Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Joyous Sound

Being a teacher of English Literature, I am often asked by students why everything they study is so miserable and serious. Happy and funny doesn’t make for greatness, I patronisingly say. And I have mostly thought that what applies to literature, also applies to music. Then I saw The Wave Pictures at the De La Warr Pavilion and I knew I was wrong. The London-based three-piece of David Tattersall on guitar and vocals, bassist Franic Rozycki and drummer Jonny Helm have a stripped simplicity, with their lack of effects pedals and crash cymbals, combining with witty and bittersweet lyrics to create a life-affirming sound – the joyous sound of greatness.

In January this year, Marc Riley’s radio show put me onto their single, Orange Juice, a collaboration with Stanley Brinks. With its defiant refrain of “But I’ll get by with a little bit of you”, it became an anthem to spite the endless wind and rain of winter and was played constantly in our house to the point that my seven-year-old daughter could sing every word. (I did have lie to her about some of the lyrics, though.) The single sent me to The Wave Pictures albums in their own right. They have been prolific since the start of the century and there are about a dozen of them. How could I have missed this band? I started with the two most recent albums, 2012’s Long Black Cars and last year’s City Forgiveness; and then I got lucky on two counts. Firstly, as I was playing the albums to death, the wonderful Music’s Not Dead record shop announced they were bringing them to Bexhill; and when they played on Friday night, most of their set was taken from these two albums.

There cannot be many better backdrops for a gig than a calm, millpond sea in the fading summer sunlight but, in the upstairs bar at the De La Warr, that is exactly what The Wave Pictures take the stage to. They immediately begin a running joke about Rozycki’s fondness for Bexhill as the place where he once spotted Keith Chegwin in the street. But the humour is not just confined to the between-the- songs chat, of which there is much. On the gorgeous Missoula, Tattersall sings “You make me feel like dancing/Naked across the motel room/My beer belly bouncing in the afternoon”, and the bathos is matched on latest album opener, All My Friends, beginning “Once I dreamed I saw your face on a carton of milk/Once I dreamed I spilled the milk all down my shirt”.

When it comes to the music, The Wave Pictures are very accomplished and simple does not mean samey; the guitar sound is at times clean and chiming, at others dirty and swampy, sometimes capacious and sprawling but all perfectly complemented by Rozycki’s meandering high-end bass runs. At various times in their set I am reminded of the Violent Femmes, Television, the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman; all great, all American - the City Forgiveness album was written on a six-week road trip around the States and it shows.

What is so incredible about the band is their infectious enjoyment of what they are doing. They never seem to stop smiling and nor do the audience. When the refrain in Spaghetti, from the Long Black Cars album, rhymes the title with “forget me”, I realise I am grinning like an idiot every time. And to add to the mood, in the middle of the set up pops a cover of the colourful and schizophrenic Texan musician Daniel Johnston’s Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Tattersall has an engaging and heartfelt voice but when Helm takes the vocals on the plaintive Atlanta, he shows that he too can be soulful and emotive; and even more so when he steps from behind his kit to sing two ballads. The swapping of roles does not end there: Tattersall takes bass (“I’m not very good on bass”) so that Rozycki can do a noodling guitar solo which he mostly gets right - their humour is also considerably self-deprecating.

My third stroke of good fortune may not be luck but judgement; two songs of theirs that I adore feature at the end of the set: Never Go Home Again, with its Bhundu Boys guitaring and visions of life on the road “There are bed bugs in my bed/There’s a headache in my head/Everything is in its proper place/And we wear the last town on our tired faces”, ends with a mass audience singalong. And when they return for the encores, their final song is the magnificent The Woods, a Modern Lovers guitar riff overlaid with near-hysterical lyrics taut with sexual tension.

This was my gig of the year so far; but with Music’s Not Dead and the De La Warr Pavilion bringing such good music to Bexhill there could be more greatness to come - but I’m pretty sure none of it will make me feel as happy as The Wave Pictures did.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Eyeless in Bexhill

I had been playing the eponymously titled debut album by Eyes & No Eyes for the past week and I was intrigued to hear how they would replicate their impressive sound in the confines of a record shop in-store performance. But at Bexhill’s Music’s Not Dead yesterday, replete with drums and amplification, they demonstrated the full range of their tender sonic landscape.

