It’s the same old song…
Last week we saw Lambchop at the Barbican. Halfway through the set Kurt Wagner had an epiphany, “I just realised something – this song sounds just like all the other songs.” He was probably on to something, but on that night’s evidence it is not necessarily a bad thing.
There is almost a meditative quality to Lambchop musically, as the songs move at a slow, steady pace, with subtle, recurring motifs – a melody picked out on a guitar, a gentle flourish on the piano, a stirring of the pedal steel. Every song seems simple, pared back and built to wash over you, each song a variant on the last. Yet all those subtle touches are enough to draw you in.
The detail is certainly found in Kurt Wagner’s lyrics – impressionistic, oddball, oblique one minute, disarmingly frank the next – Wagner the storyteller telling you the strangest tales you’ve ever heard. And the voice – not a great voice in the traditional sense maybe, but I think there is an argument that Wagner’s is one of the great voices. Bear with me here.
His phrasing is perfect, bringing his lyrics alive and giving movement within the confines of often otherwise repetitive songs. His restraint offers a quiet drama – he goes from a calm, almost apologetic tone that draws the listener in, then hits you with a gentle falsetto or a change in volume or rhythm that takes you out of your reverie, keeping the song and story interesting, compelling. And all without the fireworks or showboating that you might think is necessary to be great singer. Throughout the evening I was pretty much transfixed.
A couple of nights prior to all that we saw The War on Drugs, as previewed last week. There was a similarly key moment to Kurt Wagner’s “song sounds just like all the other songs” comment. Adam Granduciel called for someone, anyone from the audience to join the band, and play acoustic guitar on their song ‘Brothers’. It was a nice gesture and certainly was a pretty good attempt at breaching the gap between band and audience. Granduciel had to sell the gig though – “You only need to know three chords!” – and then it struck me.
Now forgive me, because clearly I’m pretty slow, but it confirmed that quite a few of the songs on Slave Ambient are pretty simple and pretty similar in structure. Granduciel’s comment made that plain, but so did the rest of the performance. The songs were very much jams – and jams in that old sense (as opposed to the ‘This is my jam’ meme, for example, that seems to cover any sort of song) of a band playing around with a simple structure, improvising and playing around with the song. Their Twitter handle of @warondrugsjams never seemed more apt.
And again, much like Lambchop, while the songs were of a piece, it was the frontman bringing the light and shade. Granduciel toyed with the vocal melodies, contorting them and chopping them up, much like latter-day-live-Dylan. With this and his guitar work, it felt at times like he was jamming with himself, as the rest of the band played back-up, shoring him up.
They played a few songs from their first record, and they were much more crafted, far less jam-my. It offered some welcome light and shade to the evening, but also highlighted just the sort of direction they’d headed with Slave Ambient. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I think will make me revisit their records and listen to them in a different way. Another great evening.
Repetition was taken to its natural conclusion at a gig I didn’t attend, what with it being thousands of miles away and all. After a heckler yelled for them to play ‘My Sharona’, Atlas Sound’s frontman, Bradford Cox, got the rest of the band to play the song…for a full hour. Cox stalked the stage in a balaclava, yelling out all manner of stuff and getting the heckler onto the stage and ordering him to strip off. Certainly made me think twice about ever calling out for a song.
From the YouTube clips, it is pretty compelling stuff. A very different form of repetition from Lambchop or The War of Drugs, but in its own way just as entertaining.
There aren’t enough frontmen, or musicians generally, willing to be challenging, confrontational and punk. It’ll never happen, but Bradford Cox would make a great Bowie-esque pop star. His response to the furore over the gig pretty much confirms he is one of the most entertaining and brilliantly weird characters in rock right now. I’d love to see a One Hour My Sharona at number one in the charts, if the charts mattered again.
I’m aware that it would make sense for me now to tie up all of these threads into some sort of thesis on repetition in rock. But instead, what with me being very lazy, I’ll leave that for us all to mull over, hopefully in the comments. In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, The Four Tops…