Live Review: Indietracks Festival 2017

Review from JT Wilson

Friday

One of the advantages of Indietracks being held at the delightful Midlands Railway Centre is that it has a large barn which they use as a second stage. This means that if the weather becomes too impossible, they can always retreat indoors with minimal inconvenience. On Friday, as it throws down with rain all afternoon, they take no chances and move indoors for the whole of the first night. I will take on the arduous task of reviewing every single band who played on Friday. Don’t expect it every night.

Kid Canaveral are a sensible choice for an opener: in many ways, they serve as a condensed version of the festival’s sound, without threatening to overshadow anyone higher up the bill. They’re a mixed-gender quintet who’ve played the festival before, and sound like a C86-era version of Frightened Rabbit. They’re afforded an epic quality by the natural reverb of the barn, which gives everything a Phil Spector feel (for better or for worse, as we’ll see).

Chorusgirl, in their white T-shirt and black trousers, have something of a T-Birds look to them. While they twang in a vaguely 50s way as well, they also incorporate 70s punk vibes and 90s shoegazey noise.  Would it surprise you to learn one of them was playing a Fender Jaguar? Previewing tracks from their forthcoming album (not named), Chorusgirl are just okay tonight: competent but not terribly exciting.

Martha stole the show at 2015’s Indietracks with their anthemic, empathetic power-pop, and with another album under their belts since then, they’re elevated to tonight’s main attraction. Accompanied by lights that make them look like the Utah Saints or something, they sprint through 19 tracks in an hour, from early single ‘Sycamore’ to last year’s album peak ‘Do Nothing’. They’re not helped by audio gremlins throughout, but the audience stay with it, singing JC’s lines on the almost-perfect ‘Present, Tense’ and literally carrying the band during crowd-surfing encore ‘St Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive)’. The band finish their set with Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’: the opening bars made it sound like ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth, so imagine my disappointment/joy when it wasn’t.

Saturday

It’s dry when the festival opens for Day 2, and the first band on the outdoor stage is another Glaswegian act, The Pooches. Vaguely similar to Indietracks faves Allo Darlin’ and Indietracks organisers Pocketbooks, they play a mimsy indie which positions them perfectly as Indietracks openers, but which might need another dimension to move up the card. Mind you, given that one of the songs is named after a Magic: The Gathering move, maybe that dimension will be a malignant supernatural one like in ‘Stranger Things’.

The sun comes out, appropriately, for upbeat Catalonian septet Cola Jet Set, whose lyrics are all in Spanish but whose vibrant performance transcends linguistic boundaries. Sounding roughly like a Spanish-language, female-fronted Beach Boys, I can imagine these being Gruff Rhys’ favourite band. Shout out to Felipe, the band’s lead guitarist and bandleader, who looks like Patton Oswalt in a middle manager’s striped shirt.

We switch to the indoor stage for yet another band from Glasgow, the reverb-drenched TeenCanteen, who play swooning, synth-heavy, harmony-laden miniature epics. Diminutive singer Carla Easton, curling her lip at every high note, is the focal point, but the band seem to be having a lovely time up there, none more apparent as when they do a woozy cover of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ that sandwiches in the rap from All Saints’ ‘I Know Where It’s At’.

Back outdoors, Chester’s Peaness add choppy Talking Heads-y new wave flavouring and Veruca Salt-ed grunge touches to their own brand of harmony-based indie-pop, but their songs aren’t for everyone: it seems that, inspired by Peaness’ 2017 single ‘Oh George’, a mum asked them for a photo with her son George, who was having none of it. When the band recount this onstage, the mum waves, but George starts crying. The personable all-female trio display potential for upward mobility both on record and today.

Peaness

Did I mention Indietracks has a stage in a restored church which only seats 100? I didn’t? Okay, well it does, and due to the capacity it’s a battle to get in there at any point during the weekend. We get in, however, for Manchester duo Crywank, who are a real change of pace compared to almost anything else on the bill. Going from the festival’s typical whimsical indie to Crywank’s intense, agonised acoustic grindcore is like enjoying a lovely sauna bathed in reverb and harmonies and then suddenly being thrown into an icy pool. It’s a refreshing change but a bracing one. Most of the attention around the band focuses on James Clayton’s desperately bleak lyrics, but drummer Dan Watson gives an unbelievable performance here.

