Since its inauguration in 2006, the Great Escape — which kicks off this week in the UK coastal resort of Brighton — has become influential enough to pitch itself as the European SXSW. Across the course of three days, over 350 diverse acts will showcase for an audience of ravening hipsters and semi-vacationing music biz types. Deals will be done; big nerdy-looking glasses worn; mountains of fish and chips eaten, ironically or otherwise.
Not having an infinite amount of monkeys at my disposal, I’m previewing just the most exciting British bands on the bill, something which will hopefully double as a who’s who for the coming year. I hope this doesn’t come off as too parochial; it just seems natural given the Great Escape’s ratio of Brit to non-Brit acts. It’s also not meant to be a definitive list of ‘best new UK bands’, given that it’s obviously limited to a) who’s playing (no Savages — boo!), and, more importantly b) who I like.
Arrows of Love
Arrows of Love have been described elsewhere as consisting of four David Yows and a drummer. This is, unfortunately, only partially true — there are five members of the band, one of whom does indeed hammer away at the back. But can you actually imagine four David Yows? In the same place? At the same time? It’d be anarchy.
That said, there are definitely similarities between Arrows of Love and Yow’s old band, not least that they kick a certain amount of ass. (Needless to say, if anyone can find a reference to a lizard Jesus anywhere in the works of William Blake they win a prize). Single “Conspiracy Podcast” is exactly the sort of angular skronk you’d expect from a band who have involved themselves with Bob Weston of Shellac. (And, for that matter, from a band who are planning to called their first album Everything’s Fucked). Meanwhile, “Honey” sounds exactly like Kristin Hersh and an angry Linda Thompson duetting accompanied by Rapeman. Yep. That good.
Positioned like Springsteen at 2012’s SXSW as the voice of experience, Billy Bragg is also this year’s Great Escape headline artist. While he may not be quite as grand a grand old man of pop as the Boss, he’s still well suited to the job, even if only because he represents a very British (likeable; dependable…) take on rock ‘n’ roll. More than that though — and again, not unlike Springsteen — he’s also come to stand for the way that ‘indigenous’, and particularly political, music can transcend cultural boundaries. His gig on the Friday night will be good, life-affirming evening out, no question. You can’t help but think though that the real interest will come during his keynote at the convention, where he’ll fulfil his ambassadorial role for the better angels of pop. I can’t lie — the journalist in me really wants to see the Bard of Barking facing down a room full of music biz champagne socialists. Short of that — and to be fair, much more likely — a few words on how market your band online will probably have to do.
While her voice might not be to everyone’s taste (she been compared to Florence Welch, but there’s a definite Dolores Cranberry warble in there), Arlissa is shaping up to be the Brit artist to watch this year. With its rattle-bag percussion and chanted refrain, single “Sticks and Stones” does the job, alongside a clever Beasts of the Southern Wild-referencing promo. Her much-touted duet with Nas, “Hard to Love Somebody”, meanwhile, is probably the most likeable meeting of UK and US R&B since Estelle and Kanye’s “American Boy”. Promisingly (or worryingly, depending on your point of view), there’s a mythology developing around Arlissa already, linked in no small way to her being picked up by Roc Nation, apparently on spec. A BBC Sound of 2013 nomination after a whopping two singles certainly hasn’t hurt either. The assurance with which she’s operated already however should be enough to calm any fears about the emperor’s new clothes.
Given its vibrant music scene — the town is occasionally referred to as London by the sea — it’s kind of surprising that no ‘Brighton sound’ has ever really emerged. There’s no south coast equivalent of Madchester, or Sheffield synth city; no ozone-soaked mutant strain of metal or Kiss Me Quick trip-hop. (That said, B-Town resident Fatboy Slim has been pretty successful in re-making Big Beat entirely in his own image).
One good reason for this might be the diversity of the acts that make their home here, something reflected in the line up of this year’s Great Escape. The Wytches sound like the 13th Floor Elevators having a panic attack; Anushka makes atmospheric house. The most interesting of the lot are probably Tall Ships, an indie outfit who at their best sound like the product of a tryst involving post-rock and Laurie Anderson. They finally released their first album Everything Touching last year, which fulfilled the promise of earlier singles “Plate Tectonics” and “Hit the Floor”. They also apparently pack a proper wallop live, which hopefully should mean their Great Escape show will feel like a real homecoming.
If there was ever a band that could do with changing their name, it’s Darkstar. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a perfectly fine, evocative, bit of (I’m assuming) pop culture referencing. (John Carpenter? The Grateful Dead? Both?) It’s just that the sound this trio — previously, duo — made then bears only oblique relation to what they do now.
