Friday, 4 October 2013
Laetitia Sadier at The Basement in York
Laetitia Sadier (and here I’m obliged to add the lead singer of the ex-Stereolab) played a solo set in The Basement below the City Screen in York on 18th September. It was a rather compact space, a windowless cavern which felt like it was sunk beneath the waters of the Ouse which flowed by outside. Candlelit tables created an intimate café ambience, and this intimacy was reflected in the fact that half the audience which filled the venue seemed to know the two support acts personally.
The first of these was Stuck Sunsets, the alias of singer-songwriter Patrick Atkinson. He lightly thumbed chords from his lovely white hollow-bodied guitar, providing barebones accompaniment to his charming and self-deprecating songs. They focussed on seemingly inconsequential details and feelings, and by doing so made the everyday of significant moment. The lyrics gave those of us who didn’t know him the sense that we were seeing snapshots of his inner life. Mildly confessional songwriting with enough self-awareness and humour to avoid moody navel-gazing, it was delivered with a winningly tentative looseness and mellow swing.
Alisia Casper had a stunning voice, pure and forceful. It was a striking blend of Judy Collins, Linda Perhacs and Josephine Foster, filled with a mesmerising strength which immediately commanded your attention. Her songs were largely anchored by single chords and hypnotically repetitive phrases on the guitar, over which her voice intoned incantations, lamentations and maledictions. They were filled with evocative nature imagery, and tended to dwell upon tormented emotions in the classic folk style. Unfortunately, the performance was all but ruined by her constant interruptions, breaking the flow of every song with throwaway comments about having got the chords wrong or forgotten the words, or suddenly deciding that she wanted to sing something different after all. This was particularly damaging given the dark romanticism of the music, which relied on casting a spell and drawing the listener into its world. This spell, once broken, was not easily spun again, and after a while was completely dissipated. The impression was given that she didn’t take her own material seriously, and if that was the case, then why should we be expected to? Of course, there may be extenuating circumstances which explain all of this erratic behaviour (she did tell us that she was ill). If she can get her act together, she could be something really special, though.
Laetitia also seemed to respond to the intimacy of the venue. She was relaxed and informal throughout, chatting to the audience between songs, each of which she introduced with a mixture of humour and seriousness. Her material was drawn mainly from her recent solo LP Silencio, her second under her own name. There was nothing from the first, The Trip, which was a very personal record, expressing feelings and states of mind particular to that time. Perhaps she didn’t want to revisit that transitional period, and the painful memories which the album dealt with, which belonged to another self. There were no Stereolab songs either. More surprisingly there were none of the French language numbers which make up a proportion of all her albums, which was a shame. She did incorporate several songs from her group Monade, however. This was her project outside of the ‘lab. The earliest of these, Becoming, from the A Few Steps More album, she held to be of enduring personal meaning. It’s one of a number of her songs which deal with personal growth and development, of the continual evolution of the human spirit.
There’s definitely a spiritual facet to Laetitia’s oeuvre, although it remains unconnected to any specific religion. The sense of connection with the cosmos which is a feature of so many of her songs, of the individual finding a sense of belonging within the infinite, is arrived at through the achievements of the human mind rather through any divine intervention. Hers is a humanist perspective on matters of the spirit. That said, the final track of Silencio, Invitation au Silence, finds a sense of the numinous in the coloured, murmuring silence of churches, incorporating a recording made in the St Blaise church in the south-west of France. The irresistible Find Me the Pulse of the Universe from the new album, which we heard on this night, conveys the sense of an unending, questing spirit, and was introduced as a piece of ‘cosmic’ music. Its optimistic launch out into the farther reaches of space was further propelled by the kind of Morricone-esque ‘shum shum’ chorus which has been a feature of her singing since the earliest Stereolab days duetting with Mary Hansen. It’s a music of the spheres rooted in the 60s, that white heat age when the future still invited dreams of endless possibility. Laetitia’s songs often seem to be trying to revive that spirit, to suggest that we can still make a brighter tomorrow.