Normal service is restored, I guess, indoors with MJ Hibbett & The Validators, who have a sort of homely wit as if Harry Hill had decided to form a band rather than becoming a comedian. The set today mostly focuses on ageing and/or festivals: a smart decision, as ’20 Things To Do Before You’re 30’ is played a bit too late for most of this audience, your current scribe included. Hibs might have been better in the church as well: the barn’s reverb hoovers up most of Mark’s vocals, in a band mainly notable for his lyrics.

You know how Scritti Politti were originally this really abrasive, Gang of Four deal doing songs like ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, and then went really poppy and sounded like Prince on stuff like ‘Wood Beez’? Can you imagine how awkward a set during the transition might have sounded? Well, you’ve kind of got Lucky Soul, who’ve reformed recently, but have decided to go down a Daft Punk-ish disco route while still playing their old Belle and Seb-esque twee indie. It’s very polished, at a level rarely seen here, but also kind of bland, as if they’re here because Derby Pride got cancelled.

Hiding unplugged in the merch tent are ONSIND, doing an acoustic set with no microphones as a road test for a pair of new songs from the next album. The new songs are hard to gauge in such an intimate setting – the volume is so low it’s as if it was streamed off a phone – but the bookends ‘Pokemon City Limits’ and ‘Heterosexuality is a Construct’ go down as well as ever. One of the audience is wearing a Vote Conservative T-shirt, ironically or otherwise: hard to know if he enjoyed Pokemon City Limits and its chorus/punchline “Never trust a Tory”. (Other acts playing the merch tent over the weekend include electronic dream-pop act Deerful, who plays sat on the floor with a miniature keyboard.)

Headlining the indoor stage, Joanna Gruesome have had a line-up change since their last appearance, now wielding three guitars and two vocals. Imagine if Slowdive and Bikini Kill had done a split 7” back in 1991, and imagine if due to a manufacturing error, all of the songs played at the same time: that’s roughly what Joanna Gruesome sound like. They’re still weirdly uncharismatic though; they’re energetic and aggressive during their songs, but almost catatonic between them. Yeah they’re still young, but they’ve been playing gigs for years now, and they’re headlining this stage. Their gigs will seem loads more dynamic if they can more successfully marry up these elements.

It’ll probably have been beaten by Justin Bieber or some shit now, but at one point, the “semi-legendary” The Wedding Present held the record for most Top 30 singles in one year, thanks to some skulduggery where they released one single every month and charted every time. One of those went Top 10, and they were still having Top 40 hits as late as 2005. Yet they’re not really regarded as a big name from the era in the same way as some of their contemporaries: nobody lists them as an influence, they have no indie disco classics, and none of their albums are ever on Greatest of All Time lists. They feel like a legacy headliner, maybe better suited to a Sunday closing slot, in a way that maybe The Smiths or Pixies wouldn’t. Indietracks, however, has always kept faith in Gedge, maybe trying to single-handedly elevate the band’s reputation; this being his second Saturday headline slot in three years.

While Dave’s drily ironic self-aggrandisement isn’t particularly appealing (“I forgot how many good songs we did!”), luckily the band’s aggressive jangle is. Maybe it’s because late-80s/early-90s sounds are hip again, but it sounds pretty fresh, with Sonic Youth-ish ‘Kennedy’ a highlight. Perhaps the unexpected exuberance is due to the band’s latest line-up: mostly recruited in the last 12 months, both the guitarist and bassist look younger than the Weds’ 30-year-old album ‘George Best’.

The Wedding Present

Sunday

We woke up to news that the Y Not Festival had been cancelled due to adverse weather conditions, despite it being in the same county and the sun beating down. While the news seeping out of the festival was at Fyre Festival levels of pandemonium, Indietracks just got on with it; it wasn’t even the rainiest Indietracks!