Originally coming to prominence around 2010, they started out dealing in the dark dubstep-flecked electronica that would reach its apex with their track “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer”. New album News From Nowhere, by contrast, embraces a more pastoral pop feel that’s had critics reaching for comparisons to Animal Collective. The first single off the album “Timeaway” is a case in point, revolving as it does around a playful clock and music box rhythm, and chirpy Geogaddi-esque voice samples. The cyclical-singing and nursery-rhyme stylings of “Amplified Ease” meanwhile should probably come with a ‘may eventually induce madness’ health warning.
King Krule and more
When it comes to songwriters, those involved in protest often reflect best the environment out of which they come. Billy Bragg could probably only have emerged in the way he did from Britain under Thatcher. Likewise Chuck D, who it would be difficult to place anywhere else than Long Island in the 1980s.
While he might not self-identify in quite the same way, King Krule (who weirdly, looks like Bragg crossed with Rorschach from The Watchmen) is one of the few equipped to tell the story of the current generation of disillusioned British youth. His music is a lush mix of dreamy ambient guitar, framed by loungy arrangements and a just-this-side-of-incongruous two-step backbeat. His insouciant vocal delivery meanwhile makes listening feel not unlike being trapped in a Vini Reilly’s guitar amp with an uncommonly bright but fatalistic teenager. Which of course is exactly what he is. His best moment so far is probably his 2011 number “The Noose of Jah City”, in which the ache that saturates his work finally finds an overtly political home.
Despite possessing some pretty un-rock ‘n’ roll credentials (ex-rugby player; alumnus of Macca’s Liverpool Institute), Dan Croll could well be the next big singer songwriter thing. His first few tunes have shown a healthy range of influences, from the obvious to the slightly more out of the way (African music; Mariachi; electronica). At the same time, he’s also playful, in a way that suggests that he’s probably taken more from his headmaster’s old band than just musical inspiration. (If you’ve got the time, have a look at the elegantly loltastic video for his mash-up of “The Obvious Child” and Low’s “Just Like Christmas”). Best of all however is his ingenious way with a melody, something which with has already seen him blossom into a kind of one-man Vampire Weekend.
If such a list actually existed (and it does, let’s not kid ourselves), electro-pop weirdoes Chvrches would tick any number of uber-hip boxes. Super-smart waif-like female lead singer fronting duo of slightly older, Grandaddy-looking indie synth dudes. Check. Kind-of-sexy whiff of the occult evoking The Haxan Cloak as much as The Human League. (What’s up with that bloody ‘V’?) Check. Self-consciously Scottish. Double-check. Achingly cool as they certainly are though, they also have a much more important advantage in that they sound great. Single “Lies” is a real attention-grabber, all icy modernism and soulful vocals, like a cyborg Donna Summer bursting out of the chest of Cabaret Voltaire. Even better for my money is the as-yet-unreleased “Science and Vision”, which in part sounds like a Satanic blessing being said over “I Feel Love”. They also do a half-decent version of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U”, which on its own should be enough to convince anyone.
London four-piece Wolf Alice are probably my favourite new act on this list and I shall tell you for why. First of all, they’re named after an almost incalculably rock ‘n’ roll short story by Angela Carter about a young girl being raised by a vampire after being abandoned by nuns. (No one does lurid self-willed transformation like Carter. See also Lady Gaga bursting out of an egg a la Fevvers in Nights at the Circus). Secondly, they’re funny. (See the promo, below). Best of all they make immediately likeable polymath alt-pop, such as their by-turns teeth-grinding and sweet as honey single, “Fluffy”. You don’t need to know this, but sometimes the urge to sing “Wolf Alice, they always caught her wolfing in the hall” to the tune of “Piss Aaron” by Todd Rundgren is almost overwhelming. But that’s just me.
As a Brit writing for a mainly American audience, I’m aware that there might be things — say, the continuing popularity of the Carry On… films — that will sometimes need unpacking. Unless I’m wrong, one such curve ball might be Tomorrow’s World — a synth-pop duo whose name makes some point or other about modernity by ironically referencing an obscure British popular science TV show from the 1970s. Too clever by half or not, Tomorrow’s World are still a very tidy outfit — as they should be, consisting of New Young Pony Club’s Lou Hayter and Jean-Benoit Dunckel from Air. (Yes, that Air). Musically, they run the gamut from lush chanson-inflected easy(ish) listening (not unlike Air, come to think about it) to Warm Leatherette. Just as interesting meanwhile is the icy — faintly sadomasochistic, even — relationship deftly constructed to reflect the duo’s obvious interest in all things Ballard and Lynch.