I haven't finished tallying Entertainment Weekly's poll of the It List, but it's fairly certain that jeans beat out khakis. And even if khakis had pulled off an upset, I'd still feel underdressed heading into the Lavay Smith show. The blues-jazz diva is one heck of a fashion plate. The same can likely be said for her audience. So here I am dressed for humid weather in khakis and a blue oxford shirt. And things only seem set to get worse when I discover it's Swing Night at the El Flamingo. Who knew they even had those things anymore? But there's "Lo-Fi" Lee Sobel at the door, dressed in vintage clothing and watching over the small crowd. Swing Nights have been very good to Lee, and he may not even have to be embarrassed about his legacy. The craze seems to have settled down to something reasonably cool. The crowd wears a lot less of that vintage clothing, and the atmosphere feels less labored. Also, there are a lot fewer people. That's especially pleasant after a long, miserable day.
The El Flamingo is spacious and quiet and far removed from the 70s trappings when the club presents The Donkey Show. Still, the swing thing seems to have definitely fallen out of vogue as we know it. The surest sign is the grotesquely fat guys in t-shirts and shorts. They aren't here to meet girls. They've just given up Star Wars in favor of obscure trombonists. And it probably means something that Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are playing tonight?she's not quite the right kind of act. Smith is more of the white-trash Diana Krall, just recently (as they announced on stage) cracking the top 10 of Billboard's jazz charts with Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout Miss Thing!
Lavay's music is a little too diverse for a swing crowd, as is quickly demonstrated when the Skillet Lickers take the stage. The band does a few instrumentals in classic revue style, with the second being a Lester Young number. Now, I'm just a humble Monkees fan. I don't think it's particularly wrong for a group as talented as the Skillet Lickers to play a little bebop for a crowd that's there to dance. But it's a little weird how the dancers don't even seem to be aware of the music. The crowd had previously been moving to the swing DJ, and it was the usual display of people who were solidly mediocre on the technical end. Only one couple really seemed to have the snap of greatness, and that's the couple who know to leave the floor when the Young number begins. Everybody else keeps swinging away like they're hearing dance music. Again, it's nice that some of these people are finally sporting casual clothes. They just also seem to be casually knowledgeable.
There's added pathos when Lavay hits the stage. Actually, the lady herself only prompts tears of joy. She's sporting a few more pounds than on her sexy album cover, but she carries it well. She's also showing off a much more stylish and alluring look with the makeup and hair. It helps that she looks like she could have fallen out of Garland Jeffreys' family tree, if you know what I mean. Anyway, Lavay comes out and starts demonstrating the brilliant restraint that makes the Skillet Lickers great (although this touring unit seems different from the recording act). Smith's no innovator, but she can often match the ladies who taught her everything she knows. It's also nice seeing a frontwoman who treats herself like another instrument in the band. Lavay knows how to step back and take the spotlight off herself.
The dancers show no such restraint. They don't even seem to notice when Lavay knocks out a ballad early in the evening. It's always swing time on the dancefloor, with Tex Avery as their main inspiration. At least the band takes it all as good clean fun.
There're two more sets to follow, so Lavay doesn't bother pushing the new release. Instead, the band glides through an amazing collection of great songs. They probably won't let up, either, but I decide to head for the door. I'm getting dizzy from the fumes of Clairol Midnight Black.
Moloko Concorde 2, Brighton (June 14)
Moloko's hyperactive frontwoman Roisin Murphy is dressed like a cross between a Jane Fonda workout video, and the still-peerless Olivia Newton John (circa "Physical): white visor cap, side ponytail and judo suit. She sings over a floor-shaking, larynx-vibrating bass like a cross between Grace Jones and Annie Lennox. She moves like a banana through dark treacle, speaking into this year's must-have musical fashion accessory (the vocoder) after the rather irritatingly upbeat "Pure Pleasure Seeker" and before a minimalist "Absent-Minded Friends." The lights flash, alternating from full-on blinding white, white strobe effect to mysterious purple and back.
All of these are, undoubtedly, Very Good Things. So why is Moloko so anonymous? It can't be their sound. It's been a few years since Bristol first decided to mess with our minds, pull in some Tricksy rhythms on top of the dub patterns...but triphop has long since returned to its dub roots. With a vengeance. The walls of Jericho wouldn't have stood a chance faced with this teeth-rattling deep bass sound. Stay close too long, and you ain't gonna have no critical faculties left. (Not that it matters to the vibrating capacity crowd. They're all going to cram in as close as possible anyway.) Space-age keyboards flitter in and out, drums pound, melodies are kept to a bare minimum among Murphy's deftly weaving vocals. New single "The Time Is Now" cajoles like Dubstar given some imagination and a few decent leftfield string sections; "Indigo" is like Faithless given a good box round the nether regions.
And there's the problem. Try describing Moloko without running through a who's who of British triphop of the past eight years. The music this English band plays?kooky, free-associating female wails over triphop, dub-influenced beats?is so generic, it just falls between the cracks. And I haven't even mentioned Portishead or Bjork yet. Or Saint Etienne.
Modest Mouse The Garage, London (July 6)
So I stumble into Highbury's Garage venue with only the smallest of altercations at the door, and the world is already swarming around me. I wonder to myself, how can this be? Isn't Modest Mouse just another obscure band from the Northwest of America?special to me and me alone, with the Joy Division-inspired basslines, shout-speaky vocals and Talking Heads-style funk rhythms? But no, look?there's Rob from Amazon.com there and Simon Williams from Fierce Panda there and, by the bar, any number of unsavory musicians who don't look too pleased to see me. I shiver, unnerved by the volume of London scenesters, and press on. I'm sure that Isaac Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green?the one whose mum once had a run-in with a Seattle radio station?and that other friendly fellow are around here somewhere. Maybe if I try this door over here...ah yes, that's it.
Volume engulfs me, tries to make sense of this swooning sensation rushing round my head. Cavernous basslines, echoey guitar riffs, vocals that tell of the pain and loneliness of growing up in one of America's countless Edge Cities, those places so lacking in a heart or soul they often don't even have a name, just a number, endless lower-class suburbia sprawling along the side of whichever freeway happens to be nearest. I don't know why Modest Mouse should particularly resonate with me, a privileged white man from England, but when Isaac starts singing that line about "Well, it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am" (from "Dark Center of the Universe"), everything stops moving around so fast and life almost starts to make sense. No, not sense exactly. It's more that I don't feel so alone, so alienated.
I slip, and move toward the trio onstage, where Brock is hunched over his guitar, chasing the same riff relentlessly, battering new shades of blue and gray out of his much-traveled instrument, building the tension in "Third Planet" until it seems that something has to break, crack. It seems almost incredible that this shy, diffident trio can create a sound so powerful and yet so full of silences. On their new album The Moon and Antarctica you can hear traces of Built to Spill, Galaxie 500, Dub Narcotic...anyone who had a heart. Live, however, the Mouse is a much more frightening, intoxicating experience. (Much like the aforementioned trio of bands, actually.) Brock's intensity and depth of emotion is never in doubt. The fact he can actually take that passion and shape it into such weird and angular shapes as the blues-filled "A Different City" is an absolute bonus.
The sound shifts and swirls, drums echoing back into the guitar, solid bass shaping traces in the dank, smoke-filled air. Modest Mouse fills my head with the sweetest sort of torment and so I stumble out of Highbury's Garage with only the smallest of altercations at the door and back into the cesspit that is London and the world is swarming even harder around me. Sigh.