Friday, September 21st, 2012
Alt-J and JBM at Wrongbar in Toronto
Frank YangCambridge, England quartet Alt-J couldn’t have known how prescient they were when they named their debut album An Awesome Wave, as that’s pretty much what they’ve been riding through 2012. Released across the pond in May, it only came out over here officially this past Tuesday – timed to coincide with their inaugural North American tour – but in the interim that wave of buzz had quite definitively crossed the Atlantic, ensuring that arrived on these shores more like heroes than an act with something to prove.
For most, anyways. Despite being more than predisposed to bands possessing UK passports, the appeal of Alt-J largely escapes me. Or more accurately, I get why some people would like them; I don’t get why so many people like them. I’d have thought their oddly bloodless, art rock – which I’d liken to a celibate Wild Beasts or a very politely English Grizzly Bear – would find a niche audience at best, but somehow they’ve connected to such an extent that they’re the odds-on favourite to win the Mercury Prize at the start of November. And that’s basically why I was at Wrongbar on Wednesday night to catch their Toronto debut – how often do you get the chance to see the buzziest new act out of the UK play a small club? And perhaps they were amazing performers who would win me over live. You never knew.
It didn’t take much to figure out what openers JBM were about. Named for the initials of frontman Jesse Marchant, their game as slow, broody singer-songwriter material made interesting by tastefully sparse and atmospheric arrangements, mainly courtesy of their understatedly dextrous drummer. In the demerit column were the echoes of the sort of brooding that had been left behind in the ’90s but at least they’d had the good sense to trade their plaid flannels for some gothic country livery. A touch more dynamicism and variety would have gone a long way to offset their more plodding instincts and Marchant’s vocals aren’t really expressive enough to carry what its trying to, but alright for passing a half hour or so.
However the rest of Alt-J’s Toronto debut would go, it didn’t have the most auspicious start. Opening, as Wave does, with “Intro”, the audience heard less of their jangly, intertwined, out-of-phase fingerpicked guitar movements and more of booming feedback that it took them almost the length of the song to tame – lead singer Joe Newman might have commented on it but his mic was also basically inaudible. Everything was mostly under control by the time they reached the first ‘proper’ song of the set, “Tesselate”, and from that point forwards it was smooth sailing. Some might say too smooth.
One of the good things about Wave is how the band are able to take their combination of Newman’s strangely nasal voice, almost medieval-sounding group harmonies, and contrasting cloud-like guitar parts and whirring keyboards and envelop it all with a real sense of mysteriousness. Live, with the four young English lads going about their business and recreating the album with minimal fanfare or showmanship, that veil was lifted and it’s hard to argue the music was any better for it. Not that I could have convinced most of the people around me of that.
Just as I found the critical and popular response to Wave disproportionate to what I thought it offered, the enthusiasm of the audience more than made up for the band’s reserve. Not that they were literally freaking out – there’s no measure by which this was music for freaking out to – but they sang along loudly despite there not really being any obvious singalong parts in the songs, dancing without need for heavy or steady rhythms, and waving their arms in the air just because. “Matilda”, one of the few songs with a conventional chorus, was greeted like a stadium-scale anthem. Even though by this point they must be used to big crowds at home, Alt-J seemed taken aback by the response they were getting – though mostly unflappable, Newman lost his place in “Breezeblocks” after getting distracted by the fan reaction.
Playing for 45 minutes – no encore – and covering most of Wave, it was a solid enough show that gave fans what they wanted but wasn’t the sort of performance that would change minds or sway doubters – I left with basically the same opinion that I went in with, and I’d like to think that I was open to being convinced. That’s okay, though, because Alt-J have clearly convinced more than enough people already.
The Independent has a profile piece on Alt-J and their probably impending coronation as Mercury Prize champs.
Photos: Alt-J, JBM @ Wrongbar – September 19, 2012
MP3: Alt-J – “Breezeblocks”
MP3: Alt-J – “Hand-Made”
MP3: Alt-J – “Matilda”
MP3: Alt-J – “Tesselate”
Video: Alt-J – “Something Good”
Video: Alt-J – “Fitzpleasure”
Video: Alt-J – “Breezeblocks”
Video: Alt-J – “Matilda”
Video: Alt-J – “Tessellate”
Video: JBM – “On Fire On A Tightrope”
Video: JBM – “In A Different Time”
Filter, BBC, and Edinburgh Evening News talk to another arty British band whose debut is up for the Mercury, is about to get released in North America, and are playing Wrongbar soon – that’s Django Django, whose self-title is out next Tuesday, and who are at Wrongbar on September 29.
NOW has an interview and Daytrotter a session with Patrick Wolf, who is at The Music Gallery next Tuesday – September 25. His new album Sunlight & Riverdark is already available digitally via iTunes and will get a physical release on October 16. The Guardian has a studio video performance of the new arrangement of “Teignmouth”, which originally appeared on his second album Wind In The Wires.
Stream: Bat For Lashes – “All Your Gold”
Video: Gaz Coombes – “White Noise”
It’s worth noting that I wasn’t even supposed to be at the Alt-J show – Wednesday night was supposed to be the night of I Break Horses’ triumphant return to Toronto… right up until they canceled the tour. The second of their three session videos for Room 205 is a little bit of comfort on that front.
Video: First Aid Kit – “Wolf”
From the El Mocambo to the Kool Haus in twelve months isn’t bad – Of Monsters & Men makes their third visit to Toronto in almost a year exactly when they hit the Kool Haus on November 15. Tickets $25 in advance. Update: And a second show has been added for November 16. Mental.
Video: Tame Impala – “Elephant”