Johnny Parry Chamber Orchestra, Union Chapel | reviews, news & interviews
Johnny Parry Chamber Orchestra, Union Chapel
Johnny Parry Chamber Orchestra, Union Chapel
Rarely has the dankly Gothic been more uplifting
In this self-sufficient age of laptops and loop pedals you have to admire the Werner Herzog-like vision and ambition of a singer-songwriter who decides his compositions deserve to be fully brought to life by an orchestra. After all, who has their own orchestra these days? Tony Bennett, perhaps, or Barbra Streisand? But certainly not someone who’s most recent video has so far only garnered 400 hits on YouTube. Yet last night in the acoustically idea setting of the Union Chapel, the confident yet surprisingly self-effacing Johnny Parry came across like the million-selling artist he certainly deserves to become.
Dressed in traditional doom merchant crooner uniform of white shirt, black trousers and black waistcoat, Parry spent the whole concert at the piano with some 30 musicians pressing in from all sides on the modestly proportioned stage. However, just in case we should get bored with the unadulterated pleasure of hearing his recently released third album majestically brought to life by a saxophone quartet, brass section, orchestra strings, choir, drummer, bassist, guitarist and percussionists, a screen had been erected in front of the altar on which perfectly synchronised images were projected for added distraction.
We’ve been here before with Waits, Cave and Cohen, and yet there’s a freshness to what Parry’s doing
Parry (or his regular filmmaking collaborator Andy Holden) is wise enough to realise that context is everything when juxtaposing imagery to music. Therefore it’s pointless to pull out all the CGI stops or curvaceous dancers when a slow-motion shot of rain streaming down the outside of a train window can be just as hypnotic if the music framing it has a suitable amount of gravitas. And Parry’s music is nothing but gravitas. His voice could be best described as a growled whisper that occasionally expands into a Bowie-esque croon. He uses this still not fully matured instrument to rage against a god he doesn’t believe in, lovers who haunt him and a world that seem intent on doing him harm. We’ve been here before with Waits, Cave, Cohen and others, and yet there’s no question that there’s a freshness and originality to what Parry’s doing.
For one thing, there’s hope and humour in much of his material. The words of the ostensibly sombre lament “Rebuild It Piece By Piece” (see video below) entirely consists of sayings, proverbs and aphorisms (“The darkest hour is before the dawn,/ So take the bull by the horns”). The song’s video is made up of frames from Marvel comics in which the speech bubbles contain the words as they occur in the song. The juxtaposition of banal yet occasionally wise words, funereal music and gaudy super hero imagery has a cumulative effect which is unexpectedly powerful and moving. And there’s nothing more moving than being moved when you least expect to be.
Musically, the nearest comparison with much of Parry’s work is the aching melancholy and righteous anger of And No More Shall We Part-era Nick Cave. In fact Parry’s bolshy trumpet-powered march, “God Loves Me” seems to have the same mix of wit, religious scepticism and holy delirium as Cave’s “God is in the House”. But the high point of last night’s sublime concert was the opening track from his new album Fields & Birds & Things. The two-chord-centred “Keep Kicking & Screaming”, gradually builds in the manner of Bowie’s “Heroes” but also brings to mind Joy Division at their most elegiac and Arcade Fire at their least relentless. In other words, there’s so much in Parry’s music which left me feeling how incomprehensible it is that he is not yet more widely known and appreciated. What he pulled off last night was a logistical and musical miracle.
Listen to“Rebuild It Piece By Piece”
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