review archive

The Eighteenth Day of May / Howie Beck / Soft Hearted Scientists – Bush Hall 28th April 2006

In a year that saw Kitten faves Super Furry Animals, Comet Gain and Trail of Dead (yowser!) release albums, ‘The Eighteenth Day of May’ was pretty much my tippy-toppy bestest record of 2005. Hurrah. So I’ve been excitedly anticipating this, the first time I’ve seen the band headline their own ‘big’ gig - as opposed to their myriad support slots that have left me swooningly waiting for more (a special mention to the spacingly psychedelic set the band played supporting Olivia Tremor Control last year – blimey!)

First up it’s Soft Hearted Scientists making a rare appearance outside of Wales. Richard from The Eighteenth Day of May has been bending our ears about this lot for a while now (hello drunken Christmas tube rides) and, lordy, he knows a tune that man, for Soft Hearted Scientists have us in their clutches pretty much from their first song.

They begin with a woobling, phasing drone of keyboards, and man, have Soft Hearted Scientists got some monster kit - chunky, they don’t build ‘em like that anymore hardware. This is a good thing as becomes more apparent as the set progresses and a succession of beguiling olden synth garglings emerges. So as one Scientist potters happily behind a mountainous Rhodes Keyboard Instrument the other two are busy with their acoustical guitars, one of which is a shimmery 12 (count em!) string. The song they’re playing is vaguely reminiscent of Spacemen 3’s ‘Honey’, only if the Spacemen got out into the countryside for some fresh air instead of snarfing heroin in front of an electric fire. “Waterfalls and animals and glittering skies. There is nothing in the city that is half as pretty” chant Soft Hearted Scientists, all strummy and droney with the teensiest hint of something-nasty-in-the-woodshed darkness.

Soft Hearted 12 String

'Diving Bell’ is an utterly lovely upbeat meadowy shimmy set in hello trees hello sky waltz time, perfect for tapping your mudcaked boots to. ‘Many A Monster’ is the sound of lapping waves and suggests the gentler, more bucolic side of ‘Fried’ era Julian Cope (rather than his crazed acid romping). Then eek! A beat! as a tappy drum sample kicks off the divine ‘Brother Sister’ with its blissful harp sounds and mariachi-in-a-pharmacy sparkling that summons up Super Furries’ ‘Demons’.
Both wibbling and wargling are taking place here The wibbling, wargling, squidgy keyboard sounds continue for the next song which is splendidly just like the theme tune to ‘Look Around You’ (series one). For the tango-in-a-suitcase stalk of ‘Wendigo’, a ‘hymn to the flesh-eating of humans’ apparently, we’re encouraged to ‘sway along with a kind of vampirish look on your faces’. We don’t, but we enjoy the song anyway. Soft Hearted Scientists play simple songs wrapped inside mind-expanding layers of sound, coating them in intriguingly ticklish psychedelic textures. It’s like the music from children’s progs of the 60s and 70s which, in retrospect turns out to be pretty darn frazzled (check out the end theme tune on Camberwick Green – dreamy). Utterly disarming.
Canadian singer-songer Howie Beck is in fine voice, gliding out a collection of sad-eyed songs and cranking out some splendid frazzled blues harmonica and acousto rambling. His second song conjures up Prefab Sprout circa ‘Steve McQueen’ (i.e. when they were good), smooth and literary pop. For the third song Ed Harcourt turns up like a bad penny (it’s impossible to get through the year without him popping up at gigs a few times) to add some beard-free backing vocals. Then we get Howie’s ‘band-in-a-box’, a full backing band at the touch of a pedal, on a song that sounds oddly Christmassy in a Crowded House kind of way. Christmas on the beach, then. The best song is the one where Howie samples himself, to create layers of guitar and voice, singing over his own backing vocals. Especially great is when he abruptly stops a-strumming and the guitar sound carries on regardless.
So, cor! this is like a proper grown-ups’ gig (and there are plenty of them here tonight, some with their kids, some with their, er, beards). A random contingent of Danes have staked out a table at the front of plusho Bush Hall having jumped the queue by the sneaky technique of just starting their own queue running parallel to everyone else and then blending in seamlessly when the mild-mannered folk folks move forward. I hear some johnny behind me explaining that EDOM are ‘Like an up-to-date Fairport’. Cripes! Whatever they are, the band look fab lined up onstage, a cool gang of psychefolk troubadours. Mark looking all Gene Clark, Ben the evil guitar genius, Richard in low-slung lanky 60s chic, Allison looking coquettish in an excellent dress, Alison (there are two Al(l)isons, confusingly) like a serene beat queen, Karl with his er, beard.
And so to the songs, aah those lovely songs. EDOM kick off with a pristine version of ‘Lady Margaret’. Then there’s the first of two Richard songs, the rollicking road-trippin’ ‘Casey Jones’. I like the Richard songs, they’re my faves on the album. Later we get next single ‘Hide and Seek’ (released on 8th May – doh!) which bristles, hums and drones magically. There’s a woozy cover of ‘The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’ which reminds me of ‘Darkside’ by The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters, though obviously ‘The Quiet Joys’ came first, written as it was by Richard Farina in the ‘60s (‘Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me’ bloke). Psychefolk troubadours or somesuch
First single ‘The Highest Tree’ is joyfully flutelly dootelly, whilst ‘The Waterman’s Song to His Daughter’ shows the beauty of restraint. Allison’s crystal voice balances against the softly spiralling sound, the slow hum of viola and melancholy military brush of the drums. And, ooh, ‘Monday Morning’s No Good Coming Down’, Ben’s (Kristofferson referencing?) heartbreakingly bittersweet serving of country Byrdsy tristfulness, for which Richard adds a suitably redemptive harmonica solo.
Cool dress

A lazily spangling version of last single ‘Cold Early Morning’ (comes with Brian Jonestown Massacre cover b-side!) has some fine widdly guitar chords at the end – cheers Ben! Then Alison’s velvety viola playing leads ‘Flowers of the Forest’ (known as ‘Fruits of the Forest’ in, er, my head) through a gorgeously opiated coda.

The band closes with ‘Eighteen Days’ which woozles into a gentle psychedelia. But then ooh an encore! A hayfeverish cover of ‘Codeine’ complete with space dulcimer and hurrah! viola bits, which I felt were sadly lacking the last time I saw the band play this song. Meanwhile, in the corner, a bald man dances and sways, happily caught in the moment. I decide he is the May’s Jed (a la Howard Jones) and wait eagerly for him to throw off his mental chains, but he doesn’t. Maybe he never had any in the first place.

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