Mika, Academy, Birmingham
Girls, Audio, Brighton
From weirdo to family guy, kerching-ah!
Sunday 28 February 2010
Mika Penniman is, on the face of it, a difficult man to warm to. The snazzy-suited, cane-twirling dandy who strutted to the top of the charts in 2007 with "Grace Kelly" didn't turn out to be the all-round entertainer (a thinner, camper Robbie Williams, say) we expected.
Instead, we got a private man, who is never to be found sending himself up in a Lycra body suit on Hole In The Wall or whoring himself on Pop Star To Opera Star, nor disgracing himself in front of the 3am Girls then apologising chummily on Wossy's sofa.
It's a testament to the man's staggering excellence at writing killer pop tunes that this lack of media friendliness has barely hindered him. In fact, it makes me like him even more and, even though The Boy Who Knew Too Much hasn't done the business Life In Cartoon Motion did, there are thousands of besotted devotees who agree.
The first few times I saw Mika, it felt as though he was representing for the circus freaks, the burlesquers and the oddballs. Now, he's the choice of the daytime Radio 2-listening ordinary folks. His appeal is cross-generational: one of the first things I see, on entering the Academy, is a mum and dad with their tiny daughters on their shoulders, clapping like crazy to "Blame It On The Girls". When he stands on the drum riser, he isn't being rock'n'roll. It's so the shorties can see.
The pipecleaner-thin Stephen Mangan lookalike still puts on a show, in a lo-fi kind of way. As well as the most OTT finale this side of a Flaming Lips concert (balloons, confetti, huge inflatable skeleton-child) there's a technicolour dreamcoat (very apt), an umbrella with tinsel inside, a puppet-on-a-string of himself, a skull-headed Mexican Day of the Dead procession that wanders on and off, randomly, and – my favourite bit – a top hat with a miniature one underneath, like a millinery matryoshka doll.
What's more impressive is the hit-after-hit nature of the set list. One tends to forget just how many Mika songs are familiar, and in how many styles they come. There's Paul Simon-style faux Afrobeat ("Blue Eyes"), street-corner hopscotch chants ("Lollipop"), vintage vaudeville ("Good Gone Girl"), and Bee Gees falsetto pop (pretty much everything else).
"We Are Golden" is a devilishly effective earworm, and overexposed it may be, if you heard "Grace Kelly" for the first time today, you'd think it was amazing. Best of all is "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)", a song whose message is newly vindicated.
When he released it, Mika was called a chubby chaser or, worse, patronising. Last week, research by Dr Steven Platek of Georgia Gwinnett College claims to have shown that looking at curvaceous women rewards pleasure centres in the male brain, giving a high akin to alcohol or drugs. With his hymn to the Rubenesque aesthetic, Mika's going with the majority after all. "Ker-chinggg-ah!" indeed.
Paul Hawksbee and Andy Jacobs, presenters on Talksport, have a game they like to play while watching the horse racing, called Posh Or Irish? The idea is that you mute the TV, then whenever a pundit or personality appears on screen, you try to guess, by sight alone, whether they're one thing or the other.
I like to play a similar game with hotly-hyped new indie bands: Upper Class Or American? You come across their name in a live ad in the back pages of the music press, or hear it via word-of-mouth buzz, then develop a hunch as to which category they fall into. If you're very lucky, you can avoid spoileration until you see them in the flesh.
I turn up to see the painfully hip Girls – someone, I think it was Foals, has decided that definite articles are uncool – without a clue as to whether they've come to Brighton from Harvard or Hurstpierpoint. On this occasion, I correctly guess that they're Americans. In fact, my musical sat- nav is far more specific than that. Before they've even spoken, their sound is so classically Californian that I can home in not only on a city (San Francisco) but to within a couple of streets (namely Haight and Ashbury).
In the case of Girls – who own nary a uterus between them – the origin of the members is more significant than most. Band leader Christopher Owens was raised within David Berg's notorious Children Of God cult. His elder brother died as a baby because medical intervention was against the group's beliefs, and his father disappeared. Most relevantly, where Girls is concerned, Owens was forbidden from listening to secular music. It puts Kings of Leon's evangelical upbringing into perspective.
One could argue that a little of Owens' happy-clappy indoctrination lives on in Girls' sound, a blissed-out, druggy haze which takes in elements ranging from Hawaiian pop to shoegaze, but mainly centres around chiming West Coast harmonies and idyllic surf guitar.
You may not be big, Girls, but you are beautiful.
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