Ren Harvieu, The Lexington, London
Niki and the Dove, Hoxton Bar and Kitchen, London
If the biz doesn't stop churning out retro-style soul singers, pop will turn into an Amish farmstead
Sunday 19 February 2012
How many vintage-styled songbirds is too many? With Amy Winehouse deceased and Adele retired, record labels are currently falling over themselves to sign up retro-flavoured chanteuses and foist them on us as Bright New Hopes, on the principle that if even one of them sticks, the cash reward will justify the investment in the also-rans.
Ren Harvieu, a 21-year-old from Salford, is signed to Amy's old label, and backed by Amy's publicity team. But Ren Harvieu is no Amy Winehouse. With her ultra-personal lyrics, her chaotic persona and her general way of what Heidegger called "being-in-the-world", Amy was an incredible pop star as well as a phenomenal vocalist. The least interesting thing about Amy Winehouse was that her music sounded like old soul records. With this second wave of Wino clones, that's all they've got in the locker. If you thought the New Boring was bad, beware the New Professionalism.
It's wall-to-wall media and industry at The Lexington, where Harvieu is making her big London coming-out showcase. Her stick-on backstage pass ruining the effect of an elegant emerald evening dress which makes her look like the green one from a tin of Quality Street, she's a meek, awkward, rabbit-in-the-headlights presence, despite already having toured in support of James Morrison and Glasvegas.
Her voice, however, is perfectly reasonable, in a musical style that's hip-swinging Rat-Pack jazz and stripper sass, all upright bass, drum rallentandos, and pretend strings from the keyboardist (who is unceremoniously booted off at one point to make way, with no clear reason, for Ed Harcourt). If you think you've heard all her tunes before, you nearly have. One song sounds like The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You" but isn't; another sounds like David Bowie's "Absolute Beginners" – itself a pastiche of the golden age of Tin Pan Alley – but isn't. One song goes "she won't love you like I do" but hasn't got the magic number; another is called "Forever In Blue" but without the jeans.
One song sounds like Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" ... and is. A completely straight cover version like this does little to dispel the impression that Ren Harvieu is little more than a wedding singer who got lucky. And, in a climate where even Lana Del Rey, who at least brings some faux-gangsta attitude and hip-hop beats to the periodic table, is being snarked about by industry insiders as being "Chris Isaak with tits", it's a truly bizarre decision. Worse is to come with her almost a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying", during which I physically wince when she makes a Psycho shower-scene stab at the big high note.
In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds argues that third-millennium pop's obsession with its own past threatens to strangle its own source of lifeblood. When I watch pure period re-enactment like this, I'm inclined to agree. In the words of Mike Skinner, let's push things forward, before pop turns into an Amish farmstead entirely.
I glance around at my music biz colleagues, and I honestly don't understand what we're all doing here. At least, no civilians were harmed. "Did we make any actual money?", I overhear a promoter asking the door girl. I don't catch the answer, but it's met with "Is that all?"
Niki and the Dove are, on the face of it, another potentially clone-like proposition, given the Girl's Name and The Thing formula popularised by Florence and Marina. Here, however, there's a twist: there's no Niki and there's no Dove. Led by Malin Dahlström, the Stockholm trio play synthpop noir with an edge of end-of-the-world drama, which is the kind of thing Sweden does extremely well (see also: Robyn, The Knife).
BBC Sound of 2012 top-fivers NATD number seven on stage, with two extra musicians as well as Gustaf Karlöf (keyboards) and Magnus Böqvist (drums), in gold-dripping shoulder raiments like extras from Joseph L Mankiewicz's Cleopatra, flanked by two women whose only role seems to be doing expressive "I am a tree" tai chi.
"Look at you!", says Dahlström to the crowd, "You are amay-sing!", somehow surprised by the sight of hundreds of glow-bracelets and glow-sticks which her own people gave out at the door. What's really amay-sing, though, is the number of killer tunes the Swedes have up their sleeves, such as "Mother Protect", on which Marin's Lovich/Lauper squeak and Abba-esque diction ("cray-see") rides on a quasi-Latin shuffle that's reminiscent of mid-Eighties Kate Bush. Even if her jumpsuit is, frankly, a bit more Sheena Easton.
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