It’s not a good idea to travel when you’re depressed: so many miles from home, you find yourself on strange territory, which more often than not leads to more introspection, just about the last thing you need at the moment. However, staying home is not an option either, as this gives you (in your already depressed state) only more fodder to get sucked further into the downward spiral. Which is why Dr. Kurtodrome advises you to go and have a good time.
It took me a train, a Eurostar, a Tube connection and a luxury bus to get there, but by Jove, I managed to end up in Oxford, more than ready for the first night of NME’s Radar Tour 2009. The NME Radar Tour, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a UK tour with a handful of vaguely known bands. This translates as: you’ll probably have heard of one or two prior to the concert. Give them one year and some of them will found a much bigger audience. La Roux, Crystal Castles, Friendly Fires, White Lies and Blood Red Shoes are just some of the names from previous editions. This edition features four bands: Yes Giantess, Local Natives, Marina and the Diamonds and Golden Silvers.
My visit to Oxford is easily explained: early this year, I already announced my top track of 2009. More than six months later, I still haven’t changed my mind: Mowgli’s Road by Marina and the Diamonds is still my favourite track of the year and, good news ahead, on November 2 2009 it’ll finally be released. Though you can already listen to the Welsh-Greek Marina Diamondis (in her words, she’s Marina and we, the audience, are the diamonds) thanks to a limited vinyl release (by a US company – this is quite global, no?).
What makes Marina so special is that her songs are quite diverse. From the nutty “Mowgli’s Road” to the melancholic “Obsessions”, Marina’s music manages to blend a poppy sound with introspective lyrics. “Sunday, wake up, give me a cigarette./Last night’s love affair is looking vulnerable in my bed” is how “Obsessions” opens, a song where Marina explores good and bad feelings. The girl in “Seventeen” can’t say what happened to her the day she turned 17 (“The rise of a king and the fall of a queen”). Not that this necessarily means Marina’s lyrics are autobiographical (and even if): “Just because you know my name/Doesn’t mean you know my game” she sings in “The Outsider” (which sadly wasn’t played last night, grrr).
So her songs are alternatively sweet, nasty, happy, sad, melancholic and extravert, but what about the concert? Well, it’s always hard to listen to tracks that haven’t been properly released but which already float around on the internet in demo form. Not only are there several versions of the songs, some even have alternative titles (is it “Girls” or “Girls Girls Girls”, is it “Shampain Sleeper” or “Champagne”?). It is therefore weird to hear these in a different version than you’re used to, even if the concert will probably have a more final version of the track.
Marina was a bit more vibrant than the band before her, which is why the sound wasn’t always crystal clear, but at least Marina gave enough evidence to blame the sound engineers and not the singer. She has quite a voice and definitely deserves a giant breakthrough. And she was quite talkative in between the songs too: she told the crowd that she probably should be more quiet and cooler on stage but that this probably wouldn’t happen with a personality like hers. She may have been a little overwhelmed by the crowd which included a group of hyperactive girls (of which one turned 16 that very same night), another person with the same birthday (18 this time) and quite a large group which was able to sing along to songs that – we’ll repeat once more – haven’t even been released.
Marina’s album is allegedly released early next year. By this time, all the songs will have found their final form. I’m trying here not to use the word ‘diamond’ given it’s part of her name, but of any other artist I would’ve said that we here have an artist who’s been cutting diamonds for quite some time now and some of them are already in their jewel box and some are just in need of a final cut. The NME Radar Tour and “Mowgli’s Road” on cd are happening right now, a full album and a global breakthrough are next (if not, we will have failed miserably as a human race).
But Marina wasn’t the only one. Here’s a quick look at the other artists.
Yes Giantess are from Boston and are four well-behaved boys. There’s a drummer and three people on keyboards. They’re funny too, if the ad libs in Oxford were any proof. So far the good news, now for the bad. Some of their songs are excellent and it’s great fun to see them play them live, but after fifteen minutes a feeling of déjà-vu creeps up. A bit more variation in their songs wouldn’t be bad. It is, certainly if you didn’t know the band (I confess), to distinguish between the songs. Still, nice sound, so it’s not the end of the world. (Also, the band sounds better live than on record.)
“Please tell me this is a novelty band,” was my gut reaction when I left the toilets (by the way, some form of light would be an asset near toilet cubicles) and noticed the people on stage. Two band members of Local Natives sported the sort of mustashes you generally only see in bad cop movies from the 70s. Sometimes they sang together in harmony (the Fleet Foxes school released its first alumni), but the Natives chose a more rocking sound. I have to confess it took me a while before I could start liking them and some of their songs only reach your ears but not your soul.
Because of a lack of official promotional material I’ve decided to choose a live recording (from January 2009).
The line-up meant that Yes Giantess and Local Natives had to open for Marina and the Diamonds and Golden Silvers. Lo and behold, someone went to the music meeting where the upper-lip decoration for 70s cops was deemed cool. And it looked as if more people had gone to the Fleet Foxes school of harmony. The singer’s voice sometimes reminded me of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and sometimes of Blur. At least it shows the band doesn’t have a set of songs which all sound the same. More diverse and quite good, but overclassed by Marina. Still, how good they were, they proved just after the concert when the band was the only one allowed to do an encore: the singer took place behind his keyboard, the rest cuddled up around one microphone. The final song of the first night of the NME Radar Tour was almost completely sung a capella and it wasn’t out of tune. Golden Silvers, remember the name.
P.S. The NME Radar Tour has just started and will travel around the UK for the next three weeks. Check the site to see if the bands are also performing somewhere near you.
P.P.S. As we can’t end a review on the words “near you”, here’s an extra song by Marina and the Diamonds.