Stuck between a rock 'n' roll and a hardcore place
Anna C does some egg chasing...

HOWLING BELLS: Cambridge Soul Tree 15/5/06

Someone in the house tonight may have got a bit overzealous about seeing Howling Bells. The stench that engulfs me upon my arrival is one of stale beer and vomit. I can't work out whether I am swaying due to nausea or whether I really am enjoying watching this seemingly tiny antipodean quartet. Because, as much as the tunes are overwhelming in their proportions, swerving intensely throughout a range of influences, from huge noisy landscape to sensual almost-country styled laments, where an interesting use of rhythm is always a saving grace in preventing long-windedness, whilst the UK music press has gone bananas in likening singer Juanita Stein to PJ Harvey, the only similarities I generally see is that she is a raven-haired siren with a guitar. But without any obvious balls. Though, frustratingly perhaps too cool to talk to the audience in normal circumstances, she does handle the hecklers well, as they no doubt try in desperation to get some kind of human contact from those on stage. And the culmination in the wonderful single "Low happening" is pulled out of the hat just in time to deliver a much-needed livelier punch to the gut.
Talking afterwards, my plus-one and I did, however, question what kind of show a band like this could perform. Maybe it's all about the music and appreciating a different kind of act. Maybe we are supposed to share in Howling Bells' sense of alienation and melancholy. Man. Maybe I very rarely think that good song-writing transcends a need to communicate to those who have paid good money to come and see you play. Or just maybe I wasn't in the right mood for brooding in front of a rather lack-lustre crowd. To get to the point, though very powerful stuff, for those of you a fan of bolshily scissor-kicking your way through a live set, go buy the album and sit at home. You'll be better rewarded. Unless you're a bloke, of course, in which case you will certainly enjoy ogling the goods.


Jennifer Hall is fashionably late this evening, sound-checking in front of the few people cosily spread out on rugs and floral cushions before her, small and cute and extremely apologetic about travelling all the way from Bath. After being introduced by a strange man in a smoking jacket, she begins perhaps a little nervously, yet tiny hands pluck at an acoustic guitar perfectly and, with each song, force her listeners to fall in love with her slightly more. Because if there are any imperfections tonight, I personally find them endearing, regardless cancelled out by the sheer size and quality of her voice, a noticeable salute to Tori Amos through it's journey from soothing to searing. And there is certainly more to this girl than meets the eye; as much as she and violinist, Mari Dackevych, may look like carefree young women for who it's all about handbags and glad rags, there is a beautiful and surprising honesty in these stripped down and emotionally raw songs of love and loss. In fact, when Miss Hall performed an acapella version of the title track of her "Mostly grey" EP, it was all I could do to contain myself. My only quibble is that my arse went dead halfway through the set. A great new talent.

Which is more than I can say for London-based singer/songwriter Martha Swanson and her Nickelback-influenced guitarist. Who I can't believe is allegedly a signed act. Because, although a strong conviction and sincerity make up for a lack of tunefulness, I almost wet my pants when she soberly introduces a song about dyslexia, an apparent affliction that affects 10% of the population, a song named "Johnny can't read". And, as much as you claim to be influenced by Carole King and Beth Orton, you, Martha My Dear, can't write songs. Or sing very well. I had to run away by this point. I wish I hadn't. Apparently dyslexic people write their j's upside down. And I missed her singing about hoovering the sky or something. Damn.

Apologies to Ana Silvera and Fuzz for missing their sets but a vat of wine waved at me from across the road and I was powerless to resist.



This CD starts with a catchy little number along the lines of The Kinks, combining toe-tapping/leg kicking rhythm 'n' riffs with somewhat witty lyrics. How my ears did prick up. And then it gets a bit weird. Actually, not weird but definitely a bit mixed up. Which, I guess, is what you'd much expect from four art school students residing in the capital. The influences are clear, ranging from Blur, Gomez and Radiohead, all bands seemingly of a similar genre, used here in a way that makes it obvious how different they actually are and it all ends up sounding a bit like what would happen if Anthony Kiedis seduced Miss Roberts from Rude Mechanicals and Jonny Greenwood. With a downright silly song about an egg. Still, it all retains a nice sense of tune. Which is not something I would usually say about a band that are probably best likened to Mystery Jets. No, The Mergatroid don't really have a set style. Do they want one? Probably not. Does it work? Not really. Do I like them? Strangely, yes.


Apparently, Ray Brower may have been president. Or a local council employee. He may also be on tenterhooks. But I know Ray Brower as the dead kid from the film "Stand by me". Do I win a prize? And, do you know? Ray Brower is also a band, another band from Norwich who doesn't think they have to let a lowly reviewer know anything about themselves apart from the fact that they were clever enough to write two songs. So, they appear to be some form of young quartet. And their songs are pretty cool, although nothing new, of course. But I would cross the street to go and watch them play. The name of their first track basically sums them up, entitled "Stuck between a rock 'n' roll and a hardcore place". Stomping guitar riffs and strutting beats with a bloke shouting over the top instead of singing, though he does shout convincingly, makes up not even two minutes of some very energetic rock and roll, which I am sure will get you going. And the second track "Disco Pink" is much the same but slower. They do remind me of someone but I can't remember who it is and at this stage in the day I can't be arsed to rack my brains. Just like they couldn't be arsed to put in a proper biog to jog my aging memory.

Anna C

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