street date.
Aside from the lack of advanced promotion, the Danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have taken a relatively standard approach with Pe’ahi. It’s available for download through the usual channels, and there’s a limited edition (1000 copies) vinyl that comes in a liquid-filled sleeve. They’re currently offering a free download of the track “Sisters” through their website.
If you stream the album on Spotify, there’s also the option to hear 30-60 seconds of commentary prior to each track. Listen to album opener, “Endless Sleeper,” below: