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Music Reviews

Two thoroughly enjoyable gigs reviewed below, and some great music coming up, including Idlewild, Pulled Apart by Horses and a range of artists at the Phoenix’s Acoustica Festival.

The Acorn

Exeter Phoenix, 10th May 2009

The Acorn

Imagine, as I often do, a world where Jake the Peg had no extra leg, or Scaramanga was just another Bond villain with two nipples – it would be rubbish. If you don’t believe me, go to YouTube and watch Rolf’s third leg in action without grinning. It can’t be done.

Musicians know the merits of an extra appendage, too with the Grateful Dead, early Genesis and ace Detroit rockers The Dirtbombs all dabbling with a second drummer in their live line-ups. To that list can be added inventive Canadian outfit The Acorn; a move which is logical considering the band’s reliance on infectious tribal rhythms on their breakthrough album, Glory Hope Mountain.

The results are stunning, with both percussionists competing against the other amidst a fusion of beautiful guitar hooks and handclaps on standout tracks Hold Your Breath and Flood Pt.1, and delivering a level of intensity only hinted at on the album versions. Keeping everything together is charismatic frontman Rolf Klausener (responsible for vocals and much of the guitar work), who is clearly as revered by his band as he is the audience (“he’s the guy that writes the songs”, says the bassist at one point, all puppy-eyed with admiration).

Klausener is undeniably a talent and his sincere vocals are a revelation, delivered with tender warmth and emotion no more so than on the affecting Oh Napolean, a song recounting his Honduran mother’s experiences with domestic violence, and which echoes Sufjan Stevens at his best.

If you don’t yet own Glory Hope Mountain, it’s time to make amends.

The Handsome Family

Exeter Phoenix, 31st May 2009

Handsome Family

Not many bands write music about a milkman who falls in love with the moon, or the loneliness of magnets, but for husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks – aka The Handsome Family – such playfully dark songs are ten-a-penny.

Their music appeals on many levels: Rennie’s lyrics – Lynchian life observations on anything from love and suicide to cement mixers – are mysterious, sincere and funny; the music, written by Brett, ranges from up-tempo country (think Johnny Cash at San Quentin) to rootsy folk while Brett’s booming baritone infuse the words with life.

The intimate feel of the Phoenix perfectly suits the laid-back Handsomes. Unlike the forced banter of tonight’s support act, The Smoke Fairies, the exchanges between Brett and Rennie are heartfelt and welcome, with Brett beating down many of Rennie’s quips about his domestic productivity, with a dismissive “Sha, right!” before taking a slug on an ever-present bottle of Budweiser.

While Brett dominates (literally) the centre of the stage with his bear-like frame and imposing vocals, Rennie (a diminutive Morticia Addams, dressed all in black) happily stands to the side, protectively cradling her omnichord and crooning wistfully in the background.

Most of the highlights come from the band’s latest album, Honey Moon, a collection of love songs marking their 20th wedding anniversary. When You Whispered is straight up country, all banjos, harmonies and tales of shared moments, while Darling My Darling perfectly captures the band’s appeal: a love story about two bugs wanting to eat one another, which is both funny and tender.

Long live gothic country music.

For the diary

A short list of highlights for the coming months:

Pulled Apart by Horses, Exeter Cavern, 9 August 2009 – Much tipped punk rock outfit from Leeds with a distinct sound: yelping vocals, macho riffs and occasional disco drums. Cool name, too.

Ben Taylor, Exeter Phoenix, 4 October 2009 – The spawn of Carly Simon and James Taylor is best described as a poor man’s Jack Johnson. While a competent musician, his is the kind of music that your mum would tap her feet to and ask, all surprised, “who’s this, dear?” which is surely not a good thing.

John Smith, Exeter Phoenix, 19 September 2009 – Highly accomplished and innovative folk guitar player hailing from Devon, who is yet to get the recognition his talent deserves. Check out his great cover of Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows” on myspace.

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