Michael Kiwanuka in Exeter- One Year On

Last week Michael Kiwanuka, the enigmatic thirty-year-old London-born soul-pop singer/songwriter returned to Exeter almost exactly one year after his Phoenix gig. This time in the much bigger University hall, and with a larger entourage, Kiwanuka proved just how much success can change a young artist’s performance, even if he doesn’t fully realise it.

The inclusion of the three-piece gospel choir and the wind section (one guy deftly manoeuvring between tenor sax and flute at the drop of a bass note) was a great idea, but not necessarily well-played out. The singers were great, and accentuated Kiwanuka’s voice with harmonies that added depth and character to the more soulful numbers. The saxophone was far too loud, without being properly audible- a wall of sound seemed to emanate from the far-left corner of the stage, and the subtleties of the melody were lost to this sound design malfunction. And the fact that he was adapting between the two instruments so fluently mid-track meant that the sound was never going to be right for either instrument.

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Michael Kiwanuka at the Great Hall, Exeter

The rest of the band were as tight as ever- the lead electric guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussionist have obviously worked together for a lot longer than these new members, and it showed. The guitar especially was beautiful, and played with so much soul that at one climax I heard the person behind me say ‘reminds me a bit of Hendrix’ (perhaps a little hyperbolic, but we’ve all been in the hold of a decent guitarist on a Monday night in Devon).

Kiwanuka himself was on as good a form as ever: his naturally shy stage presence seems to evaporate the moment he plucks either his electric or acoustic, and his voice rings out with a truth that seems implausible from such a young musician. It was, again, only the sound design that let him down. You can tell a vocalist’s mic is caked in too much reverb when they try to tell the audience an amusing anecdote and it gets lost somewhere between him and the third row. Not much of a talker anyway, Kiwanuka’s occasional funny stories were only worthwhile if you were devotedly standing at the front of the hall. It seems strange to me that someone with a voice so naturally full of depth and feeling should need so much layered onto their vocal mic. This made the performance lose a fair amount of its effect, as you would expect only being able to hear half the lyrics would do.

The set list was mixed up a little from last year, with the inclusion of the 2012 top forty single ‘Home Again’. Slightly out of place amongst the plethora of soul-funk pieces surrounding it, this track seemed to hint at a weaker sense of Kiwanuka feeling confident enough to be able to do what he wants at his own gigs. Well received by his audience, it seems he may have decided to do what makes the people (and perhaps his manager?) happy.

And then there’s the encore. Having rounded up what seemed to be a generally well-thought-out and executed set (assuming the sound guys are in-house and not part of the entourage), Kiwanuka and band insisted on giving us, the people supposedly wanting of it, a dramatic and over-played encore. We knew it was going to happen- he was yet to play two of the most important singles of the 2016’s Love and Hate– but there was a small part of me holding on to the idea that the beautiful ending of the first set could be the way Kiwanuka wants to be remembered. I was, of course, wrong.

Kiwanuka thanked the band, one by one, before they took leave of the stage to the roar of the crowd (especially Hendrix-junior). The keys player was the last left standing, beautifully repeating the final two bars of the melody the band had spent fifteen minutes gradually stripping back. Finishing on a cliff-hanger, without satisfying us with the final note to make the perfect cadence, our keys player stood up unconfidently and walked the long way off-stage, without once even looking up, as if rehearsal in the garage was over and his mum had called him for in for his tea. It was beautiful. Celebrating the true nature of good live music, without charm and charisma, just showcasing that one guy at the back who’s a fantastic musician but kind of just forgets the crowd is there, this was a perfect end for a show like this. It was only when the house lights didn’t ping back on that I realised we were now going to stand here for ten minutes waiting for them all to trope back on and give us another two numbers.

Why, Kiwanuka, why?

Please, be confident in your own performance so that it doesn’t warrant this frankly ridiculous notion that you’re not an established and well-loved performer until you’ve made your paying audience scream your name at you because we cannot stand the idea that your hour-and-a-half set is over. Aside from some technical stuff that probably comes together with the venue (which didn’t suit the set-up as much as the much smaller hall from last year), this was a great gig. If only two-album pop stars would realise that they can do whatever they want, without playing up to the audience’s expectations, and that the true Devonian fans will still be there to pretend they understand any of the racial-tension that they pour so authentically into your lyrics.

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The Lemon Twigs- Do Hollywood

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Image Courtesy of thelemontwigs.com

4AD

The Lemon Twigs are doing something completely new in their blatantly days-of-old influenced debut Do Hollywood. Clearly audible influences such as the Beatles and Beach Boys, merged with the electronic blur that we’re used to hearing in the current pop world make for something ironically cutting edge, and very interesting.

The vocals are lo-fi and the instrumentation is classic of the record’s era (which as a statement is confusing in itself- what exactly is the era?). The predictable chord progressions are satisfying and the hooks are hooking, even if they flit away by the next verse and you realise you’re listening to a completely different genre. So much goes on in one track, and the passion and fun had in every section is palpable and infectious. The cheesy over-stated percussion and obvious bass riffs make you smile, before making you check you haven’t actually been transported back to the 60s. These four boys from New York take you on a musical journey that sounds like their childhood influences all mashed up together and smoothed out with modern-day techniques, culminating in an album that showcases something innovating but that your dad will also let you put on in the car.

