Friday, January 28, 2011

Live Review: HELLO SATELLITES, AINSLIE WILLS, PARKING LOT EXPERIMENTS

NORTHCOTE SOCIAL CLUB

Though at first they seem an unusual choice to open for a couple of female-fronted-folk ensembles, Parking Lot Experiments soon prove that they can take any situation and make it their own. With a manic buzzing energy the four-piece come across as Ween dressed like the cast of Freaks and Geeks reprogramming a Commodore 64. Seemingly incapable of playing a false note or contriving anything at all, PLE kindly suggest that any reviewers tonight use the phrase ‘PLAYFUL amateurishness’ though I’d also add ‘infectiously gleeful’ and ‘eminently danceable’, with their song Superchug providing the best evidence for all of the above comments.

Bringing the mood straight to one of introversion is Ainslie Wills, with her stark Liquid Paper, one of the most arresting opening songs in eons. Soon bringing on the band and taking that attention we’ve given her to strange and beautiful places, Wills shows that for a singer-songwriter, she uses music in the most imaginative ways. Swathes of cymbals, Rhodes piano, cooing harmonies and delayed guitar spread wide, contrasting powerfully with her arresting and remarkable voice. Satellite shines and Half Present glows gloriously as the band pull out their best Grizzly Bear style chops (hacked jazz chords with heavy reverb, stuttering bass and choppy loose drums) to great effect.

Hello Satellites arrive as the audience numbers peak, nearly filling the venue. It’s their last show of a national tour and despite this, singer Eva Popov seems to take until the third last song to relax. Illuminated by projections of out of focus constellations and material textures, her songs are fleshed out by the prodigiously talented band of bass, accordion, violin and two drummers, one who was used for the east coast leg of the tour and one for the west.
Popov’s delivery often seems perfunctory and slightly cold at times, as if she’s disconnected from the scenes she so smartly depicts. Guests move on and off, in the form of mesmerising vocal trio Aluka, and a horn section. At one point Popov uses her custom instrument the thong-o-phone (lengths of plastic pipe beaten with thongs), further illustrating her and her band’s (and album producer Nick Huggins’) gift for imaginative arrangements. These skills that reach a peak on the sterling tracks Pelican, Out There and the closing Heartbeat Fast As A Rabbit, where the rhythms rise in volume and complexity, matching the soaring vocal work of Popov and Aluka.

Three very different acts, three stars in the making.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

KEEPING IT FRESH - An interview with Phoebe Baker of ALPINE

Photo by Peter Tarasiuk
Signing to the coveted Ivy League label, getting props from Pitchfork and the pressure of being a Band to Watch isn't fazing ALPINE as singer Phoebe Baker explains.

Getting signed to a label like Ivy League within months of getting your first Triple J airplay, which happens hours after your songs are uploaded to their Unearthed website is a dream most Australian bands would be thrilled to realise. Phoebe Baker from Melbourne band Alpine is one of them. “It’s been a very fast year in terms of momentum,” she says laughing. “Lou[isa James, other vocalist] and the other guys only joined the band last year - since the first gig. Then we got signed to Ivy League and since then there have been so many gigs…it’s been intense.” 

With a sound that prompts some to liken their music to Phoenix or Electrelane, what creatively sets Alpine apart is an obsession with time and place, as seen in a band like Je Suis Animal. The sound, the songs and the overarching aesthetic of the group shares very little in common with other similarly lauded bands. Once called Swiss and with a debut EP Zurich, there is clearly something of a Central Europe fixation going on here. “I suppose there is,” says Baker as if it had just occurred to her. “When I think of Alpine I think of this kind of fresh clean beauty which kind of reminds me of…not fresh like zesty…more like how you feel as if you have just had a nice swim.”

This really doesn’t sound like a band that would arrest the attention of the Triple J management within minutes, but, as Baker explains, “it wouldn’t have happened so fast without them. Ivy League heard us from that and it’s so flattering, so surreal when it happens so fast like that. The label is lovely, and they seem to be looking after us really well." She pauses, contemplating. "It’s such a new thing, it’s just been really good to have a really approachable label, they can identify all sorts of issues before they become problems, and as a band we’ve been learning about the music industry world too.”

