Bat For Lashes
School Of Seven BellsEdit this event
It's the first night of Natasha Khan's biggest UK tour to date, and things aren't exactly going according to plan. Sat at her ornately decorated piano, she tries and fails to coax a sound from its keys. Two songs in, and it's time for a swift change of setlist. We have to wait a little longer for 'Horse And I', and new single 'Daniel' is performed instead. A minor setback, perhaps, but it's one that this all-new Bat For Lashes lineup doesn't quite recover from.
Khan, on lead vocals plus piano and, for one song, electric guitar, is joined tonight - as for all these dates - by former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley (who proves her versatility with turns on bass, piano and harmonium), drummer Sarah Jones and returning keysman Ben Christophers - a relatively meagre number of musicians, you might think, for a large venue tour in support of such a multifarious (not to mention high profile) record as Two Suns. You'd be right, but more on that later.
It doesn't help that School Of Seven Bells turn in an earlier lesson on how to do a heavily produced album more-than-ample justice in a live setting. Benjamin Curtis, Alejandra Deheza and her sister Claudia demonstrate the beauty of their debut LP Alpinisms perfectly, armed only with two guitars, a keyboard and a laptop - a minimal setup considering the trio's densely layered recorded arrangements. Curtis, in particular, wrestles a startling array of sounds from his instrument, offering a wonderfully rhythmic backing to the Deheza sisters' sultry harmonies. Live version or studio, 'Half Asleep' is a stunning song.
Bat For Lashes has a few of those herself, of course. Two Suns is an admirable follow-up to 2006's rightly-lauded Fur And Gold, but where that record was delivered by a relative unknown, her latest set brings with it a certain weight of expectation. Mercury nominations and Radiohead support slots tend to raise the profile somewhat, and now, tonight, it's her job to entertain close to 1,000 people.
There are the usual opening night nerves (not helped by said piano, which fails again later), but Khan is one of those people who, if not born for the spotlight, takes it effortlessly all the same. The performance isn't the problem, though. Perhaps it's that her music requires greater intimacy than we're granted by The Ritz's vast ballroom to truly captivate - as it has on the other occasions - or maybe it's just that she hasn't quite worked out how best to deliver it to a venue of this magnitude, but tonight doesn't amaze. And that's a surprise.
It's particularly disappointing when old songs like 'What's A Girl To Do?' and 'The Wizard' rely heavily on samples supplied by Christophers, who often appears to be performing more as a DJ than live musician. Hatherley and Jones are both more than capable players, that much is clear, but the likes of 'Daniel' and 'Glass' relegate them to the sidelines courtesy of the pounding backing track - the volume of which seems a little excessive all evening. It might not be karaoke, but neither is it a hundred million miles away from, say, Lily Allen's early live dates in terms of instrumentation (or the lack thereof).
What's certain is that it's a much less organic show than the one we fell in love with two years ago. Khan's old band (Lizzy Carey, Abi Fry and Ginger Lee on various instruments, principally violas and guitars) was presumably deemed surplus to the requirements of the new tracks, but, whatever the story, tonight's set - for the most part - lacks the personal, human touch of those instruments and players that made shows like the one linked above so very special.
There are odd moments to lose yourself in, though. Some old, some not: debut album highlight 'Sarah' is as feral and enchanting as ever, but Two Suns' 'Siren Song' proves the new record's equivalent moment. "I was a heart breaker, I loved you/The same way I do/But I've got so much wickedness and sin" laments Khan, her complete engagement with the vocal combined with its ominous accompanying piano line provides a true hairs-standing-on-end moment. We see her similarly impassioned on 'Sleep Alone', where her delivery of the notion that "The dream of love is a two hearted dream" hints at the underlying heartbreak that informs much of the new material.
Moments as genuinely affecting and real as those, though, are sadly fewer and further between than we'd expected. By the time the tour rolls into London later this month for a two night stint at Shepherd's Bush Empire, the technical demons will no doubt have been exorcised and the new lineup will have bedded in, but it'll definitely take something a little more consistently engaging (a guest turn from Sir Scott Walker on haunting album closer 'The Big Sleep', perhaps?) than the display we witness tonight to justify the widespread acclaim for Bat For Lashes' latest set.
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