Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Music Won't Save You From Anything But Silence

Piano Magic / July Skies / Yellow6 - London Luminaire

Last weekend, the artist-run label Make Mine Music put on a show in London to launch their 50th release, a compilation called "MMM050". I'd never been to the Luminaire before and wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the better venues I've visited recently. It's a small club, accessed by stairs directly from the street (which reminded me of the long-lost Edwards No. 8), with the space in front of the stage wide enough for everyone to get a good view of the performance. In addition, there were large screens at each side of the stage, which meant that I could see the band from a different angle whilst directly watching the stage at the same time. But perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the venue is its no-talking policy; there were a number of amusing signs reminding customers to be quiet while bands are playing as it's not a pub where you come to chat to your friends. This may seem a little excessive, but it can be frustrating when chatter from the audience drowns out quiet music.

The show must have started earlier than I was expecting, and maybe we spent too long looking for somewhere to eat and checking into our ridiculously cheap hotel, as we unfortunately arrived too late to catch Yellow6. I can't really comment on his set as I didn't see any of it, but I imagine it was as blissful as usual. I guess I should buy the latest in his regular series of Christmas CDs to make up for missing the performance.

July Skies is the project of Antony Harding, who is actually based in the Midlands so has probably played Birmingham many times, but this London show is the first time I've caught him live. The music of July Skies is based on themes of psychogeography - the way a physical environment affects our feelings and behaviour - and it conjures up images of disused shopping centres, 1970s tower blocks and public parks in the rain. It's not surprising to discover that Harding's day job is as a town planner. Some of the songs have vocals, some just feature samples of old radio broadcasts, weather forecasts etc. Harding's intricate guitar playing is reminiscent of Vini Reilly, and the music is so delicate that I'm glad the audience have been told to remain silent.

It's interesting to see how Piano Magic's music has evolved over the past couple of years. While some guitar bands gradually bring in electronic elements to their work, Piano Magic have done the opposite and their set at the Luminaire was almost totally free of electronic sounds of any kind. The guitar-dominated songs they played were far removed from the freeform electronica of early releases such as "Popular Mechanics". The set mainly consisted of songs from the last two albums, "Disaffected" and "Part Monster", the only two older songs being "Silence" from 2002's "Writers Without Homes" and set-opener "Saint Marie" from 2003's "Troubled Sleep". There were also two (I think) songs from the new EP "Dark Horses" but I didn't recognise these at the time because in a rare lapse I hadn't actually bought the EP even though it had been out for at least two weeks. Needless to say, I picked up a copy at the show, along with the "MMM050" compilation.

I have wondered whether Piano Magic's divergence into more traditional song structures with loud guitars has alienated fans of their electronic sound; I certainly read a few negative comments online when their last album was released. I'm often guilty of disowning a band when they change their style, and "I prefer their earlier stuff" is a phrase I use about pretty much anyone who has released more than three albums. But with Piano Magic, their music has been consistently interesting and the recent material actually seems more relevant to me - particularly the new EP, now that I've got it home, read the lyrics repeatedly and worked out how they apply to my life. Whilst watching the show, it occurred to me that their songs sum up adult life in the same way that the jangly indiepop of the 1980s appealed to me as a teenager. Themes of travel seem to recur in the songs, but not as the exciting pastime that it can be when you are young. Instead the songs paint a picture of hanging around train stations, longing for the journey to be over. This is particularly relevant to me as I have spent a lot of this year travelling to gigs in different cities, something that I haven't really done since the mid-'90s.

The songs also focus on reminiscences of our youth, and both "Silence" and "Love and Music" refer to the way that when we are young we turn to music as a means of escaping from our problems. Maybe as they've grown older and wiser, the band have realised that this won't solve anything and they may even be trying to tell us that we should face up to reality...

Perhaps to tie in with the theme of ageing, Glen Johnson's hair has developed into a rather worrying football commentator-style comb-over, as you can see in this clip:

Ignoring Johnson's hair and the fact that they only played for about 40 minutes, this was an excellent show and I finally realised what has been trying to tell me for some time, that in today's fragmented music scene, Piano Magic are the band who best describe my life. When I'm an old man, perhaps with a comb-over of my own, I think I will look back on Piano Magic as the defining music of my mid-30s, in the same way that the Smiths and the Wedding Present remind me of my youth.

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