In not trying to do anything different, in just loving the music they grew up listening to with their Long Island dad, and in being almost too hipster, The Lemon Twigs have created something new, and something the modern-day pop world needed: an album that’s fun, authentic, brimming with talent, and just plain good.

Jack Garratt- LIVE in Plymouth

Jack Garratt exerts an insane amount of energy in his live gigs. He bounces about the stage like an excitable puppy: drumming, guitar-ing, piano-ing and vocally-octave-jumping so much that if you closed your eyes you’d think there were 4 of him on stage. He shouts and jeers, banters and teases, and makes the whole crowd sing along to songs that were only released last summer. His talent for writing an anthem is tangible in the reaction of his fans.

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Impossible to pin down long enough for a photo- Jack Garratt in a blur on stage.

Garratt exploded onto the scene last year when he was announced as the winner of the BBC Critic’s Choice Award, and his debut album Phase was a massive success. The tour that has followed is brimming with excitement, and I stand by my notion that the 25 year old lad from Buckinghamshire is 100% a live act. The slick production of the album does the fun, electronic singles no good, and it does nothing to showcase the skill of this young musician.

Never did I think I’d enjoy booing at an act, but as Garratt teases the crowd with the intros to various covers, laughing in our faces as we shout angrily at him for stopping just before the drop, I find myself laughing back at him. He’s a joker, a performer, and definitely a crowd-pleaser.

At the moment there are no upcoming Jack Garratt gigs, but I’m sure he won’t be held down for long- another album and hopefully tour must be in the pipeline, and I would highly recommend grabbing tickets to listen to the album in it’s authentic, and I believe intended, setting.

Kings of Leon- WALLS

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Image Courtesy of popgoesculture.com

RCA

We Are Like Love Songs, the 7th album from legends of Southern-pop-rock Kings of Leon is a small step back in time to the good old days of 13 years ago. Keeping with the 5 syllable record name tradition, WALLS is easy-listening and fun, despite the somewhat depressing themes of loss and speculated divorce.

An attempted throwback to the days of Aha Shake Heartbreak and Youth and Young Manhood, the new record is almost where our nostalgia wants it to take us- with its 80s glam vibes and angsty thrashing guitars- but it doesn’t quite manage to shake off the wad of money that comes with the success of being one of the biggest bands of the last decade.

Kings of Leon have had some great moments: Youth and Young Manhood is in my top 10 favourite records ever. Since that year I bought every record, at first with delight, and then (mentioning no names, Only By The Night…) it became a bit of a risk. I tend to give Caleb and his brothers/cousins the benefit of the doubt these days, almost with a sense of pity as I discover that ‘Sex on Fire’ was  ‘the joke song on the album that nobody was supposed to notice.’ But is it too much to ask that you just push away the dollar bills and get back to the garage you guys grew up in? ‘Around the World’ perked me up a bit, but Caleb’s vocals still just sound too… good, and everything is so polished it kind of takes away some of the magic.

It could be worse though. This is a definite improvement on 2010 and 2013. Maybe album number 8 will give us just what we want? Just please KoL, don’t ever throwback to 2008.

Michael Kiwanuka- LIVE in Exeter

Michael Kiwanuka doesn’t have to say much. He walks on the stage of the tiny Phoenix, nods slightly at his devoted audience, picks up his guitar, and plays an hour and a half of mesmerising soul. He makes us clap and sway our hips at one moment, and freeze open-mouthed with glisten-eyed wonder at the pure emotion pouring out of one man and an acoustic guitar the next. The room falls silent for these moments, and everyone unites in their imagination of what it’s like to not be white middle-class Devonians in the local arts centre.

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It’s a rare thing when a new album provokes as much audience reaction as a debut. But Michael and band (which were brilliant, and so serious and succinct in what they’re doing) succeed in exciting the crowd with tracks from Love and Hate that aren’t even released singles. I also have an immense amount of respect for an artist that doesn’t play the single that a lot of people know him by, and that put him in the ‘British Folk’ category in 2012. The Home Again single wasn’t even hinted at.

The transition between the two albums is fluent, though, firmly creating the notion that the two, while involving a lot of musical and personal development, provide Kiwanuka with a successful back-catalogue of already-classics.

‘The power went down on the bus today so I couldn’t play Fifa- had to go and actually look around. I like Exeter, I’ll be back’, he says shyly, before closing the set with the epic title single of the new album.

Next time, a full brass section and gospel backing choir please Michael- but for now I’m happy with the soulful authenticity of this 29-year-old Fifa-playing boy from North London.

The tour continues until May next year, with a few more UK dates towards the end. To find out more and get tickets click here.

