Burnt orange heresy

In NME this week, (not the Detroit issue, I might add): A half-page article, “White Stripes Appear on Right-Winger’s Talk Show” referring to their “SNL” appearance with John McCain, Republican senator from somewhere; a review of the Electroclash tour at the Majestic in Detroit, celebrating Peaches’ cry of “Detroit Fuck City” — as it should be, really; a full page On column (Tomorrow’s Stars Today) featuring the Sights striding down some avenue toward their place in the pantheon; a glowing Brendan Benson review; three Top-10 places on NME’s first-ever Cool List — No. 7 for Marcie Bolen’s bourbon-inspired wit, Audrey Hepburn looks and mean-ass guitar; Meg White at No. 6 with her enigmatic presence, garage cred and primal drumming, and Jack White at Numero Uno, credited with reinventing rock and roll single-handedly. Wow.

Brendan Benson
100 Club, London

I have a great little Brendan Benson story. A friend of mine who used to do some production work for Virgin Records in the States was presented with the master tapes for Lapalco. He ran it through an old compressor and took it into the A&R offices. One man overheard it playing in the hall, then barged into the meeting to sing its praises, saying “Why doesn’t anyone make records like this anymore?” And then the resident product manager/marketing guy said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” And that was the end of BB’s tenure with Virgin in the United States.

The 100 Club is so famous for a million class of ’77 punk-rock moments, it should have the footprints of Sid’s Doc Martens out on the Oxford Street sidewalk. Nowadays it’s more famous for lukewarm jazz and tourist cabaret, but the occasional proper rock show keeps it on the map. Legendary status aside, it’s a small basement underground where your feet stick to the floor.

Untroubled by charm at the best of times, tonight there is literally steam in the air. No joke. The room’s broken out in a guitar-pop love-fest sweat. You can see it hanging in a moist fug when you come down the stairs. This is a meeting of Pop Obsessives Anonymous. Obscure band T-shirts and jeans, hipster jackets and NHS glasses are the uniform du jour.

Benson and his Wellfed Boys kick into “Good To Me” and everything becomes a fuzzed-up jangle of tambourine and sinuous Harrison guitar lines. Playing the Beatle card in the heart of London may seem like bringing coals to Newcastle, but the indigenous crop have fought so long to get out from under the Beatles’ shadow that they lose sight of what a glorious vocabulary it is — with the notable exception of Oasis, who just lift it wholesale, but manage to produce something that is so comprehensively inferior that it just makes you want to go back and listen to the original.

Lapalco only came out here in early October on V2 (part of Virgin — oh, the irony…), but the room is full of sweaty pop geeks — many of whom are probably 30 — who sing along to every song, eyes closed, head back, and that’s probably the most accurate review you can get. The band detours from the set list halfway into their set and just plays where the mood goes, through the Tiny Spark EP and tracks from Lapalco, following cyclical walking guitar lines and weaving harmonies like a breadcrumb trail to your little broken pop heart.

These are all your Badfinger dreams come true. Afterward, I pass the opportunity to go and lose my hearing at Alan McGee’s Death Disco, make my goodbyes and button up against the night. Outside, London is quiet and summer is over, but it won’t stop the echoing harmonies in my head that make me forget where I parked my car.

The Polyphonic Spree
The Monarch, London

A bona fide radio hit by a 50-legged harmony generator from Texas called The Polyphonic Spree makes me proud to live here. Weird, totally un-mainstream, marginal-in-America, no-big-record-label-moolah band gets into the charts — it’s as British as tea and tube strikes.

The setup was intriguing enough to make most of the crowd miss their last train home. Guitar-bass-drums-organs. Trumpets. Flügelhorns. Theremin. Timpani. Imagine, just imagine, if your high-school orchestra weren’t absolutely shit. Imagine 25 years of stingy, mean-spirited cutbacks hadn’t rendered music education a total joke. Imagine what it would be like if the laid-back, slightly goofy half of the northeast hipster corner of the cafeteria decided one semester to take Orchestral Studies. You know, those kids that probably smoke pot and read? Possessors of a psychedelic optimism and a reasonable GPA. Can you imagine what kind of noise they might make?

