Alt-J, Electric Ballroom | New music reviews, news & interviews
Alt-J, Electric Ballroom
No major fireworks, but plenty of sparklers from the newly-crowned Mercury Prize winners
It is not exactly Rock 'n' Roll Babylon, that's for sure. When Mercury Prize-winning quartet Alt-J assembled onstage at the Electric Ballroom last night it was more like a group of cool-looking choirboys gathering for practice with the vicar than music's hottest properties playing the final lap-of-honour gig of their current tour. After a modest "thank you" to the audience from guitar-cradling vocalist Joe Newman they were off and running.
This is a venue where I'd previously seen The Clash at full cannonball tilt and Nick Cave in total self-destructive gonzo mode and Alt-J were never going to be able to compete on those terms. Following their Mercury Prize victory for their debut album An Awesome Wave last week the band, who met while studying at Leeds University, said that they were going to celebrate by taking their parents out to dinner. As the old adage goes, they look like a group who are more likely to tidy their hotel room than trash it, although there is a story that synth player Gus Unger-Hamilton and bassist Gwil Sainsbury were fined $100 each for urinating over a hotel balcony during an American jaunt. In mitigation they claim they were not being rebellious, they were desperate and someone was in the lavatory.
There is an intriguing well-honed looseness to their sound
While there were no fireworks during their album-length set, there was much to admire. Like a raft of modern bands from Hot Chip and The xx to Mumford & Sons Alt-J draw inspiration from a wide range of influences. There were hints onstage of everything from electronica, trippy dub and finger-in-your-ear folk to the juddering bhangra beats of their encore, "Taro". It did not all work perfectly. A mash-up of Kylie's "Slow" and Dr Dre's "Still Dre" was a little too reserved, but elsewhere their crisp, confident compositions, topped off by Joe Newman's trademark wobbly warble, were distinctive enough to see why the judges gave them the thumbs up. "Tessellate" may be the oddest title for a love song in years, but boy is it catchy, even if the nerdy lyric "triangles are my favourite shape" makes the band sound like a group of scary geometry fans.
For all their love of long words and language (the name comes from the Apple keys one has to hit to make the Greek letter Delta and a large three-sided flourescent Delta loomed over them onstage) the foursome also know how to put together a tune that is hard to shake off once it lodges in your brain. The rhythms shifted and shimmied and sucked one in like quicksand on their breakthrough track "Breezeblocks", which lyrically has hints of a murder ballad about it, but is apparently about Maurice Sendack, the author of Where The Wild Things Are.
Elsewhere close harmonies and glockenspiels got in on the act. This is not music to bring down governments, but neither is it innately conservative. There is an intriguing well-honed looseness to their sound. Sometimes it feels like the product of an extended jam, sometimes it feels microscopically crafted. Early comparisons with Radiohead are a little specious, but maybe the connection is a shared desire to experiment, upend expectations and push guitar music into places where it does not always want to go or necessarily fit.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
Torpid sixth album from former freak-folker Andy Cabic
Lavish box set puts a new twist on the great American songbook
The legendary Cuban ensemble’s 40th anniversary celebration doesn’t quite take off
The difficult fourth album from London indie stalwarts
From seaside nostalgia to a consumerist jihadi paradise, we list the sounds of summer
Devon soul singer learns reggae for her seventh album, to surprising effect
Odd-couple alt-country collaborators create a thing of understated beauty
theartsdesk's 17-year-old correspondent hits Latitude
Australian sibling band hit home with a set for the broken-hearted
Glossy sound and endearing chatter the perfect accompaniment to an alfresco G&T
Avant-folk riches from the heart of rural Poland
America’s post-punk greats get a sterling sonic overhaul