Everything Everything – review

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

If you tried to imagine what an Everything Everything live show might look like, purely on the basis of what the band's lead singer Jonathan Higgs does with his voice, you'd be forgiven for picturing a scene from the movie Amadeus, or anything involving precipitous wigs, beauty spots and grand baroque flourishes.

The fine art of singing falsetto is alive and well in British indie rock, thanks in no small part to the excellent Kendal quartet Wild Beasts. But if the practice ever were in danger of croaking it, so to speak, Higgs's output alone would keep it at a healthy register.

"On Everything Everything's recent debut album Man Alive, which, along with the single "MY KZ, UR BF", is up for an Ivor Novello award this year, he rarely dips into the more humdrum vocal regions: it's falsetto all the way. Mozart would have loved it.

Tonight's gig at the Shepherd's Bush Empire is nothing like the movie Amadeus, however. The stage is bare, the lighting does little more than keep the band illuminated, and baroque flourishes are few and far between. The four members of Everything Everything are dressed, as if to dash all the promises inherent in their name, in matching grey-blue boiler suits. They play demurely, rarely lifting their eyes from their instruments. At one point, bass player Jeremy Pritchard advances towards the crowd for a spot of posturing but quickly changes his mind and falls back into position. They may display a flamboyant, maximalist streak in the studio, but here, in front of the biggest crowd of their young career, Everything Everything are keeping it minimal.

Maybe it's just as well. The Manchester-based band divide opinion – some find their kitchen-sink approach infuriating – but nobody would question their ambition. Beneath the dandyish vocal habits and nagging pop hooks, they make intricate, protean music teeming with complex melodies and unorthodox drum patterns. If you hear the song "Schoolin'" just once, all you'll remember is the chirpy whistle that drops at the end of every fourth bar. Listen again and you'll realise how many precocious musical ideas can be crammed into four and a half minutes without obliterating a decent pop song.

Listen to an album's worth of hyper-compressed songs like "Schoolin'" crammed into an hour-long gig and you may begin to appreciate the band's minimal approach to stagecraft.

They open the show on a quiet note with "Final Form", one of Man Alive's few moments of restraint (and, coincidentally or not, one of its strongest tracks), before raising the tempo, and the musical indulgence, with "Qwerty Finger". The rest of the show follows a similar pattern, dipping, rising and dipping again, but even when the band have an opportunity to rock out on louder songs such as "Suffragette Suffragette", they do so judiciously, as if taking care not to break things.

Four tracks in, on "Leave the Engine Room", Higgs creates space for the audience to sing along, but the response is muted. It's less a measure of enthusiasm in the packed room, more a response to the overwhelming flood of lyrics on Man Alive and the shape-shifting nature of its refrains. It's as if nobody quite trusts themselves to know exactly what's being said, so everyone just hums along instead and hopes for the best: an odd state of affairs considering how pop-oriented the band can be.

Story fragments flicker in and out of view; more easily discerned is Higgs's absurdist and often dark sense of humour. "MY KZ, UR BF" appears to centre on a seducer assessing the romantic state of play in the aftermath of an aerial bombing raid: "Are you guys together honey?/ Oh-oh but now I can't find his torso/ Mmm-hmm-hmm, I guess you're separated."

"Photoshop Handsome", the show's ebullient closer, contains a surrealistic critique of an image-obsessed media ("Airbrush!/ What have you done with my father?/ Why does he look like a carving?"), but also its fair share of word-strings that are difficult to parse. However, intelligibility is not really the point here. The emphasis is squarely on the vocal acrobatics, and one good reason for seeing Everything Everything live is to appreciate the control Higgs has over his voice, of which much is required, and that almost all of those fluttering and diving melodies are being produced by one man. (His speaking voice, as rare moments of inter-song banter reveal, is deepest Northumbrian.)

Vocal dynamics aside, are there many other reasons for seeing Everything Everything live? Perhaps, but none of them desperately urgent. It might be the right decision to strip the live show right back, but, in spite of the fecundity of the music, there's only so much you can get from a low-key performance. The trick that Everything Everything are able to pull in their recorded music is turning clutter into harmony. If they could pull a similarly audacious trick in a concert setting – fewer boiler suits, more beauty spots – then we'd have a show on our hands.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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