With all this rush of media hyperbole and attention, any creative individual thrust into the spotlight could expect to shrink a little, but not Baker. “No, I don’t feel pressured,” she says matter-of-factly. “I think it’s important not to take any notice of that - proceed as normal as a group of friends making music and releasing an EP and performing. We’re trying to just take it in our stride, each day feels like another day of fun.”

These changes have meant a sharp upswing in the speed of songwriting for the band. “When we stated writing songs it was just me and Christian [O'Brien, guitarist],” she continues keenly, “but now we work in a different dynamic, because we’re in the band and performing, the writing process is faster and more varied as well. We have six opinions, and six musical minds put to work so it’s different and faster because of that.” For a band with such a simple and distinctive sound – dry chugging guitars, reverb-laden vocal harmonies, crunchy basslines, washes of synths and compressed beats – it’s surprising that everyone has a roughly equal input in both writing and production. “It’s sort of changed over the last year, Christian usually starts a song with a basic guitar riff and we’ll all come up with ideas and pick and choose. We know what sound we want and if you hear something good, your ears perk up; it’s kind of improvisation really.”

Due to this sonic specificity, playing live has presented sound issues in some places for Alpine, but overcoming this potential setback is a more enthusiastic live performance which has seen them amass more fans with each show. “We do get overexcited,” she says with another laugh. “It changes everywhere you play because of the mix, but for the launch everything will be in order! We have lots of surprises in store for the but…mum’s the word!” Some crafty cajoling (aka asking politely) elicits further laughter and, intriguingly, a mention of the TV show Father Ted, anymore than that your intrepid Inpress reporter could not discern.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Live Review: QUEENSLAND FLOOD RELIEF BENEFIT

CORNER HOTEL

Any lineup that has Claire Bowditch, turning in a typically confidence-filled, laugh-laden and stellar show, as an opening act, has got quite a bill. The story of the show is recounted several times: organiser Bertie Blackman texted friend Megan Washington and, as Blackman herself says ‘It was the shortest pregnancy ever, 14 hours from conception to birth. It’s the smallest baby…with the largest heart…shit that’s good - I just made that up.

MCed in typically quick-witted and self-depreciatory style is the expertly chosen Julia Zamiro who does an excellent job of taming a very chatty room. As with Bowditch’s sweet turn, Tim Rogers has a lot of Washington fans talking though his rough and wonderful five-song set. Rogers peels through The Luxury of Hysteria, Heavy Heart and Berlin Chair with his coruscating voice emphasising his incapacity to not give something everything he has, a sentiment echoed by the crowd (if not the air conditioning) this evening, who dig deep.

Auctions include a punked-up Australian ‘God Save the Queensland’ Flag, designed by Blackman that sells for $1300, and a guitar signed by all the artists, which goes for $2000 contributing to the very handsome figure of $30000 which is made before the night ends.

Bertie Blackman, selling the show as an acoustic gig, confounds expectations by killing the lights, donning a black cape and delivering an incredible acapella Valentine before belting out a set of songs that have more in common with the electro-stomp of La Roux than anyone seems to expect. Against monochrome projections, Blackman delivers a killer version of Heart concluding a set that could have gone on far longer.

When Zamiro introduces Washington, it becomes clear how this show sold out with no publicity. Breezing onto the stage, and also heavy on the eyeliner like Blackman, she whisks us through a captivating set of highlights from I Believe You Liar, peaking with the closing, rumour-fuelling duet with Tim Rogers That Thing You Do; one very classy girl.

With an injured finger forcing him from guitar to piano, Dan Sultan is clearly a man good with his hands and seems to ooze charisma. His clear ringing voice silences the room, especially during Old Fitzroy and School Day is Over, while his swarthy sensuality prompts some to shout for the removal of his shirt. If only someone had thought to ask him to auction it.

