Massive Attack, O2 Academy, Birmingham
The Veronicas, Koko, London
Keep it down, boys – we're trying to sleep down here
Sunday 27 September 2009
What's yours like? Mine's authentic 1970s, smoked glass (chipped at one corner), chrome frame (tarnished in places), straight out of Abigail's Party. Thirty quid from Snooper's Paradise in Brighton's North Laine.
The most clichéd thing you can say about Massive Attack is to call them "coffee-table music", but sometimes clichés are there because they're true. Like the ostentatious and oversized photography books you are meant to leave lying about to impress visitors with your good taste, Massive Attack are a band everyone wants to be seen to enjoy, but nobody actually does.
Of course, I'm not a mind reader, but the faces of Massive Attack's audience – by and large, people who smoked a bit of weed in 1992 and are here out of loyalty to their student selves – speak louder than the basslines. No one is smiling. People who don't even smoke are going for a fag break just for something to do. One girl next to me – and this isn't, I promise, a cheap literary device – is so bored that she passes out and has to be resuscitated.
Two decades ago, down-tempo at least had scarcity value. These days you can't switch on a TV documentary without hearing this stuff in the background, or ersatz bastardisations thereof during the ads.
For two hours, dredging their four available albums and showcasing their unreleased fifth, Massive Attack repeatedly miss the difference between "hypnotic" and "soporific". During "Teardrop" I yawn so wide I nearly dislocate my jaw. (It's been a long day, but even so.)
To willingly attend a show like this strikes me as an astoundingly weird thing to do. Actively opting to stand shoulder to shoulder with a couple of thousand fellow humans and just be ... lulled. Life dulls the senses enough already – why go out of your way to have them dulled for you? Maybe there are more closet insomniacs around than I ever imagined. If so, it's an expensive remedy.
The super-extravagant LED light show does its best to keep us awake, with its flickering red digits, meaningless moths and ripples in a pond. The strangest moment, given the woozy complacency of the soundtrack, is the ticker-tape of revolutionary quotes from the likes of Jefferson, Mandela and Hunter S Thompson. One of them, from Goethe, seems especially apt: "None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who believe that they are free." Were Massive Attack touring in his day?
They do, of course, have two transcendent moments. One of them, "Safe From Harm" ("But if you hurt what's mine, I'll sure as hell retaliate ..."), falls slightly flat. On this form, Massive Attack couldn't retaliate their way out of a paper bag. The other, "Unfinished Sympathy", is simply one of the great songs of all time, and in the absence of Shara Nelson, Deborah Miller's rendition is a tour de force. Sadly, for the rest of the set, the majority of the vocals are taken by former Tricky sidekick Martina Topley-Bird. She's no Shara. She isn't even a Tracey Thorn.
Maybe I'm just hormonally incompatible with all this. On a basic chemical level, I cannot comprehend the urge to make music like this, or listen to it, especially live. But the truth is, glancing at the consensual somnambulists around me, I think everyone else feels the same, if only they'd admit it.
What is it about identical twins? They're either figures of horror (those eerie infants from The Shining) or erotic fascination (just count the Google hits). The Veronicas – aka the Origliasso sisters Jessica (blonde hair, vocals and guitar) and Lisa (dark hair, vocals and occasional keys), from Queensland – have a bit of both, in a softcore kinda way.
In interview, there's something scary about the telepathy implicit in their habit of answering questions with a synchronised, rising "uuummm ..." In concert, singing "I want you so much that I can't resist you" in each other's faces, they bypass the Same Difference ick-factor and head straight to "enter your credit card details for instant access".
Aside from their monozygotic mystique, what is The Veronicas' appeal? Compromise. In front of a stylists' idea of a punk band (they look like extras from a Good Charlotte video), the duo kick off their "first 'official' show on this side of the world, I guess" with "Untouched" – their first UK hit. They continue in a very similar electro-pop-rock vein, a sound created by producer Toby Gad (Beyoncé etc) with a little help from the likes of Max Martin (Britney etc) which is exactly halfway between Avril Lavigne and Girls Aloud.
Judging by their audience – girls who are not quite daring enough to be Emo, but not quite rough enough to be Chav – that musical hedged bet is box- office catnip. They understand The Veronicas, and The Veronicas understand them. "Go crazy!", one of the Origliassos suggests between songs, before adding the cautious caveat "... if you want to."
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