Howl and Frownby Matthew Partridge, images by Chris Saunders / 08.04.2011
As a cold and damp autumn has finally descended upon Jo’burg, a new indie record label is attempting to stake their claim among the detritus that is the independent SA music recording industry: can we please have three cheers for Howl Records! And what better way to celebrate this event but with the EP launch of Howl’s first signed band, non other but the electro cross-over group, The Frown.
As clouds gathered on Monday afternoon, rain threatened – who knew that all the plenitude of the highveld sky would later come to grace the event in a brief, yet unmatched torrential downpour. After picking up maverick photographer Chris Saunders (who has just returned from a years stint at Fabrica) from his mom’s house, we make our way to Wolves for the gig.
This is The Frowns second attempt at an EP launch. The first at The Bioscope in downtown Jozi fielded an audience of about 15 people. Speaking later to their vocalist, the ever vivacious Eve Rakow, I can’t decide whether this was due bad advertising and communication or just hipster slacking on behalf of the audience – maybe the R50 cover had something to do with it.
Nevertheless this gig promised to be better attended. Eve, known for her cunning ways of drawing a crowd, invited a field of artists to open the show with covers from their 5-track album, äˈ-mĕn. As the performers sound checked their various instruments, the gig ran late and the crowd looked a little thin. Yet as the time wore slowly on and the photographers grew gradually restless the audience swelled as the pressure from the monsoon outside forced them indoors.
Nonchalantly taking the mic to introduce the gig, front man of Desmond and the Tutus and Howl Records founder Shane Durrant, suggested that this was “just a taste of things to come.” If what followed was indeed any sign of what Howl have in store it’ll pay to keep and eye (and ear) peeled.
It’s a peculiar strategy, letting performers cover songs about to be played. What if they do it better than the original? What if the original, tempered by the awesomeness of the cover, seems alien? What if they suck? Yet the novelty of this ploy worked perfectly due to the formidable standard of the line-up with each artist bringing a distinct signature to their interpretation.
Former Buckfever Underground bassist Gilad Hockman’s enchanting version of “Boowhoo” together with Fonda’s almost Thom Yorke like inspired rendition of “Rock Star” set a generous tone for what was to come. Short Straw, equipped with ukulele, crooned through a blue-grass inspired version of “Robin”, humorously adding, “we’ve never met, Robin but apparently she’s a cunt!”
But in terms of the covers, it was perhaps Rakow’s collaboration with Vampire 9000 on the track, “The National” that was the most stirring. Armed with a vintage white Macbook, electric guitar and synthed keyboard, Vampire 9000, laid down an electrical loop that popped and expanded whilst Eve filled in the lyrics as the music took centre stage. If the event was recorded this would be one to look out for!
By now the weather outside had reached its fulcrum, The Frown took the stage. Eve, hidden under a platinum wig and transparent veil, grasping a straw wand almost conducted the audience in a trance as the strain of her voice piqued. The bands mysterious DJ and producer, Dan Apter, kitted in a Donnie Darko-esque mask danced frenetically as he lay the glitched melodies to each track whilst Max Lehr on electric drums provided a solid yet sporadically filtered percussion.
What is perhaps most surprising in this electric ensemble is the subtle presence of a cello played by Caroline Leisegang, with the acoustic quality of the instrument revealing an almost invisible wholeness to the music. Between the absence of Rakow’s lyrics, Leisegang accentuates the measured urgency of the tunes that gives a particular depth to the complicated arrangement of the songs.
Annoyingly, I have always been reminded by my father, (once a jazz drummer himself) that a band is to be judged not by the sound of their album but by how they perform on stage, how they reproduce what has been so carefully mastered in the studio. In this light The Frown almost sound better live. The album is no doubt, well produced, clean in areas and dirty when it needs to be. But it is what they give in the performance that makes the group something to see in the flesh. That their album is only 5 tracks long is something of a blow to this need to experience them. I left wanting more, not satisfied, wishing I could listen all over again.
*The Frown play Saturday Night at Town Hall in Newtown along with Desmond and the Tutus, Taxi Violence, Dance You’re on Fire and more…
**All images © Chris Saunders.