Do you remember a time when the pop that came out of mainland Europe ranged between ABBA and 2Unlimited, with a wealth of forgetful, over-blown, synthetic rubbish appearing during the intervening years? Music aimed at the lowest common denominator followed the direction of Eurovision out of the continent.
In the name of balance it wasn’t all terrible and in recent years, particularly within Scandinavia, the highlights have done their best to evolve rapidly, now producing cutting edge music and stylish pop stars with a global potential. You can look at the success of Lykke Li, or the ice-cold Fever Ray and the shared aesthetics of The Knife, or switch to the most recent artists such as Oh Land, LCMDF and Nikki & The Dove, the latter of which are so advanced in the evolution that they’re found unashamedly revisiting bits of Eurovision and all it’s theatrics, without a hint of irony.
In the last few months the blog focus has been on a new duo from Stockholm, Sweden, who go by the name Icona Pop and they seem to be the missing link between the synthesized pop past and the recent set of more grown up contemporaries. Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo deliver pop music that isn’t running from the past or stretching out for the future, but actually linking up the two with a reassuring confidence.
Upon first hearing Manners you get it all – clapped beats, fizzy electronics, cute female vocals and a Sesame Street chorus. It’s verses are like the narration of a teenager’s diary, before the youthful confidence comes storming in, “take a second look and you’ll see, there is no one like me“. It’s a punchy pop song that has a wonderful blend of obvious hooks, big choruses and a chart-ready appeal, yet it’s still drenched in buckets of ice cool undertones.
Tracks like Top Rated and Still Don’t Know continue to offer up the kind of radio-friendly songs that Simon Cowell usually does his best to brutally pillage, which makes the releases through independent labels such as Neon Gold and Kitsune seem an impressive juxtaposition to their obvious appeal. Classic pop subjects that visit positive/negative narratives, such as jumping into love or dealing with heartbreaks, are going to net the teen market, especially when they’re married up with beats that you can dance to and sing-along choruses that only ever start after a well-placed momentary break in the beat.
Modern pop producers, usually employed by the sickly reality talent shows, have spent years forcing more credible musicians – whether they’re from Europe or elsewhere – to do their best to steer clear of this brand of obvious, empowering teen pop. However, Icona Pop have shown us you can do it and still avoid the tacky pitfalls. Once again Sweden is leading the charge with the sound of real pop. (MB)
The problem with having a three and a half day party binge, is that it results in a three and a half day hangover. We’ve finally begun to feel human again and can now look back at a marathon Great Escape Festival that once again saw the music industry crammed into our tiny home city of Brighton for the weekend. Like most established music blogs we continue to get intertwined with that industry with each passing year, and so the whole experience of The Great Escape twists with it. Here’s what we experienced…
Most of the industry arrive on the Thursday and Friday, with the majority naturally arriving from London after their work commitments are attended to. With us living in the centre of Brighton you can understand the excitement builds up for weeks as we get closer to the three day gig-a-thon. However, the annual festival is actually kicked off on the Wednesday evening with an invite-only launch party – this year brought to us by a combination of the festival organisers, it’s sponsors and our very own Brighton Source magazine – giving us the chance to release some of that built up anticipation slightly earlier than most in an evening of booze and music.
WEDNESDAY arrived with three local bands on show. Holy Vessels were first on stage; a band that’s busy on the Brighton gig circuit and therefore familiar to a lot of local music enthusiasts, but once again they made their brand of Americana country music sound palatable. Second on were Rizzle Kicks, a band we’d never witnessed before, as they blasted through their refreshingly energetic hip pop (sic) in a style reminiscent of Chiddy Bang. They had the looks, the moves, the confidence, the singles and even attempted an ill-informed Jessie J cover that surely had any early arrivals from the music industry wincing into their free drinks. Last on were Mirrors, who it’s impossible to tire of, as we watched them continue to mature like a fine wine with another enjoyable live performance, blending aesthetics with punchy, electronic, styled pop. We clicked our camera, drank a little too much alcohol and enjoyed chatting with the local industry, as well as sharing many musings with a fellow south coast music blogger, Breaking More Waves‘ Robin. It turned out that a similar prescription was to be repeated for the entire weekend.
