Acoustic Lounge – Sunday 30th November 2008
Ant & Fie, The Yuri Gagarin Contraband, Nick Stephens, Ashley (from Over By Dawn)

One of the most rewarding aspects of The Forum’s monthly Acoustic Lounge is that in addition to the usual solo spots, we often get to witness side-projects that have had little or no prior opportunity to be aired. Frequently unnamed as acts, and often with only vague working titles to the tunes, they’re no so much gigs in their true sense, but convenient opportunities to practice in front of an audience and establish what, if anything, is amiss. On this occasion, Ant from Tom Williams’ band, has teamed up with the silk-throated Fie to see what they come up with; just a piano, guitar, two vastly different voices and songs like “Laugh Out Loud” which possess such iridescent charm that they reel you in like a helpless fish.

It’s her voice that does it. Pitched somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, she carries the whole folky melody with nervous yet determined composure as she picks away cautiously at the keyboard, careful not to put a finger wrong, miss a vocal note, or even look directly at the audience. Simple stuff for sure, and her obvious inexperience limits her technical capabilities, but there’s such a loving fragile caress in Fie’s voice, and such tense delicacy in her piano work that it’s little short of hypnotic. Plus, she’s very very pretty indeed, by hippychick standards, which does the pair of them no harm either.

Despite her hesitant manner, Ant takes pains to stay very much in a supporting role, preferring to strum away dexterously, using his rich voice only when he has to, and when taking the lead, he sings softly, as if not wishing to upstage Fie, even if she’s doing no more than sitting there picking out gently chiming chords. Together though, they harmonise beautifully, particularly on their tale of life love and laptops “Rosie” and the elegant “Paperclip Anecdote”, which sounds not unlike Kings Of Convenience stripped right down to the roots. “Tobacco Stained Guitar” however, is certainly their strongest offering, with it’s in-out breathing melodic rhythm and irresistible hook, and with a few more like this, and a touch more gloss, Ant & Fie will have a future together to take them way beyond this hallowed stage or The Grey Lady, so watch their progress.

Highly recommended by the boy Wolff (and you know how hard it is for anyone to impress our terrifying ninja doorman) The Yuri Gagarin Contraband truly is a fascinating and unique little project. It’s the brainchild of Ben Shilling, who effectively puts himself in the mind of the first man to go into space and shares with us his hopes, dreams, nightmares and fears (of which there are many) via an audio-visual medium. A projected screen and sound effects show different images of the great Russian cosmonaut, taking great pains to highlight his emotional vulnerability, with shots of him looking proud and heroic with the Russian space team, interspersed with those where he looks pensive, anguished or just plain terrified.

Supported percussively by a fellow in an orange boilersuit (looking like an extra from an old Tango advert) and a double-bassist who never ventures from the shadows, Shilling sits on his stool, as alone as his hero, strumming a battered acoustic, narrating rhythmic poems about being a real space cadet rather than the metaphorical variety, the hellish training, fear of what he’s about to do, leaving behind loved ones and the unknown future, which when you put yourself in the position of a man who doesn’t know if he’s going to die or not, is a pretty heavy deal. Like the first man to test a bullet proof vest or parachute, it takes balls, and the YGC want people to appreciate that, so Shilling’s eccentric urbanite lo-fi folk is centred wholly on Gagarin’s pre-orbital jitters, philosophical musings and whimsical flights of fancy, which compliments his Barrett-ish vocal style perfectly.

And we haven’t even touched upon the lyrics yet. Sometimes inane, but always playful, they suggest that Shilling has spent a great deal of entirely necessary time as high as a satellite. Keeping a straight face while singing such pithy gems as “lost control of my nervous system, found some knobs and I’ve got to twist ‘em…” (“Space Cadet”) and “the real destroyer, is paranoia…” (“Super Punk”) can’t be easy. The guy’s not quite on another planet, but if he told you that he’d been to one, you’d believe it. Or believe that he believes it, at least.

Thought-provoking, arty, wonderfully odd and curiously cool, the YGC are wittily and boldly original, even if their low-budget antics are a little clumsily executed. As a piece of rock theatre it’s still very much a work in progress, but they’re engaging and riveting to the point where you almost want to flip ‘em some spare change, so make every effort to check ‘em out because it’ll be well worth the bother.