Accurately describing the venue as a ‘sweatbox’, Missy Higgins is happier, and more charming than we’ve ever seen her. Versions of Secret and Peachy suggest she’s spent the last few years in Nashville and a rowdy, unrehearsed all-star version of Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend brings a close to a very special night of music and fundraising.

Monday, January 17, 2011

FIVE STARS: An interview with Lou Rhodes from LAMB


From disbanding in 2004 to releasing their fifth album, 5, on the fifth of May 2011, Lamb is a band with a plan, and a long gap to account for. Singer, lyricist and all-round atmospherist LOU RHODES elaborates.


“Well it was more than a gap,” she says with a gentle keenness in her voice. “When we split in 2004 it was a proper split and we went separate ways. For me I was yearning to go off and make acoustic music and I’ve been really enjoying doing that over the last few years. [Bandmate] Andy [Barlow], for his part, has been producing other people and has been working on Lowb [released in March], which is his solo record. He was joking yesterday that it’s taken five months to write the new Lamb record and five years to do his solo album,” she says with a laugh.

No stranger to solo albums herself, Rhodes released her third, entitled One Good Thing, late last year. Clearly, there are some different paces at work here. “We push each other I think,” she says thinking carefully. “I think there was something that had got to a point…” she pauses, choosing her words carefully. “When Lamb split, making music and everything had become quite challenging and there was conflict between us, and the directions we wanted to go in. The initial direction of Lamb was very much about Andy and his technology and me and my lyrics. Then it got diluted over the years with a live band and pressures of a major label and them wanting us to write hits and all that. It was just definitely time to move away and it was very clear for me that that’s what I wanted to do.”

"We did some live shows out of the blue in 2009 when we were asked to play at The Big Chill festival. We’d been considering playing live shows after that, and I’d said I’ll do six shows and that’s it, and it turned into a 24-date world tour that ended tour in Australia. The rollercoaster ride was great fun.”

Long held in the hearts of many Australian festival-goers, Lamb have been renown for their live show, one that is far more interesting and nuanced than that of many predominantly electronic bands. The Australian shows, she hastens to add, are not album launches, rather sneak peaks. “We’re not actually officially launching the album until May fifth. We’re still finishing the album right now; in fact, I was doing a vocal for the last song for the album right before I picked up the phone for this interview. There wasn’t a plan to come to Australia; we just didn’t want to turn down the opportunity when we were asked. It was like ‘what the hell, let’s do it’, so now it’s all a bit of a panic. We will be playing some of the new songs, and it will be a chance to let Australians get an exclusive listen to the new album.”

This new album follows on from 2003's Between Darkness and Light, 2001's What Sound and, possibly their most famous album, 1999’s Fear of Fours in which Lamb studiously avoided using the 4/4 time signature and track four was rendered a two-second segue between tracks three and five.

“We’re getting a bit obsessed with numbers now,” says Lou laughing in a way that seems to play down their true significance. “Basically it’s our fifth record and five is Andy’s lucky number. He was thrilled to bits when he realised it was the fifth album, I kind of tried to put up resistance to this number thing of his, but it was futile,” she says with a laugh.

Though Lamb are most known for their 1997 single Gorecki, which has turned up everywhere from the soundtracks of Moulin Rouge!, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Tomb Raider, to several hundred weddings, there was never the sense the band rested on their laurels or sought to recreate whatever magic occurred when this song was written. With its accompanying self-titled album entering charts around the world and ensuing albums doing the same, 2011 finds Lamb very much deciding their own pace and not at all beholden to audience or label expectations. Indeed this reunion only occurred because, as Rhodes says, “Lamb would only come back if there was something fresh to say, and it seems that time is definitely here.” She also adds that 5 is very much a follow on from that successful debut album. Though much has changed, the songwriting dynamic of the two has remained remarkably consistent, but as Rhodes is the first to point out, it’s very different from the largely acoustic solo work she’s done during intervening years.