MIRRORS – INTO THE HEART
So THURSDAY arrived with a hangover, yet the excitement hadn’t entirely subsided so we launched ourselves into the Alternative Escape – which is the fringe festival that sees gigs pop up all over town during the day and late into the night well after the main showcases have finished – with an afternoon blast from PVT. They fizzed and crashed like they’d landed from outer space, with terrible haircuts and rather brilliant music. We only just squeezed into the tiny Prince Albert venue, as it was already a one-in-one-out door policy for everyone else, delegates included. In fact the less numerous shows on offer either side of the main festival performances felt equally as sardine-like as more people had to fit into less gigs. Cloud Control were next on the afternoon agenda, inside a giant second hand store. unfortunately, they finished after just three songs, which lead singer, Alistair Wright, later explained was due to a commitment they had with a radio station. It mattered not, as their music is the perfect uplift to set us on our day around our seaside city. We thought we’d get the other half of the set when later on we turned a corner to see them playing an outdoor acoustic show in Jubilee Square, but alas it was the same three songs. Balls. The evening served up Emika at The Loft, which is a rather shitty venue with an odd layout. Discussions flew around about how she would interpret her tunes into a live show, but sadly we just found her stood behind a laptop. Her voice, her looks, her ability to create such excellent, dark songs should all go towards propelling her upwards, but she definitely needs to work out a performance to suit. Then she could really fly. Grouplove at The Haunt venue were overwhelmingly brilliant, with energetic, contagious indie making up for their dull American lyrics about highways. Twin Shadow was unfortunately underwhelming in the massive cavern that is the Corn Exchange, failing to fully ignite our evening, although he does pen pretty extraordinary music. The queue for Gang Gang Dance was just silly, even 45 minutes before they kicked off and we certainly wouldn’t have entered without a Press Pass and some persistent bouncer bartering. The resulting set was the talk of the town thereafter, although they seemed a little self-indulgent and unable to play anything less than 10 minutes long. Thursday closed off with Dog Is Dead, which was a packed and claustrophobic basement at the Jam venue, but their folk pop felt like a refreshing breeze. It was a lesson in vocal harmonies, although their young faces made them look a little like a decent 6th-form band.
CLOUD CONTROL – DEATH CLOUD
FRIDAY began with a sunny beer on Audio’s terrace, as we listened to what sounded like an awesome set from Yaaks. We had no choice but to sit outside though, as the venue was full to bursting. Still, nice to be able to talk, drink, sit down AND listen to amazing live music. That gave us the energy to whip around and catch Young Empires at Komedia, where we managed to sneak to the front of a packed crowd. We had previously booked the Canadian trio for a Recommender party last year, but we noticed several brand new songs that were pleasingly equal to their others. They kindly said hello afterwards having recognised us and they promised to attend our after party later that evening, (which they did). We then turned to our Bloggerati meetup at The Florist, where free rum and cokes were on offer to the many people that attended, including among others, Drowned In Sound, The Guardian, Pop Noodle, Breaking More Waves, Faded Glamour, There Goes The Fear, Always Everything, Live Life Love Music, Flying With Anna, alongside more traditional press and industry folks. The best bit was perhaps introducing, for the first time, a writer of two years to his editor, Sean (from Drowned In Sound)! Strange but true (see the handshake photo to the side << ). Later into the evening we headed out to catch Oh Land at Digital, which was the first time we’d actually seen the beach and sea all weekend! The show was packed out and she’s every bit the pop star, although the tracks away from the single felt a little thin and forgetful. Next up were Treefight For Sunlight at Komedia, who charmed us with perhaps the bravest move of the weekend – a cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Sadly the remainder of the set was so prog rock it simply felt dated. Last up was our after party with four bands on show – Alpines, who were impressive and more upbeat than we’d imagined, but utterly excellent and sure to have big futures. Next was a slightly mis-placed set by Hey Sholay, who jammed out a high energy indie rock performance that felt like they were trying to inject life into a batch of rather dead songs. Real Fur turned things around with groove that only they know how to play, especially that bassist – he’s so watchable! Last up were Beat Connection who looked about twelve years old, but played like masters, closing off a long day at 4am.
REAL FUR – BIRDS
SATURDAY found us at the Queens Hotel for an afternoon of North East bands, although we sadly got there too late to see Polarsets, but managed to watch an enjoyable Let’s Buy Happiness. We then wandered around the corner to ANR, who played in Skint’s garage in true street festival style, but sadly their performance quickly got boring. The evening found us glued to Horatios on the pier, which although is about as quintessentially Brighton, is actually like a very awful venue seemingly styled on a Bernie Inn. Ignoring the poor layout, lighting and sound, we watched Braids entertain half the music industry, as cameras flashed and pens hit notepads during an extraordinarily mesmeric performance. Next on was EMA, who is every bit the rock chick starlett that could make a future from her Courtney Love style alone, which is great because her music didn’t quite stand up to the hype. The gentleman next to me suggested afterwards that “if that set was by a man, everyone would’ve hated it“. Very true, especially when she did the most cliché thing we’d seen all weekend and swigged out of a bottle of Jack Daniels. Last of this Horatios trio were 2:54 who wanted to re-visit the aesthetics of grunge music without any of the riffs or power. We finally ended the whole weekend at a venue that’s something of a home ground for The Recommender, Digital, where some much needed energy was re-injected into proceedings by a fantastic live set from TEED, including dancers, before Caribou ended everything with an astonishingly explosive DJ set.
BRAIDS – LEMONADE
In conclusion, it’s like a marathon without training, with many ups and downs, but once the repeated hangovers and sore feet recover you are left with a batch of special memories and one-off experiences. What this music festival lacks in traditional specifications – such as mud, drunk teenagers, tents and drugs – it more than makes up for in excitement, networking opportunities, engaging performances and uniqueness. There really is nothing like The Great Escape, which we can confidently state we’d travel to, even if it was held in Timbuktu, rather than on our fortunate doorstep. (MB)