The Goggenheim

The Goggenheim / The Lampost Gullivers / Vienna Ditto / Francis Pugh And The Whisky Singers @ The Jericho, Oxford, 06/10/2012

We’re just buying our first overpriced beer at the Jericho’s main bar, when suddenly a lilting little country ditty, in a sort of cleaned up jugband style, wafts pleasingly past our ears. It’s Francis Pugh & The Whisky Singers, a quartet that has elected to start its set in the downstairs bar, perhaps hoping to lead the drinkers, Pied Piper style, into the upstairs venue. Predictably, we are the entirety of their entourage as they take to the stairs. In the venue, they continue to play unplugged, in the middle of the room, which creates a delightful intimacy, even if they could do with learning how to project the vocals. The material is enjoyable, high quality country tunes with a small hint of self-effacing wit, as if they know that four young chaps from Oxfordshire can never really play in this downhome style without a sly wink. The trumpet parts are the secret ingredient, not least because they carry so clearly without amplification; and did we hear an unexpected Handel influence at one point? It’s a good set, and a friendly introduction to the evening, although part of us thinks that, far from being a mildly diverting novelty, people singing unamplified narrative folk songs belong in a provincial pub far more than squid nibbles and Peroni at four pounds forty a fucking pint.

Vienna Ditto may have a sound based on synthesised beats and fuzzy electric guitar, but they retain the unhurried ramshackle air of the Whisky Singers. Many of their songs marry chunky electro-disco to rockabilly, in a space somewhere between Goldfrapp’s steely sensuality and Imelda May’s glossy gutsiness, with the merest whiff of turn of the century pop sophisticates Shivaree. This is all well and good, but what truly makes them special – aside from Hatty Taylor’s rich, chanson-style voice – is their relaxed, handmade approach. Whilst many bands with gorgeous, arcing pop songs like this would have rehearsed them to the hilt and found some session rhythm section types to fill up the sound, Vienna Ditto spend most of the set huddled together over a keyboard and electronics set up, pushing buttons and giggling, like a drunk couple trying to knock up a post-pub dinner on a camping stove. Writing epic pop songs is a skill; performing them so they feel like wonderful secrets whispered into the audience’s ear is sheer talent.

Speaking of talent, at the beginning of The Lampost Gullivers’ set, we begin to worry that former Suitable Case For Treatment/Mephisto Grande vocalist Liam Ings-Reeves wasn’t the excellent musician we had him down as, but a cabaret blues growler whose music had been getting slowly less interesting over the years. Bash bash bash went the bass and drums, snarly-warl went Liam, in his best zombie Tom Waits voice, and it was all perfectly diverting, but not vastly exciting. About a third of the way into the set, however, we quickly moderated our opinion. Suddenly, the music took on a lithe, tensile quality, replacing the cartoon bluster of the opening numbers with hypnotic, rubbery rhythms, turning the preacher-rock hollers into sticky, deep-fried krautrock. By the end of the set, our faith is firmly restored, and we can hear the deft muscularity underpinning even the dirtiest blues clatter.

Pop music, ladies and gentlemen, is and always has been, at least partly, about dressing up funny. So, fair play to The Goggenheim, who are all garbed as Alex James (possibly), with nice clean flat caps, and are fronted by Grace Exley, in glittery silver affair with vast head-dress, looking like a dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical about Ra the Sun God in New York. Sonically they’re equally theatrical, laying Gong wooziness and affected vocal declamations over thumping drums and disjointed guitar. At their poppiest, on ‘Moth’, they sound rather a lot like 80s oddballs Stump, but at their most outlandish they’re simply mystifying: ‘Ah Samina’ consists of an unfathomable chant with false vibrato created by manually wobbling the throat, like a 70s schoolchild pretending to be a Silurian. It’s not all arsing about, though, and the music would be infuriatingly wacky if it weren’t played so well, with some outstanding metronomic drumming. You also get the feeling that Grace is continually embodying different characters, rather than just putting on silly voices. In one song she seems to be subtly detourning blues chauvanism with the words “Gonna see my woman, but she’s a cow”, and in ‘Housten’ she might be cocking a snook at lachrymose country tunes about misfortune and loss by singing of salvaging nick-nacks from a crumbled life. But, equally, she might not.

The Goggenheim are a fascinating, exciting mix of performance art, punk pop and psychedelia who have tailored their performance to the artificiality of the concert environment: their music thrives on the distancing effect of the boundary between stage and audience as much as The Whisky Singers’ feeds from its removal. This gig, curated by local music photographer Johnny Moto, seemed designed to explore different ways performers relate to a crowd. Whether the musicians joined us, engaged us in conversation, gave us antagonistic stares or foxed us with surreal spectacle, we were constantly reminded just what a gig in a small venue can do that no volume of free MP3s and YouTube videos can.