Friday, May 10, 2013

John Grant / Ásgeir Trausti @ The Institute, Birmingham Thursday 9th May 2013

For lovers of beautiful vocals and glorious lyrics tonight’s pairing of the fairly recently rediscovered genius John Grant and relative newcomer (although at just 20 he’s already one of the hottest names in his native Iceland) Ásgeir Trausti was a soul lifting treat from start to finish.

I’ve written before about Iceland punching well above its weight, musically speaking at least, with Of Monsters and Men notably making huge waves across the world last year. Now Ásgeir Trausti’s trying his luck. Don’t go expecting any ‘hug yer mates la la la singalongs’ here though, Mr Trausti’s an altogether more introspective soul, but no less moving. Trausti’s vocals soar into the air, icily fragile yet strangely comforting all at the same time. The music moves gently from a traditional folky feel through to the kind of sound that’s made stars of James Blake and Alt J whilst the vocal has glorious wisps of Buckley (Jeff), Hegarty (Antony) and Guðmundsdóttir (Bjork to her mates). On That Time invoked the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel at their haunting best whilst Burden Wears Me Down’s bold and inventive use of space age synths nudged the set in a surprisingly different direction.

During the set Trausti revealed that John Grant’s (who now lives in Iceland himself) helped him translate his latest album into English but the Icelandic versions are somehow more magical, even...or maybe can’t understand a word of them and are left to focus purely on that voice of his. This was certainly the case on set closer Leyndarmál (I think this was the name of the track...apologies, my Icelandic’s not as hot as it should be), which blended Ásgeir’s folk roots and magical sounding mother tongue to the kind of gentle beats you  might find on a lo-key Hot Chip track. Beautiful stuff.

It’s fair to say that John Grant’s been through the mill a bit. Okay, a lot. Okay...a hell of a lot. Some of it’s self inflicted, the addiction to drink and drugs as well as a habit of falling in love with the wrong dudes (Grant’s openly gay). His first band, The Czars were critically acclaimed but seemingly imploded after failing to make a living. There followed a five year silence before Grant returned with the career reviving Queen of Denmark album which was widely hailed as an instant classic. Building on this 2013’s seen the release of Pale Green Ghosts, something of a radical change of direction no doubt encouraged by the involved of Birgir Þórarinsson from electro poppers Gus Gus. 

History lesson over on to tonight’s gig and the crowd was unusually reverential, giving Grant and co a warm welcome before...yes...shutting the fuck up. It’s sad that this is noteworthy but so many gigs these days are ruined by inane chatter, people texting, people filming the darn thing on their shitty mobile phones, people doing their freakin’ tax returns...but anyway...tonight, for a change, people actually LISTENED. After a few notes of opening number You Don’t Have To you could see and hear why. The man can sing. Sure, lots of people can sing. Grant can SING though. 

The voice has a similar gravity to the legendary Scott Walker coupled with...bear with me here a moment...the heartbreaking tone of the late, great Karen Carpenter. Just me on this one? Oh...okay. Anyway, like many of the tracks on the new album You Don’t Have To blends Grant’s vocals and lyrics to a synth heavy soundtrack that veers from the chilled out (as on this song) to the downright dirty fleshpot disco meets HI NRG of Sensitive New Age Guy (pure Soft Cell). 

You can tell just by looking around (and from overhearing some of the comments at the end of the show) that this shift in direction from his stuff with The Czars and on his debut solo album has perhaps unsettled a few older fans but, as a relative newcomer to all things Grant, I frickin’ loved it. Long term Grant-ites were well served tonight too though with Marz and Queen of Denmark both making it into the main set and all five (yes FIVE...count ‘em) encore tracks coming from his debut album.

Throughout the set Grant was pretty chatty, bantering with the good natured shout outs from the audience (“A blowjob for the person who guesses the name of the next song”), spinning the odd celebrity tale (his Ernest Borgnine section was hilarious) and paying tribute to recently departed friends. It’s the lyrics that really do the talking though and you could probably write a decent dissertation or two on them. I’ll skip that for now, suffice to say that he’s bastardise one of his own tracks...the greatest motherfucking lyricist that you’re ever gonna meet. It’s raw emotional stuff (full of self love, self loathing and all points in between) and, to return to the Scott Walker links, there are distinct echoes of Jacques Brel in there for good measure. 

Lovers of Mr Brel will know that’s high praise indeed. Fusing all this to dance beats is, quite frankly, genius and as the single (and one of tonight’s predictable highlights) Pale Green Ghosts demonstrates the results are stunningly original. Strong competitor for gig of the year.

Setlist: You Don’t Have To / Vietnam / Marz / It Doesn’t Matter / Pale Green Ghosts / Black Belt / SNAG / Ernest Borgnine / Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore / GMF / I Hate This Town / Glacier / Queen of Denmark

Encore: Sigourney Weaver / Where Dreams Go To Die / TC & Honeybear / Caramel / Chicken Bones

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