The Maccabees, Bombay Bicycle Club, the Big Pink, the Drums | Pop review

In an indifferent year for indie rock, one band stands out during a four-hour NME awards show, writes Kitty Empire

For much of the past decade, boys with guitars had their collective boot up on the monitor of popular acclaim. Rightly so – the cooler-faster-needlier renaissance ushered in by the Strokes in 2001 and seen out by the first Arctic Monkeys album was a golden age of riff and pace that seems unlikely to be repeated in the near future.

Bands have been on the back foot since, thanks to a critical mass of landfill indie, coupled with a strong female showing in 2008-9. The fabulous Florence Welch and her Machine emerged as frontrunners from last year's Shockwaves NME Awards tour, one where the quality of the surrounding guitar bands – Glasvegas, Friendly Fires – was high.

This year the only woman on tour is the Big Pink's live drummer, Akiko Matsuura, a bird-like figure hidden behind strobes. Her muscular percussing has to compete with a thick smear of electronics and treated guitar from her bosses, Milo Cordell and Robbie Furze. This din provides the only frisson of menace on a tour otherwise devoted to sprightly young men and their mannered, jobbing indie.

No band is dreadful. No one is truly great. All have their moments, which makes for an uneven four hours in which the occasional tune is followed by lengthy longueurs. It says something about the state of indie rock in 2010 that many of these bands are not new. The Maccabees are on their second album; the Big Pink were tipped as long ago as 2008. The exception? New York-via-Florida band the Drums. A year old, they occupy the opening slot, which has passed into music lore as the choice placing on the bill. A soupçon of controversy comes from the band's reliance on backing tapes.

Newcastle has not been apprised of this, perhaps, or the industry buzz currently surrounding the Drums and their unlikely marriage of 50s Americana (surf guitar, fraternity cardigans) and 80s Mancunia (Joy Division, the Smiths). Drums guitarist Jacob Graham throws himself around the stage on "Best Friend" as though electrocuted by his tambourine. Newcastle remains unmoved, until the singles scroll round. The undeniably catchy "I Felt Stupid" suffers criminal damage thanks to a rotten sound mix. Their other standout single, "Let's Go Surfing", fares better, even with pre-recorded whistling.

Murk overtakes perk as the Big Pink layer their melodies with as much roughage as possible. It's a trick pre-loved by Phil Spector and the Jesus and Mary Chain – names the Big Pink can't quite live up to, despite their brilliant song, "Velvet". "Dominos", too, is a kaleidoscopic burst at the close. But their hapless mauling of a classic of the indie disco canon – "Cannonball" by former 4AD labelmates the Breeders – is a disaster.

There was a time when Bombay Bicycle Club and fellow travellers Cajun Dance Party seemed like a choice of jars of sauce to pour on chicken. That time has passed. Newcastle certainly loves their quintessential indie-rock lolloping. If you squint your ears, these skew-whiff guitar workouts are occasionally redolent of Pavement. It's not what you might expect from a band boasting a member of the MacColl folk dynasty – guitarist Jamie – in the lineup.

When they pedal off on a tangent, Bombay Bicycle Club do take some unexpected turns, like a brief middle eight in "Emergency Contraception Blues" which gives the Velvet Underground's "Walk on the Wild Side" riff a dub remix. Otherwise, they are utterly lacking in focus or drama.

South London's Maccabees have more to commend them – not least a well-shot video for "Can You Give It" which documents a Gloucestershire cheese-rolling competition. They cover Orange Juice's "Rip It Up" lovingly.

For this tour, the five-piece – augmented to six, live – have also hired a brass section, the Blackjack Horns, to Dexys Midnight Runners-up their sound. "Wall of Arms", the excellent title track from their second album, certainly gains scope and gravitas.

There is a reason, however, that "No Kind Words" was a hit, of sorts. It is unlike anything else the Maccabees play tonight, and closes their set with succinct power. Rock tends to pride itself on having a longer attention span than pop. But you could argue quite strongly that this tour would benefit from some Radio 1 roadshow brevity. These are bands who should just play their hits and go.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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