The first thing we catch is Daniel Versus The World in the Church, where he thanks Indietracks for being “the queerest it’s been” and making an effort at better representation (the 2017 festival also seemed more racially diverse too). This is the second time I’ve seen DVTW playing a Sunday afternoon set at a festival, but it’s a position which suits his glittery Stephen Trask-ish piano pop songs, and the trio line-up (there’s a rhythm section too) works fine in the intimate surroundings of the Church stage. He reminds me of Fiona Apple: perhaps he needs a Jon Brion production.

Most of the booze at Indietracks is served in cans, and these cans have to go to the recycling, so they get a steamroller to crush the cans flat every few hours. The can-crushing steamroller always draws a good crowd. There’s something oddly satisfying about watching it being faced with a massive pile of cans and smashing through them all: such an inspirational character. We caught the 13.50 set, but I’m sure the sets elsewhere in the weekend were not dramatically different. Maybe it’s like seeing The Fall, where it’s always different but always stays the same.

Luby Sparks are an impossibly young Tokyo quintet who, according to one interview, are playing their first ever gig outside of Japan! So shoegaze that even the drummer looks at his shoes for the entire gig, the band’s boy-girl vocal exchanges and blissed-out noise is like being guided through a busy city while on opiates. These are really pretty, both to look at and to listen to.

Luby Sparks

We remain indoors for Cowtown, an aggressively energetic Hookworms offshoot who take cues from Krautrock and post-punk and whose 12-track, 22-minute album ‘Paranormal Romance’ came out last year. The Leeds trio’s high-octane, Korg-driven performance ends with the guitarist holding his guitar to the sky, which is hilariously mirrored by the keyboardist and even the drummer (holding the hi-hat up!). The band’s boisterous drones are more fun and melodic than Hookworms were when I saw them.

Outdoors, The Orchids are playing. They’re a quintet from Glasgow who released a bunch of records on Sarah Records in the 1980s and have now reformed. You already know what they sound like, right? No? Augmented by two percussionists for this show, the band’s jangly Triffids/Go-Betweens sound is fine for the last of the Sunday afternoon sunshine.

Grace Petrie is completely unaccompanied on the Indoor Stage, but fills it completely with her passionate protest songs. After touring around for years, and being spurned by the Guardian and by Whitby Folk Festival among others, Petrie’s developed a self-aware, ironic streak even when trying to coax the audience into participation (“that’s about 52% of you keen, which as we know is an overwhelming majority…”). A sudden downpour causes Petrie’s audience to literally double as everyone rushes indoors, essentially creating a captive audience for the Leicester singer-songwriter. Petrie’s stuff, however, warranted a decent audience anyway.

The inclement weather causes a temporary stage reshuffle, and forces Monkey Swallows the Universe into the indoor stage for their “last ever” gig. The odds are against the minimal folk quintet: they’re chucked onto the indoor stage with essentially no soundcheck and have to follow Grace Petrie’s rambunctious songs to the disinterest of the crowd. Using instruments like the glockenspiel, recorder and double bass, this must be the most low-key quintet ever, so quiet that they’re virtually inaudible at times. But it’s hard to know how this would have translated to the main stage either: another band who in hindsight were probably better off in the Church.

The forced line-up switches cause a few awkward schedule pile-ups so we forego The Wave Pictures (who suddenly start on the main stage with no pre-amble as soon as it stops raining) to catch sullen Hole-ish duo Skinny Girl Diet, who play super-heavy tracks off the aptly-named ‘Heavyflow despite some technical issues (a malfunctioning distortion pedal) and the stripped-down line-up. A Karen O-style echo effect is applied three tracks in, which suits the band well, oddly enough.

Lilith Ai

Back in the Church, Lilith Ai is playing with a slightly reduced line-up with her drummer on compassionate leave, but her songs are strong enough to captivate even under these circumstances. They’re melodic and soulful enough to convince in this environment and gritty and authentic enough to fit more urban bills: essentially, Lilith can go in any direction she wants from here. ‘Riot Revolution’, played with a drum machine and digressing into breakbeat-driven electronica, showcases her potential as a frontwoman unencumbered by the acoustic guitar she plays for most of the set. Ai got a lot of Twitter attention for this set, and rightly so.