Between Heaven and Earth verges on Pagan mysticism in its analogy of spiritual being with the growth of a tree, rooted in the earth and reaching half way to heaven. Laetitia’s idiosyncratic phrasing, which takes advantage of her French accent and veers towards a jazzy play with rhythm and emphasis at times, is particularly effective here. Nature metaphors also feature in the Monade song Invitation, from Monstre Cosmic. She introduced this with almost apologetic exaggeration, telling us it was about 15 minutes long and had something like 11 sections. The shifts of tempo, key and mood which it did encompass within its rolling flow reflected the analogy of a life and soul shared to the various stages of a river, which runs its course throughout. She played another song from the Monster Cosmic album, Change of Destination, which had a similar feel. This time, a solitary figure runs and hides before eventually swimming into the deep blue sea into which everything eventually flows. The call and response form of the lyrics, Laetitia answering her own questions, points to their self-reflective nature. Next Time You See Me is another song of spiritual growth, a hymn to the imagination and a warning of its potential stifling. It is also about the power of art to see and depict an infinity of possible worlds. The melody here is instantly and buoyantly infectious, and was co-written with her old Stereolab partner Tim Gane. More wordless vocalising expresses a feeling of effervescent optimism and gladness. The imagery of countless bubbles containing worlds of meaning brings to mind the wonderfully titled Stereolab song Jaunty Monty and the Bubbles of Silence, and perhaps also Tim’s new project Cavern of Anti-Matter.
Lightning Thunderbolt was introduced as a song about desire, as opposed to the ‘cosmic music’ which had been used to categorise other numbers. In fact, it is as much about the meeting of spirits as bodies. It ended with an effects pedal woosh of transfigured sound, and Laetitia looked up with a smile to follow the path of some imaginary spark of essence shooting up into the night sky. Her guitar playing consists of unshowy, solidly strummed rhythmic accompaniment. Referring back to the song Becoming, with its lyrics about the steady and continual process of developing as a person, she admitted that this could refer to her mastery of the guitar too. It was perfectly adequate to the task, however, and was strong enough not to suffer from the lack of an augmenting rhythm section. The output was tweaked here and there with effects pedals which gave a variety of textures to the sound palette.
There has always been a forthright political side to Laetitia’s writing too, stretching back to her contributions to McCarthy in the late 80s. She espouses an idealistic socialism which finds its voice in hymns to collective endeavour and the human spirit, but also in lyrics which analytically dissect the inequities of the late capitalist world. Such concerns are obviously of great urgency in the current climate. Her response to the economic crises, Auscultation to the Nation, comes across as a pointed manifesto, a simple spelling out of evident truths. Auscultation, we were told, is a medical term referring to the process of listening to the body’s organs in order to determine the general state of its health. So, by extension, this was a state of the nation (or a state of the global society) song. The words are clearly and crisply articulated, and are devoid of the poetic ambiguities and elisions which are more characteristic of her writing. It’s evident that she wants to get the message across as directly and unmistakably as possible. It’s to the song’s credit that at no time does it feel hectoring or tainted with bitterness. Blessed with a springy rhythmic drive and light melodicism, it is a light and palatable political address, which nonetheless makes its mark in denouncing the ‘tyranny of money’. It tells it like it is and asks why we should put up with it.
The final song of her set was dedicated to the late Trish Keenan from the group Broadcast, whom she described as her friend. Silent Spot is about someone passing away in their own time, and was thus obviously not written directly with Trish in mind, but the thought was still pertinent. It’s one of a series of songs produced over the years which contemplate mortality, and it arrives at a sense of acceptance, holding out the possibility of some kind of transformation or transfiguration. That sense of the spiritual essence of human being shines through once more. An encore rounded things off on a more upbeat note, and then it was all over. Laetitia retreated to the wings, re-emerging in the bar to sign any records which people might proffer or purchase, or just to say hello. It had been a relaxed and informal evening, and you sensed that she was quite at home in such a low-key setting. She certainly proved that she was a fine solo artist in her own right. The two new songs which she tried out on us (successfully) hopefully point to much more to come in the future.
Posted by Jez Winship at 00:44