Arts and Culture

Rabbit in the headlights

Lloyd Gedye

Self-conscious and Edgars-chic, The Black Hotels have stormed on to Jo'burg's live music scene, writes Lloyd Gedye.

They say very few people ever saw the Velvet Underground live, but almost all of those who did went on to form a band. John Boyd lead singer of The Black Hotels never saw the Velvet Underground, he just read the book, Uptight and that was enough for him.

“I was basically inspired by this book, by the story of the Velvet Underground,” says Boyd. “I decided to put a band together. I didn’t want to be waiting around forever hoping to meet the right people.”

Boyd was a veteran of the Johannesburg music scene, having played in Beta Max, 700 Sundays and an early line-up of The Parlotones, before he quit music to take up a job in marketing.

Although Boyd has been writing songs for the past 15 years, The Black Hotels is his first attempt at fronting a band and singing his own compositions, a fact he puts down to his self-conscious nature.

“I have always been aware of putting music out there with my name on it,” says Boyd. “I am very self-conscious about it because I always feel like it’s not up to scratch.”

His insecurity is often evident at Black Hotels gigs, where Boyd can sometimes resemble a rabbit caught in the headlights. But ultimately this is what makes The Black Hotels such an interesting proposition.

Boyd might be uncomfortable on stage but it is his anxiety and the earnest look of the band live that first drew me in.

In an environment in which bands around them are slipping into skinny jeans and wearing matching ties, The Black Hotels Edgars-chic is a refreshing statement.

“What you actually get is four normal people on stage,” says Boyd. “I like that, I like the fact that we don’t have to dress up.”

The tension Boyd emits during a performance is counterbalanced by the ambivalent guitar style of classically trained lead guitarist Neil White, who often sounds like he is playing with an imaginary band—somehow it works. “When we started out, I was like, ‘What is Neil coming up with here?’” says Boyd. “Then I started to see how it could work.”

“If you listen to The Smiths, you can hear Johnny Marr in the background and he is playing some way-out stuff. It reminds me of that,” says Boyd.

And he’d be right. The reason The Black Hotels has developed a reputation as a great live band in such a short time has everything to do with the way Boyd’s stripped-back song- writing blends with White’s crazy guitar riffs, drummer Robin Wheeler’s solid stick work and bassist Lisa Campbell’s subtle backing vocals.

The end result is a hook-laden collection of songs that sound at times like The Velvet Underground, Interpol, The Go-Betweens and early REM.

The band recently finished recording their debut EP, Beautiful Mornings, under the watchful eye of Jim Neversink’s guitarist and talented producer Matthew Fink.

Boyd connected with Fink after their bands shared a few bills and he seemed the logical person to have at the helm. “Well, that and after the first time he saw us, he said, ‘I am going to record your band, which helps’,” says Boyd chuckling. “Jim Neversink’s album was one of the first South African albums I put on and I was like ‘Wow, this is really speaking to me in terms of production’.”

Fink focused on capturing the band as they were and, although he brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table, it never felt as though he was overtaking the band.

“Matthew’s whole thing was a good record shouldn’t take six months, you should just go in there and do it,” says Boyd.

The result is a brilliantly produced collection of songs that will have you stomping your feet and shaking your hips.

The Black Hotels are definitely a band to watch and these first five songs are just the start. There is whole album of songs that are just as good, if not better, so get down to a show near you.

The Beautiful Mornings EP is available at gigs and should be in good music stores soon. You can catch The Black Hotels at the Blues Room on July 19, Back 2 Basix on July 23 and August 2 and at Oppikoppi on August 10

The National

Boxer (Just Music)

Although The National’s last album was a great slab of melancholic indie-rock, I was still unprepared for the audacity of their latest album, Boxer. To put it simply, everyone else is going to have to work bloody hard to beat this album in 2007—it is that addictive. Musically, Boxer is fuller and better-produced, whereas The National’s 2005 album, Alligator, was muddy (don’t get me wrong, that was part of its charm).The new offering is like a soundtrack to the remoteness of our urban lives and lead singer Matt Berninger is singing his tales of woe from the rooftops. Berninger’s deep, distinctive baritone is more and more like a blend of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, while the band have a slicker sound that resembles Interpol. But, while Interpol’s vocalist, Paul Banks, takes that Brooklyn-based outfit towards the otherworldly sound of Joy Division, Berninger’s vocal performances are very much of this Earth. The National have taken their game to the next level and Boxer is an out-and-out classic.—Lloyd Gedye

Lucinda williams

West (Universal)

Lucinda Williams has all but established herself at the top of the country roost. Since her landmark album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams has delivered albums of the highest quality, earning respect from her peers and kudos from the critics. West sees Williams return with a batch of songs that deal with the break up of her relationship and the death of her mother. The delightful soulful groove of Mama You Sweet, sees Williams dealing with grief in the most beautiful way, while the haunting country tune Fancy Funeral, is a working-class take on a death in the family.

Williams’s voice is developing into one of the best in the business, sweet and soulful one minute and angry and raw the next. Unsuffer Me is a definite example of the latter, with Williams channelling a bit of the gruff Tom Waits into her darker rock songs.

While the achingly beautiful Learning How to Live is an example of the former, a delicate piano-driven song for all the heartbroken in the world. The real gem of the album is Wrap My Head Around That, a nine-minute whirlwind of emotion that is not dissimilar from Marianne Faithfull’s angry stab at a former-lover Why D’ya Do It? West might not be a career highlight for Williams, but it is a deeply emotional roller coaster, if you are game for the ride.—Lloyd Gedye

Grinderman

Grinderman (EMI)

There is a slash of guitar just to signal intentions and then a voice purrs over the speakers, “I’ve got to get up to get down and start all over again”—and with that Grinderman charge into the distance. If you somehow missed the memo, Grinderman is Nick Cave’s new creation. Cave has rounded up three of his regular Bad Seed cohorts and headed into the studio to create a fuzzy, distorted album that has hints of The Stooges and Suicide. Grinderman sees Cave on top form, ripping through songs like Depth Charge Ethel, a garage rock number that takes in everything from doo-wop to electro.

Ultimately, Cave’s new creation is the sound of him cutting loose from the expectations of Bad Seeds albums and while elements of his band still shine through so does the sound of his earlier punk outfit The Birthday Party. Cave sounds alive and invigorated and like he’s having a shitload of fun—Lloyd Gedye

Modest mouse

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Sony/BMG)

Who would have thought? The Smith’s Johnny Marr in Modest Mouse? It all seemed so strange, but now the resulting album is here and it’s killer. It starts like an old scratched record of some French one-man band, but it doesn’t take long to hit its stride. Opener March Into the Sea sees Isaac Brock dicing between Frank Black savagery and an orchestrated lullaby sweetness. Although the first single, Dashboard, is a perfect example of why this left-field indie band has found so much success on mainstream American radio, there is just no denying their brilliance. Modest Mouse effortlessly blends pop hooks with original songwriting and wild circus-music instrumentation to create tunes that sit somewhere between the Talking Heads and The Pixies. Although their new album is not vastly different from their breakthrough album, Good News for People Who Like Bad News, Marr’s influence can be heard across the album—it is literally littered with tight, jangly guitar riffs. The moody, rambling gothic folk song, Parting the Sensory, is a delight but the album highlight has to be Missed the Boat—its Crowded House-styled chorus is sure to make it a summer holiday anthem come the end of the year.—Lloyd Gedye


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