It’s a thing of joy and beauty. The almighty is inadvertently invoked by white robes, but a 16-piece choral section helps. Honestly; for these 40 minutes, irony and anger, guilt and regret were so past their sell-by date, I couldn’t even remember what 90 percent of my record collection was all about.

It sounds like a golden-throated Mercury Rev polymath. Feels like Ecstasy, sunshine and the second week of being in love. All is optimism, all is grace.

They opened with “Hanging Around,” but it was their (giggle when you say it) hit single, “Soldier Girl,” that made the audience’s collective heart pop open like a sunflower. If this is a cult, I want to join.

Hail Columbia, or Babylon-On-Hyde Park

The Columbia Hotel is an institution among touring bands, though no one quite knows why. It’s not cheap, not particularly convenient, the rooms are grotty and before the invent of en suite safes, it was famous for being the place where your passport and valuables learned to walk. The secret is the bar, which looks like an old folks’ home, but stays open as long as there are drinkers standing.

Carrie Von Bondie and the Von Bondies’ manager both have birthdays approaching, and the Datsun’s single “In Love” is set to enter the charts, providing ample excuse for a small soiree. Not some industry schmooze-fest, just a backyard-style get-together, which makes it all the cooler.

Carrie’s homemade birthday cake looks sweetly out of place surrounded by conquered bottles of alcohol, and I wonder if I’ve fallen into an edited scene from Almost Famous. At one point Chris Datsun is telling a story about Matt Datsun leaping out of a moving van to chase a rabbit and falling face-down, smashing the evening’s refreshment, only to be nearly run over by Brendan Bensons’ van. Funny enough, I guess, but there are three young ladies giving him their undivided and utterly uncritical attention. Meanwhile, each member of the Datsuns has their own personal bottle of Jack Daniel’s, but aside from Chris, no one actually seems very drunk. You have to wonder if this is the onramp to hammer of the gods territory, if this is the point where a bunch of really nice guys are about to become beasts. All that liquor. All that ass-kissing. It could really change your internal default setting to asshole quite quickly.

So say a quick prayer for the sweet souls of the Datsuns, who are going to be filming their “Top of the Pops” performance later this week, and then go on to more rabbit chasing in the States. The Datsuns, by the way, will be in Detroit Nov. 9, at the Magic Stick.

Nina Nastasia, Lumiere Brothers
The Spitz Theatre

My micro-pop combo got the call to do a show with Nina Nastasia. I’d never heard of her, but I’m a cheap date and I love the run-down Victorian pomposity of the Spitz, so we say yes.

The audience is full of the kind of serious music geeks that I love, but find slightly intimidating. You know, the ones that really pay attention? They don’t talk, they don’t drink. They don’t laugh. It was sold out and sweaty as hell, knocking my National guitar out of tune, but I think we pulled it off without disgracing ourselves.

When Nina Nastasia comes on, all of this reverence is explained. A severe, petite young woman with an acoustic guitar. An Eastern European Snow White, surrounded by her bearded companions, though there are only five, playing cello, violin, accordion, fiddle and quietly fuzzed-up electric guitar.

And my God, the sound they make. The sheer force of it — not from volume, but pure intention — could knock you over; it had me pinned to the wall. I didn’t know if I’d ever heard the sound of grief before — recognizing it purely from sonics, without context. The sound of menace. Anxiety and longing, and then the sound of relief. Language is so unnecessary when you have such a profound vocabulary.

It was terrifying, emotional and humbling. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I’m going out to buy the record and proselytize with a capital “P.” When we got paid our 50 pounds at the end of the night, it just felt wrong. Nastasia deserves all the money in the world, if only because she and her band can accurately reproduce the sound of empathy. The terrifying sound of love.

Shireen Liane is Metro Times London correspondent. She plays music too. Go to www.lumierebrothers.com. E-mail her at [email protected]
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