Cranes @ Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen
Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen. 29oct08.
Born in the mid-80’s, Cranes have shown a remarkable staying power, ploughing a furrow they have developed from gothic aridity to a dream-pop ethereality. Early songs like Beach Mover pre-dated Scott Walker’s astonishing Tilt by five years but have a similarly desolate authority. From their early EP’s even through to their Top 40 pop tunes Jewel and Shining Road, they were dancing a defiantly dark ballet, softened slightly on those latter songs by the presence of an acoustic strum.
This year’s new self-titled record continues the delicate progress made through 2001’s Future Songs and 2004’s Particles & Waves. Where once Jim Shaw juxtaposed sister Alison’s elfin vocals against stark piano and drilling guitars, their band’s music now twinkles around and alongside her fragile gasp.
Despite these organic shifts, they remain informed by their experience and their home town. Named after the cranes littering Portsmouth dockyard, they originally espoused mechanics and industrial alienation, but their music these days has much more to do with the ambient lap of the coastal waves at low-tide.
This dampening however causes more than a little consternation around their live sound, several of tonight’s audience heckling vehemently during the opening numbers that both the vocals and electronic drum-set are far too low in the mix. Jim Shaw, sat on a stool virtually out of sight to the side of the stage and, looking ever more like shambling John Peel circa 1995, initially looks non-plussed, that is until someone shouts “give it some oomph.” “You’ll get some oomph on the louder songs, these are the quiet ones, for fucks sake”, he replies unable to contain his annoyance. Later he responds to a mistake made by instrumental utility-man Paul Smith by sighing “this is the end of the fucking Cranes, I ain’t fucking joking.”
Following these exchanges, Alison spends many of her non-singing moments diverting a concerned eye in her brother’s direction, at other times gripping the mic-stand like a child inattentively following the buffeting of a party balloon tied to their wrist and caught in a slight draft. One might guess that touring Europe, even only for a fortnight, may these days be taking more of a physical and mental toll. Thus there is a tension at odds with the calm wash of their updated sound. It is perhaps for this reason that the louder songs work best, although the tickling and cascading Feathers from the new LP is also a highlight.
They place their meatier songs correctly, building to two crescendos. Adrift closes the main set, crashing like a galleon, while the wonderful Lilies is where they depart after a seven-song encore. Lilies reminds me of Captain Beefheart’s Ashtray Heart, in a way. Despite their voices sounding as different as is perhaps possible, it is the vocal method that conjoins them in my head; Alison Shaw breathing in her porcelain trill here and thus injecting the lost-child blamelessness with an uncommonly imposing glottal power and therefore a shot of menace.
Here’s hoping that this isn’t where they bow out for good.