Friday, 30 November 2012

The Revival Hour and Serafina Steer in Exeter

The prospect of an evening with a double-bill of Serafina Steer and The Revival Hour, brought together under the Twisted Folk banner, was a very exciting one for me. Unfortunately, few others seemed to share my enthusiasm, and the turnout was frankly pitiful. Come on people of Exeter (and beyond)! This kind of music doesn’t come within our city walls very often, and with this kind of response it will probably turn up even less frequently. A bit more energetic publicity on the part of the Phoenix Arts Centre might not have gone amiss. With connections to Sufjan Stevens (on whose Asthmatic Kitty label the Revival Hour singer-songwriter David M Stith records) and Jarvis Cocker (who has expressed his admiration for Serafina Steer and produced and guests on her forthcoming LP) it shouldn’t have been difficult to sell. That said, however, the performers made the best of things, determinedly dispelling what could have been a dispiriting atmosphere. When David Stith announced that this was his first visit to Exeter, he resisted the temptation to add ‘and the last’, and remained courteous and welcoming throughout, making a virtue of the intimate gathering. Serafina Steer pointed out that the venue had wanted to cancel the gig, but that they had all decided to go ahead and travel down to this far corner of the country, and that she was glad that they had. We were too.

She battled against the further distraction of having her harp pick-up attract the signals emanating from the rooftop radio mast, the speakers broadcasting the low-level burble of music and chat originating in the Phonic FM studios in the basement. Her songs were more than captivating enough to erase this extraneous sound from peripheral perception, though. Merely on account of her playing the harp, an instrument unusual enough to attract immediate interest, she has frequently been compared to Joanna Newsom (and yes, here we go again). Irritating though this must undoubtedly be, such associational connections with the American queen of new folk at least provides some great publicity. In fact, harp aside, there are few points of comparison. Serafina is folk only in the most twisted sense. She treats her harp like an electroacoustic instrument, and had a musical partner on the night, sitting at a table on which he had laid out his boxes of electrickery. The harp chords and arpeggios were transformed into soft showers of deliquescent delay and fading echo, impressionistic effects which Debussy would have died for. He also provided subtle accompaniments on bass and hand drum, and created electronic effects which shadowed the harmonies, or produced miniature abrasive, metallic noises like actinic sparks bouncing off the plucked harp notes. One of Steer’s few cover versions, which opens her first LP Cheap Demo Bad Science, is of Brian Eno’s By This River, from his 1977 LP Before and After Science. This and allusions to a ‘Cluster, Felt and David Bowie’ mood she was trying for whilst recording her new Moth Club Boiler Woes EP, gives a better idea of the music which has inspired her. Eno’s surreal, evocatively associational lyrics also find an echo in Steer’s writing. You get a sense with her songs that the words come first, the melodies and arrangements winding their irregular path around and between the syllables and sentences. Whilst traditional narrative is absent, there is storytelling aspect to many of the songs – tales assembled from imagistic fragments. Indeed, the song Drinking While Driving on her second LP Change Is Good Change Is Good is credited to Raymond Carver (‘but not the word “cool”’), the master of the modern American short story. The songs are sometimes delivered in a half-singing, half-narrating style which recalls the Sprechstimme of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (but thankfully without the bel canto affectations), adding to the storytelling air.

Speaking of Pierrot Lunacy Serafina introduced Tiger, a song from her Cheap Demo LP, as being a full moon song, celebrating the full lunar orb shining in the clear, cold night outside. It has an Angela Carter-ish, dark fairytale feel, like a setting of a story from The Bloody Chamber. The title of the forthcoming LP, The Moths Are Real, suggests that such conflations of emotion and feeling with gothic emanations and transformations will continue to be present, as what sounded like the title song (moths were mentioned, at least) testified. She played her new single, Night Before Mutiny, whose opening chord arpeggios recalled Breton harper Alan Stivell’s evocation of watery myth in Ys, from his Renaissance of the Celtic Harp LP. With its minor melodies, dreamily allusive lyrics and nautical theme, there’s something rather Sandy Denny-ish about the song, too, particularly the line ‘they left me here with a ship to sink, Queen of a wide open sea’. All of which bodes well for the new album, The Moths Are Real, due out in the new year, with a launch party to be held on 24th January at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, where it was partly recorded. Serafina finished off her set with what probably most closely approximates to a hit in her oeuvre – How to Haunt a House Party, an account of party dis-ease which I can quite empathise with. The lines ‘I tell the hosts they have failed and how. I tell the hosts they have failed us now’ took on an added meaning on this night, although Serafina seemed far too polite to be so directly critical. It was one of the more conventionally melodic of her songs, with regular verses and choruses and left us with its refrain happily circling our brains during the interval.

The Revival Hour took to the stage with little fanfare. Indeed, there wasn’t actually a stage to take to, merely a circle of instruments and some wiring which hinted that this was an area into which the audience shouldn’t wander. The Revival Hour is essentially a collaboration between the singer and songwriter (and artist) David M Stith, who released his debut solo LP, Heavy Ghost, on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label in 2010, and soundscaper John-Mark Lapham, who worked his mixing magic, as well as co-writing the lyrics, on the two albums by The Earlies: These Were The Earlies and The Enemy Chorus (a particular favourite of mine). Lapham may indeed have been here before, since The Earlies (alas, now seemingly the late Earlies) played a fantastic gig at the Phoenix a few years ago. The Revival Hour displays elements of both men’s musical characters, with Stith’s emotive vocals, with their effortless range, augmented by Lapham’s dramatic and densely inventive arrangements (which on record include skronking free jazz saxophone, fluttering strings, electronic atmospherics and multitracked choral testifying). In performance, they are joined by a drummer, bassist and keyboard player to create a full and muscular band sound, Stith playing his red, hollow-bodied guitar and Lapham studiously attending to his laptop, samplers and other mysterious devices behind his alchemist’s desk at the back.

