Feb 132012

Ryan Chang/Chugg Entertainment

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels

I went to Laneway Festival Singapore 2012 in search of Power Pop (as opposed to ‘power pop’) underneath the hyperbole, the manufactured hip and cool factor and the PR machine that defines what’s popular in contemporary pop-rock nowadays. With the sunny weather returning with a vengeance after last year’s conspicuous absence, a huge turnout was expected and I understand that almost 8,000 punters (up from 6,000 last year) were in attendance!

With 14 bands to choose from, I am pretty sure that most (hipster) tastes were satisfied but what I desperately wanted was music with substance, which had nothing to do with looks, fashion sense or pandering to a festival crowd’s need to dance. As someone with a media pass, I was also given the rare opportunity to come up close and personal with the artists, if I chose to. To be honest, these media conferences are quite superficial as well – just not to possible to conduct a meaningful interview with an artist in those challenging circumstances. So my goal really was just to see the artists in the flesh. Yes, cheap superficial thrills and all that but what to do?

I must confess that at the end of the day and in the final analysis, I was most affected by Chris Owen and Girls and found his honesty refreshing. As you know, I have been eagerly anticipating catching Girls based on what I’ve heard on its recordings (especially 2011 album, Father Son Holy Ghost). I was rather taken aback when I saw him in the media tent – he was a rake, pale with bloodshot eyes and his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He did not look well at all… I tried to engage him with a few interview questions but it was a difficult process overall. In that moment, I felt so much empathy for him – this tortured musician who only wanted to play his music and not be bothered with all this media bullshit and truth be told, felt a little guilty at that as well.

However, later on when Girls came on for its set, Chris seemed more comfortable in his own skin and he started out by paying tribute to Whitney Houston with a heartfelt solo rendition of “I Will Always Love You” to which the crowd responded (he tried out “American Pie” later on as well!). The band drew mainly from the latest album and it was a relief to hear ‘old school’ constructs with bluesy guitar licks, folk chord progressions and memorable melodies. “Honey Bunny”, “Alex” and “Love is a River”. Only disappointment was the failure to play my current favourite – “Forgiveness” – but probably was not considered appropriate for the festival crowd. Pity.

The only other media conferences I caught were early in the day with Cults and Yuck. The contrast between the two bands was rather distinctive. As Americans, Cults‘ Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion came across very determined to please the amassed media, focusing on saying all the right things. I asked them about how a new band like them managed to get signed by major label, Columbia (no, kids, Cults is not an ‘indie’ band per se) and Brian seemed as surprised as anyone would be about becoming a ‘overnight sensation’ but it was obvious that the duo was thrilled by it all (and well they should be).

By contrast Yuck was rather sullen as they took their seats (having just finished their soundcheck). I hardly noticed that bassist Mariko Doi was in the media tent as she barely said a word during the whole time. Most of the questions were answered by Max Bloom and he seemed pretty pissed off by the comparisons the interviewers were making between Yuck and 90s band like Dinosaur Jr and Teenage Fanclub (mostly valid, mind you) and so came up with obtuse replies that made little sense. Rather cool actually! My perspective is that the Brits were not trying too hard to please and were really trying to figure out how to respond to those questions honestly and probably came across a little cold. Cultural differences and all that jazz!

Putting these observations aside, I believe both bands acquitted themselves well on stage. Stripped of much of the reverb-drenched production of its debut album, Cults actually sounded even more retro live (if that is even possible!) although it seemed that the pitching of the songs were brought down a little to accommodate Madeline’s voice and made the songs challenging for Brian. Not that the crowd cared as they were enthralled throughout. A comforting thought that the Singapore crowd was able to appreciate Phil Spector and 60s girls groups (I’m sure they didn’t have a clue who these people were). Highlights for me were “Abducted” and “You Know What I Mean” – though the songs do border on being highly derivative.

