The Middle East & Laura Marling

11 May

After three years of pitifully running this blog myself I have the good fortune of getting a guest submission from talented Pittsburgh writer, Matthew Stoff. The following concert review is by him. He is the editor of the Pittsburgh music website, Burgh Sounds. Hopefully, there will be more in the future. Thanks Matt!

The Middle East, 5/8

photo © Matthew Stoff, 2010

It’s amazing to watch seven musicians cram onto a stage, each with several instruments, and still play songs that sound light and dreamy, with room to breathe. Australia’s The Middle East came to The Warhol Museum Saturday to do exactly that, showing off a kind of intimacy that seemed improbable given the number of moving parts on stage. Despite the count of personnel, the band’s artisanal brand of folk-rock was utterly uncluttered. The many band members and their tools were called upon selectively to provide the smallest details in the deepest corners of their songs.

To do this, they took turns sitting out. At one point near the end of the set, singer/guitarist Ro Jones stood barefoot in front of the microphone, buried his toes in the plush stage carpeting, and closed his eyes. Several of his bandmates sat just offstage, while others clasped their hands over their instruments. With only his lips and fingers moving, Jones leaned forward and sang in a quiet whisper that cracked into tuneless speech, supported only by an irregular pattern of gentle strumming. It was a moment of quiet, beautiful introspection. Only later, when two more vocal parts and the soft twinkling of a glockenspiel chimed in, did the tune coalesce into something that Mark Mothersbaugh might have composed for a Wes Anderson film.

This was the method of the band throughout the evening. In the seven songs they played, there was not a single solo, nor any jamming nor, from the looks of it, any improvisation. But this austerity did not leave the music impoverished. The whole band repeatedly showed off its canny ability to group particular noises —the rising wave of a cymbal roll and a syrupy, lethargic guitar, for instance — into fully realized set pieces. They had brought on stage with them a trumpet, flute, banjo, laptop, various handheld percussion, and more, in addition to two guitars, bass, and drums. This explains why The Middle East has been labeled chamber pop and compared to The Arcade Fire.

The band is slightly on the mysterious side and cultivates a reserved stage persona. It was silent between most songs, lending the performance a concert-hall quality, especially in the auditorium at The Warhol. Most of the performers stood still. At one point, the bassist sat on the floor. Jones, the de facto front man for the group, made only a few brief, half-mumbled comments, including his pithy introduction, “We come from a place called Australia. I know you haven’t heard of it.”

The musical themes were, in a way, just as confounding. Though they are masters of multi-part, male-female, and block harmonies, the singers didn’t enunciate clearly enough to hear distinct lyrics most of the time. And so the audience was left to intuit the meaning of the songs without them. Fortunately, the music was so evocative that even without words, it conveyed sophisticated attitudes like irony and disappointment. One song ended hanging on an unresolved chord plucked in frustrating slowness; during another, a galloping drum beat and the jangle of handheld percussion supported a melody that was both mournful and optimistic. The tune was not happy despite literally being upbeat.

The band is currently touring of North America and Europe including several sold-out dates in New York, Chicago, and London. Their blending of indie experimentation with the purity of the folk tradition will please what is sure to be a growing international base of fans. And their stoic but impassioned live performances will certainly captivate those lucky enough to watch.

Laura Marling

The two great pleasures of seeing Laura Marling’s performance at The Andy Warhol Museum on Saturday were hearing her sing and hearing her talk.

The British songwriter drew a capacity crowd of over 100 to hear her, pure, ringing voice and her unique, breathless phrasing. And they came to hear her lyrics, which are rich in imagery and poetry, while remaining as simple and accessible as a fairy tale.

For most of the concert, she performed alone with her acoustic guitars, mixing strums and fingerpicking and trills and riffs into haunting, introspective songs. She played each note with a purpose, with no wasted space and no thoughtless repetition. Her prodigious musicality, including her mastery of mixed meters and unconventional guitar tunings, was so effortless and casual as to be invisible, except to those playing close attention.

Marling’s voice is low and fairly distinctive, partly owing to her unique British pronunciations (think how Nick Drake sounds on “Pink Moon”). She rarely holds a single note for very long, preferring to float between pitches, letting the cleanest of them peal like a bell without ever sounding shrill. And she can fit the most exquisite syllables together into a line, folding them over each other in impossible ways to make sometimes-jarring marriages of music and verse. In fact, it can be a bit surprising to recall that Marling is only 20 years old. Youth rarely affords the wisdom and world-weariness she conveys in her lyrics.

Marling played for about an hour, with a handful of new material, tracks from her multiple albums and EPs, as well as two cover songs (one by Neil Young and another by Jackson C. Frank). Between the songs, she talked, and this was as intriguing as when she played. Perhaps it was her seemingly genuine enthusiasm for being there, or else it was her incredible earnestness in reading the audience’s reactions to her. There was none of the recycled artifice that is the standard concert banter. Instead she spoke about issues in her music and stories from her life. It felt engaging and conversational, even though it was really a one-way discussion. Certain NPR programming conjures a similar effect.

For a few songs at the beginning and end of the set, Marling had a band join her on stage to play banjo, bass, drums, and keyboards. These thicker arrangements certainly helped elevate the feeling of magic in her songs (not to mention duplicate the sound of her recordings). But Marling’s charisma and energy were more than sufficient throughout most of the show. It seemed that no matter who was on the stage, what the audience was going to see most clearly was a woman who loves to sing and play music.

article by Matthew Stoff, © 2010

6 Responses to “The Middle East & Laura Marling”

  1. Mark Smoller May 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    Super write-ups……I felt as if I were there at the concerts.,…..Mr. Stoff is very astute and communicates his ideas in a vivid and thoughtful manner.
    I look forward to reading more of his reviews.

  2. Aaron May 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    Ah Matthew, did you miss the Smoke Fairies, on first? Best set of the night for my money.

  3. Brooke Tobin May 28, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    If only more people could read this.


  1. Matthew’s guest posts on Laura Marling, The Middle East | Burgh Sounds | Blog - May 11, 2010

    […] was the seven-piece Australian folk pop group, The Middle East. I reviewed both performances in a guest post on the culture blog Gigawave. At one point near the end of the set, singer/guitarist Ro Jones […]

  2. Review roundup « The Middle East - May 27, 2010

    […] Read the full article… […]

  3. Burghsounds: Report: Laura Marling, The Middle East reviewed on Gigawave - March 14, 2012

    […] was the seven-piece Australian folk pop group, The Middle East. I reviewed both performances in a guest post on the culture blog Gigawave. At one point near the end of the set, singer/guitarist Ro Jones […]

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