Svengali is a term that gets casually bandied around a lot these days. It takes its name from a notoriously antisemitic novel of treachery and villainy from the Victorian era. Nowadays it carries only slightly less questionable gravitas, implying the nefarious actions of a manager who willingly exploits and abuses creative talents for their own financial gain. In recent times its been applied to such folk as Elvis Presley’s manager Tom Parker, Kim Fowley who manufactured The Runaways and TV’s current pantomime villain du jour Simon Cowell.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Tony Wilson was always more patron saint and mentor than dictator to the Factory roster and Irish DJ and musician David Holmes is certainly no Machiavellian bully. Through his own extensive catalogue and collaborative work with The Free Association and now Unloved, he’s spent the best part of a quarter of a century generating achingly cool filmic music refracted through a big beat lens.
Although he doesn’t appear onstage with the group, Holmes dances around the edges of the stage and in the crowd, documenting the performance on his mobile phone, checking the angles and sound levels. You imagine he’s taking notes to use for performance reviews and there is indeed much to discuss with his latest consorts. Across two LPs Unloved have generated gallons of press with their Gallic inspired sound building them a loyal fanbase, including polymath actor-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has used them heavily across her hit BBC TV show Killing Eve.
The band’s music is so entrenched in the mythos of the show that it acts as a character of its own. On record, the ‘band’ comprises Holmes, vocalist Jade Vincent and her partner Keefus Ciancia on keyboards. Like Holmes the Los Angeles-based pair are soundtrack nuts and have worked on shows, here and across the pond, such as The Fall, London Spy and True Detective. For the live shows, they’ve fleshed out the core trio, adding bass, drums, lead guitar and a pair of backing singers. On paper it’s a match made in cinematic heaven, yet somehow, live it’s a flop.
Listening to the two records, Vincent is the justified centre of their musical universe. Her lewd and lascivious vocals punctuate the songs with the requisite blend of mid-century sultriness and post millennial disenchantment. Live tonight however, she seems lost and angry. Her normally distinctive smokey drawl is barely discernible and with hardly any conversing between the numbers, she comes across as rather pouty and ungrateful. The blame doesn’t lay solely at her bare feet.
The other musicians are doing their best at holding their own. The guitars are choppy and crisp, whilst the drums in particular carry a cavernous boom and fill the auditorium, but it’s the choppy structure of the songs that seems to have confused the performers. When you compose for film or television you find yourself acutely mindful of the editing process and as such you change the tempo to emphasise what happens to play out on screen. On stage, without Holmes to snip away the excess, songs seem to meander and falter.
These songs were not built to be improvised upon or strung out. Their strength lies in the precision of the elements. The sense of frustration is palpable as the audience members clap when they think a number is finished only for the band to start up again and finish a few seconds later. Likewise, introductions ramble and dissipate and there are bum notes and awkward fade outs aplenty. Perhaps Holmes should exert a little more pressure because despite their best intentions, tonight they failed to score.