Review: Martina Topley Bird/White Denim at Star of Bethnal Green

Her old fans waited for her to soar, but Martina Topley Bird's comeback gig was sabotaged by wretched sound and a cramped venue

Martina Topley Bird/ White Denim Star of Bethnal Green, London E2

A former pub in the East End is an unlikely place in which to see a phoenix rise. Bleached blonde, corkscrew-curled, with a turquoise dress hoiked up over jeans, Martina Topley Bird looks every inch the exotic creature intent on flight.

She is trying to come back - again - five years after her debut album, Quixotic, garnered a Mercury nomination (and was quickly forgotten), and 13 years after she first sang on Tricky's debut, Maxinquaye. Her cannabinoid coo became as integral a part of the Bristol sound as Shara Nelson's soul (viz, Massive Attack's 'Unfinished Sympathy') and the ache of Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Topley Bird's new album, The Blue God, is due in May. It'll be in familiar company, since Portishead, Massive Attack and her ex, Tricky, are all releasing albums in the spring or summer, and Massive Attack are curating London's South Bank Centre's annual multidisciplinary barn dance, Meltdown.

Did they all ring each other up, you wonder, and plan it so journalists could write about the south west rising again? That seems unlikely, given the insularity and shirtiness of all these artists' working practices. In fact, you can bet that, privately, most of these bands are slapping their foreheads in frustration at this bit of trip hop synchronicity.

Let's hope that Massive ask Topley Bird to play Meltdown. Her new works deserve a decent hearing, which they don't get tonight. Her gaudy phoenix barely gets to shake ash off its foot. The sound is wretched. Topley Bird's heavy-lidded vocals, so humid and unshowy, are lost in the run-off of unmixed sound. The new Blue God songs are supposed to retain some of the saturated intensity of her old work - that narcotic aesthetic she caught from Tricky all those years ago - but this is ridiculous. Everything sounds like it is being digested by a python.

The first track, 'Something To Say', throws out a gnarled hum of reverb where an intricate lacework of analogue keyboards is supposed to be. 'Poison', the next single, fares a little better, but it is mostly rattle.

It was probably foolish of Topley Bird and her five-man band to accept a gig in a hip but grungy former pub and then bring several keyboards, an organ, a laptop and more amusing-looking percussion instruments than can have been seen in London E2 before.

Or perhaps it was unwise of Topley Bird to attempt to replicate the studio itch of her songs live, rather than simplifying them. The Blue God was produced by Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) - one of four albums Burton has out this spring, including his own Gnarls Barkley album, The Black Keys' and The Shortwave Set's (Beck's is in the works). They met when they both worked on the last Gorillaz album.

Burton is in danger of spreading himself as thin as Marmite. But it is easy to hear Topley Bird's record as something of a companion piece to The Good, the Bad & the Queen's album, thanks to its digital-pretending-to-be-analogue trickery, not to mention the daft west London millinery on the band. (Their hats - berets, trilbies - are not to be believed.) On headphones, every Blue God song is dense with producerly atmospherics. But at the mercy of a cranky backline and an audience - crammed in, queueing around the block, with some people watching from outside through the big window at the side of the stage - the detail is lost. 'If I ever needed a drink...' Topley Bird quips at one point, as some fiddly gear fails once again.

Then there's the singer's own culpability. Her performance is so cool, it is almost catatonic. She bursts into flame only at the end, belting out a terrific encore of 'Too Tough to Die', an old song. They are probably thrilled to be going offstage soon after.

Her songs aren't particularly strong, either. It's a joy to hear 'Carnies' - the woozy, bewitching first single - emerge from the murk. It's a song that didn't deserve the quiet death it suffered on release. Another discernible tune, 'Baby Blue', finds Topley Bird having fun in a girl group gone bad.

'Poison', meanwhile, has an old-time vocal melody and noir-retro stylings. But you can't help but wonder why she keeps harking back to Trickyish things. He had a label called Durban Poison (named after a strain of weed). Her album's called The Blue God; he recorded as Nearly God. They share a daughter, but you would have thought Topley Bird might have wanted to move on.

It's funny how things turn out. On paper, Topley Bird - such a star of Maxinquaye - has been comprehensively outdone by Alison Goldfrapp, a minor presence on the same album. Somehow, Goldfrapp bloomed into a multi-hued songwriter and all-round creative, and Topley Bird remained a shifting mood, a smoky memory. And so she will remain - unless she can start her gigs with the earthy vigour with which she ends them.

From languor to its opposite. White Denim are as frantic as Martina Topley Bird is chilled. A three-piece from Austin, Texas, they were declared the best new band at the recent South By Southwest music industry pow-wow, held there every year.

It was an accolade earned a few years ago by The White Stripes, whose stripped-down blues-punk reverberates in White Denim's sound. Fast and furious, they also recall the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and you can make out a little soul, a lot of acid rock and obscure Sub Pop heroes Love as Laughter in their hell-for-leather set. Mostly, though, they spasm about, taking fiendish time signatures up to heart-attack speeds on guitar, bass and drums.

They can do this thanks to the amazing skills of drummer Joshua Block, a man in a V-neck jumper who can do base 12 algorithms with his limbs. Just as striking is the corrosive guitar of James Petralli, who nominally yells on top of the songs. He allegedly draws lyrical inspiration from Gertrude Stein, but it's rather hard to tell.

Their single, 'Let's Talk About It', is as close as White Denim come to anything you might hum. Of course, they don't play it. Or if they do, it is deconstructed to the point of unintelligibility. What are this band doing, opening for Martina Topley Bird (one of four gigs they are playing in one week)? Teaching her how to wring the most out of a pub sound system, it seems.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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