Live Music + Gig Reviews

Black Box Recorder @ Luminaire, London

18 February 2009

The British music industry’s annual jambouree the BRIT Awards was taking place tonight. It’s doubtful that anyone crammed into the sold-out Luminaire much cared.

Black Box Recorder, a band who document British life rather than British music sales, were here to play their first headline gig in five years. Luke Haines, John Moore and Sarah Nixey duly sauntered on to the stage in their best finery in front of a Union Jack bearing the legend: “ROCK AND ROLL, NOT THE DOLE”.

Reverential silence met the first two songs, Girl Singing In The Wreckage and The English Motorway System. The Luminaire’s infamous THOU SHALT NOT NATTER policy was maybe the reason for the quietude, but it’s just possible that five years away have only added to Black Box Recorder’s indie legend.

It’s worth revisiting that legend. Child Psychology, from debut album England Made Me, was banned from radio for its inimitable chorus line: “Life is unfair / Kill yourself or get over it.” They improbably appeared on Top Of The Pops with top 20 hit The Facts Of Life – a song with lyrical themes of a decidedly post-watershed nature. They made three albums – and a rarities collection – and went on hiatus.

And the constituent parts have their own back stories too. Guitarist Luke Haines is of course an indie doyen in his own right and as founding lynchpin of Mercury-nominated The Auteurs. Cut-glass chanteuse Sarah Nixey released her own solo album. And sometime The Jesus & Mary Chainer John Moore, Nixey’s husband for five years? Well, he’d have you believe he spent a spell importing absinthe.

The reasons for this 2009 reunion are hazy. There’s talk of a new album, but it’s yet to appear. It’s likely it’ll sound distinctly different from their past glories. For a start, Moore’s left his saw at home and things seem skewed toward guitars more than before. A MacBook lurks by the drums, occasionally providing backing tracks where once there was a synth player, but more often than not Haines and Moore fill in the sonic gaps with guitar. A drummer and a bassist make up the numbers while Nixey anchors in centre stage.

They’re not, to be blunt, as polished as they once were. Straight Life features an a cappella bit that sounds so under-rehearsed that Haines mutters “unbelievable” before promptly grinning. They seem to be rediscovering that they enjoyed playing together once.

There’s a new song whose title, we’re told, is a question. “If this isn’t Number 1 by Christmas, you’ll know the answer,” muses Moore, elliptically. “It’s called, Do You Believe In God,” deadpans Nixey to much sniggering. They’ve tried, with Eddie Argos, to wrest the top of the Christmas singles chart away from Simon Cowell’s puppets before and gloriously, Englishly, failed even to break the Top 40. Everyone in the room knows this and loves them for it.

Two more new ones follow – It’s A Wonderful Life and Vitality, the latter rockier, suggest they’ve lost neither lyrical nor melodic nous in their time away. More oldies follow: Child Psychology, The Facts Of Life and I C 1 Female, but their gloriously sample-rich cover of Uptown Top Ranking is sadly missing, though unsurprisingly so given the current instrumental set-up.

Another new track breaks cover; it’s called Keep It In The Family. Lyrically it’s clearly influenced by Nixey’s new maternal status. “I may not be the world’s best mother, but I do what I can,” she sings, resignedly. When she gets to England Made Me, bereft of its keyboard harmonies, her voice opens up beyond her default breathy chanteuse setting to something altogether more powerful.

It’s all going well until a bizarre sample loop kicks in, leaving the audience nonplussed about when to clap. By the time the damned thing shuts up only a smattering of appreciation is heard. They’ve been around long enough to know how to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, so what was this about?

Happily they return for a fairly lengthy encore anyway, made up of Ideal Home (again the poorer for the lack of keyboards), Swinging, The Art Of Driving – “from before our Fleetwood Mac phase,” says Sarah – and a rare excerpt from third album Passionoia, The New Diana. It all ends with Lord Lucan Is Missing, casting us back five years to the end of their last London gig, which it also closed. But, rather like Lord Lucan himself, this evening posed as many questions as it provided answers to.

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