Live Music + Gig Reviews

Winter Sprinter @ Lexington, London

7-10 January 2014

Joanna Gruesome 2013 was a stellar year for Fortuna POP! It was a year that saw the label, which still proclaims to be a “kitchen table record label”, continue its dominance in the indiepop world, releasing a more varied and plentiful collection of albums than ever before.

Last year’s edition of its annual Winter Sprinter festival – a series of gigs which aims to both show off and showcase its roster, young and old – thrust its newest signings into the limelight. The Spook School and Joanna Gruesome (pictured) have both since released cracking debuts, which were in equal parts jangly and shouty; perfect Fortuna POP! releases, then. This year’s fresh offerings were slightly leaner – Ireland’s September Girls being the obvious exception.

Their debut, Cursing The Sea, was released just days before their slot on the bill on Thursday, sandwiched between Flowers and Joanna Gruesome. Blending pop precision with a murkier, lo-fi approach, they’re akin to The Jesus And Mary Chain via Phil Spector. Splitting vocals between the five of them, they’re visually arresting, glaring into the crowd and thrusting guitars towards each other, living up to the glowing reviews their record has received, including our own, four-star verdict.

Flowers are already a known entity on the indiepop scene, and we’re predicting big things for them, with the release of their first album expected around autumn; indeed, they made our 14 for ’14 list. The focus of the band is singer Rachel’s flawless voice, which harks back to some of the best C86 era bands – think Elizabeth Fraser or Harriet Wheeler‘s vocals. It has an unwavering clarity and innocence that slices through the fuzz and reverb of angry guitar and aggressive drums. It’s a sound made all the more remarkable by the band’s apparent shyness – but their touring schedule has obviously taken effect, and they’re visibly more comfortable tonight, even when Rachel sings a room-silencing solo.

Likewise, Joanna Gruesome are almost unrecognisable from the band who put on a nervous show last year. Now comfortable, with a well-received debut under their belts, singer – ex Evans The Death member Alanna McArdle – is a sultry, screaming beast, who struts across the stage, belying her piercing vocal. “Tonight we’ve got out guitarist on bass and our old drummer on guitar,” she tells us. Which just about sums them up; they’re chaotic, the lovechild of Los Campesinos! and Dananananaykroyd, and easily the most exciting band on the label right now.

McArdle’s former band are also on the line-up, putting on an impressive show with some new additions to the songs from 2012’s self titled debut. Tracks like Telling Lies and Wet Blanket ruled the set, but the songs that may or may not make the cut for album number two went down a treat too. If this early glimpse is anything to go by, expect a more melodic and studied band this time around. This is satisfying progression.

The Spook School are in the same year as Jo Gru at Fortuna POP! school, having also released their debut last year, but rather than growing into their sound, the band have worked their sound into their show. Drummer Niall is a born entertainer; full of dad jokes, he keeps everyone occupied while his band mates are prepping. Again, they’re brimming with confidence, and musically they’ve never been tighter, but there’s so much more to The Spook School than first meets the eye. Beyond the beaming, impossibly young faces, the band have talked about how their music “explores gender, sexuality and queer issues”, that “gender is something more fluid than the given binary of male/female”… but they’re also a bit silly. Tracks like Are You Think You Are and That’s When I Ran Away can be taken at face value if you so wish, but Nye’s beautiful rendition of Devil Of Mine is a rare tear jerking moment.

At the opposite end of the scale are the relative old timers; Herman Dune, Withered Hand and Let’s Wrestle. The latter are a reliable live act, playing a career spanning set that included crowd favourites like Diana’s Hair and I Won’t Lie To You, along with tracks from their forthcoming third album. Singer Wesley Patrick Gonzalez is on good form, chattering away to the crowd and making light of technical mishaps during their Pavement-ish, scuzzy, lo-fi punk.

It was down to Withered Hand – aka Dan Wilson – to bring things to a close on the Friday. His blend of DIY thrash-folk could be easily dismissed if it weren’t for his spine tingling voice, which leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of Religious Songs. His new album, New Gods, is due for release next month, and expands on the sound he’s spent more than six years fine tuning; a cross between the The Hold Steady and Johnny Flynn, he has the crowd eating from the palm of his hand throughout. One of its tracks, Black Tambourine, is especially poignant tonight – like last year, he’s recruited said Black Tambourine’s Pam Berry to join him on backing vocals.

And so concluded Winter Sprinter 2014; another stretch of gigs that did the label proud, this time perhaps more reflective of their recent achievements, but still dangling the enticing promise of exciting new music to come.

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