On their debut album, the Long Blondes referenced two lonely girls going on the run, singing that they were “separated by motorways.” I’m not sure if they meant that they were cast adrift from each other or from their past; in either case, it’s also an apt description for the band itself, whose personalities and songs are separated by a similar chasm. While their first album, Someone to Drive you Home, was built around wiry, Britpop guitars and an abrupt post-punk panache, their follow-up, Couples, deals disco and subtler instrumentation into the mix. It still retains some of the band’s trademark upbeat guitar-based numbers, but the songs that follow this familiar formula pale in comparison to the new album’s more nuanced numbers. These newfangled tunes trash their typical blueprint and work by actually peeling back the instrumentation, adding a dash of experimentation, and pairing it all with singer Kate Jackson’s newfound vocal range.
While the differences in their songs are noticeably apparent (the old vs. new / the experimental vs. familiar), they aren’t as in-your-face as the motorway-wide gulf between the band member’s personalities. Based in Sheffield, England, the Long Blondes are a five-piece band (two guys and three girls) that thrives on fashion, coupling their thrift-store chic with lyrics that deal with the faux glamour of everyday life. While each band member buys into the visual aesthetic (at this show, guitarist/keyboardist Emma Chaplin hones her own ’80s Madonna look for example), only Jackson is gregarious in her glamour. Dressed in short shorts and high heels, she struts and shimmies, coos and corrals. The two guys in the band (drummer Screech Louder and guitarist Dorian Cox) pull some proto-typical rock-star moves, but the other girls (bass player Reenie Hollis along with Chaplin) are at odds with Jackson’s effervescent attitude. They stand back, don’t smile, and play their instruments as if it’s a job. It’s difficult to discern whether they feel upstaged or just don’t wish to vie for our attention. Fortunately, Jackson is engaging enough and doesn’t need any support. Unfortunately, this makes the disconnect even more apparent.
14 May 2008: Johnny Brendas Philadelphia, PA
Prior to the Long Blondes taking the stage, Drug Rug, a four-piece from Boston, played a short set that mixed perfect pop and Byrdsian folk with squalls of antiquated blues. Utilizing co-ed vocals (with both singers usually singing at the same time, as if trying to audibly usurp each other), they flitted between sounding like a garage rock band covering early Beach Boys and a lo-fi, female-fronted remake of the Rolling Stones’ more bluesy moments. Frontwoman Sarah Cronin played the guitar with a simplistic, Neil Young ferocity and, with their torn jeans, t-shirts, and rough around the edges musical edict, they were the antithesis of Jackson’s carefully coiffed style.
Style, it seems, is something the Long Blondes thrive on. Not only in what they wear, but also in their songs, which often deal with the various stages of relationships and the woes that manifest within them. (Think Raymond Carver filtered through Jackie Collins.) Kitchen-sink dramas contain jilted lovers, who in turn often share sentences with drunks and naïve young girls. Even their newer, stripped-back songs, where the lyrics are as bare boned as the instrumentation, still manage to evoke vivid imagery. Take “Round the Hairpin” for example, whose limited lyrics include “round the hairpin, we go speeding, in a rented car” and “three days abroad, was all we could afford.” This six-minute-long slow-burner acts as the centerpiece to their new album and, for the most part, ditches their trademark guitars for woozy synths and skittering drums. It opens the show and, given the song’s slightly disorientating effect, is a bold and brave move that pays off.
Similarly stripped-back songs, such as “Century” and “Just Too Clever by Half” also work well in the live setting. The latter stutters by with shakers and samples, while the former glides along on a disco-infused crystalline shimmer. Surprisingly, though, the best songs are the ones where the other female members step up to provide backing vocals, even if their demeanor while doing so is somewhat half-hearted. “Separated by Motorways” and “Giddy Stratospheres” sound urgent and playful, due mainly, in part, to these call-and-response vocals.
While the set list throws out no surprises—a slew of new songs amid a spattering of old favorites—the crowd definitely does. Despite the female-centric nature of their songs, tonight’s crowd is predominantly male. It’s even odder when you find out that the creator of the group’s lyrics, lyrics that deal with weekends without make-up, is not Jackson, but male guitarist Cox. As you can imagine, then, it is slightly weird watching guys watch a female singer sing female-centric lyrics written by a guy.
That said, the Long Blondes do deal in stories that everyone can relate to. They get jobs to satisfy their mothers, turn up for work late, and can often be found with a drink in their hand. On “Guilt” they even state that “You know what it’s like / It happens to everyone once or twice.” And I suppose it does.
Despite jet lag (this is the first show of their American tour), the Long Blondes put on a good, if not great, performance in which the newer, more experimental songs definitely stand out, while the newer, less experimental songs sound slightly staid. Motorways may separate the Long Blondes, but if they continue down roads less traveled, they will eventually find themselves on the right track.