Noah and the Whale, Koko, London
A band reinvented once more
Monday 21 February 2011
Noah and the Whale are probably waiting for the gig review in which neither the words "scene" nor "nu-folk" or the name Laura Marling is mentioned. Sorry, guys, but this isn't it.
These five boys hit the big time with a perky little number titled "Five Years Time", with backing vocals from the aforementioned Marling, in 2007. Since then they've abandoned both ukulele and female vocals, picked up electric guitars and discovered synthesizers.
Their second album, First Days of Spring an accomplished record, replaced the joyfulness of their earlier songs with depressing introspection, inspired by lead vocalist Charlie Fink's broken relationship with Marling. In London, promoting their third album in the week that Marling won a Brit Award and her next boyfriend's band, Mumford and Sons, won best album, Noah and the Whale's revolutionised sound, heavy synths and beautifully executed harmonies seemed to stick two fingers up at their detractors.
The new album, Last Night on Earth, is bleakly titled but has, thankfully, escaped the moribund ethos of its predecessor. It is not autobiographical this time, but is inspired by fictional relationships and characters. However, hearing the set opener "Life Is Life", a song about taking apart your old life and leaving it on the shelf, it is hard not to draw comparisons with Fink's personal life. Dressed in 1950s-style suits and Slim Jim ties, their bouffant curls the only remainder of their folkiness, they look like The Beatles in Hamburg. The new look, the new sound, the two years since they released a new album, all point to a band trying to shake off an earlier version of themselves.
Difficulty arises when they intersperse the new Noah and the Whale with their old material. The wonderful Nineties-influenced and high-energy "Tonight's the Kind of Night" is followed by "Blue Skies" ("This is a song for anyone/ With a broken heart/ This is a song for anyone/ Who can't get out of bed") and the lovelorn "Give a Little Love". We're stopped from reaching for the razor blades by another new song "Give It All Back", introduced by the notoriously reticent Fink as a song "for the kids who believe in rock'n'roll". This wildly experimental track, reminiscent of the sound that informed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is a breath of fresh air.
The band are not showmen in the rock'n'roll sense, however. They introduce their songs and play them well, but appear morose, unwilling even. Arguably the best song of the new album is "Wild Thing" – not The Troggs' track. The crazy, birdcall-filled musical intro is delightfully playful, the fast-paced fiddler complementing the resonant electronica in an exciting way. The set ended on a lower note, however, with the excruciatingly unhappy "The First Days of Spring" (followed by another depressing one, "Old Joy"). A stomping audience demanded an encore and were rewarded with "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N" and "Five Years Time". Next year it will have been five years' time. It will be intriguing to see what happens then.
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