Effervescent London trio The Tuts peculiarly announced on Facebook that they were headlining Indietracks on Sunday, but are on earlier than Cate Le Bon and play the second stage. Whatever their thinking, the effort involved in their set indicates that they’ve decided to treat the gig as a headline slot, either to upstage Le Bon or to announce their own potential for the role. It works, too: this is probably the most memorable set of the weekend. Introduced by a vicar in front of 4ft balloons, entering in bridal gowns, playing a cover of ‘Wannabe’, the band are going all-out here. There’s the occasional dud: a song with the refrain “give us something worth voting for” seems like an unfashionable opinion in 2017, and the new song is more Tuts self-mythologising in what sounds like an unsuccessful attempt to emulate Beyonce. On the encore (!!!), though, the various parts coalesce: singer/guitarist Nadia talks openly about her struggles with depression before the vicar comes back on to marry the band to themselves (because if you can’t love yourself…) and the band bring out an assembly of pals for an acoustic cover of Linkin Park’sIn The End’. They’ve always been a fun proposition live, but this was a statement of intent.

Top that, Cate Le Bon. Wearing a black pyjama suit and holding her guitar like a machine gun, Le Bon’s superior quirk would have caught the eye had she been lower on the bill, but this is the death slot for her and her band. There’s a difference between headlining your own gig and headlining a festival, a difference that Le Bon gives little indication of understanding: she treats it as just another gig, albeit one of the last for the band before they go to record the follow-up to Crab Day (which is her newest release, despite being fifteen months old). It’s a bummer, as while it may not be a festival headline show, the music is still pretty good: a fringe associate of final-days Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Le Bon has a similarly skewed take on indie-pop as they did, a cross between John Cale’s chamber-pop and Canterbury scene lysergics, a sort-of psychedelia indigenous to Wales (seicedelia’r?). The set finishes with ‘What’s Not Mine’, which takes the ‘Mr Blue Sky’ chug to its logical, fatal conclusion. And that’s it: there isn’t even an encore.

So that was Indietracks, a fine mix of vintage Peel-era indie outfits, modern-day whimsy, energetic girl and/or queer outfits, and Crywank; a festival which courted a younger crowd of grrls while retaining the nostalgia crowd it’s always played to. It’ll be interesting to see which direction they go in next year, but with its eclectic line-up and affordable price, Indietracks is usually worth a look.
(If you’re going for a headliner from the Peel era next year, see if Urusei Yatsura or Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci will reform and you’ll guarantee my ticket.)

Cate Le Bon

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5 Things to love about…Indietracks Festival

Preview from JT Wilson

If I mention ‘indie’ and ‘train’ in the same sentence, you might have visions of Ocean Colour Scene’s lumpen dadrock or the Libertines’ guerrilla gigs way back when. Thankfully, Indietracks has little in common with either. Now in its eleventh year, the festival has established a firm standing on the festival circuit, inspiring throngs of repeat visitors charmed by the Midlands Railway Centre’s delightful surroundings, the intimate atmosphere (there’s only 2000 attendance) and its blend of twee, riot-grrl and classy Peel-era scene veterans.

In the last three years, headliners have included The Go! Team, Gruff Rhys and Saint Etienne alongside Indietracks regulars like Allo Darlin’ and this year’s return headliners The Wedding Present (who last headlined in 2008, although 2015 headliners Cinerama have a suspiciously similar line-up and set). But who should you see this year? Your old pals BC4B have you covered.

Martha
(Friday 21.15, Outdoor Stage)

(Photo Credit: Meg Lavender)

Nathan and Daniel are putting out another ONSIND album this year, but before that, they headline Friday night as part of evergreen anarcho-tinged power-pop quartet Martha. Originally spotted playing unplugged in the zine tent back in 2014, the Co Durham gang’s combination of relatable awkwardness (teen crushes, depression, anxiety), band-specific interests (anarchist writers, weirdly specific biological metaphors) and sunnily poppy, anthemic indie should be an exhilarating start to the festival. Assuming Voltarine De Clair can successfully get you there prior to 9.15.

