Mike Atkinson

Ronika – Forget Yourself/Wiyoo EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 31, 2011

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.)

As last year’s wonderful “Do Or Death” mixtape demonstrated, Ronika is clearly in thrall to the post-disco, pre-house dance music that came out of New York between 1981 and 1984.  Those influences first emerged on last year’s debut EP (Do Or Die/Paper Scissors Stone), and they are further developed on this year’s follow-up, which offers a pitch-perfect homage to that classic era.

Forget Yourself is the more immediate, more pop-oriented track, whose breezy, peppy strut is reminiscent of early Madonna and Tom Tom Club.  As such, it’s a tailor-made early summer jam, driven by nagging chants (“Wake up, wake up, get up, get up”) and teasing calls to action (“What you holding out for, ‘cos I know you’ve got more”).  As for the second track on the EP: if Forget Yourself is Jellybean Benitez spinning Madonna at the Funhouse, then Wiyoo (pronounced “why you”) is Larry Levan remixing Gwen Guthrie for the Paradise Garage, augmented by a throbbing Giorgio Moroder bass synth that lifts the chorus into boogie heaven.  Three remixes drag the tracks firmly into the contemporary, without obliterating their essential spirit.

Sassy and sultry in shades and platinum curls, with the same sort of pop-chick-in-control vibe that served the likes of GaGa and Stefani so well, it’s easy to see Ronika – who created this EP almost single-handedly – carrying her music from the underground to the mainstream, and giving the rest of us a homegrown pop princess to be proud of.

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The Rural Alberta Advantage – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday May 25

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2011

Halfway through The Rural Alberta Advantage’s opening number – a raucous, clattering affair – there’s a pause in the music.  In the space before his next line, singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff looks heavenwards, them emits a deep sigh.  “I’ve played this song so many times”, he explains. “So… MANY… times!” 

And then we’re off and away again.  Edenloff’s sandpaper rasp claws its way above drummer Paul Banwatt’s tumultuous squall, while their gamine backing vocalist Amy Cole – shoeless, in laddered tights which spell either thrift-store chic or end-of-tour fatigue – picks out one-note melodies on her rickety keyboard.  This sets the template for the rest of the set, which is notably more muscular in tone than the band’s rather wan new album, Departing.

Like White Denim and The Dodos before them, the trio’s sound is dominated – and at times, almost overwhelmed – by the rare accomplishment and sheer force of their drummer.  Mostly reined in on record, Banwatt comes alive on stage, pummelling his basic kit with blazing-eyed glee.

They’ve all been to Nottingham before; not to play music, just to grab a bite in a “grill house” that turned out to be a kebab shop.  Undeterred by the brawl which broke out as they chowed down, they seized the opportunity for a proper return visit.

It’s the last date on their UK tour, and Nils is delighted with the turnout.  Jaded no longer, he even risks a rare, semi-apologetic outing for an early cover, dating from the band’s origins at open mic nights in Toronto.  It takes a moment or two for us to recognise Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger, whose opening lines could almost pass for Neil Young.  “Maybe it was once written like this”, Nils suggests.

As for the self-penned material, there’s a recurring theme of obsessive love.  “If I ever hold you again, I’ll hold you tight enough to crush your veins”, Nils offers on Two Lovers.  More touchingly, there’s In The Summertime: “Once in a while I know our hearts beat out of time, and once in a while I know they’ll fall back in line.”  And finally, encored unmiked from the middle of the floor as the crowd clusters round, there’s the tender kiss-off that closes Departing: “Maybe we might get back together, but good night – good night.”

Noah and the Whale – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday May 17

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 18, 2011

Noah and the Whale have a particular fondness for the Rescue Rooms.  Charlie Fink, their lead singer and songwriter, made his professional live debut there, supporting the Swedish act Loney Dear.  Since then, his band have become regular visitors.  They’re probably big enough to graduate to Rock City by now, but they have stuck with the venue, cramming their fans tightly into the sold-out space.

