Friday, November 20, 2009

Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains and Rozi Plain at The Barron Theatre, St. Andrews, 19th November

It is a rare privilege to watch someone’s talent grow. Maybe it is a trick of exposition, but this seems to be the reward for keeping up with Frànçois’ music over the last few years. ‘Hold on Twice’ would have been the first song I heard, on a 7” split with Ray Rumours, and it was lovely, but there was nothing about it to indicate that its creator was capable of ‘Swimmers / Drifters’, a stunning and stunned lovelorn lament that seemed to break all the boundaries of lo-fi recording and was quite the best single of last year. Or it seemed to be until December and his Brother EP, which upped the game again with a leap from bedroom audio pottering to full band arrangements that deepened and broadened and exploded and put his music back together again. A note in the EP explained that it was an abandoned album, and this did seem a limitation, even amongst such a great clutch of songs: perhaps he couldn’t cut it over the length of an album. The only one I’d heard up until then was Les Anciennes Falaises, a CD-R which came wrapped in an oil painting (‘Hold on Twice’ came in a watercolour) and contained some lovely Pastels-worship in ‘Katrina’ (‘she likes the frogs when dancing in the rain’, apparently) and ‘Byres Road’, but which otherwise felt lacklustre. Catching up with 2005’s delicate The People to Forget scotched this notion, but it didn’t really get totally confounded until the new one, Plaine Inondable.

The Barron Theatre is a tiny (60 seats!), university-affliated theatre with a proper angled platform for seating, divided by stairs. The stage area is bordered on the left by a large black curtain, from which theatrical things can magically appear. The mixing desk is hidden amongst its swirls. On the right of the seats is the entrance and a corridor with a ticket booth and, last night, watercolours from the new animated video to ‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ on the wall. Order something directly from his site and it’ll probably arrive wrapped in one. Though self-distribution may be on the way out: Frànçois is newly signed to Fence, where he joins his partner Rozi Plain and tonight’s other performers: The Balky Mule, who played an opening set (which was nice enough but a bit outshone), and The Pictish Trail, who did nothing solo but added vocals and playful drums to one of Rozi’s songs.

Rozi Plain’s set was quietly stunning. Her album Inside Over Here, so charmingly evoked over there, puzzled me initially. Rozi’s singing voice is quite affected, nothing like her posh-with-a-hint-of-Bristol speaking voice. It is crone-like, a witch captured on wax and played back on 78. Usually I hate people singing in affected accents, but at least this one wasn’t obvious, she wasn’t trying to sound American or anything. Still, I didn’t trust it: what was it trying to do? It seemed to want to crawl into cracks and frighten the spiders … maybe not frighten, maybe tell them ghost stories before bed. The music I was fine with, all underplayed, acoustic, animated not with energy but a dreamy wellbeing. But her voice. Face to face it made a lot more sense, though. She wasn’t trying to cultivate a mystique, her between-song interjections were down to earth, chatty (‘I told a lie today, in a shop. Said I was a student. Got a 10% discount. And I’m not!’), she would smile a toothy smile and then close her eyes to sing, and somehow there was no divide between the chat and this becalmed spookiness that her songs create. Almost a year on I now get what Daniel was talking about: ‘if you took away the world, Rozi would deliver you more or less the same sort of song as she does with the world and all its distractions very much in place’. The set seemed to be mostly new, too – at least, the only song from Inside Over Here was ‘360°’, sung last ‘so you can buy it on my album at the shop’, indicating the ticket booth which doubled as a merch stall.

Back in April, Frànçois played with Ray Rumours in a similarly sweet, diminutive venue and, whilst he was brilliant, it was a brilliance which was short-circuited somewhat by Ray’s casual, breezy worldliness. Where she looks endlessly outwards, suggesting how easy and interesting things can be if you are sufficiently friendly and outward looking yourself (a seductive enough vision, but what if you actually aren’t?), his extroversion all comes from within. I said then, ‘he could as well have been on another planet’, and it was meant as a criticism, but I think now I would defend him and say, everyone is on a different planet from everyone else, and few performers can bring their own internal landscape to life as vividly as Frànçois, especially when he has The Atlas Mountains in tow. So he came on, in a cardigan and socks, played a song, walked off. ‘Encore’, I heckled, encouragingly. Remember those curtains? He emerged belly down on an office chair with castors, going full tilt right across the front of the stage area, to be stopped on the other side by an incongruous ’70s wardrobe where maybe costumes are kept. He marched up the steps between the two slim sections of seats and announced that as a boy he had learned to play harmonica with the aid of some steps, like this. Up and down them he skipped, playing harmonica as we clapped in time – a syncopated rhythm, no less (try doing that in a venue big enough to have an echo). Then he disappeared briefly, past the ticket booth and through the door, before bursting back in, running, and skidding on his knees to the point where he had left his pile of white fairy lights. He plugged them in and kissed them. You know what? I think Pop may not be dead after all.

What did he play? ‘The Way to the Forest’, announced peremptorily, leading Rozi to clarify: ‘It’s a song, not an instruction’. ‘Do You Do’, ‘Be Water’ and ‘Years of Rain’ from the new album. Drummer Amaury Ranger played standing up using one tom tom, one vertical and one horizontal conga (the latter placed on a chair), and a dome shaped thing which I think was a water drum. Not forgetting, too, the shaker attached to his left leg. All of this kept him in perpetual motion, his whole body swinging as it played the drum area, limbs and head moving in circles. Out came the wonderful rich percussive sound of the record, stretched further and riffed upon, Frànçois warbling more Bolan-like than ever over the top (I wonder if he would consider covering ‘Electric Slim & the Factory Hen’? That would be good. Though the sound I’m really talking about is ‘Debora’). Plaine Inondable switches between this sound and a sedate but tension filled incursion upon Tindersticks / Lee Hazlewood territory, though neither comparison occurred to me before Andy made them. Frànçois seems to have arrived there naturally, under his own steam, and at the moment it seems as though this is the music of his life, but I’m almost certain that he will confound this reaction a good few times yet.

More photos
‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ video

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