Joanna Newsom, Sage, Gateshead<br/>Just Jack, Bar Academy, London

Mental elf issues
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Boys, traditionally, can become very nerdy about rock guitarists. The inconclusiveness and subjectivity of aesthetics is too vague a realm for them, so they prefer to boil everything down to the scientific, the quantifiable: speed and skill. Watching Joanna Newsom play the harp, I find myself wondering what such nerdy rockboys would make of it. As a display of dexterity and velocity, it's an astounding spectacle. But the thing that interests me isn't the skill itself, but what it tells us about the person behind it.

We're all more sensitive nowadays about the issues surrounding autism, Asperger's and OCD, and more aware of the ongoing debates over whether they're discrete conditions or part of a continuum. Perhaps the most contentious issue - because to consider it is to risk romanticising suffering - is whether genius is part of that continuum. When Newsom grabs maniacally at the long, low strings and tickles the short, shrill ones with impossible agility, while spilling figurative imagery in rat-a-tat cadences (how on earth does she even remember all those words?) I wonder whether, in less enlightened decades, she'd have been locked away in the attic. And indeed, her tresses of hair do have that uncut-since-birth look about them. Ordinary people don't do this. Ordinary people can't do this.

"This", I should explain, is a nearly two-hour set largely made from her two albums, The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys (and one incredibly endearing Robert Burns folk song, "Ca' The Yowes To The Knowes"), half of it with the Northern Sinfonia, half of it without. Hearing it feels like being suspended inside a shaken snowstorm paperweight. I'd previously thought that Newsom, with her arguably over-twee, over-childish vocal delivery, was a "small doses" pleasure. In fact, this is music in which to lose yourself. Which is, indeed, her appeal. People come to Joanna Newsom concerts to imagine themselves in a woodland world or a life aquatic, wherein hollyhocks and cowries co-exist, rather than their quotidian reality of dead trees and traffic islands.

Not that away-with-the-fairies abstraction, or fanciness-for-the-sake-of-it, are her only modes, for all the clever half-rhymes of "sassafras" and "Sisyphus". Every now and then, she'll throw in a couplet such as "And I hate the sight of that empty air/Like stepping for a missing stair", and you realise she understands the longings of the human, not just the elfish, heart.

"I'm actually No 2 in the charts," Just Jack informs the Bar Academy. "Fuck knows how..."

Well, here's the story. Despite being presented in many quarters as a new act, north London rapper Jack Allsopp, a mid-twentysomething with a university degree in furniture-making, has already released a whole album (2002's The Outer Marker), and first flickered across most people's radar in 2003 with "Snowflakes", a single built on a sample of The Cure's "Lullaby".

In those days the concept of a white, male, cockney MC using guitar-based backing to appeal to an indie-rock demographic was a relatively new one, and a closed shop inhabited only by The Streets. (And oh, how sick Allsopp must be of the constant Mike Skinner comparisons, but that's tough: "Symphony of Sirens" is just one of several undeniably Streets-ish tracks tonight).

Since his initial launch flopped and his label crashed, something has happened in British music. The ungainly genre label "Grindie" (Grime + Indie) was coined, and the rhymin' and strummin' likes of Plan B and Jamie T broke through. Suddenly, Skinner wasn't the only person permitted to do this kind of thing, and the time was favourable for a relaunch.

Toting new material, he was snapped up by James Blunt's management company (perhaps uncoincidentally, there are a lot of open-collared rugger-buggers in the house) and Mercury Records, who enlisted London's most high-powered music PR company, which he shares with the likes of Elton John (who has been bigging Just Jack up, and even invited him to his wedding reception).

So that'll be how he's at No 2 in the charts with "Starz In Their Eyes", a gentle dig at Britain's celebrity culture. It is the inevitable set-closer, and has the two thirds of the crowd who have been chattering with their backs to Jack for most of the set spinning around to face him and bounce up and down. Loathsome as they are, their ignorance is in some ways understandable.

For long periods, Jack's set - overwhelmingly taken from forthcoming second album Overtones, aside from "Snowflakes", one other oldie, and a brand new track called "Goth in a Disco" - feels lacklustre. The slow jams are like Tricky without the unsettling weirdness (his singing female sidekick, Hazel, heightens the similarity), and some of it veers worryingly into Jamiroquai territory.

Furthermore, with banal lyrics like "Feels like a teenage crush/I just can't get enough" ("Triple Tone Eyes"), for the time being it's fair to say that as a storyteller, the original Mike Skinner remains streets ahead.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Comments