Yuck‘s influences do not stretch as far back as Cults (90s instead of 60s) as previously mentioned and as someone who loves the kind of music Yuck was playing I was quite torn between digging it and feeling offended. I mean, I would really rather watch Teenage Fanclub but would the same kids who were cheering and dancing along to songs like “The Wall” and “Shook Down” turn up in numbers for the Fannies? Would that be commercially viable in Singapore? Probably not. Sad but true.

Between Girls and the highlights of the evening’s setlist. I rather tuned out for Chairlift and Austra, though was rather amused by the new-age female singers in the latter – all Stevie Nicks-like though again I’m sure those bright-faced kids would be clueless about Fleetwood Mac! The current synth-pop revival is just too derivative for my liking – having been there when synth-pop was new. If only there was something distinctive about this revival. Which is the same reason I skipped out on The Drums, Twin Shadow and Toro Y Moi. There was just too much ‘been there heard that’ in the equation. Nobody’s fault – it’s just that kids today don’t care about the influences and inspirations of the bands they like – almost as if these new bands sprang fully grown without any debt to the past. (And I missed Anna Calvi – dinnertime! – but heard she did quite well.)

However, before I wax lyrical about the closing highlights of the Festival, it behooves me to point out that both The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and The Horrors were simply awful. Simply put, if these bands were performing at the Baybeats Auditions, they might not get through! Both bands again look back to the 80s/90s strongly – which is fine in itself – but have no distinctive sound or competent songwriting to keep your attention. In the case of the former, technical glitches marred its set, and it didn’t help that the band’s performance was poor as well. No hooks or memorable melodies and an American singer (Kip Berman) who tried too hard to do a Brit accent (and failing miserably) make for a painful experience (pun intended). Ironically, UK band The Horrors lived up to its name and delivered a sludgy, incomprehensible set. Ostensibly, you could hear traces of Simple Minds and Psychedelic Furs but the overall sound was so punishing that the crowd barely acknowledged the band when it finally trooped off the stage! It’s not hard to imagine that any of Singapore’s top indie bands could have put up a better showing than these two but let’s just not go there…

It was easy to appreciate what Laura Marling and Feist were trying to achieve. Both of them sounded like nothing else at the Festival. Marling of course, had an almost baroque approach to her songs but was not aided by the unsympathetic venue. I mean, cello and double bass do not work at the Fort Canning Park. It would have been more appropriate to appreciate her set at the Esplanade Concert Hall, for example. Maybe next time? But kudos to her for trying her best to overcome the constraints and to be truthful, her set felt too short – she is one talented young lady. Feist had a highly percussive element to her sound and she took risks with her rhythmic arrangements- it was a joy to behold but again, the nagging question of whether her music would be more suitable for an indoor acoustic environment could not be ignored. But both singer-songwriters went down very well as the unbridled enthusiasm of the crowd attested.

Finally, the headliners M83 strutted its stuff and the crowd was not disappointed. Turning Fort Canning Park into a dance floor, the crowd – putting aside any weariness – literally danced the night away as we moved into the wee hours of Monday morning. With a spectacular light show and cracking line up on hand, Anthony Gonzalez demonstrated why his band is such a hot live draw now on the back of its critically acclaimed 2011 album, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming. There were only sweaty, smiling young people when M83 brought the curtains down on a highly successful Laneway Festival Singapore 2012.

As is obvious, I take issue with some of the band selections but it is instructional to note that I am not the target audience of Chugg Entertainment! If 7,800 young punters spending money on tickets, merchandize, food & beverage isn’t the mark of success, then I don’t know what is. Whether Chugg Entertainment should concern itself with the artistic, non-commercial aspects that I highlighted above is really up to them as a commercial entity. As a critic and music lover, this is my two-cents woth, as always. At the end of the day, I was happy enough to find embers of soul music (even superficially) burning in the music of some of these buzz bands and I am realistic enough to recognize more cannot be expected or demanded.

Till Laneway Festival Singapore 2013…

Thanks to Sammy Shirra-Moore and Chugg Entertainment for making this review possible.


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