Capacity gigs at the Rescue Rooms can be a lot of fun, but only with the right act and the right crowd.  Noah and the Whale are a fairly diffident bunch on stage, and their supporters tend towards the mild-mannered.  Consequently, last night’s show never really caught fire.  Heads nodded, necks strained, but arms and feet barely twitched. 

This subdued mood was partly a consequence of the way that the set was structured, with all the gentler, more romantic material shunted into the first forty minutes.  Introducing Rocks and Daggers, the first uptempo song of the night – but the twelfth song on their set list – Fink even apologised for not warning us in advance.  Lulled into submission, the crowd were slow to shift gear.

Originally bracketed with Mumford and Sons as ambassadors of a so-called “new folk” movement, Noah and the Whale have broadened their range with each release.  Their second album, The First Days Of Spring, was a downbeat collection of heartbreak songs, inspired by Fink’s break-up with former band member Laura Marling.  Few of its tracks have survived into this year’s tour, but the slide guitar-driven My Door Is Always Open was a mid-set highlight.  Curiously, the album’s opening title track closed the main set, its misplaced optimism (“I’m still here hoping that one day you may come back”) sounding all the more poignant.

For their third and latest release, Last Night On Earth, the band have looked towards more American influences.  It’s clear that they’ve been listening to Lou Reed, and maybe Springsteen and Tom Petty as well.  Their knack for honing timeless, easy-on-the-ear melodies is as strong as ever, even if some of those melodies do seem a little familiar: the verses of L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. bear more than a passing similarity to The Kinks’ Lola, and the driving riff that powers the chorus of new single Tonight’s The Kind Of Night could have been sampled from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.

Inevitably, the loudest cheers were reserved for the biggest hit.  If the breezy, happy-go-lucky and increasingly unrepresentative  5 Years Time is starting to feel like an albatross round their necks, the band didn’t show it.  It’s the sort of song that’s best enjoyed on a sunny afternoon at an open air festival, not in a tightly packed club on a chilly evening – but just for a few minutes, we caught a brief, cheering glimpse of the summer to come.

Katy B – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday May 10

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 10, 2011

At the moment, Katy B’s audience is overwhelmingly teenage and female; at last night’s sold-out show, there were barely any male faces to be seen in the first few rows, which was a rare sight indeed for a venue like the Rescue Rooms.  And yet, given the surprisingly traditional nature of her live line-up – the just-turned 22-year-old’s six-piece band included a live drummer, a percussionist and a two-man brass section – you sensed she could be one Jools Holland appearance away from breaking through to an older constituency.

For while Katy’s musical roots might be planted in London’s clubland underground, both her live sound and her onstage performance style suggested a readiness to embrace the wider world.  The pre-programmed electronic beats were dialled down, the bowel-quaking dubstep basslines were  dampened, and a lighter, sweeter, more fluid – and arguably more feminine – approach prevailed. 

As for the girl herself – now halfway through her first headlining tour, and clearly relishing the long-awaited opportunity to introduce herself to her fanbase – any concerns that Katy might have been  a touch “too cool for school” were instantly banished by the warm, beaming, petite figure who bounded on stage to greet the room and glad-hand the front ranks.  Blending the measured professionalism of a BRIT School graduate with the unforced glee of a natural communicator, she worked hard to charm us, and to connect with us.

Unlike so many of today’s dance-pop divas, whose experiences of being “in the club” probably don’t extend far beyond the VIP section, Katy brings the knowledge and enthusiasm of a true clubber to bear on her music.  “I love raving”, she told us, explaining that her love of dance music stems from those moments when an entire dance floor becomes unified by a single, shared feeling, and that her mission as a performer is to recreate those moments for a live audience.

A case in point is Perfect Stranger, which Katy recorded in collaboration with the dubstep act Magnetic Man.  Although the song could be read as an account of a one-night stand, it’s actually – as she explained to us in some detail – about catching a stranger’s eye in a crowded club, and realising that both of you are feeling exactly the same emotions.  It’s one of the defining pop vocal performances of the past twelve months, and its singer did it full justice on the night, galvanising the crowd into fist-pumping delirium.