“The songwriting has been undergoing quite a change, for me coming back to writing in the context of Lamb, it’s very different to writing for a solo album. With Lamb, because we live at opposite sides of the country and we spend short blocks of time together, obviously we’ve had a very focused way of writing the album. Each has it’s own pressures so it’s very different. With Andy, it’s more like we both turn up and ask the other ‘so what’ve you got?’ And the album comes from there.”

Other changes since their split have been more of an industrial way. Shifts in the music industry have left some artists poorer and more empowered than ever, changes that have influenced Lamb but have not dictated the terms of their reunion.

“I don’t think our reunion has come about because of that, but the way the industry is it’s difficult because people don’t buy records the way they used to, so it’s some ways, it’s more difficult to make a living out of music. With this new album, we could fund making the record out of pre-orders. We were a little worried that there wouldn’t be many but, thankfully, that’s not been an issue. In some ways it was a leap of faith, but in other ways it’s the cheapest record we’ve ever made,” she says with a laugh before justifying herself. “I mean cheapest in the monetary sense, because with the earlier albums we spent a lot of record label money making records. Technically we owed it to them at the end of our contract, but it’s very easy to throw money around and for 5 we’ve been recording everything in Andy’s studio and house, so costs are a lot lower.” The location of this studio, on a sheep farm in the English countryside, covered in snow and ice (slipping on which recently resulted in Rhodes’ fracturing her ankle), has provided a cocoon for the two to incubate ideas at their own pace. “It’s so much more of an honest relationship in a way; to not have a record company worried about shifting records. It’s so rare to find someone in a record company these days who actually cares about music before profit. We’ve been lucky in the past, but now I feel we’re kind of masters of our own destiny in a way.”

Australian Tour Dates:
Thursday 17th February – Prince of Wales, Melbourne, VIC
Tickets available through www.princebandroom.com.au
Friday 18th February – Hi Fi, Brisbane, QLD
Tickets available through www.thehifi.com.au
Sunday 20th February - Playground Weekender Festival, Wisemans Ferry, NSW
Tickets available through www.playgroundweekender.com.au

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Live Review: JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION

THE HI FI BAR

Ladies and gentlemen right now I’ve got to tell you about. The fabulous, most groovy…” and we’re in; Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1994 album Orange riff-by-riff. The Hi Fi Bar is sold out, and each of us know exactly what we’re getting and we LOVE it. It’s dirty, it’s blues, it’s rock, it never stays in one place for more than 10 seconds, there’s a deep low-down sexy voice like Elvis’s that you can hardly make out because the guitars are loud and no one ever gets off the blues scale, there’s only one cymbal and three drums and that’s all we need. The rockabilly girls love it. The indie boys love it. The thirtysomethings punch the air, the teenagers sweat in the mosh and JSBX move like a lion picking off gazelles; Bellbottoms, Ditch, Dang, Sweat. “Play the blues, punk,” all played tighter than Spencer’s shiny black jeans, and they’re DAMN tight. No pause for applause, the next song kicks in and within seconds Spencer’s dangling his guitar against the floor while blasting another chunky riff that could power several White Stripes albums (in fact it probably did). You dig it? You do, but he’s already left it behind to remind you who you’re listening to, again: “The Blues Explosion, ya’ god-DAMN”. He doesn’t have to ask us twice to holler back to him; “My father was Sister Ray”, he knows we know.

The band burn through Orange and into the red - into the white-hot speed-driven rock, a full 90 minutes of sure-shot raw powered amps-to-11-sleaze. They leave, we scream, they come back. Now we get Mo’ Width, then some Extra Width before the band proceed to Fuck Shit Up: more exploding blues delivered faithfully to the faithful. Guitar tones and songs bleed together like they’ve got to get out by midnight, but time is doing weird things tonight. The stage is barely lit; we could easily have slipped through a channel in time to 1995 and the bizarre but killer choice of cover (Black Flag’s My War) adds to that feeling. Spencer might not be literally tearing a venue apart as he did an ABC TV studio in 1997, but there is just as much ferocity and intensity in the music and delivery. This gig acts as a rough case for this bizarre beast of an album to be considered not just a classic of the 90s, but also all time. Ladies and gentlemen I give you JSBX at the Hi-Fi Bar. Exhibit Fucking A.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

