The Jon Cohen Experimental

The Jon Cohen Experimental / Abandon / Mustard And The Monocle @ The Wheatsheaf, Oxford, 28/01/2012

“It was rubbish, but I enjoyed it”, as one punter was heard saying to another of one of the bands on tonight’s bill. Richard Catherall, the face of Gappy Tooth Industries for nearly ten years now, would be tickled by this as he confirmed on stage at the end of the night that this sparsely attended gig, dividing opinions left and right, was exactly the kind of show Gappy Tooth exists to promote. Each of the three bands were definitely rubbish in their own way, and each of them was most certainly enjoyable. Indeed, things got more rubbish and more enjoyable as the night ran on, suggesting a link between the two – and if you can believe there is one, Gappy Tooth will welcome you with widely open arms.

Mustard And The Monocle are the least obviously rubbish act on tonight, and also the least enjoyable. They’re young and very talented musicians, with the drummer in particular showing an ease and skill that eludes many touring bands, but they seem to be saving their energy for nights with bigger turnouts. Their set of whimsical country-folk indie reminds us of locals like The Yarns and The Epstein and does show a lot of promise, but their performance lacks spark, and with a couple of exceptions the songwriting is unremarkable. Their inter-song banter betrays a lethargic disappointment that they aren’t playing to a fuller house, which is always a turn-off for those who have come to watch; much as the most expensive boutiques stay in business by treating every customer as if they were a millionaire, these guys would do well to treat every audience like potential converts, no matter how small their numbers.

Umair Chaudhry is one of our scene’s most interesting and prolific musicians, whose Blindsight Records label has released many projects in the ambient/metal spectrum and whose latest release is represented tonight by the doomy goth-electronic duo Abandon. As with Umair’s Fault Finders project there is a lot of promising stuff here that’s let down by what seems to be either laziness or restlessness; the production and presentation seem unfinished and the slow, atmospheric, 80s goth sound is let down by underwhelming drum programming and Umair’s voice, which does hit the notes but only on its rather meandering way somewhere else. It’s hard to engage with what we assume to be the desolation of the human condition when watching a lonely-looking laptop in front of two men who look like they’ve wandered upstairs from the pub, and while we’d be loathe to suggest that presentation should trump integrity we do suspect that this would have been absolutely spellbinding with the addition of a live drummer, two more guitarists and a smoke machine the size of Didcot power station. By the time all that is assembled, though, it seems likely Umair will be off on his next project – doubtless also at the dark end of the
musical spectrum, also flawed and also interesting.

Topping tonight’s pyramid of rubbish we have The Jon Cohen Experimental: a Montreal-based solo performer, formerly of The Dears and The Social Register but now touring on his own, and it’s not hard to see why. The set begins with Cohen, tall, bald and dressed in red trousers, red shirt and red tie, looking like The Addams’ Family’s Lurch on Valentine’s Day, standing in front of two microphones and an assembly of dismembered electronic drum kit, persuading the Wheatsheaf into silence so he can begin the show with a couple of bangs on his electronic gong. This, to be charitable, is unconventional behaviour, and he’s started as he means to go on: we have backing tracks from a laptop over which awkward jiggling beats are looped from the electronic drums, bizarre howling mantras are bawled into the two mics and an assortment of harmonicas, pennywhistles and oddball dancing accompany the occasional burst of bass guitar. It should be awful – and it is, of course – but the jittery trance-like performance belies an unexpectedly controlled set, and the improvised mayhem is never discernably out of Cohen’s control. Loop pedals have been done to death on stage but this is honestly the most original and effective use of them we’ve seen since Duotone’s delicately layered folktronica. The stage setup and mad professor schtick suggests a Buddhist Thomas Truax, but he has the outsider sincerity and total commitment – and genuine insanity – of Twizz Twangle as well, with the is-it-supposed-to-be-this-funny humour of Animal Collective’s set to a nearly-empty Wheatsheaf in 2003. It’s as odd a brand of repetitive, whimsical, earnest semi-improvised lunacy as we’ve seen on stage, and half the venue is entranced. The other half, it has to be noted, are less than impressed, with one friend commenting that having seen “some god-awful, wrist-slittingly bad gigs in [their] time… this one is by far taking the biscuit”. It’s also been astutely observed that if he was fifteen years younger and had an artful fringe, the ultra-fashionable Blessing Force collective would be all over him. By most conventional measures of music most of this is dreadful, but his charisma, enthusiasm, sincerity and obvious delight to be performing is utterly infectious; combine that with a performance that is genuinely original and music that is intermittently bewitching and we have an absolute winner, exactly the kind of gig that Gappy Tooth and the Wheatsheaf exist for, because there is huge cultural value in this and you could never find it on television, on radio or at the O2 Academy. When people say you should support your local gig venues, this is what we’d lose if they were gone. Most wouldn’t weep if it was lost. I, and the regulars at Gappy Tooth Industries, certainly would.

  • Daisy Rodgers

    long live Gappy Tooth……….

  • Anonymous

    I suspect every promoter has their own criteria for success.  Mine is when a paying member of the public gets enthused enough about what they saw to pen a review.

    I think a Buddhist Truax is on the money – I think that one track made me think of what the Moonies would have been like if Heaven 17 had instigated them – but I think Jon’s a different beast from Twizz, in some ways.  What’s unusal about Jon is that you rarely see such musical chops and wholehearted sincerity mixed with semi-improvised psych pop.  In the UK this sort of thing would always come with invisible quote marks, and would probably hang back from full immersion. 

    Most people would refer to refer to the ritualistic, but only somone like Jon would make the Sheaf into a sonic ritual of his own devising.  I honestly thought it was joyous music, really euphoric.

    Not sure I really crave visuals for Abandon, but I agree a live drummer or some more exciting programming woudl lift some already enoyable music.

    M&TM were missing a keyboard player, maybe they’d convince you with the full complement.

    Thanks for the review, Mark.