Appropriately enough, the set closed with Lights On, which was dedicated to anyone who has ever wanted to carry on dancing at the end of a club night, when the house lights are back up and most punters are already queueing for their coats.  “This has been the best show on the tour so far”, we were told.  The pleasure was all ours, Katy.

Rakim – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Sunday May 8

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 9, 2011

They may call him “The God MC”, but Rakim does have at least one human frailty: a fear of flying.  For his first visit to the British Isles in fifteen years – with a string of European dates to follow – the 43-year old veteran rapper arrived by boat, all the way from New York.  And for his second UK show, he wisely chose to visit a city whose hip hop community has kept the faith more purely than most, and where “old school” values still inform the new breed.

In Rakim’s eyes, the truest engagement with hip hop is a creative engagement, and as a successive showing of hands demonstrated, many of last night’s crowd are actively involved in the local scene themselves, whether as DJs, MCs, b-boy dancers or graffiti artists.  This was the perfect audience for him: noisily loyal yet keenly attentive, and seemingly possessed of a word-perfect recall of every line he has ever uttered.

Following two and a quarter hours of impressive support sets from three local acts (Scorzayzee, Juganaut and Ms Tempa) and  one visitor (Klashnekoff from London), and heralded by a quick-fire montage of hip hop classics, Rakim entered to a true hero’s welcome.  On stage for just over an hour, he mixed vintage cuts from his early career with Eric B with newer material from his 2009 comeback album The Seventh Seal.

Widely considered as “the rapper’s favourite rapper”, whose pioneering approach to lyrical flow opened up a whole new world of possibilities, Rakim’s languid, fluid, richly rhythmic delivery was as mesmerising in 2011 as it had been when he first appeared at Rock City in 1987.  Keeping corny crowd-pleasing stunts to an acceptable minimum, he concentrated on the task in hand.  The set climaxed with Paid In Full – performed in its Coldcut remix version, surprisingly enough – and a stunning acapella version of Follow The Leader, which sent his devotees away in a daze of almost disbelieving bliss.

The Leisure Society – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 5

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on May 9, 2011

Musically literate, traditionally tuneful, unmistakeably English, with deft arrangements that encompass woodwind and strings: in some ways, you could argue that The Leisure Society represents a continuation of The Divine Comedy’s ethos. It’s a somewhat shoddy comparison, though. On the plus side, the newer band displayed none of the whimsical smugness that sometimes afflicted the older band. On the other hand, a more charismatic, interpretive front man might have heightened the impact of some of the material.

The seven players divided loosely into two camps. On the right, sporting floppy fringes and crisp white shirts, were the Burton-on-Trent contingent, including the core creative team of singer Nick Hemming and keyboardist Christian Hardy. On the left, clad in more sombre hues, we had the Brighton-based (and allegedly posher) mini-orchestra: violin, cello, and a prominently melodious flute.

A Rescue Rooms veteran, but from the other side of the stage, Nick’s nerves weren’t helped by the presence of his parents and his aunt, right at the front of the crowd. “I’m not going to explain what this song’s about”, he blushed, introducing a number called We Were Wasted. (“This one’s for you, mum!”) However, it would be hard to associate this bunch with much in the way of rock and roll excess, especially after Christian’s tale of an earlier encounter in the toilets with an alarmingly persistent substance abuser. (“He ruined my day! He’s not here now, is he?”)

Having earned an Ivor Novello nomination for their hauntingly lovely debut single (The Last Of The Melting Snow), The Leisure Society have just released a second album, Into The Murky Water. With admirable contrariness, the songs with the trickiest time signatures – the episodic The Phantom Life and the rollicking You Could Keep Me Talking – have been earmarked as the first two singles. The hour long set divided evenly between old and new material, with the band’s sole cover – a spirited romp through Paul Simon’s Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard – saved for the encore.