Reviewers: David Anthony and Will Jones
So it’s the end of the festival and what have we learned. Well before I get to that, let’s give go through some of the final acts.
Diminutive Micachu & the Shapes give real hope to the future of ‘indie’ music. They’re obviously influenced, yet in a combination that is original, quirky yet completely accessible. This Surrey-born matriarchy are, at full pelt, a Technicolor Futureheads but with the emphasis on ‘colour’ as these musicians are bright and cuddly at whatever speed they play. Though this is not to say that this isn’t serious music and that should never be the assumption just because a band is looking the audience in the eye and being approachable. There’s a song that comes at depression in a wonderfully straight-forward, yet ingenious way, by having a rhyming dialogue between Mica and her Shape-mate Raisa Khan that simply has one asking the other how she is doing and the other insisting unconvincingly that she’s okay. Basically, for the most part Mica Levi and her two boy-girl Shapes are very difficult to pigeon-hole. This is great for music lovers but slightly problematic for those of us charged with putting words to the weird and wonderful noises, but suffice it to say that despite the trio appearing tired (which they apologise for) and the fact that such an early set on a Sunday doesn’t really inspire them to party, a thing they should be forgiven for since, despite being well received, this was the last day with work looming and with us four-dayers wilting, they played according to the atmosphere that suggested the need for slightly easier listening than they may have otherwise provided. Still, these oddly ‘Shape’d songs sounded great and it is a complete mystery why Micachu & the Shapes aren’t massive, when bands like last night’s Palma Violets get feted as this week’s saviours of pop. Maybe it’s the fact that they aren’t so easily categorised that the stylists and PR people don’t know what to do with them. Luckily they’re on Rough Trade records who famously only release music they personally like, so for those of us who like being taken ‘outside the box’ to employ a hideous cliché, will be able to enjoy Micachu’s music (in whatever form it takes – she releases remixes and works with Kwes – also appearing here) for years to come.
Talking of stylists, The Wanted wannabes Swiss Lips were a collective of apparent underpants models who obviously barely knew how to play their instruments (evidenced by the fact that their guitarist attempted a guitar solo that merely consisted of rhythm guitar chord strumming filtered through an effects’ pedal). Normally this would be a healthy display of punk spirit, yet their songs were so heavily overproduced and each one sounded like an 80s brat pack flick theme tune except sung by a child with a really childish over-sized cap. His cap’s insignia was a plastic imitation of metal proclaiming ‘POWER’ which was better than their plastic imitation of pop. I left early so they might have improved. But as the height of their ambition seemed to be a spot on Lorraine Kelly’s morning show, I doubt it.
Luckily downstairs were Cold Pumas who, despite being derivative and unremarkable were at least not cynical and to see my first band that took Joy Division (by way of the Secret Machines) as their template on the last day of the festival showed that this year’s festival has been a richer and more diverse one than before. It was also a treat to see a drummer singing for a change, joining such luminaries as the Band, the Eagles and (I suppose) the Carpenters. Anyway, Cold Pumas seem to take ‘Transmission’ as their sonic template and flog it to death in a series of repeated military-precise bars that are paid out by the yard and seem to have no reason to end, which left one wondering whether they counted the number of bars and simply ended at a (large) round number, or they had a secret signal to stop. This is definitely not verse/chorus territory – the drumming singer is very much a drummer first, and this band is very much about that instrumental trance-state that occurs after the same musical phrase has been repeated so often that the song ending is equivalent to a hypnotist saying: ‘and you’re back’. I thoroughly enjoyed it despite being aware of the shortcomings, as I’m a huge fan of ten minute minimal techno tunes in which you simply lose yourself in the nothingness of the present, making this band a great aid to mindfulness meditation.
TOY were a popular destination and the band look the part of big band in waiting, a position they should be familiar with considering three of the band come from previous failed NME next big thing Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong. Singer Tom Dougall – looking like a guylinered cross between Brian Molko from Placebo and Syd Barret – carries an air of cool that on-stage is released in lethargic vocal performance which is drowned out in the mix. Sadly these days looking the part is half the battle (Micachu seems to be a victim of this) but as ‘old hands’, TOY have the sounds that ‘look’ the part also, being a very ‘now’ confection of propulsive electronica with indie strum und drang bolted on. As a band clearly not in a hurry, with a few eight minute-plus tracks meant that for a shortened festival set we only got an EP’s worth of material. Still, what we got was pretty slick.
Man Without Country made a racket that persuaded me down the stairs to Undertone, and the reward for my minimal effort is a wave of infectious electronic pop, spangling synth and vocals that melded together with the guitar to pleasing effect. A shout out must go out to their own light show which strobed away as a perfect accompaniment. Funny how effective a strobe can still be.
Three floors up in 10 Feet Tall and the finishing line is in sight, the homely harmonies of The Staves brought forth those still standing, and it appears Cardiff has a lot of endurance as the venue had to resort to its one in one out policy. For the 3rd day running three siblings take to the stage, this time it’s a sisterly affair and their personable approach – ‘Don’t you hate it when you do a premature clap?’ they quipped as an over eager audience member applauded before song end. This along with simple but emotive numbers like ‘Mexico’ got everybody onside; a single acoustic guitar accompaniment is all that was needed when you have three such distinctive voices. Previous EP ‘The Motherlode’ upped the tempo and it’s followed by an a cappella: ‘Wisely & Slow’ which saw the sisters crowd round one microphone, a visual ‘intimate moment in a sea of sonic ones. All this joy and pleasantry somehow wasn’t queasily saccharine, which was a triumph for both The Staves and the Festival’s uncynical atmosphere, variety and quality control.
So as the festival draws to a close the post mortem begins. This year’s Swn has been very successful and a lot of the acts witnessed have had true merit whether highly touted or under the radar. The ‘can’t win’ proposition of this festival is that it is an unfortunate reality that such a good experience may have been down simply to a mixture of luck and guile, or even more unfortunately it may be that the festival was wonderful as a whole and I and many others missed dozens of fantastic acts. This may be an unfair criticism, though I believe that 4 nights is too long, 17 venues is too many but since I’m not privy to the economics of the festival, I can’t say if this is avoidable.
Swn has had a few years to get things right and this year queues were not an issue for me, and I made sure to see a lot of the most popular acts (though I unfortunately was unable to get to see bonkers Japanese collective Bo Ningen, who were apparently fantastic, and having seen similar Japanese exports such as Polysics I can very much believe I missed out on something special). Also the sound was impressive in all the venues I visited, with expensive kit and professional engineers employed to make sure each band had the chance to sound their best.
So the lack of niggles, the professionalism of the support staff and the attendance of not just some of the best acts around, but also radio royalty like Steve Lamaq and Huw Stephens ensured that Swn was a classy event whose status has grown to the size of UK-wide attraction and a fixture of the music calendar. But, like the weekend drinker who promises himself he’ll never drink again, this writer doesn’t need to see another live band for quite some time to come.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading these articles, especially if you didn’t attend the event yourself. I did it so you didn’t have to.