The Windmills, Picture Center, Pluto @ the Water Rats, London, 30 July 2005
First up were Pluto, who brought with them one of the biggest and most adoring, vocal crowds I've ever seen for this kind of venue. When their pumped-up, amp-worrying and frankly somewhat rockin' set reached its final crescendo, you could have been forgiven, what with all the cheering, shrieking and sweat, for thinking that we were at Wembley Arena, rather than on the Grays Inn Road. I was blithely assuming that the massed ranks of Pluto groupies were the usual "awayday" coachload from out of town, but with the group themselves apparently being Kiwis, this was more likely a reunion for exiled New Zealanders in central London. Anyway, all concerned enjoyed themselves greatly, the band really looked the part (and indeed "walked the walk"), and the Water Rats' bank manager surely won't believe his luck when he sees the bar takings figure. Oh yes, and Pluto were terrible.
Luckily, things improved fairly sharpish. Picture Center first came to my attention in the days when Shinkansen was at least nominally a going concern and Matt Haynes was gently chiding them for selling themselves as a "post-Field Mice" band, in the days when that tag went a long way to cementing your popularity amongst a certain indie constituency. The premise for the accusation was that their press releases dared to refer to the fact that Picture Center lynchpin Mark Dobson was the drummer in the later, expanded 'Mice line-up, although I've never seen clinching evidence that his new band traded quite so much on that infamy (although I did always like the fact that their name shared an obvious theme with Northern Picture Library, Bobby Wratten's first post-Mice combo, who forgivably did trade rather on Bob's previous oeuvre. And as for the Occasional Keepers....)* Anyway, to return somewhat tangentially to the point, the irony here is that in this boy's heart Picture Center managed at some point to overhaul Bobby's long term franchise, Trembling Blue Stars, in terms of both relevance and beauty: an overtaking manoeuvre amply demonstrated by taking the Center's 2003 (and still most recent) album, "Our true intent is all for your delight" - on their own label, North American - and comparing it with an increasing percentage of the Stars' recent forays for Elefant.
That album title was of course taken from the introduction by the 'rude mechanicals' of their play within a play in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and last time I went to see Picture Center, I somehow felt the magic conjured up by "Forever" was at least equal to that of the Bard's most fantastical work. I'm pleased to say that lightning can strike twice: with the sound quality better than last time I saw them here, the guitar trills, mournful bass and Mary's beautiful voice came across as crisp as the lyrics were brutal. The song is a peach: driving along, deliberately, with regret-strewn words, then capsizing into an expansive, crashing, moping strumfest ("I thought we'd be together, forever..") They then play "For Youth and Valour", also from that second album: higher-tempo, but with lyrics at least as dark. The third track, their (definitive) version of Ash's "Burn Baby Burn", worked less well only because it was drowned out intermittently by the chatter from the rear of the room: a few of Pluto's sizeable fan club having overspilled from the main bar, which had been having difficulty accommodating them all.... nevertheless, the band were unbowed and recovered to give us the perfectly-balanced duet "LP2" and the lovely, early single "Useless", Mary's voice contrasting with the fainter, beautifully wimpsome bloke on the original version. Last song was "Incense", the West Coast Experimental Pop Band cover which sprawled across their "The Wonder Of God's Heaven and Earth" album: its psychedelic swirl slightly less successfully translating to the gig, it tripped and faltered a little, washing just a touch of the awe away. Nevertheless, Picture Center are mighty and long live all who sail with them.
Talking of misleading press releases, as we sort of were, the Water Rats website last week managed to describe the Windmills' sound as "acoustic-driven alt. country". If true, this previously unflagged change of artistic direction could have made for an interesting, if concerning, third phase of the evening (as well as explaining the otherwise criminal fact that nobody has released anything by them since third album "Now Is Then" two years ago). Fortunately, however, the Windmills have not spent that time morphing into some kind of east-of-Essex Palace Brothers (who authentic Southenders might christen the Palace Theatre Brothers, but that's by the by). Instead, we got pretty much a "greatest hits" set (yay x lots), starting with the dizzying joys of "360 Degrees" and closing with a somewhat disjointed quasi-encore of the glorious "Walking Around The World" (in a small room, the ebbs and flows of the recorded version tend to be sacrificed somewhat, while Roy Thirlwall decided to change the narrative from the first to the third person, just to increase the disorientation already wrought by my final pint of the evening). More satisfyingly, we also got, as I would have demanded, thunderously nailed-on versions of "Now Is Then", "Beach Girls 1918", "When It Was Winter", "Want"... all examples of how the Windmills are the band the House of Love really could have been, if they'd had more decent songs, less hype, gone uphill instead of down after their eponymous album and not spent £x thousand amounts of record company advances on drugs. Thirlwall's distinctive, deep croon, and debonair, er, air (tonight he even sported co-ordinated cream stage garb, as opposed to the coat he wore back in the day at the Hope & Anchor) are still the glue which holds their songs together, but the playing, melodies and particularly the arrangements show that the Windmills just have a way with the construction of the deadpan pop song: even when, as tonight, they slow things down for the lachrymose waltz of "Across The Playing Fields", or power themselves up for the Cure-ish rock of the tremulous "Summer Snow".
So yes, all in all, Picture Center and the Windmills - two bands whose histories entwine back no little time - made it a fine way to see off the last listless Saturday before the football season starts again next week. Unless you had indeed been duped by the promotion into expecting to see the new darlings of alt-country, it would have been impossible to be disappointed tonight.
* The Occasional Keepers - a supergroup featuring Sir Bob and Caesar and Carolyn Allen (the mighty Wake) and heavily trailed as such, have just released an album, "The Beauty of the Empty Vessel", on LTM. Despite sensible counsel to the contrary from at least one corner, I was adamant that this was a collaboration to get somewhat over-excited about. I was wrong. The Occasional Keepers' record is, as its title suggests, extremely pretty but very insubstantial. It just seems strange - last I heard, the Wake were all set for a comeback album, and gave us a terrific, upbeat taster track, "Town of 85 Lights", on one of the Darla comps - but after that, there was only darkness...
Currently listening to:
Orange Juice "The Glasgow School" (Domino): If like me you didn't have these early recordings, you simply must get them.
Lethal Bizzle "Uh-Oh" (Relentless): Yes it's still the same song as "Oi", "No", "Forward", "Backwards", etc etc. This makes it, too, entirely ace.
Raw Power "Screams From The Gutter / After Your Brain" (Golf): At last a decent reissue for the Italian thrashers, including "Politicians", as covered by the great Napalm Death...
NB future updates may be sporadic until my computer is fixed. But rest assured there is still much I wish to go on about...