Original Private MaterialFreebird
Fucking hell, we’ve been invaded. Where are all these strangers from? Do you care? Well, perhaps you should. Designed to showcase new and original acoustic talent, Original Private Material is everything the Acoustic Lounge isn’t, including packed full of people. Aside from the Forum staff and yours truly, there doesn’t seem to be a single regular here. Not one. Except Simon of course and he doesn’t count because he’s virtually furniture. Hope you’re all proud of yourselves.
Instead of our usual mix of teens, misfits, musos and dropouts, it feels like some dodgy public house has been transported to our hallowed chod-bin and we’ve got the lot: anguished youngsters, a doddery old guy smelling of wee, opinionated lager-swilling fat blokes (us fat blokes have to be opinionated – it’s part of our culture innit?), sweaty footie fan types, fortysomething dads, pissed housewives, twentysomething lads and a disturbing amount of gold sovereign jewellery. Above all though, there’s lots of general yakking, nattering and inappropriately loud verbal intercourse which is bloody rude when someone’s on stage giving it their all. But hey, they weren’t to know that this isn’t a pub. It’s tough to establish who’s more seemingly out of place, the crowd or the venue, but if it brings more people down here and they’re spending money at the bar, who’s complaining?
Having a night like this is a brave and admirable move. There really aren’t enough opportunities to enjoy this sort of promotion and it’s at events like this that singer-songwriters have a real and direct opportunity to just do whatever the mood takes them without having to compromise. There might be easily accessible material, dark moody balladry, pus-dripping indie, commercially catchy pop or easy listening AOR, but it’s all about stripping it down to basics and showing the world that you have some damn good tunes regardless of whatever label you slap on it. Music for grown ups, or something, except for Contrast but we’ll get to them later.
Freebird though, are inoffensive, twee and about as groundbreaking as a rubber mallet, but what the hell. Sometimes, it’s nice to just enjoy something that’s, well, nice, and Freebird fit the bill, er, nicely.
The Crowborough duo are very much like an acoustic Everything But The Girl. The powerful, haunting vocals of Phee Watt are a strange and uplifting blend of Sam Brown and Chrissy Hynde, and combined with chirrupy balladry and understated unobtrusive guitar picking, what they amount to is little more than coffee-table pleasantness. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s just restrictive, that’s all.
The jangly affability of “Love Is A Stranger” and the country rock tinged “Easy Words” are obscenely well-written, expertly constructed pop songs and as they progress towards the blander end of MOR AOR with “Can’t Feel A Thing”, Freebird reveal themselves as light-spirited and playful dreamers, but in the most positively infectious way. Their songs may lack depth, but they have polish and a wispy veneer of professionalism that makes their material timeless and effortlessly enjoyable.
It’s acoustic rock that makes no excuses for being what it is; safe and easygoing , built for humming along to while driving to Sainsburys in a Volvo, but there’s something peculiarly comforting about that. It’s music that parents play around their teenage kids as a subtle form of torture and those looking for radical expressionism, insightful lyricism or hard-hitting realism had better steer well clear because it’s prosaic blandness will serve only to annoy.
Freebird just make affable music without ego but with a great deal of warmth and class and although they’re going to play in pubs for evermore, they’ll probably be full ones.
Ex-Catching Flies mainman Anthony Vicary couldn’t be more different. With a style like Thom Yorke on Prozac, there are Radiohead-isms a-plenty, though upbeat and gently melodic with sufficient shrewd smatterings of depth and menace to disturb and unease the listener. His Harper meets Bradfield vocal style is a busted wail of contempt and alienated bitterness, reciting lyrics of cynical optimism, insight and introverted anguish, but the songs are in the main, uncomplicated affairs. With clear influences from the likes of Pearl Jam, Neil Young and well, Radiohead, his song structures seem to be built to convey a disturbed mood rather than self-indulgent poetry. There’s a workmanlike edge, making the music open and welcoming, comfortably nudging between the bedroom melancholia of The Smiths and the inspired suppleness of Travis.
Little moments of drama seem to sneak their way into the proceedings as Vicary knows that he’s got a whole room hanging on to his every word. A suddenly received text message seems to punctuate his performance with a sloppy element of tension-killing irony that warms us to him considerably, and as the mildly Evan Dando flavoured “Debt” follows in a flurry of speed-strumming, Vicary demonstrates a remarkably deep and eclectic understanding of his instrument, playfully experimenting with neat rhythms and blind corners.
The difficulty though is not in the complexity of his tunes, which are emotive strong and intelligent, but in maintaining consistency in determination and confidence, and Vicary seems to have problems in this area. Although at times supremely self-aware and charming, he seems to suddenly realise that there’s dozens of pairs of eyes on him and is unsure of how to deal with this sudden sense of expectation and demand, so at times he flounders and subsequently visibly displays signs of dissatisfaction with himself. However, Vicary never dwells on this weakness and carries himself through with admirable grit and vigour to show that he can accomplish what he set out to achieve.
Which is more than can be said for Contrast. Local heroes they might be, playing to salt-of-the-earth types in dull Tunny Wells pubs, nevertheless they are predominantly deeply offensive and abhorrent in their execrable attempts at meaningful pop.
Loosely reminiscent of a bad Beautiful South/Housemartins but with a chirpy smarminess and an oily self-satisfied air, this male duo create tepid half-dead pop-rock with insular 6th-form lyrics born of feeling shit and depressed about nothing that particularly matters.
“This one’s about going out with your mates…it’s called ‘Wasted’…”. Yeah. Yawn. And it actually gets worse.
This stunted, limited and limp-wristed material just doesn’t seem to work acoustically and if it can’t work acoustically, it can’t work anywhere. We can smell the bullshit from the back of the room but they continue their shiny happy dweebness regardless, indulging in pointlessly self-celebrating exercises in futility that go beyond triteness to platitudinous extremes. Literally, this is so up it’s own arse it can taste yesterday’s quiche. Paul Dunton’s sub-Heaton whimper is cold nasal and soulless, seemingly highlighting the fact that they are inflicting upon us something that is just grey, poorly constructed, immature bollocks with as much drive as a fucked Lada.
As they introduce keys, the admittedly precise and intricately embroidered piano of “My Sake” turns them into Coldplay Junior and for the briefest of moments, it seems as if Contrast actually have something to give, but no, early promise still gives way to diluted and weak sterile pap with no spirit, no soul and the faintest whiff of cheese.
Contrast are proof that some things, even if they do come from the heart, are best left in people’s bedrooms where they belong. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t so absolutely ghastly that they could improve the world by going outside to play in the traffic, but they have so very little worthwhile to offer that to be unaware of their existence is certainly a preferable alternative to having to cope with one of their gigs.
“Same Again Next Week” though, admittedly snatches back some reluctant interest, because it’s a gorgeous and rich ballad, conspicuous by it’s quality surrounded by such shite, like a diamond that’s fallen on a dog turd. They wisely grasp the reaction it causes with an eager enthusiasm and funk it up with “Superbitch” but again, it quickly slips back down into dreary upbeat baloney with nothing to offer and even less to say.
Contrast are aptly named. They’re the opposite of virtually everything that’s appealing or legitimately worthwhile and exist solely because bands like this are needed to prove to others exactly what not to do. Theirs is music for people who masturbate excessively and have no friends, too sad to be ridiculous and too shallow to be interesting. It’s dissatisfying, empty and phlegmatically self-absorbed for no apparent reason other than that it can be.
Nights like this should certainly be happening more often, and I sincerely hope they will, but if Contrast is the sort of thing we’ll have to put up with, the prospect seems pretty grim.