Thursday, April 01, 2004

Shin Dig

The Shins/The Duke Spirit/Exist, Carling Academy 2, Birmingham, March 31 2004.

The 6Music roadshow hit town last night, and Steve Lamacq (one of the few people I've ever seen who likes he's been drawn by Matt Groening) himself was performing the introductions for the three bands playing under the 'In The City' banner. First up were local act Exist, all the way from West Dudley (a crucial distinction, this, as we wouldn't want to get them mixed up with those diametrically-opposed scenes in North, East or South Dudley, oh no) who sent a demo off to SL a few months back and now find themselves on national (albeit digital) radio. While I applaud the general idea of giving a local band such an opportunity, it then seems a shame that they're only given four songs to play, making it all smack of a token exercise. Exist's songs all sounded like Oasis covering 'She Sells Sanctuary' to me, and while there may well be a market for that sort of thing, I personally wouldn't sign 'em up on the basis of what I heard. But then, if I was a music executive, I would have shown The Darkness the door, so what do I know?

Next up, were The Duke Spirit, who I know Mr Lamacq was particularly looking forward to seeing because I was earwigging at the bar (notebook in hand, like I've seen them doing in the movies). They've just finished recording their debut album proper (after last year's mini 'roll, Spirit, roll') and this show gave them the opportunity to give some fresh air to these newly-polished gems. Most of the band look sharp but all eyes are on lead singer Liela Moss: imagine a tomboy Bjork with long blonde hair and Mick Jagger's legs and you're somewhere near getting the picture of the best frontperson in British Rock'n'Roll since Liam Gallacher. It is inconceivable that Liela will not become a major star in the near future, and judging by the quality of the choons on display she may well bring The Duke Spirit along in her slipstream. By the end of a storming version of 'Red Weather' the band have single-handedly brought some much-needed sex, filth and devastation back to the UK indie scene, like the Velvet Underground as fronted by the bastard daughter of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful.

A shame then, that the crowd seem strangely unresponsive - maybe they've been scared shitless in the presence of genuinely freaky rock 'n' roll, as perhaps people don't go to a Shins gig looking for a boner? As The Shins themselves recognise, they're not exactly the cutest looking group on the planet, which partly explains why they don't get much NME coverage and why the venue is only half full, despite their second album 'Chutes Too Narrow' winning plaudits everywhere and emerging as the most successful album ever released by Sub Pop Records over in the States. This gig is the first leg of their first-ever tour outside of the US, so it's a big opportunity for many to find out what all the transatlantic buzz is all about.

Singer/guitarist Jimmy Mercer looks like a cross between Kevin Spacey and Edward Norton, with a neat, sensible beard of the type normally favoured only by people with severe psychotic disorders. He looks like one of the creepy authority-type figures on South Park: Jimmy is the serious, intense, talented one in the band (he was also the one watching The Duke Spirit intently from the side of the stage). Chubby keyboard player Marty Crandall looks like Uncle Fester with wild indie hair, and nervously goofs around on stage while making goo-goo eyes at the sound guy ('We call him Pumpkin' he gushes, as spittle forms around his lips): Marty is the clown in the band. Bass player Dave Hernandez looks mean and moody, like a less well tailored version of Chris Stein from Blondie, and all the girls' mobile phone cameras are trained on him: Dave is the babe magnet of the band. Drummer Jesse Sandoval is a big bear of a guy who has the air of someone resigned to being the butt of all the jokes and recriminations: Jesse is the band scapegoat, they possibly make him squeal like a pig in the tourbus every night.

Musically, I have my reservations about The Shins. I really like 'Chutes Too Narrow' but up to a point. In the same way that I only liked all those newly-hip acts from the early 80s like XTC and Talk Talk to a point: while the songs are undeniably cleverly constructed, there's a lack of passion and bollocks therein that is ultimately their downfall. Occasionally The Shins' songs soar beyond their ingredients: 'Kissing The Lipless' being a case in point, as is the giddy pop of recent single 'So Says I' which is a better Beatles song than John, Paul, George and Ringo ever managed. But the album gets dragged down by some airless and mundane ballads that are unnecessary on such a short record (33 mins). I want my pop thrills undiluted and I'm not ashamed to demand a higher concentration of quality choonage. Happily, some of the band's shortcomings are less noticeable live - they work hard to get the audience to like them and the effort is appreciated, they perform with a nice balance of energy and self-deprecation, and crucially the dodgy slower ones give you the much-needed opportunity to take a leak and sneak to the bar while it's quiet (these things are important, you know). The Shins, then, shimmying up the charts sometime soon, no doubt.

FOOTNOTE (#1): You know how music stores put their own sticky labels on records with artist details, record title and price? Well, I couldn't help but notice on my copy of 'Chutes Too Narrow' that the label had been printed: 'The Shins: Chutes Too Shallow'. Genuine mistake or is it the case of everybody being a critic these days, huh?

FOOTNOTE (#2): Moan of the night was the fact that there was just two bar staff on at Academy 2, meaning big queues between bands. There was a lad hanging around behind the bar who I assumed was the glass collector and was too young to serve, but oh no: when challenged (get this) apparently he's the supervisor and when asked by both the staff and the public as to whether he thought he ought to help out he simply shook his head, said 'nah' and carried on watching. More neck than chin, that lad, I tell ya.

FOOTNOTE (#3): The show was being recorded for broadcast on Steve Lamacq's new Sunday afternoon show (2-5pm) on April 4th over on 6Music so tune in and you might just catch my deep baritone whooping and hollering in the background. You lucky dogs.


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