MJ Hibbett and the Validators
(Saturday 17.00, Indoor Stage)

There’s something charming about Hibbett and his brand of nerdish songwriting, which puts him somewhere between Half Man, Half Biscuit and John Shuttleworth, or perhaps a British take on Jonathan Coulton. Highlights of Hibbert’s song-as-story formula to look out for include an unlikely triumph in Peterborough, songs from his conceptual opus ‘Dinosaur Planet’ and not-a-dry-eye ‘It Only Works Because You’re Here’, about an IT support drone’s unrequited love.

Joanna Gruesome
(Saturday 19.50, Indoor Stage)

The forthright Cardiff quintet’s set in 2014 was hampered by technical problems, but if lightning doesn’t strike twice then Saturday’s Indoor Stage headliners’ high-octane “dissonant wimp music” should be the visceral highlight of the night. Things will get fuzzy. (Refined guitar-pop mainstays The Wedding Present headline the Outdoor Stage soon afterwards: by staggering the two main stages, this festival allows you to have your cake and eat it.)

Lilith Ai
(Sunday 19.20, Church Stage)’

The indefatigable ‘Fight Like A Girl curator seems to be making real waves this year, playing all over the country including a slot at Glastonbury a few weeks back. Originally an acoustic act, Lilith’s recent shows have seen her accompanied by a full band to perform her riot-girl-infused, Lauryn Hill-esque blend of surly agit-soul. She’s playing in the Church stage, which is indeed a church. Catch her before her congregation grows too big for venues like this.

Skinny Girl Diet
(Sunday 18.00, Indoor Stage)

(Photo Credit: Katinka Herbert)

SGD’s album ‘Heavyflow’ came out last September but for all the qualities of the record, their abrasive, no-fucks riot-grrl sound is probably best appreciated live. Originally a trio, but currently operating as a duo, the North London sisters will make enough noise to blow away any post-Saturday night brain fog.

ALSO… Acts including Me Rex and The Perfect English Weather will be playing on a train which trundles around a track during the act’s unplugged set. Pro tip: make sure you stay hydrated as the unique setting draws a crowd, which in turn makes it VERY warm… The workshop marquee has featured short story writing and a baffling, semi-scripted agony uncle set from The Spook School drummer Niall. This year offers workshops in campaigning for social change, stop-motion animation and the science of sound… Sunday is headlined by sometime Gruff Rhys collaborator and eccentric Cate Le Bon, whose unusual, tangential sound is less angst and more Ankst… There should be zines, birds of prey and the inexplicably popular can-crushing steamroller too…

Look out for a review of the festival next week. I promise it’ll be as exhaustive as I will be exhausted.

Cate Le Bon

Indietracks Festival kicks off this weekend! Tickets can still be purchased here!

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EP Review: blanket – Our Brief Encounters

Review from JT Wilson

Review from JT Wilson

Unless you count the sterling sound of the Wurlitzer organ in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool has never had an indigenous musical style the same way that Liverpool had Merseybeat, Manchester had Madchester, or even Wigan had Northern Soul. blanket’s debut EP ‘Our Brief Encounters’ is, I believe, the first post-rock from Blackpool: could it be the start of a local scene filled with mini-Mogwais and Godspeedettes? It might seem unlikely given Blackpool hosts the old-school punk sounds of Rebellion Festival, but if, like me, you’ve ever been a teenager going for a moody walk along the seafront, battered by the winds off the Irish Sea, you’ll realise the town and the genre actually suit each other pretty well.

Having said that, hopes of blanket creating a new musical dialect might be premature: Our Brief Encounters sounds more like the quartet finding their feet than stating their intentions. None of blanket are newcomers, having all played in bands who’ve toured internationally, but the EP’s opening tracks feel like tentative explorations in the genre, leaning on familiar touchstones. Opener ‘Acacia’ mixes glitchy 65daysofstatic synth samples with a melody almost identical to Sigur Ros’sNy batteri’; the Explosions in the Sky guitar textures of ‘Tethered’ are framed around vocal samples from ‘Lost in Translation’, a genre reference point so familiar as to be a cliché.

The EP’s first triumph is its third track, ‘Discoveries and Beginnings’, in which the band finally fuse their recognisable influences into something distinctively their own. Again driven by a vocal sample, the band go to an unlikely source: Ed Helms in ‘The Office’. Surprisingly, the Helms sample is very emotionally powerful when coupled with the upbeat feel and the pretty guitar interplay.

