- 10 Jul 04
Live reviews of Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters, Bell X-1, Autamata, Cathy Davey
We can still hear the drone of Goldie Lookin’ Chain coming from the main stage as we tramp across the field… and that’s when the first notes of Carol Keogh’s voice become audible, strongand buoyant and impossibly lovely, on the air, even this far away from the Green Room tent. (I should declare an interest right now: it will not be news to some Hot Press readers that I play cello and drums in Keogh’s other band, Tychonaut, so absolutely make of this report what you will.) Autamata’s songs are brainy, complicated, and fearsomely groovy. They’re also quite disparate, given Ken McHugh’s shifting co-songwriter arrangement: they range from stylish, hip-swinging post-hop (think Massive Attack with a sex life) on the one hand, as we are reminded by Sarah Verdon’s utterly mighty delivery today of ‘Jellyman’, to pristine, shiny, textured electro-pop with huge giddy-making wit and lightness of heart on the other. What also certainly doesn’t hurt is that in Carol Keogh, one of their two female vocalists, they have one of the most utterly arresting singers in Irish music. The precision and gutsiness and ease with which she launches her voice into the air during, say, ‘Out Of This’ makes you think of a violin virtuoso or a master conductor: it’s the sort of voice you find yourself following around in your head from moment to moment, and she makes really complicated and beautiful shifts and phrases look and sound easy. That said, ‘Jive County’, delivered by Ken McHugh himself, was a set highlight: we forgot what an absolutely lovely and tuneful electronic quirk-pop classic it is. With his own warm, boyish tones leading the way, it had a delightful plasticky freshness, like a brand-new toy at Christmas.
Today, and every day, Scissors Sisters are reclaiming the notion of ‘pop music’ for the good guys. They start with the sex-kitten guitars and preening falsettos of ‘Take Your Mama’: and Ana Matronic and Jake Shears dance with each other, hard, and the reason we mention it at all is that we cannot overemphasise how fucking cool it is to watch them dance. They dance with the abandon you have when you’re dancing with your best friends in the world: as if you haven’t a care in the world, as if no-one is watching – or, really, as if EVERYBODY is watching and you love it. The rest of us, as the heavens open up again and the rain buckets down, do likewise. Ana’s in a flowing peacock-blue halter dress, very Studio 54, honey, and Jake is in a billowing silver what-can-only-be-described-as ladies’ blouse open to the navel, over terrifyingly tight flesh-coloured leggings that… tell you so much about the fella that you find yourself reminiscing about how you used to pull down your Action Man’s trousers as a kid. In a word, they look amazing, and half (if not more of) the fun of watching Scissors Sisters is watching how much fun the band are obviously having being in Scissor Sisters. Predictably, however, no amount of brilliant onstage showmanship and repartee can save the album tracks from detracting slightly from the overall set (they sound just like the singles, but minus that X-factor that makes a mere song into a great, radio-seducing pop single). And yes, Elton John comparisons are fair enough – but now that Elt is the camp Andrew Lloyd Weber - hang on… ok, the MORE camp Andrew Lloyd Weber - there is a job going for a great and charming showman in increasingly flamboyant outfits who writes piano-led, falsetto-festooned sleaze-pop singles/swoonsome ballads and generally contributes benevolent mentalism to the pop charts. Long may they wiggle and sashay and sing terribly high up.
That high, girlish voice we remember from Autamata’s ‘Jellyman’ single belonged to Cathy Davey; and here today we watch as she takes to the stage as a solo artist, brandishing an acoustic guitar and at the front of a much tinier, and more traditionally rockistly-attired, gaggle of players (the bassist, amusingly, wears a black woolly hat that nearly covers his whole head). Gone are her old lot’s complicated arrangements and conservatory musicians and live-action electronica; present is a standard rock lineup, plus Miriam Ingram on backing vocals and keys. So far, we think disappointedly, so girl-rock. And indeed, at first we’re less than overwhelmed by the songwriting (typical chorus: ‘I’m always thinking of you’), and the more traditional rock arrangements leave us wanting more as well. And at this point you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cathy Davey, with her blonde good looks and strong stage presence and acoustic-led pop-rock and high girlish voice, is the Nina Hynes that the producers of Dawson’s Creek might have taken a chance on – that is, she’s just that bit more digestibly normal, and thus suitable for prime time. But then Cathy launches into recent single ‘Come Over’ and you figure out in an instant why she’s got a solo deal. It’s that deceptive high piping small-girl voice: when she lets it out, it’s louder and stronger than you can imagine; and it has an unbridled, wild… well, BIGNESS that instantly makes you think of Bjork. And this is when you realise that the rougher tunes, like the grinding arcs of guitar in ‘Come Over’, are the ideal counterpoint to that searing, but very distinctively girlish, squall she’s able to conjure. So: less of the pretty stuff and more of the grit in future, we’re hoping; in any case, we’re coming back soon to investigate further.
We arrive in time to hear Bell X-1 soar through Eve (The Apple Of My Eye) to a soggy but delirious crowd, standing dripping and grinning on the Ticket Stage tarmac. Paul Noonan’s crowd are at that delicious point in a band’s career where they can do no wrong – in fact, as odd as it sounds, it wouldn’t be overstating it to say they’re the heart of this year’s Oxegen in the way that The Frames, not appearing this year, usually tend to be. Paul himself, meanwhile… well, a girl can’t turn her back on Bell X-1 for a second, ‘cos even in the few short months since we’ve seen them last he’s become, in a word, a rock star. Writhing and jittering through the searing skrunk of ‘Tongue’, the shapes he throws onstage make you recall those early comparisons to Radiohead – but’s more than a lazy label, and it’s more than a passing resemblance to the voice, or in any case it doesn’t stop there. It’s that presence, that feeling that something life-changing is alchemising onstage: they’re magnetic. Just to prove it further, they knock out a lovely, delicate ‘I’ll See Your Heart & Raise You Mine’, segueing at its end into the Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realize??’, and despite the unsubtle sound and attention-deficit-disorder audience that you get at a festival, they pull us into the palms of their hands as easily as if we were in the Olympia or Vicar St. We’re so proud.
We pass one last time through fairground hellfire and trudge up a packed hill, through a drizzle everybody is too overjoyed to notice, to see the mighty and mightily well-dressed Franz Ferdinand pile into ‘Take Me Out’. Could you get a better festival band than the Franz? The fact that their eponymous debut is jammed wall-to-wall with perfect pop singles means there’s no slack moment today, no album-track filler only of interest to the diehards: every track is a stunner, a stomper, more glorious than the last, their trademark skinny-rib guitar sound more whip-smart than ever. Whatever stilted new-suit nerviness, causing smallish lack-of-atmnosphere problems, may have existed at their last Irish date in the Ambassador is gone: the atmosphere here on the sodden hill is disco-rock house-party euphoria. It ain’t easy to write pop songs that are this well-drawn, this emotionally specific, from this personal a place, that are still so perfect, so pristine, so irresistible. It makes you realise that they’re the rightful heirs of the dance-pop mantle once held by Roxy Music and Blondie: every track, like, say, an utterly smashing, celebratory ‘Dark O f The Matinee’, is debauched, sluttish, and simultaneously (a) hard-edged and impossibly glamorous, and (b) warm-hearted, honest and full of, well, sharp-suited lust. Good men.