ANIMAL MAGIC: An interview with Peter Silberman from THE ANTLERS, and Adam Wills from BEAR IN HEAVEN

On the eve of their joint Australian tour, a chat with PETER SILBERMAN from THE ANTLERS and ADAM WILLS from BEAR IN HEAVEN reveals more than a fondness for fauna links these bands.


“Finding a common theme between the bands seems to have come from the label more than the bands,” says Bear in Heaven guitarist Adam Wills breezily about his band’s upcoming tour with fellow Americans The Antlers. ‘We’ve never played a show together before but we’re really excited about this tour; we wouldn’t have said yes if we didn’t like The Antlers. I think there is quite a bit in common between us, I think we’re both quite dramatic, sonically, dynamically interesting bands, for sure,” he says before pausing for thought. “Bear in Heaven are very particular about who we play shows with because a good show is all about bands complementing each other and it’s always good finding a band who really suits your show. Though it can be fun playing with mixed bands, for me it’s always nice to play with bands that play off each other really well. I’ve seen the Antlers a couple of times,’

‘I’ve seen Bear in Heaven once’ pipes up Antlers frontman Peter Silberman in a way that becomes emblematic of the respective band member’s dynamic, Silberman quiet and thoughtful, Wills eager and chatty. Seeming to be the eternal opening band for a more renowned headliner, Silberman counters the suggestion that he undervalues the band. “With bands like Editors and The National they’re far beyond us in terms of sales and the size of gig we could play. We were invited on those shows to open for them, and that happened because I guess those bands liked us. We chose to do those shows instead of our own because people can get to a record any number of ways and playing with those ands seemed like a good way of doing that. Like our bands do when we’re touring, we try to find a band to work well with you, in our case a band that works with Hospice.”

Both bands are known chiefly for one release, both releases were heralded across the blogosphere as being sterling examples of new music in 2009 and the limelight pushed both into a succession of North American tours which lead to similar trials and triumphs. The interview, being one of the first they’ve done together, sees them agreeing with each other on a lot of points which highlights the treadmill many acclaimed bands find themselves on. A treadmill that runs something like this: years of hard work till an album finally breaks through, acclaim, touring, constant interviews, late night TV slots, more touring, festival circuit, European tour, downtime spent recording, and a visit to Australia as an off-season holiday with gigs.

For The Antlers, the process of taking what was an intensely personal album from a bedroom, to a band, to a stage and now to Australia has been a long, challenging and immensely rewarding process, much like listening to their album Hospice. ‘It happened naturally I guess’ explains Silberman gently. ‘It took a while to get to the point it needed to be when we were making the record. The record started as a recording project, not as a live thing at all. We were a band at that stage, but I’d done most of the record myself and I wasn’t thinking of instrumentation. When we began touring we moved our rehearsal space into [keyboardist] Darby [Cicci]’s apartment which gave us time to flesh things out which was different from renting rehearsal space, and we realised that the thing we needed most was time to figure things out. That’s working now, that mentality from the beginning turned out to be what we needed.’

Wills concurs. “For us, it was hard at first because there’s a million ways we could have gone about it. We found there was a big learning curve especially since we recorded the album [Beast Rest Forth Mouth] as a four piece so when we thought about how we were going to play it live, we knew our strengths lied with texture. We didn’t want to strip things back too much so there was a lot of scrambling especially on the part of [keyboardist] John [Philpot] because he’s the most technically proficient in the band. We replaced our keyboard and bassist so our band now is kind of like a computer camp now’ he says laughing. ‘Everyone is connected via MIDI, I’m playing keys with my feet, and John is playing bass with two samplers. It was a month of pure hell trying to work out how to do this’.