Fourth track ‘Starlight Filled Our Minds’ is a moody slice of e-bow reverb, low-volume vocals and staccato post-hardcore guitar, accompanied by a beautifully-lit video of the band performing in a dark room with a dancer. My favourite track on the EP, however, is the closer ‘To The Skies’. The song is aptly named: you can imagine being in an aeroplane looking down at the clouds above as the soaring guitar, delay-heavy glass harmonica patches and driving rhythm section propel the song to the heavens. It’s kind of disappointing that the EP finishes there, just as it sounds as though it’s hit its stride.

While this EP was being written, singer/guitarist Bobby Pook lost much of his equipment and almost lost the ability to play music due to a house fire in which he suffered third-degree burns to his hands. He was able to replace it thanks to generous souls on Kickstarter and sympathetic equipment sponsors. It’s hard to know to what extent this influenced the record – it was after all in the middle of creation, and the shoegaze volume of the vocals make it hard to pick out lyrics. At a guess, it probably influenced Pook’s whispery, fragile vocal style, and the band’s revitalised faith in humanity perhaps drove the two most positive songs here (Discoveries and Beginnings especially); whatever the impact, we’re lucky to have any blanket at all.

An album will presumably follow, hopefully created in less tragic circumstances: now that the band have found their feet with this promising debut, I look forward to hearing them sounding more uniquely blanket on the album.

Our Brief Encounters is available 10 February 2017 – Pre-order it on wax here.

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Album Review: Adam Betts – Colossal Squid

Review from JT Wilson

Review from JT Wilson

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but 2016 has been a crazy year, stockpiling nightmarish news items as if they were Cold War-era plutonium, the fabric of reality slipping away as dramatically as if it had plunged down one of those death slides. Jesus, this was the year of President Donald Trump and David Bowie dying, Premier League Champions Leicester City and the word post-truth making the dictionary.

Maybe it’s just me, but everything has felt so frantic this year, like you can barely take a breath without some other chaotic event happening. Spring blurred into summer blurred into autumn blurred into winter and here I am at the end of November where I’ve not written anything all year and my novel still isn’t out and I haven’t seen a single episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ yet. Is it still on Netflix? I wouldn’t change this hyperreal, information-saturated era for any other, believe me, but sometimes it feels like a beatdown. It’s enough to make you want to go and hide in the mountains or something, but I bet you can still get Wifi up there these days.

While it probably wasn’t Adam Betts’ intention to make Colossal Squid sound like the product of a weather-battered, cluttered mind being attacked by clusterbombs of information, it certainly seems as though it could have existed in no year less frenetic than 2016. His best-known project is Three Trapped Tigers (Colossal Squid has a similar name to ‘Kraken’, a track from this year’s TTT album ‘Silent Earthling’), where his muscular drumming penetrates the intricate entanglements of Tom Rogerson’s keyboards and Matt Calvert’s guitar. While he hardly takes a back seat in TTT, here it’s all drums and Ableton loops, recorded live in a way that made me think of VNV Nation triggering all their keyboard parts off an electronic drum kit (hey, the goth dies hard, sue me).

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Betts’ command of electronic percussive jams is on point. The multi-layered, percussive loops – the rotary panned gamelan leading into anxious ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ industrial of ‘FUB’ for example – are as nuanced and complex as you might expect from a drummer with nearly a decade in a math-rock band. What else does he have up his sleeve? ‘Aneek’, sounds like a mass malfunctioning in a music box factory (do they make music boxes in a factory? Let’s say they do. Humour me yeah?) with the live kit trying to hold shit together. ‘Hero Shit’ flips the switch by using its vocal samples as a rhythm track, although its lead synth is the most melodic thing on offer here.

There’s only 27 minutes of this over seven tracks: perhaps I should have expected he’d have his timing down, but it’s refreshing to see such a concise, focused work. Having said that, if his album reflects the state of the planet in 2016 then I hope next year’s effort is a laidback mellow jam.

Listen to ‘Aneek’ from Colossal Squid in our our Now Playing playlist – Follow for regular updates!

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