Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Postal Service @ Brixton Academy, London

20 May 2013

The Postal Service The pre-gig queue of unfortunates busted by the Met’s finest outside the Brixton Academy augured oddly well for Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello. The Postal Service’s core members hooked a legion of fresh-faced fans in 2003, and despite many of those youngsters having clearly discovered more adult pursuits in the intervening decade, they’ve yet to outgrow the duo’s indie-electronica collaboration. The project’s sole, cult LP – the masterful Give Up – has an enduring, doe-eyed quality. It’s seemingly immune to the inevitable shrugging off of naivety despite being couched in it.

That this is only the band’s third UK show in 10 years, and final one for the foreseeable, accounts for a rising fervour inside. The band, swelled to a four piece with the addition of the ineffably cool Jenny Lewis and Laura Burhenn (of The Mynabirds), begin – fittingly for a show marking time – at the very start. Give Up’s opener The District Sleeps Alone Tonight skitters and squelches delightfully on beats and samples courtesy of Tamborello, who bops on a riser behind a brace of laptops. Floating on three part harmonies, it’s 2003 all over again. The band revel in the old times, Gibbard pitching and pirouetting about the stage. It feels like a long overdue – and well deserved – victory lap.

The set sees their canon aired almost in its entirety, the only addition a Beat Happening cover, and the largely faithful reproductions are lapped up by an eager crowd. Sleeping In is given a slight country lilt with Lewis’ acoustic strumming, but is still paired with an insistent four-to-the-floor beat. The de rigueur vocoder is the only glaring nod to the passage of time, appearing on Turn Around and Recycled Air, the latter also driven by a lovely combination of xylophone and slippery guitar over samples.

Gibbard is particularly energised, a perpetual motion machine despite his charmingly gawky dancing being all elbows and knees. His chemistry with Lewis – a disarmingly charming performer – is also an easy one and makes for captivating staging. The twee glitch of Nothing Better is even electro-pop approaching its knowing and sharp best, despite heralding the slightly bizarre sight of two of indie rock’s stalwarts duetting against the backdrop of a lurid neon pyramid. In the fug of some lingering Eurovision hangovers it may have also still been last Saturday night.

It’s certain that few changes were demanded by their public, and were arguably not needed as Give Up is still clearly feels pretty fresh. Its delicate and well-judged electronica, writ large in largely effective fashion, sees band managing to walk the tightrope between nostalgia and progression in pairing processed beats with an expanded live band.

But then something happens. Clark Gable opens with arresting ebow guitar work, like a siren over the city, and sees Gibbard head to the drum kit to counterpoint Tamborello’s beats. As he does, absolutely all the sound dies. It’s only for a second or two, and may be an innocent technical glitch, but an unfortunate seed of doubt is sown; it becomes shudderingly apparent that there can be a problem with such a setup if it’s actually driven by something you can’t see. In an almost a Wizard of Oz denouement, it becomes clear that it’s fine for computers to supplement or drive a sound if that’s what’s advertised, but if they’re secretly doing the bulk of the work they can’t fill a room the size of the Academy.

The set then stutters a little. Gibbard tentatively sees out Clark Gable, in contrast to the recording’s dynamic drum outro, and the inevitable – that nostalgia is not what it used to be – threatens to crowd in. Fortunately the trump card of Such Great Heights rescues proceedings, restoring the pace  (even if it’s not really clear what Lewis is doing throughout) to a wholly enjoyable set, albeit one that’s a smidge unfulfilling. Yet given the demands to re-inhabit old glories and a cope with a decade of crushing expectation – a heady, dangerous cocktail for any act – the band should be forgiven the odd suspicion that there was a leaning on technology, and lauded for staging the past with aplomb. In that sense, The Postal Service deliver.

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More on The Postal Service
The Postal Service @ Brixton Academy, London
The Postal Service – Give Up (10th Anniversary Edition)