Given the proclivity for touring shared by both bands, its surprising perhaps that both groups have done so much recording recently, with follow-up albums due in the next six months, something Silberman is particularly keen to expand on. “We’re just about done with our record. We’ve been working on it since September and should be done in a month. Live, we’re still mostly focusing on Hospice because it’s our first time in Australia and we’re still working out how to play a lot of these new songs. The new album is not like Hospice and that’s something we didn’t think at first,” he says with a sigh. “It’s definitely been a long uphill battle making this record. It took a lot of time to come up with ideas and throw them out. Stupidly I thought I might follow Hospice up with something similar, but once I decided not to try that the process became very different and the songs too. Definitely, the album is better for not trying to be anything and just letting the songs happen as they wanted to.’

Though it seems like a brave effort to even attempt to replicate the diarising of Hospice, Silberman gives nothing more away about the Antlers’ forthcoming release. Wills is more open about Bear in Heaven’s recent activities in the studio.

“We’ve recorded a cover we’re putting out, we’ve been writing and we’re 50% done with two new songs we may have ready when we hit Australia, though mainly we’ve just been working out how to play songs more than write them. We’re so busy with touring that recording has been pushed back to next month. We have another album in the can which never made it outside the States, and we’ve been sprucing that up for live shows which comes across well.” Hmmm…Antlers = reindeer, any chance of a Christmas song at some point? “Uh no, I don’t think so,” Silberman responds chuckling ruefully. “We’re two-thirds Jewish and not religious at all.”

Given a shared penchant for launching into searing sky-scraping soundscapes that could use another person to render, can audiences expect any cross-pollination on stage? “We are going to get up in each others sets,” laughs Wills. “We’ve been backed into a corner on this one, so we have to,” he continues happily with Silberman murmuring his assent. “We don’t know what it’s going to involve yet. One night we’ll play alphabetical, the next night reverse alphabetical but beyond that we haven’t decided on anything.”

CD Review: GLENN RICHARDS - Glimjack

(Sony)


On Glimjack, the first solo album for Augie March front-dude Glenn Richards, Richards digs a little deeper into the furrow of shy and intelligent indie-rock he’s been happy to occupy since the March’s breathtaking Sunset Studies. While it’s perhaps unfair to judge this effort against that album, Glimjack takes few risks and returns fewer rewards, from the mysteriously unevocative title and inexplicable art deco cover to the unadventurous instrumentation and pedestrian delivery. Lyrics are difficult to discern due to his slightly gruff phrasing and production sounds as rough as the edge Richards would like to add to toughen up what are essentially some lyrically imaginative country rock songs.

Tracks Painter By Numbers and The Love Zoo are as intelligently verbose as some of Richards’ better-known works and will likely be heralded as further examples of brilliance in the genuinely great body of work Richards has amassed. Musically though, it feels he has no inclination to venture beyond jamming lazily with some very talented friends. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and Richards is clearly writing about what he knows, it just seems that his stories, though well told, aren’t very exciting, and neither is Glimjack.

In spite of the above observations, this album does boast fine musicianship from Mike Noga’s sinewy and spot-on drumming and the ever-reliable Dan Luscombe whose guitar gets a chance to stray into new pastures on Long Pigs, Harsh Critic and Glimjack Muttering with exalting results. These moments (reminiscent of Gene Clark’s country-glam masterpiece No Other) are far too rare, the songs too cluttered and Richards’ voice too subdued however, to rescue Glimjack from ambling off into one too many tedious sunsets.