Bon Iver- 22, A Million

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Image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Jagjaguwar

5 years after the success of Justin Vernon’s debut record Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the indie folk musician that we thought we knew and loved is back, with a whole new sound that he calls ‘folktronica’- a genre he’s brought back to our attention and into the mainstream through his previous success, but which of course is no new innovation to subculture folk history.

It is, however, a definite shift in Bon Iver’s creative output: there are no more lulling acoustic guitar strums and calming goat-y vocals: Bon Iver is a different, more serious man. The record opens with confused glitching- it’s not until Justin’s beautiful vocal harmonies come in that we’re sure our MP3 file isn’t corrupt, and then we’re drawn into the album, like angels have descended and pulled us up into the disturbing depths of Vernon’s mind. The soft lullaby of the saxophone draws us in further, and suddenly we’re lost in the experimental dream that 22, A Million surely is.

There is no standard song form: the record slowly walks us through the beauty of Bon Iver’s uncertainty about life, his existential insecurity and his clear boredom with just playing his acoustic guitar and singing over the top. Nothing is safe about this record, and nobody can escape the innovative folk world that Vernon’s created.

‘29 #Strafford APTS’ is probably the most recognisable track- still streaked with Bon Iver’s electronic vocal harmonies, but built around a string section, it is more what we might have expected. Neatly slotted almost exactly halfway through the record, it acts as a nice grounding for the listener to grasp a hold of some sense of reality, before lurching straight back into the album.

I don’t think it’s possible to review this album without mentioning the title tracks, which themselves are enough to confuse our already disoriented folk-loving brains- ‘00000 Million’, ’33 “GOD”’… It’s almost enough to make us want to snap straight back to 2011 and forget any of this ever happened. Almost.

Michael Kiwanuka- Love and Hate

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Image courtesy of iTunes 

Polydor Records

Michael Kiwanuka returns this year with the much awaited (by me, anyway) Love and Hate. After four years of apparent heartbreak and a self-reflective existential crisis, the 29-year-old is back, having painfully injected even more soul into his music while exploring a number of personal and social issues that cause even my little middle-class-white-girl heart to ache.

The record opens with frosty strings and echoing choir chords in the 10-minute epic ‘Cold Little Heart’. After a euphoric four minutes of tension building, the rhythm section kicks in almost with relief, and the electric guitar cuts through the fog with its shrieking melody, reminding fans of the beauty of the first album. Kiwanuka’s vocals sound authentically pained and melancholy, as he bleats: ‘I’m bleeding, my cold little heart.’

The album continues, with a reasonable proportion of anguished ballads and punchy blues numbers. ‘Black Man in a White World’ is as bluesy as it gets, with casually strummed acoustic guitar, praise-like-clapping and a simple repeated bass line. The subject is just as bluesy, reminding the modern listener how important the soul revival still is- ‘I feel like I’ve been here before/ I feel that knocking at my door.’ The funk influences (‘Place I Belong’) draw out even more sophisticated cool, and the transition from horns (which were plastered all over the first album) into the dominating strings that ring out on this record, seems like a suitable step up into more grown-up themes.

The debut, Home Again, won the Critics’ Choice Award upon its release in 2012, but Love and Hate takes a place of its own amongst the voices of Otis Reading and Marvin Gaye, to name-drop just a couple of dominions of this realm. Kiwanuka has taken it into a new level, and it’s a height at which I hope he stays.

Jack Garratt- Phase

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Image courtesy of stereogum.com

Island Records

Recent winner of the BBC Sound Of 2016 and BRITS Critic’s Choice Award Jack Garratt drops some satisfying beats and fresh vocals on his debut album Phase.

The album starts as it means to go on with opening track ‘Coalescence (Synesthesia Pt.2)’. An initial stripped back, glitchy vibe allows the listener to appreciate Garratt’s raw, emotive lyricism (‘I hope you break my innocence, like you have before’). Then the bass ‘drops’ and the track becomes something that we recognise from the electro-pop singles that we’ve all heard on the radio, comforting us with it’s beautiful blanket of bassy (but not too much) nod-your-head-able beat.

The album continues with a suitable mix of angsty scratching vocals, as if Ed Sheeran DIDN’T get the girl but grew some balls instead, and guilty pleasure synthy pop beats. The singles (‘The Love You’re Given’, ‘Chemical’, ‘Breathe Life’ and ‘Worry’) sound as in place within the album as they do on daytime radio, and there are no out-of-place surprises that lead our pop-loving minds spinning back to the safety of last year’s winner James Bay. Phew.

The production is slick, as you would expect from a big budget debut, and ear-popping techniques (did I just imagine that extreme, switching-all-over-the-place panning?) provide interest beyond the electro beats and heartbroken lyrics.

The BBC described Garratt’s style as ‘soul-infused electro-pop and neck snapping beats’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/C9lcVRzhmx1dzHq67SYMBz/1st-jack-garratt). If the soul that’s infused is his own, realised through his teenage poetry lyrics, and the ‘neck-snapping’ is within the confines of bopping along in your car, then they’ve got it right.