Maybe it’s something to do with being a tad older than most of the turns that play here (at least the thick end of his twenties), or perhaps it’s because he’s well groomed, chatty and intelligent, so obviously more serious than most angsty young oiks, but Nick Stephens comes across almost as an acoustic geek. You know how some musicians seem to take great pains to tell you how technically minded they are, as if they’re trying to appear ultimate connoisseurs of their instrument? Come on now, we all know one or two. They’re the type, who swear that they can tell the difference between two almost identical gauges of guitar string, sneer with derision at anyone who doesn’t use a particular brand of effects pedal, recognise structural similarities between two obscure and very different pieces of music, and who think that tuning their instrument slightly differently is something that merits awed praise at their insightful genius. OK, so he’s not exactly one of those, but he’s not far off, and I daresay that creating a hybrid guitar with bass strings replacing the bottom E & A strings, is a bold and clever thing to do. It certainly helps him achieve a full and deep sound, and he can emulate bass parts under the core melody with accomplished finesse, but most people don’t care much about how it’s done, only what it sounds like.

That being said, Nick’s style is soulful, snappy, almost funky, not unlike Newton Faulkner, but without the percussive element and a voice that’s closer to Buckley. He switches back and forth between this home-made hybrid and a normal guitar according to his needs, but armed with a standard instrument, the material is considerably limper. Boasting a crooning wobbly vocal, poppy ballads such as “Supernaturalness” are pleasant enough but ultimately empty and unremarkable, which is perhaps explained by the fact that he’s more used to playing these tunes in a band rather than solo.

Vocally, he has range, power, precision and depth, when he sticks within his limits, but he’s undisciplined enough to frequently overstretch himself like an X-Factor contestant attempting Mariah Carey, treating every line as an excuse to twitter as many notes as humanly possible to disguise a bland voice with flashy glottal stops and warped warbles up and down the scales, which is bloody annoying after about 5 minutes. Nevertheless, his tunes have clearly undergone a lot of painstaking constructive thought, and although fairly average fodder overall, they’re not disposable, and he sings them with passion, giving his all, even if his audience are fidgeting and checking their watches every couple of minutes. So much, in fact, that in order to liven things up, or perhaps as a critical gesture, Forum playmate Charlotte sportingly leaves the sanctity of the bar area and rushes the stage topless, jiggles her bouncers about and streaks back again. Which is nice. Although sadly, Stephens is so wrapped up in trying to merge “The Wheels On The Bus Go Round & Round” with “Play That Funky Music White Boy”, that he doesn’t seem to notice. But that’s geeks for you.

Taking a well-earned repose from Over By Dawn, it’s difficult to tell what Ash is trying to achieve as a solo performer. Looking like a right hard-case and sounding like James Blunt might not be an obvious formula for success, but at least it isn’t the other way around.

Melodically simple and pleasantly catchy, Ash’s gentle traditional bedsit folk style is safe and sensual enough, but hardly distinguishable from half the sensitive romantic troubadours that have proliferated since Damien Rice caught on, and even if angry protest songs or sly sarcastic observations aren’t his line at all, he ticks most of the boxes if inoffensive middle-class acoustic twaddle is yours.

An acoustic cliché he might be, but you’d have to be made of stone, or German, not to be a little moved by his honeyed optimism and belief in the power of love. As he sits on that stool crooning and strumming his white guitar, you’d be forgiven for enviously imagining yourself in his position up there, serenading your truest love, while she looks on adoringly instead of reaching for the vom bucket. Indeed, if you’re starry-eyed enough, “Summer and You” will be as whimsically soppy a tune as you could wish for. But even the most tender-hearted and moonstruck lovers would be hard pushed to retain their stomach contents as he dedicates the sugary “Can I Take You Out To Tea?” to his new wife. Aah. With twee melodies and romantically idealistic lyricism, Ash’s songs are a girly dream, seemingly full of kisses, holding hands in dewy meadows and images from the ‘How To…’ book of slush.

There is an unusual depth to him though, and nowhere is this more evident than in his choice of cover. Most of us would probably agree that hearing someone busk “Wonderwall” is enough to make us want to do them physical harm, but luckily Ash redeems himself with an interesting and thoughtful take on it that’s barely recognisable, half the speed, warily delicate and actually very beautiful. However, he’s back to formulaic folk straight after, and while he may be inventive with other peoples’ tunes, his own, sadly, don’t seem to merit the same care and attention, being formulaic and almost lazy. A new song, “Bury Yourself”, for example, is half-hearted and clumsy, takes ages to actually get anywhere and ends so abruptly it seems unfinished, while the Rice-esque set closer “Hold On” is so dull and lifeless that people are yawning and starting to leave before he’s even halfway through.

Although Over By Dawn gives Ash the benefit of having seasoned and accomplished musicians behind him, which no doubt invigorates his tunes as well as his performance, as a solo acoustic turn he’s unspectacular, and it’ll take more than an interesting cover for him to raise himself above any of the hundreds of other Sunday-lunchtime pub-poets and acoustic Romeos out there. I daresay he’ll give it his best shot though, and should you and your other half find yourselves watching him at some point, any latent ardour will be rekindled with no need for effort on your part. Perhaps you can even book him for Valentine’s day.

Paul Mills

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