The name suggests a spiritual basis to the music, emphasising the gospel roots of soul music. There was certainly plenty of soul on display during the evening. Hold Back has the feeling of classic 60s soul, with female responsory backing vocals provided by Serafina Steer on the night, called forth from the audience. Its lyrics touch on loneliness and the sense of being apart (using the imagery of climbers and divers to express the sense of living in a different world from others), in Otis soulsick Mr Pitiful style. Altercall has shooboping backing vocals, again drawing on an evident love of soul and girl-group pop from the 60s. Pyre has ooohing vocalisations, driving bass and following drums, swirling organ and chopping guitar, which gives it a bit of a glam feel. There’s also something of Grizzly Bear in the sound, and in Stith’s vocal style, the music being somehow sparse and detailed, spacious and full at the same time. A little of Deerhunter’s blend of blessed out rock and dreamy, half-awake vocals can be heard on occasion, too.

These songs were taken from their Clusterchord EP and their up and coming debut LP, Scorpio Little Devil, due out in January. The title perhaps alludes to Kenneth Anger’s 1963 underground film Scorpio Rising, which blends sacred, demonic and homoerotic imagery (the sacred aspects incorporating modern icons such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, the demonic represented by Hitler and biker nazi paraphernalia) in thirteen short scenes focussing on a biker gang which amount to a latterday ritualistic cycle. It also used contemporary rock and roll songs as a soundtrack, including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Shangri-Las – the kind of music which Stith and Lapham have drawn on for elements of the Revival Hour sound. As you can read in articles in The Guardian and The Quietus (the latter particularly revealing), Stith and Lapham both come from highly conservative American backgrounds; Stith growing up in a strictly doctrinal religious family and community, and Lapham in Abilene, a small city in the heart of Texas which distils the essence of unswerving conservative America (Wikipedia drily notes its ‘numerous evangelical churches’). As young men discovering their gay sexuality, they both to some extent defined themselves against these environments, which would certainly not have made the process of self-definition easy. The resultant sense of difference and apartness from their surroundings was a spur to self-exploration (and presumably to getting out into the wider world), and for individuals with a natural artistic talent, made for a fruitfully creative tension. The music rises from a struggle to define the self and its natural place in the world, and even its relation to God and the divine (making this, along with the music of Sufjan Stevens and his cohorts, a valuable modern sacred music which counters the narrowly negative and unbendingly static conservatism into which so much religion barricaded itself). It strikes a fine balance between the spiritual, expressed through the swoonsomely angelic aspects of Stith’s voice, and the material, or bodily – the lower range of his vocals and the more earthy swagger of some of the music (Pyre in particular). Hopefully, the conclusion will be the Blakeian one that there is no need for conflict between the two states, no essential contrary division. The ecstatic heights of the vocals and the music are spiritual and physical at the same time.

It’s not a transcendant state of awareness which is easily attained, though, and it’s the struggle to realise it, and to come to a sense of personal ease with oneself, which produces such searing, yearning and emotionally affecting music. The titles of the songs say it all: Pyre, Control, Fire Season, Hold Back, Altercall and Beehive. All point to turbulent inner states and the tension between controlling or containing them, or letting them have their expression. The music pushes to the boundaries of full-blown Patty Waters ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ breakdown, but never goes over the edge, always maintaining control and structure. Whilst highly emotive, and with a certain epic quality, it never spills over into bombast or fist-clenching melodrama, remaining sincerely expressive and certainly never descending into overheated, melismatic melodrama. Beehive has a desolate, desparate feel, with lyrics pointing to a transparency, a visibility of feelings despite attempts to veil them (‘I see right through you’ with ‘eyes all the way open’), with a Yeatsian warning that such repression can only be damaging to the soul: ‘you are lost in your centre, you won’t hold together’. Control also addresses this conflict, Stith singing about the ‘struggle from my own control’, concluding ‘I want out’, and imaging a blessed retreat from the world, ‘covered in sand’, head buried and avoiding the issue. Fire Season, on the Clusterchord EP, features some extraordinary strangulated vocals which expressionistically embody mental anguish, like a gurning Japanese Kabuki actor expressing the agony of a pivotal moment in the play. The splashing, polyrhythmic drumming and haunted electronic weather make this a particularly Earlies-sounding song, too.

The artists’ sexuality is (or should, in an ideal world, be) irrelevant, although it’s always good to have different and interesting figures for young gay men to identify with and find inspiration from. As Marc Almond notes in his autobiography, taking offence at being pigeonholed as a ‘gay artist’ rather than as a multifaceted individual, no-one ever says ‘and here’s straight Mick Hucknall’, or ‘let’s have a warm welcome for heterosexual Rod Stewart’. Whilst rooted in personal experience and feeling, this is a universal music expressing universal concerns and emotions. The concert ended with a soaring song, with Stith’s vocals swooping up to a ever greater heights, the music building to a swelling climax behind him, with final scrabbling crescendo of fast top-of-the-neck, effects pedal down strumming. It was a stirring finale. Stith came back on his own for an intimate encore, one man and his guitar directly facing the audience without a dividing stage. With softly strummed and picked accompaniment, he sang a slowed-down version of Thanksgiving Moon (another moon song) from his marvellous Heavy Ghost solo LP (released on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label, as I may have already mentioned). It was an entrancing beautifully sung lullabye to send us no our way – a parting gift and blessing. May they all return when they’re better known (as surely they will be), and play to the packed audience they deserve.

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