Neptune play instruments they've made themselves. Occasionally strange avant-garde instruments that resemble giant versions of the kind of Calder mobile/Tinker Toy hybrids kids in well-appointed doctors' waiting rooms get to amuse themselves with. But more often, recognizable guitars and drum sets, plus a phalanx of things that look and sound a little like garbage can lids. Their music is noisy, of course?a mix of punk and what people used to mean by industrial music maybe 15 years ago. Music that sounds like machinery, banging and sparse and beautiful. But with lots of perfect riffs that inhabit a territory somewhere in between rock and pop, that your head and hips latch right onto. On one song they even get into a vaguely country territory, with twangy guitar and crooning vocals by lead singer Jason Sanford. Two songs later Sanford and second guitarist Chris Huggins are trading perfectly timed screams while the percussionists behind them flail away with joy.
It feels a bit redundant to make comparisons to other bands, knowing that Sanford whites out all such references in the clips he puts in Neptune's presskit. But they remind me of some of the greats, like Human Sexual Response and Mission of Burma?both, like Neptune, from Boston. Gang of Four, too, although as far as I can make out their lyrics pretty much steer clear of politics. I can't think of anything bad to say about them, other than that they should get some microphones that don't cut out. They have this coiled-tightly-as-a-spring quality, releasing a lot of energy in a very controlled way (think Wire, or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks). More naive, in a way, than any of these bands, or maybe I should say than any of these bands sounded like once they were recording.
Neptune has gone through a lot of incarnations since it was founded in 1995. Sanford is sort of the core member and writes most of the lyrics, but it's clearly a collaborative effort, and Huggins sings too. There's a studio record from three years ago, but this version of Neptune hasn't released anything yet, though a single on Heliotype is forthcoming. They played in an apartment in Long Island City that used to be a club and has a long, polished wood bar with pocked and gold-trimmed mirrors behind it running the length of the living room. Next door a Mexican band was playing cumbias and rancheras to celebrate a baptism. Cars with Massachusetts license plates drove up and down the street looking for parking. People kept stumbling out the front door with drinks in their hands, then remembering Giuliani, then being reassured that in this neighborhood (half a block from the Queensbridge projects) the police have more important things to worry about. So at 3 a.m. there were maybe 40 people milling around outside with their beer and liquor, and Neptune's former second guitarist, who lives here now, started playing dance records inside. Some of the Bostonians went next door and danced cumbias and drank brandy and cola, and some of the Mexicans went inside, where Neptune was packing up, and danced while the DJ played. Neptune left the next day for a gig in Providence, and they're coming back in September.
The Go-Betweens Kashmir Club, London (July 17)
There are some very excited people here. People are excited because these two men up onstage, playing their gentle, sweet songs of passion and betrayal, are...um, up onstage playing their sweet, gentle songs of passion and betrayal.
"The next song we're going to play is track two, side one: 'Spirit,'" announces lanky singer Robert Forster?the one who likes to make graceful hand movements in the air during silences. "I'm talking old terms here."
Once there was an Australian band called the Go-Betweens. During the 80s they released six albums of the most exquisite, guitar-led poetry. Songs that reflected both the wide spaces of their native land and the easy betrayal of friends and lovers. Songs that delighted in their intricacy, in their subtle, deprecating insights into human relationships and suburban nostalgia. Songs that became more and more polished with every new release, as members and instruments got added, but never lost sight of the basic humanity at the core. Their albums spawned a brace of classic singles, from the sun-drenched "Cattle and Cane" to the minimal "Man O' Sand to Girl O' Sea" and teeming rain and pathos of "Streets of Your Town." Musicians and critics everywhere loved them, but not the kids. Sigh. Those cruel bastard kids. After 1988's string-saturated 16 Lovers Lane, the pairing of Forster and short-arse Grant McLennan was no more.
"This is the song that starts the album, the big song, track one, side one," says Forster before the pivotal "Magic in Here"?the song that is at the core of the reformed Go-Betweens. Yes, the core. As McLennan says on the hook to this most lilting of songs, "I don't want to change a thing/When there's magic in here." Don't fucking fix what ain't broken. Time sometimes provides happy endings: a new Go-Betweens album, the superbly laconic The Friends of Rachel Worth. With members of Sleater-Kinney and Portland's wonderful Elliott Smith spinoff band Quasi adding sensitive, cool harmonies and the odd glissando organ.
That's why the people here tonight are excited. Ecstatic, even. They're gliding through stripped-back acoustic versions of their new album's rather stripped-back songs. Highlights include the scary, bittersweet "He Lives My Life" and the Patti Smith tribute "When She Sang About Angels," with its memorable line about how Forster wished she'd "sung about Tom Verlaine," not Kurt Cobain. Then there's Forster's "wicked little riff" on the autobiographical "German Farmhouse," McLennan's almost wearily resonant "The Clock" and a run-through of the classic "Bye Bye Pride." (Interestingly, the full-bodied guitar sound on "The Clock" recalls prime Beat Happening...although one suspects that the comparison should actually be made the other way round.) All this, and a bizarre bongo solo on "Danger in the Past" (from Forster's first solo album) while McLennan sits, lost in reverie in the background. Truly, we feel spoiled.
"You've got to imagine some atmospherics on this one," says Forster, introducing "Orpheus Beach." "And could I just say what an incredible job [Quasi]'s Sam Coomes did on the album. There's a rumor going round that Elliott Smith plays on the album, and I know how it got started, but it's not true." A solitary cheer comes from the audience. People turn round and stare. Who's that jerk?