There are so many intimidatingly literate, vehemently anti-ego and prodigiously talented thirty-something men in the Australian music industry, and, it seems, so few have anything new or engaging to say. Sadly, Glimjack only adds to this community radio-ready pile. Many fans of Augie March will regard this as a sincere, heartfelt, and lovingly crafted album, and are unlikely to want Richards to move in a bold new direction. Certainly, take the lyrics themselves as verse and there is a great poet at work, and one who can act as a beacon in the Australian rock landscape, but as an album, these charms are submerged. Words are not enough to make a great album and there is no suggestion that the songs could be better served by anything other than another foray into a country-infused rock. Compile his lyrics into a book and it’s a worthy purchase, but as an album…he’s done, and will probably do, better.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

LAST VOICES - An interview with Becky Unthank of The Unthanks

On the line from her flat in West Yorkshire, Becky Unthank is genuinely happy to be talking about her music. Though not hers by pen, there are few more stunning expropriators of songs than her and her sister Rachel in their group The Unthanks. Even legendarily blunt British experimental folk-rocker Robert Wyatt favours their versions of his songs over his own. “That’s the great thing about folk music,” says Unthank with a disarming Northumbrian burr, “is it’s all about songs and the windows they open. We originally did Robert’s Sea Song on our second album and fell in love with his music. A good song is a good song and I wouldn’t be worried about singing a pop song or anything really. We did a concert at Union Chapel last month of just his and Antony Hegarty’s songs - I’m in love with Antony’s music - we did For Today I Am a Boy of his for years and years and we never thought we’d do a set of just their songs. I did wonder for a while: ‘he’s such an amazing artist, what are we trying to achieve anyway?’ But we just had an incredible time exploring the ins and outs of the music. It was a brilliant experience for us and hopefully everyone else.”

With this, their third Australian tour, three sold out shows in Sydney, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and their most recent albums charting in the UK, people thinking their music is brilliant has become an increasingly common response. Since 2005, The Unthanks have gone from being a regional, familial project to an English music institution. “I think after the Mercury Music Prize…being put in that context, you’re visible to a lot more people and they remember your name. It was a great opportunity and very exciting. The family were pleased but mostly it was my friends getting excited. It gave them a context for what we're doing, it’s just our folk music to them I think and sometimes, it just doesn’t click that it’s not just a family thing, and it’s dead exciting.”

English folk music, especially English traditional folk music, long held as the infinitely less cool uptight brother of its American counterpart, finds its origins in tales of working-class celebrations and hardship. Springing up in areas removed from political centres and cultural hubs, traditional folk music saw its heydays during cultural revolutions and many songs fell into obscurity, even if their sentiments are timeless. 

With little in the way of competition, The Unthanks have spent the last five years becoming one of the finest, most successful and most respected bands drawing from this fathomless well. Their interpretations of lost or barely remembered folk ballads and shows full of stories of how their rediscoveries occurred can result in songs some find squeamishly twee (particularly when the clog dancing kicks in), but lends an infusion of realism and honesty many bands would kill for. Unthank however, doesn’t see it in such a serious way. “We’ve always done music in our family really for fun,” she says brightly. “On our way to festivals and at parties, our parents got into it in the sixties from going to folk festivals in the summer and they took us too and it was so fun to meet other young people in such a relaxed environment. We’ve always been involved in it and I never thought it was unusual until we became teenagers,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “I went through a boy band phase and Rachel went through a metal phase and of course I didn’t go around telling everyone in Newcastle I was into folk music, but I never lost interest in it. It’s such a great social life and the songs and the stories are something that you can really become involved in. They’re about life at home, love, hope and death; things that matter to us and to everyone I think. We’re not singing from our voice because these songs don’t belong to one person, they’re someone’s testimony. We’re passing on the stories and I like that part of it. This isn’t all ‘this is the way the world should be’, you can take from them whatever you want to and it’s not dictating our view.”

Though most of The Unthanks previous albums (when they were known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) comprised of songs unearthed in their local Northumberland in the north of England, recent years and their forthcoming album Last have seen an expansion of source material. “When we do an album we rack our brains for what songs we’ve been singing for years, our dad’s brain, songbooks...we pick up songs at folk clubs and old records of our parents, it’s an ongoing trawl," she continues enthusiastically. "What captures us is a story really, something we can empathise with, a song that touches us and makes us think ‘I want to sing that to a lot of other people’. The family do it as a whole, it’s the way we socialise, we become more like friends, some people dread family parties, we can’t wait.”

