Rubbing The Impossible To Burst
Solid Air Fem Vox
Portman Green Room, Bournemouth
"This is happening without your permission!"
--Huggy Bear, ‘Her Jazz’
--Huggy Bear, ‘Her Jazz’
"Even now female voices are heard which – holy Aristophanes! – are frightening: they threaten with medical explicitness what woman wants from man, first and last."
Whatever did happen to Riot Grrrl? I’m sitting in this pub backroom, waiting to hear acoustic pop-rock confections, in the best manner of the Industry, played, and I’m wondering: how did we get from Huggy Bear’s ‘Her Jazz’ – still, after nearly a decade-and-a-half, one of the most exciting, liberating pieces of music ever recorded, Riot Grrrl’s ‘God Save The Queen’ – to Kate ‘Great White Hope’ Nash beating Grace Jones-inheritor Rihanna from the No. 1 spot? Why are these women standing up and brandishing acoustic guitars, like they have something to be afraid of from an electric? Why are K.T. Tunstall records not being burnt by girl punks like the scriptures of some small-time medieval heretic? Didn’t you hear, there was a fucking revolution; the Seventies are, you know, kind of over now.
I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have just had another quiet night in (like every other fucking night). But I suppose it’s my own fault as usual: what was so exciting about Riot Grrrl if not its reclamation of punk, a theoretically male bonehead music? And why is it OK for, say, Jandek, or Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart to do the acoustic strumming thing, and not women? Is it because women can’t be trusted to pick good music, because only play pansy-wansy pop-rock shite…? Oh, grow the fuck up. Just enjoy yourself, you dick.
So first of all Antonia Edgely-Long takes the stage, strumming at a fair pace, singing in that clear, faintly vulnerable voice, reminding me of Joni Mitchell. Damnation, I have no idea how to judge this kind of stuff, because I never knowingly listen to it. I suppose the only criteria I can bring to it is: ‘Is it better than Katie Melua?’ Thankfully, the answer in this case is an undoubted ‘Yes’: Antonia knows when to keep her accompaniment sparse (as on the beautiful little number ‘Cry’), how to construct lovely, winding melodies, how to deftly avoid the syrupy mire that acoustic pop-rock tends to wallow in with judicious and restrained emoting, and some strong, darker-than-most lyrics about the difficulties of love and death.
Acoustic and bass duo Anta quickly follow, ripping into a short set with vigour and verve. The interplay between the two guitars provide a flexible spine for Antonia (the singer – they’re both Antonia) to work her magic, goofing with the audience between captivating, mantric numbers, a thread of nicotine-blackened words winding between choruses that, in their flat, restrained malice, menace as much any nonsense Birthday Party-era Nick Cave might come up with. "I’ll smoke another smoke/Drink another drink" rings round and round the final number, before threatening to take the glass and "shove it up his ass." Cue peals of laughter.
Much technical faffing-around precedes the entrance of the ever-excellent Frances Donnelly, a.k.a. Animal Magic Tricks. Her Fisher Price tinkle-pulses and beautiful, scarred words are present and correct… but… something’s not right. It might be the sound, but her voice, possessed of a purity of tone and wooziness of timbre to match dream-pop all-time greats like Galaxie 500’s Naomi Yang or Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, feels leashed, unable to devastate the audience as it did the last time I saw her. This, combined with the frequent technical hitches (she was trying new material) and some unfortunate audience chatter shatter the disarming, oneiric atmosphere she conjures up at her best.
Of course, she rallies as best she can: there’s the usual clutch of minimalist toytown electronic melodies, adorned with Frances’ utterly endearing vocals, shattered, tiny and pure like freshly-made glass. She plugs in and plays ripped Scout Niblett guitar, including a bunch of new material, some with "my friend Dom", who contributes (after a little cajoling) suitably gruff vocals, ghosting Frances like the shadow of some feral double. It’s at this point you realise how complex and subtle her act is: the starkly-sketched words access the same primal archetypes as fairy tales, skewing the assumptions that trail ‘naïf ‘ female performers, exploring the axes of desire, love, violence and darkness, near-whispering lyrics about something "you want to kiss/But you want your mother to save you". Their guitars and vocals intertwine like acrobatic jet-exhaust trails. After Dom departs, Conrad tries to shuffle her off prematurely, but she stays on for two more numbers, ending with the song that’s haunted me since the first time I heard it: tide-noises, the reedy breath of a Casio, her tiny, strong voice intoning, again and again, "How many have envisioned pure love/Then found out their heart’s just filled up with blood?" like the recurrence of some primal psychic trauma.
Jennie Venus, meanwhile, strums like a Sixties wild-child: she flits through her performance at double speed, reminding me a little of Life Without Buildings’ Sue Tompkins – one of the all-time great chanteuses, alongside Emmy Hennings, Billie Holiday and Bjork – or maybe Joni Mitchell on uppers, obviously revelling in the liberation that being on stage affords, caught up in the sheer joy of having a voice and an opportunity to use it. On the final number she tries to cajole the audience into singing "Peace, love and harmony" along with her, and half of them really do, as she circles round and round the same over-excited melody on her guitar.
Finally, One City Girl, composed mostly of guys: an odd cross-breeding of acoustic guitars, blues strumming, box percussion, white funk (including at one point, a wah-wah effect on one acoustic(!)) and the most full-on raunchy vocals I’ve heard since The Gossip (though lacking the subtlety you get with Beth Ditto, e.g. slow-burning ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’. Oh well, no problem.) No, I can’t make out a word, but it sounds damned good: this is the kind of music that makes me lament for the days when I could listen to Led Zeppelin unmolested, without needing to conjure up worthy justifications. Not least because Robert Plant sounded distinctly female; singer Jemma belts them out, one after another; the players are nicely laid-back and proficient, except for the drummer, who breaks into what sounds like acoustic jungle at the end of one song. There’s an air of frivolity and cheerful amateurism: Jemma gets asked whether she wants a Cornish pasty; with room for one number left, and only one left on the setlist, they end up playing an extra song, an extended (and extremely dextrous) guitar solo from Andy.
I dunno, maybe this was what it was all about: if punk (and Riot Grrrl) was a musical acting-out of political potentialities, an attempt to transform everyday life, with the stage becoming, as Ian Penman put it, "a Pandora's Box rather than a Pan's People cage, somewhere to start a ruckus from rather than silently go-go to", then this is, perhaps, a little bit of the legacy it should have had: allowing anybody to do what the fuck they want, and enjoy doing it.