Saturday, 22 November 2014

Live Review: Christopher Owens (Line of Best Fit)

Christopher Owens
Islington Assembly Hall, London
19th November, 2014

Upon leaving Girls, Christopher Owens was accused of the kind of well documented, front-man narcissism that has precipitated the end for many before him. And it’s true, this narrative worked well with the kind of blithe, effortless self-confidence the band chose to present themselves with both aesthetically and musically. ‘
The easiest thing in the world for me to do would have been to make another Girls album’, he explained to Pitchfork in 2012. ‘It's just not what I wanted. I wanted a real band. I wanted the Rolling Stones, The Beatles’. It’s telling that even with two brilliant, classic albums, Owens never saw Girls as truly great. Despite appearances though, there was always a vulnerability to Girls’ music that makes his move into a calmer, more sensitive singer-songwriter landscape seem very natural. Take the slow, lighters up bridge section in the otherwise charging surf-rock anthem ‘Honey Bunny’, or the desperate refrain of ‘I don't want to cry my whole life through / I want to do some laughing too’ on ‘Hellhole Ratrace’. The press shots accompanying ‘Lysandre’ and ‘A New Testament’ might look like stills from a budget American western movie, but this is an artist where the ‘I’ in his songs and in his image, both as a solo artist and front man, has always been himself.

Owens has always been good at exploring simple emotional concepts in unusual and complicated ways, masking the core of his song writing within these webs and layers of context and red herrings. It’s certainly what allowed Girls to climb above their California, guitar-pop contemporaries, whilst letting him move beyond his new singer-songwriter template. And tonight, wearing a snake skin jacket and striking, pointed shoes, he disguises personal feelings of introversion with flamboyance, offering these mostly touching songs of love unrequited, love unfulfilled or love realised with all the complexities and contradictions that we’ve all experienced and can all recognise, putting you right up there with him. Some deal with personal trauma by shutting themselves away or with some form of mental self-flagellation, and others like to put on their best outfit and surround themselves with their favourite things, in this case a shredding guitar solo (‘Laura), a noodling organ riff (‘Love Like A River’) or, indeed, a giant revolving disco ball (‘It Comes Back To You’). It’s theatrical but never insincere, as Owens lives inside his performance and his songs like a movie character narrating tales of his own shortcomings.

The frequent exertions into Girls’ back catalogue are, inevitably, greeted with elation, and it’s hard to believe that some of these songs are barely three years old, as if the premature break up has crystallised them in the modern music canon like old, adored relics. ‘Forgiveness’ begins with Owens alone, whispering that gut-wrenching line ‘Nothing’s gonna get any better’ before being swallowed by a tearing guitar breakdown that teases at a resolution which almost never arrives. ‘Vomit’ still sounds remarkable, collapsing into a sprawling coda with wailing gospel vocals, a howling organ and crashing cymbals surrounding Owen’s wounded plea of ‘Come into my heart’ like waves beating against an old, crumbling lighthouse.

Tonight is a reminder that Girls could have turned into one of the best guitar bands in the world, had they chose to stick it out. Christopher Owens isn’t going anywhere though, and his attempts to occupy and own his personal flaws and inadequacies in a way that’s both beautiful and comforting to him will continue to produce great music and performance over the years. Whether it’s in the form of an insular, sensitive singer-songwriter or a bratty west coast guitar band - I’m not sure it even matters.

Mike Townsend

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Live Review: MØ (Line of Best Fit)

Photo Credit: Dan Harris

Shepherds Bush empire
Saturday, 1st November 2014

Pop music has moved on since the turn of the decade. Arguments of authenticity and ‘proper music’ now sound dated and petulant, whilst the artistic merit of writing a good a catchy, melody propelled song, whether it surfaces on Tumblr or Saturday Night Live can be appreciated on face value alone. Female artists like Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX and Tove Lo are bridging the gap between critical acclaim and wide-reaching accessibility, finding a beauty and a craft in the creation of music that’s instantly gratifying and memorable.

With so many examples now scattered across the popular music landscape, it’s easy to forget that MØ was once at the forefront of this modern renaissance. Since debut single ‘Pilgrim’, though, Icona Pop’s ‘I love It’ powered to number one and Charli XCX broke America, all while Karen Marie Ørsted’s debut album ‘No Mythologies To Follow’ hit neither the critical nor commercial heights to match it’s lofty expectations.

The level of fandom tonight is almost unnerving. Devoted disciples can be seen across all corners of a near sold out Shepherds Bush Empire, with girls elatedly swinging their plaited topknots, lads donning full scale, eighties tinged adidas tracksuits without a hint of irony and mums and dads greeting even the more arbitrary album tracks like old favourites. Pop music has always commanded an obsession with its listeners, and this almost feels like a throwback to the days where it was practiced like a healthy, constructive hobby, like your big sister buying Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack mini-dress or your weird cousin drawing heartagrams on his school pencil case.

What’s most striking about tonight’s show is how much more complete these songs sound. The album, arguably to its detriment, wanders through a diverse collection of styles and influences without expanding enough to really lock them down, reaching for the rhythmic dynamism of funk or the widescreen euphoria of pure-pop but just pulling up before the end. The band, that includes a four-piece horn section tonight, provide that extra weight - that shot of adrenaline - to get them over the line. The heavier percussion on the once woozy ‘Maiden’ edges it closer to the dance floor, whilst the aforementioned horns of the insolent ‘Pilgrim’ are more explosive and more deliberate. Circumstance can absolutely affect the way we perceive and experience music, and people will return home with a new set of favourite tunes from an album that they’ve heard one hundred times before. It might be because they were winked at during a disarming, lights-down rendition of ‘Freedom (#1)’, or because they were high-fived as she wandered through the upper tier of the crowd during the excellent ‘Never Wanna Know’.

MØ completely embodies the emotional properties of her songs, whether she’s swaggering on the back of her heels as she sings ‘I’ve got money’ on ‘I Got’, or punching the air and snarling defiantly during the empowering and aggressive ‘Waste Of Time’. That ability to understand and then capture the reason people connect with your music as recordings, and then translate it into a live show almost overwrought with emotion and intensity is something that has eluded many a great pop artist. There are times tonight where MØ sings directly to the front row, crouching on her knees and reaching gratefully towards their outstretched arms as if she’s clinging onto a final moment of intimacy before her platform gets too big and her audience too far away. A stage dive during the closing moments of her rendition of Spice Girls’ ‘Say You’ll Be There’ seems a fitting finale, as she finishes 2014 in the arms of the elated and the adoring masses, ready for her ascension into superstardom.

Mike Townsend