Happily, media attention brought about a change in the typical audience demographic for an Unthanks gig, i.e. not just myopic 40-year-old folk-festival stereotypes. “I find more and more teenagers do come to our shows,” she counters. “It’s not our typical audience of course, but a lot of younger people don’t necessarily know they have their own folk music but when they do, they’re interested. England’s not like Scotland or Ireland where there’s definitely been a history of that.”

The ‘that’ which Unthank talks about is not just musical, but a deeply entrenched, centuries-old cultural pride, something anathema to many British and Australian sensibilities. Besides music and stories there lurks that mercilessly parodied and laughably antiquated bugbear, folk dancing, something the Unthanks do with a gravity many find hilarious. “Oh I know!” Unthank says with mirthful glee. “Rachel and I have both been clog dancing since we were five. We didn’t realise everyone else didn’t do it until we were much older, and after we did some dancing on Jools Holland were asked to do a TV show on folk dancing [Still Folk Dancing After All These Years]. We wound up going around the country and filming different traditional dances, some which we’d heard about and others which were totally new to us. It was a blast. We always bring some of that dancing to our shows and it doesn’t seem funny when you’re so used to it.”

The live shows, the natural home of traditional music, see the now-five-piece band switching between instruments. “The new album in coming out in March, there’ll be a couple of things from that at the Australian shows, maybe some Antony songs too. We thought about doing a live album in Melbourne for a while because we loved the sound at The Toff in Town, then it became talk of a live album with an orchestra back home, but it just hasn’t been the right time,” she says slightly despondently. “It’s hard to capture a live performance when you make an album, though we did record the Union Chapel shows and I know I’m really happy with it and I’d like to do another live album.” 

Live Review: KRISTINA MILTIADOU, DANCING HEALS

GRACE DARLING

Outside the temperature is still sitting at a balmy 25 and inside there is an ambience just as warm. Though Militiadou has had little in the way of press or publicity campaigns, a successful bid to play support for Marina and the Diamonds in Sydney has been the latest in a series of profile-increasing events and tonight’s sold out show is likely to be another stepping stone to fame.

With a stage setup reversing the venue’s layout, it’s a strange but homely design that suits the vocal and supportive tightly packed crowd.

Dancing Heals are, musically, a strange mix of derivative American indie-rock and fantastically rough vocal harmonies. Singer John-Lee Farrell and co-songwriter Daniel Trakell use their complimentary writing and vocals styles to lift the band up above the comparisons that some songs suggest. Elements of The Lemonheads, Broken Social Scene and Mumford and Sons push through the showmanship of Farrell which serves as much as distracts from the songs themselves. The band, however, are tight and flesh the songs out with style and energy to burn.

Though the crowd clearly like Dancing Heals, the room bursts to life as Miltiadou takes to the stage wearing a band of white carnations in her hair and a sheer pink pleated dress. Kicking off with On Our Way the initially striking aspects are Miltiadou’s piercing Brit-School-influenced voice, her commanding stage presence and the phenomenal tightness of her four-piece band. Heavy on the percussion and rubbery basslines Miltiadou’s arrangements are breathtaking in their speed, dynamic shifts and addictive complexity.

Eminently danceable, it’s when Miltiadou sends her yearning tones over irresistible rhythms, slows down the mile-a-minute Kate Nash stream-of-consciousness and lets some space creep in as on Stepping Stone and the phenomenal All Across The Night that the band truly gel. A cover of Kings of Leon’s Milk leaves the original a stolid po-faced bore when compared to Miltiadou’s joyous calypso reinvention and the crowd respond with ever-louder cheers and more vibrant dancing.

Though there is a proclivity for covers (Beyonce and Aretha also get a makeover), the band’s originals shine through and suggest that there is much more than a good party band here. Miltiadou’s refusal to shorten or change her name shows a headstrong confidence reflected in her singing and it’s likely to guarantee some obsessive fans later. All together, it’s a stunning show and it’s unlikely they’ll play such a small room again.