Playing six tracks from the album, they opened with the wintery Hidden Thieves – “the snow it falls upon your street/betrays the movements of my feet” – with singer and guitarist Tristram Bawtree evoking the vocal fragility of Nick Drake over a mesh of guitar and cello. Cellist Becca Mears underpins the band’s sound in the same way that John Cale used strings to create the sonorous and brooding cacophony of the Velvet Underground. With shifting time signatures and improvised lead-ins, the set veers from genre to genre – folk, psychedelia, be-bop – but never quite settling in any.

At the centre of their set is Rust, with Thomas Heather’s thrilling drums and Marcus Hamblett’s intricate bass combining to create the sort of exciting experimental rhythms that New Order discovered in their earliest work, post-Joy Division. On Old Crow, Bawtree belies his youth sounding positively world-weary – “the things I’ve seen, boy/you won’t believe” – and set closer, and album opener, the sprawling Breathe In has the band at its most mournful and powerful. Bawtree’s guitar work is by turns delicate and abrasive as the song builds to a pulsing climax.

I am sure that Eyes & No Eyes would be even more impressive in a larger venue. However, being charmingly vague about future live dates, the Brighton band could only recall one imminent gig, next week at Bethnal Green’s Sebright Arms; but on the second day of their "two-day tour of East Sussex” (they had played the CafĂ© des Artistes in Lewes the night before) there was plenty of evidence that there will be an opportunity to see them on a bigger stage quite soon.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orwell in Eastbourne

By its very nature as an old and established seaside resort, Eastbourne can boast some high-profile cultural connections: literary giants Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll were regular visitors; the artist Eric Ravilious was a life-long resident and the biologist T.H. Huxley retired there, as did the journalist and literary critic, Cyril Connolly. But Connolly had lived in the town earlier in his life, at a residence he shared with a more renowned contemporary. If you walk along Summerdown Road, one of the well-heeled, tree-lined streets of the Old Town area, you will eventually come across a detached house with two rectangular blue plaques, one of which contains Connolly’s name and that of the writer, George Orwell.

The house, formerly the Headmaster’s lodge, is all that remains of St. Cyprian’s preparatory school. The main school building, where the two writers boarded between 1911 and 1916, stood to the rear of the house. It was destroyed by fire in 1939 and, subsequently, the school was closed and the playing fields sold to Eastbourne College. That less is made of Orwell’s connection to the town is probably due to the fact that he hated his time at St. Cyprian’s and, in a long autobiographical essay, laid his feelings bare. Such, Such Were the Joys – the ironic title coming from one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, The Echoing Green – was published after his death to a polarised reception.

Writing over 25 years after the experience, Orwell’s detailing of a life of insanitary conditions, inhospitable dormitories and inedible food was recognised by some, but not by all. And it was his view of the violent regime of Mr and Mrs Wilkes, nicknamed Sambo and Flip, handing out humiliating punishments to some and lavish praise to others, that most divided former pupils. Accusing the Wilkes of fawning over the students from rich families, Orwell felt that as a scholarship boy he was cruelly treated. When he first arrived at the school as a seven-year-old, he was beaten with a riding crop so viciously that it broke. But it was his realisation that paranoia and fear were deliberately deployed by those supposed to be taking care of him that made Orwell understand the power of hierarchies. Friendless and spied upon, loneliness and a broken spirit were the outcomes.

Some of Orwell’s time in Eastbourne found its way into his fiction: in his ‘fairy tale’, Animal Farm, the local village is named after Willingdon, just to the north of town; its pub, The Red Lion, is where Farmer Jones gets drunk; and Manor Farm, where the revolution takes place, is based on Chalk Farm on the edge of the Downs. If Orwell used simple landmarks that he would have come across on ‘character-building’ walks for settings in Animal Farm, the area had a more profound effect on his final novel. The Last Man in Europe was Orwell’s original title for Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it perhaps gives us a further clue to how he felt about his time in Eastbourne. Exposed as a young child to an authoritarian regime that was, by turns, caring and violent, the sense of isolation and powerlessness that Winston Smith feels in Orwell’s most well-known novel can be traced back, in Such, Such Were the Joys, to his five long years at St. Cyprian’s.