Live Music + Gig Reviews

Winter Sprinter @ Lexington, London

6-9 January 2015

Winter Sprinter Now in its fifth year, Winter Sprinter – Fortuna Pop!’s four-night take over at the Lexington – has become a staple in the indiepop calendar. It brings together a cross section of the legends, rising stars and newcomers of the label, and this year’s offered a tantalising glimpse of some of the exciting new records due for release in the coming months.

Two of the most eagerly awaited albums are both second releases, courtesy of Tigercats and Evans the Death. The latter’s has been three years in the offing and is, appoopriately, titled Expect Delays. They waste no time in throwing themselves into their set, singer Katherine Whitaker glugging from a bottle of beer: “This song is called Bad Year – so Happy New Year,” she exclaims with a wicked half smile.

It’s one of many new songs in a relentless set which sees the London-based foursome showcase a more industrial sound. The guitars run a bit more ragged as Whitaker rides above the racket with her mellifluous and warbling voice. And nothing is more bittersweet, yet effective, than Idiot Button with its evocative opening line: “I wake up still drunk” before powerful bursts of guitar and drums disturb the reflection. Sure, the band sound much sweeter in the studio. However, onstage they display a potent snarl which is almost apologetically matched between songs by a dose of Whitaker’s shyness, which sees her flit between spitting venom and almost recoiling from the audience.

Evans the Death’s live show might seem awkward, noisy and a bit unhinged, but the songs are there – and if any band exists to prove how musicians can grow into bands, its their label mates Tigercats. A couple of years ago, ahead of their first release, the east Londoners were almost painful to watch; singer Duncan Barratt couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable if he’d tried. Tonight, though, he looked every inch the frontman, despite playing under testing conditions. For a start, they’re playing tracks from their soon to be released second album, Mysteries…but toughter still is that their second vocalist, Laura, is missing. “We think she’s in Dubai”, flails Duncan. Owl and Mouse singer Hannah Botting does an impressive job standing in, even tackling solo Jonny and vocal-heavy new track Sleeping in the Backseat. The latter is a good ambassador for the forthcoming album, which sees the punk-pop sound of their debut given a lo-fi dressing down. It’s a more introspective record, and while songs like The Vapours and Full Moon Reggae Party are as irresistible as ever – and they pull off a brilliant improvised, jam version of Banned at The Troxy – the new songs sound more complete, better crafted, more satisfying somehow.

But of course, fine crafting isn’t really Fortuna Pop!’s key concern, and there was plenty of chaos to be found throughout the week. Friday night saw the first outing of The Hayman and Kupa band – the new project by a certain Darren Hayman and former Standard Fare singer Emma Kupa. An unusual coupling, perhaps, but their vocals were made for each other; her snarling delivery nestles perfectly alongside his distinctive drawl, as they weave kitchen sink dramas, telling simple stories of love, lust and everything in between. Hayman also played with The Long Parliament earlier in the week, but the collaborative nature of this project seems to suit him, giving him space to relax and return to the themes that were central to Hefner. They fluff lines, miss cues, giggle amongst themselves…it was refreshing, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes after this, their first show.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Milky Wimpshake – who formed over 20 years ago – are also preparing to release a new album. It’s business as usual, with more of the same tongue in cheek silliness and dry delivery. Much of the new record features guest vocals from Sophie Evans, who sang on the stand out track of their last album, Without You, and she’s with them tonight, softening up Pete Dale’s voice, which we’ve previously described as “Straddling a line between painfully shy indie anorak and snarling skinhead – like a punk Paul Heaton”. As well as dipping into their back catalogue and previewing the new album, they throw a few covers in, including ONSIND’s Heterosexuality is a Construct, a searing DIY anthem. The song’s authors played the night before Dale’s ode, with their other band, Martha.

Martha’s Courting Strong was one of the highlight’s of Fortuna Pop!’s catalogue last year. A celebration of youth, it’s packed with memories, anecdotes and friendship, easily filed alongside Weezer, The Wedding Present and The Buzzcocks. It’s insanely catchy and the likes of Bubble in My Bloodstream, 1997 Passing in the Hallway and new single Sleeping Beauty send the crowd into a frenzy.

One of the label’s biggest successes is Withered Hand, a more sober prospect than those traditionally associated with it, but revered by indiepop fans nonetheless. He may have spent much of 2014 touring with his newly assembled band in support of second album New Gods, but tonight Dan Willson is alone on stage, save for Pam Berry of Black Tambourine, who joins him for the second half. It’s arguably still his strength and the best way to experience him live.

Even without a band, the songs from New Gods impress; King of Hollywood and Horseshoe are stripped back but emit a warm glow while the title track shows a disarming tenderness. He’s less shaky and haphazard than his early solo show but just as endearing and likeable. In between song talk is also more restrained than normal (his main admission being how his new year’s resolution is not to mess with prescription medicines) Debut album Good News makes up the backbone of the set, full of outsider tales of hyper-sensitisation, getting trashed on tonic wine and engaging in questionable acts of self-pleasure on other people’s futons – it reamins as near-damagingly honest and downright funny and thrilling as ever.

This year’s Winter Sprinter was a reassuring reminder of how strong the indiepop scene – and Fortuna Pop! in particular – is at the moment and also how much it’s diversifying. Another stellar line-up and some very special albums to look forward to, contrary to what Evans the Death might tell us, we think it’s going to be a good year.

By Helen Clarke, Steven Johnson, Geoff Cowart

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