A few songs in, Samantha Urbani of Friends points at a young man standing right near the stage in a very packed XOYO and exclaims, “Oh, it’s you!”. It turns out the young man she’s picked out of the crowd is a fan who responded to their request for “random Skype calls” to alleviate the boredom a previous tour. “We’re called Friends and we like making friends,” Samantha sums up.
Friends’ ferociously charismatic lead singer is the embodiment of all that is wonderful and good about the bleeding edge of pop. She’s Blondie without the masochism; she’s ESG on speed. Today, small-to-middling venues in Shoreditch; tomorrow, stadium gigs; the day after that, Xanax overdose (too soon?). Though of course part of the charm of Friends is that their pop perfection has a sheen of Brooklyn grit; when that washes off, a couple of albums down the road, they might not be so lovable. But let’s not think about the future, let’s be in love right now! And Samantha makes it easy. Over the course of the set, she will leap into the crowd at least twice to dance with strangers (“There’s a fence? That’s not going to stop me!”), invite someone up on stage, throw blueberries into people’s mouths (“If you catch one in your mouth I’ll give you guestlist next time we play London!”), and introduce a song with the words, “This is about death”. Like all seductions, there’s a hint of painting by numbers, but like all great seductresses, Urbani really means it, to exactly the same degree that she couldn’t care less. And it’s an easy if cheap pleasure to give in, to want her to be your BFF. If not more. As the title of one of their better known songs has it: Friend Crush.
So, Friends take their name seriously, and their music too. That’s not serious as in serious – Friends are pure distilled fun, but despite the breezy air, this was a tight, competent performance. The songs didn’t suffer at all in the transition from recording to performing – actually, many of them may not have been recorded at all; out of an hour-long set, only a four or five songs had already been released. That every song was still instantly likable was due not only to Samantha’s star power but the band’s proficiency. They sound like they’ve been playing together for years, though the album they’re currently recording will be their first. The bassist and drummer – both very good – maintain a stoic, good-humoured presence in the background, mostly overshadowed by their singer. Co-vocalist and many-instrument-playing Lesley Hann gets more of a look-in, her additional vocals rewarded with flirtatious wrestling from Samantha. The latter contributes her fair share of technical wizardry: her voice is surprisingly strong, a full, confident, pop voice, tackling a cover of Ghost Town DJs’ My Boo (released as a B-side to the Friends single I’m His Girl) with ease.
This is a vein of Brooklyn gold we’re accustomed to: think of Yeasayer or MGMT, who also use pop to maximum effect. Brooklyn is hipster Motown – Brotown? – and the pop it produces is at once street-smart and college-educated, vapid and meaningful, crafted and throwaway, bitter and sweet. Add a hot lead singer and a performance like this, and it’s no big surprise that purists are already preparing their sneers. But pop’s evanescent pleasures can last: it’s no coincidence that the band came onstage to the sound of Neneh Cherry‘s early masterpiece, Buffalo Stance; a cassette of her Raw Like Sushi album also makes an appearance in the video for I’m His Girl. OK, a decade later Cherry was releasing saccharine Womad-lite ballads but, lest we forget, she began her career with punk rockers The Slits. Pop is broad and deep.
Friends are all about charm, and not a subtle, timid charm but a full-on assault. At the close of a sweaty night at XOYO, some people may have found themselves able to resist, but they were fools to bother. Samantha announced there would be no encore: a fitting end to an hour of unpretentiously pure pleasure. With Friends, as in life, what you get is what you get.