Sunday, October 22, 2006

¡Forward, Russia! at La Maroquinerie 10/19/2006

Many bands are not “live” bands; they concentrate on studio recordings, often laying down meticulously produced tracks in a beautifully crafted overall work. Others have something else going in stage presence, charisma, rapport with an audience, raw energy, seduction, which is lost in the alienated form of consumption that is the CD or Mp3. A few rare bands seem to be able to pull off both. I’d count Leeds’s ¡Forward, Russia! among the latter. That was clear in the show I witnessed Thursday night at La Maroquinerie in Paris.

In my minimalist, satirical reviews of music consumption and criticism, “Indie Reviews for the Attention Deficient,” I hyperbolically doted on the resemblances ¡FR! shares with the Gang of Four. After seeing them live, and now writing in a different commentary setting, I would have to slightly revise my description.

Thanks to the nimble picking of Whiskas, their aptly named red-chopped guitarist, they do play with the pointy, repetitive guitar riffs that branded the Gang of Four. Likewise do they play with lefty symbols and figures (as their name and song titles scream) and hail from Leeds, but it would be unfair to either band to push the comparison much further. ¡FR! has created their own style and identity by reassembling others' and pushing them further.

Let’s begin with the vocals and stage presence of talented singer Tom Woodhead. Woodhead has the rare vocal ability to jump scale from falsetto down an octave in short bursts, which will remind some of D. Byrne’s copyrighted yawps. But Woodhead doesn’t just yelp about maniacally from one octave to another. He also gets a repetitive momentum going and brakes it with sustained, almost baneful falsetto notes and wails. There are moments of resemblance in this area between Woodhead, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Morrissey. But Woodhead’s fellow choirboys lack his energy, his momentum.

Also like Morrissey, Woodhead has a peculiar stage presence and choreography. He turns his body in slow rotisserie style, somewhat in tandem with his vocals, in an interpretive dance marked by his fetish for self-wrapping in the micro-phone cord and slowly moving his hands and elbows from one-arm akimbo to elbow held high and palms upturned, as if carrying a waiter’s serving tray. He accelerates, then brakes. The movements are smooth. They’re mesmerizing. In a word, they’re memorable. Here’s a man with the suppleness of talent and confidence of sexuality that could take him from a jazz-handed role in Cats to the pogo and punk mosh pit.

Woodhead is certainly the star, but this band works well together. They seem to enjoy one another, which no doubt adds to their tightness. Drummer Katie Nicholls gives a strong, energetic percussion backbone and occasional vocals to the band, and bassist Rob Canning, a late Cobain look alike from a distance, helps Nicholls with that crucial structuring role.

A few of their songs were especially pleasurable for their change of pace and ability to build from a snail’s pace of slow chords and riffs while Woodhead warbled, to their wild, choppy guitars and vocals that are perhaps their signature.

This is also a conceptually playful band. There was something liberating, something very, well—anti- about hearing Woodhead’s announcements of songs: “This one’s called “Seven!” It shifts the listener’s attention from easy pneumonic anchors in titles to the songs as a collection. In fact, I didn’t know what Woodhead was singing most of the time. Today, when I went scouring the internet to find the lyrics, I noticed that ¡FR! have a penchant for modern verse, which produces lyrics that quickly dispel any misconceptions that this is some sort of nostalgic Soviet realist art project. Take, for instance, “Eighteen,” a song off their recent album Give Me a Wall.

It's hard to save a life
When the dreams you enter fracture through
A million and one reflections
But tonight
I'm saving a life
Through the hissing of watches and the ticking of clocks
I'll show the hours my open palm
I'll protect your sense of right
I'll dissect your senses till you find me.

But I didn’t know their lyrics well enough the other night to sing along with them.

I just found myself enchanted by what I was witnessing. Their love of performance, solidarity with each other and their audience, energy, as well as their conceptual traits reminded me a bit of the Poster Children, though they sound nothing alike. Perhaps more than many bands, ¡Forward, Russia! is a sound, a vision, an encounter, and not, like a lot out there today and yesterday, an ad, a sexual appeal, a story, or even a particular commentary on everyday social, personal, or political life (even if their total identity that precedes and succeeds their performances has all sorts of things to say about spectacular packaging, routine rock choreography and trends).

The indie-Parisian (yes, oxymoronic) and expat audience was not disappointed. But it would surprise me if audiences of this genre could react otherwise. ¡FR! is a minor religious experience, which I would gladly pay for every week had I the chance.

(See a YouTube video snippet of this concert by clicking below)




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