Mildlife opened the night, their sound centred around the classic Juno 60 synthesizer, complemented by a rhythm section of jutting bass and disco styled drumming. Some beat looping and sparse guitars made up the rest of the audio decor, the latter supplied by a gyrating lad in a pair of impossibly tight jeans, who along with a projection of B-movie staple Barbarella formed the (lacking) visual element. Nevertheless they conjured up an entrancing groove of dance-rock, especially on Be More Pacific and their recently launched single Milk & Wool.
The audio-visual act that followed was Time Shield aka Faux Pas aka solo artist Tim Shiel (confused?) who can only best be described as a remix artist. Trippy cut-up visuals and obscure pop culture footage (Leonard Nimoy promoting Magnavox anyone?) played against a large screen as Shiel, set up in the audience, created a soundtrack of abstract chill-out beats and cut-up samples. Problem was, they didn’t supply tabs of acid at the door. More engaging was seeing him construct the soundtrack before your eyes, deftly manipulating the visuals (via an Xbox controller!) and sonics with a sequencer, a small midi keyboard, some live guitar and his laptop. At one point video-jamming Gilmore Girls into a breakdown of fragment Flying Lotus-isms, before revealing the sample as Carole King’s Where You Lead (I Will Follow), to call it a unique live experience was an understatement.
Before the headline act, there was one last treat, namely the debut clip from Spender and his triple j unearthed circulated cut, Magic Man. Despite the image of a man in a tux with a gothic looking, carnivalé mask on – the mood was distinctly playful. Taking a leisurely stroll through the woods before setting up a mini-projection screen that revealed a quirky dance-off; perfectly matching the pop vibe of the track, informed as it is by sixties references more than contemporary ones. With great melodies, distinctive vocals and a fun arrangement, it’s easy to like and not too much of a stretch to love.
Then again the man behind the moniker, one Tommy Spender, is no stranger to crafting successful tunes, you may recognise his voice from previous underground sensation Offcutts, whose successful strikes included radio hit Break It Down (James Brown). He’s since dropped the hip-hop and roots affections, or at least toned them down, for his new musical guise that hones his pop sophistication; or as the man himself would have it “Spender is my ambitions both musical and visual.”
Half the intrigue of tonight’s debut headline show, is seeing just how this new venture translates as a live unit. The short answer is: remarkably well. As it turns out, it’s a deceptively typical three-piece band: guitar, bass and drums augmented by some drum sequencing and clever use of a loop pedal. The difference is the talent of the men handling those instruments, Luke Hodgson (of the Josh Owen Band) supplying solid bass-work while Michael Iveson manned the skins. Iveson is one of those drummers whose work you’ve probably heard and may not have known it. Chiefly because he’s played with every important Aussie indie artist of the last decade, including Gotyé, Bertie Blackman, Lior, Sally Seltmann and - more recently - Kimbra (AMR's no. 1 linked-to lass).
Bringing them together is the titular Spender, who has recently spent his time as a freelance producer while simultaneously working on his debut record, the forthcoming Modern Pest. More surprising to see, and hear, was that within his tall, rakish frame dwells the expressive voice of a true soulsman and a guitarist with a distictive style.
They opened their set with Old Fashioned Camera, a well-choreographed blueprint of chiming guitars and stripped back rhythmic emphasis reminiscent of Spoon.Tonight followed and is - what you suspect - is the group’s unique version of a ballad, it’s irresistible groove tethered by a rich bass line, leaving spare guitar notes dangling in repeated suspension. A suitably dreamy vibe with a cooing vocal line, and lyrical subject matter, to match.
The evening wasn’t without its hiccups, this being the first unveiling of the band after all, but even We Go Painting retained its rugged edge built on a singular bluesy riff, in spite of some technical gremlins. Once Spender pulled the sax out for Never Again though, things got really interesting. Using the brass firstly to build the blue chordal textures on which he sang over a stinging respite, before constructing looped patterns giving Iveson license to rumble towards an impressively elastic drum solo. Backed by the live rendition of the aforementioned single Magic Man, it’s charms proving to strike twice in a night.
The unit wisely chose to finish with a rocker, the nervous energy of I'm Best When Depressed was a cheeky blast of grating guitars and speedy abandon, even squeezing in a little bit of audience call-and-response in the stuttered shouts of “passive aggressive/psychosomatic.” Despite Spender apologising for the brevity of the set, ‘we’ve only got seven songs!’ it’s a case of quality over quantity.
With plenty of potential, and talent, at hand – he’ll be fine. An unbeatable rhythm section behind him, a head full of smart musical ideas, and a bowtie. Who doesn’t like bowties?
and now, that Magic Man clip in all its glory (dir Dropbear)
You can here more of Spender over at his webspace.
More dates and info on Modern Pest as it comes darlings.