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My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

LCD Soundsystem gig review – Birmingham Academy, Monday 26 April

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy

If ever there were an equation for the necessary balance of pretentiousness and perfectionism to create musical chemistry, tests would show LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had the ideal measures of both.

The 40-year-old, in his capacity as the man at the helm of this vital New York group, seems to exist out of a careful tension between three basic ingredients making up his ego. He has taken on a relentless pursuit to uncover the basic ingredients of coolness so he can adopt and become them himself. Another essential part of the Murphy mix is a broad and all-encompassing knowledge of musical styles and influences. But perhaps the most integral of these three elements is his ability to introspect on himself, his band and the world around him. This is the LCD Soundsystem James Murphy. In fact, the likelihood is that this is the actual James Murphy.

Following an ever-present hype machine about this being the tour which would pre-empt the release of This Is Happening – a swan song of albums for the seven-some – James Murphy appeared even more enigmatic on stage at the Birmingham Academy on Monday 26 April.

All three aforementioned elements of the man are transparent on stage. He holds a vintage hand-held mic, wears white and alludes to a wry, dry wit which is also present in the rest of the band. He makes tiny sonic changes to each track to make sure everything sounds exactly how he imagines it. He reacts to his audience, his band and his own approval and desires each of those groups’ approval in themselves. After all, his crowd had had waited since 2007 for the band to return to the West Midlands.

Prior to the gig – through carelessness or a clever PR stunt – the band’s third album already been leaked and then streamed on the website, which meant a large portion of the crowd had already had their appetite whetted for the new material. But he serves only a modest portion from the album, because he admits to being frustrated by bands that reel off a list of new tracks their crowd is not yet familiar with.

Prior to their entry on stage, a familiar vibrating heartbeat signals the opening bars of Get Innocuous – the band enter shrouded in red light and James Murphy sings this techno-meets-Bowie homage to druggy highs.

Us V Them dishes out helpings of danceable cowbell and the repeated mantra, “The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today”, begins to sound prophetic. Murphy and co. also play an up-tempo version of the disco funk Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, before the acidic Yr City’s a Sucker from the self-titled first album.

From This Is Happening, we’re gifted the punchy, disco Pow Pow, as well as I Can Change – a track with more than a shade of Human League for a new decade. New single, Drunk Girls also makes an appearance; it’s easily the poppiest, most throwaway offering of the new material and is delivered to the ears like a microwave meal. Casting aspersions on the embarrassingly wasted and with a rhythm not dissimilar to North American Scum, it has a sing-a-long chorus, “Oh, Oh, Ooohh, I believe in waking up together, so, so, sooo, that means making eyes across the room,” with ‘hit’ written all over it.

As soon as first bars of the off-beat piano play, All My Friends receives an ecstatic reaction. It’s as nostalgic for Murphy to sing as it is for the crowd to hear and the dancing Academy is a mass of smiles.

Welcome, if not surprising additions to a surprisingly long set list are Movement, and the deep funky bass of Tribulations, together with 2004 single, Yeah, which is unleashed with heavy smoke machine puffs and rave-esque green lights, paving the way for the encore.

An industrial sounding bass loop signals Someone Great has finally arrived, but what surprises most is that Murphy does not seem nearly as affected as you would expect by singing his words that so acutely describe loss. On the record, you half imagine him finding it difficult to get the words out whilst tears roll down his cheeks. Perhaps on the live stage he is just too conscious of cool and accuracy, or maybe he’s become more detached from the sentiment that the song had three years ago.

Highlight, Losing My Edge, exposes a style of our lead singer/speaker which is not at all dissimilar to The Fall’s Mark E Smith. Some lyrics are very audible, others are almost hurried – all to positive effect. But it does make you wonder whether Murphy could be slightly embarrassed about the fact he once cared and maybe still does care too much about being ‘the first’ to experience the things his songs are about. Surprising passion is injected when “I WAS THERE” is half triumphantly, half frustratedly belted out to the room.

All I Want from This Is Happening has a notable inclusion as the penultimate track. It’s a beautiful Bowie, Heroes-esque heart wrenching ballad which sees James Murphy ask for pity and tears. The begging vocal, “take me home” fills just about every inch of space in the Academy as the flowing keyboard melody starts to turn from sugar coated to sickly and twisted.

Murphy’s perfectionist, slightly pedantic side surfaces again on the closer, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. He delays the delivery of lines to create suspense and plays conductor to his band, forcing clever pauses to emphasise the poignancy of their final few minutes on stage.

On the night, his intense efforts to make sure songs were perfect and ‘just so’ hinted at a self-depreciative side of James Murphy lurking underneath the cool exterior. It wouldn’t be surprising if this side of him is part of the underlying reason he is proclaiming the end is nigh for LCD Soundsystem. He certainly may feel that after three albums sitting as one of the most, if not the most creative of this genre, the aptitude for writing fresh electronic-funk will wane and the appreciation ebb away. This is, after all, something he has confessed is of crucial importance to his existence as a musical artist.

Then there’s the fact that LCD Soundsystem’s endless pursuit has been for ‘cool’, amongst their partying, gigging and drug-addled self examination. But in a recent a Guardian interview, James declared, “I suppose what happened is that I spent my whole life wanting to be cool, but eventually came to recognise the mechanism of how coolness works. So it’s not really that I don’t want to be cool any more – it’s more like I’ve come to realise that coolness doesn’t exist the way I once assumed.”

It’s a nice tautology really – the band hunts for the elements of coolness, they are seen as cool, but having matured, realise the parameters they originally set for what they thought was cool have changed.

A worthless pursuit? Emphatically no.

At Birmingham’s Academy, whether he and the band were or weren’t conscious of ‘cool’ being a present entity was beside the point – that’s never been what is really attractive about LCD Soundsystem’s music. There will always be people who like them because of what they represent, but in reality, no academic search for the holy grail of coolness has ever been the reason why they have sustained the intrigue and hype.

That was obvious at Birmingham’s Academy, because it was the effortless tightness and creativity which made them so sublime. They also have a knack for knowing in advance the ebb and fall of a crowd’s musical desires, so that no track which is played disappoints – on Monday that was no mean feat considering the already acute sense of occasion about the tour. But with a final album title declaring, This Is Happening, James Murphy must have known he was creating an amphitheatre-sized wave of expectation on which to ride LCD Soundsystem home on.

On Monday’s evidence, I hope for one of two things. Either that it has all been a cynical ploy to create hype in order to give them a shot at matching the success of Sound of Silver, which many will still believe can never be beaten. Or, Murphy will take a u-turn on his decision and begin again in 2011 following his recent conclusions about ‘cool’ and the proof a year of gigs will have given that there’s so much more left in that vintage Sennheiser mic of his.

1. Get Innocuous!
2. Us v Them
3. Daft Punk Is Playing At My House
4. Yr City’s a Sucker
5. Pow Pow
6. Drunk Girls
7. All My Friends
8. I Can Change
9. Tribulations
10. Movement
11. Yeah Play

Encore:
12. Someone Great
13. Losing My Edge
14. All I Want
15. New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

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