Artist David Shrigley has dabbled in music before – a 2007 compilation album involved names including Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand and Dirty Projectors turning his poems into short songs – but a sense of mystery attends his main commission for this year’s Brighton festival. Advance publicity variously describes it as a “musical theatre piece” and an “alt-rock/pop pantomime”, informs us that a group of local musicians – some drawn from Brighton-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey – will be performing songs co-authored by Shrigley and composer Lee Baker on guitars designed by the artist, some of which only have one string.
As it turns out, “musical theatre piece” is pitching it a bit high: there are a few props on stage – at one point, someone pretends to play a car exhaust – and a lot of zany gurning, but it’s essentially a gig. The music resides somewhere between old-fashioned indie and garage rock, while the lyrics are surreal comic monologues not a million miles from something Vic Reeves or Harry Hill might come up with. It’s tempting to add that most of the lines feel more likely to raise a smile or an indulgent chuckle than a belly laugh, but in fairness there are people here who are in fits. One song involves frontwoman Pauline Knowles singing the names of various types of footwear – plimsolls, moonboots, Doc Martens etc – while fellow vocalist Stephan Kreiss takes off his shoes and socks and waves them about. Somewhere in the audience, a woman nearly dies laughing.
At its absolute worst, it sounds like something a sixth-form punk band might do at the end-of-term school gig: a brief thrashy number during which everybody shouts “Jacob Rees-Mogg!” over and over again. But what it really seems to speak of is a youth spent listening to the John Peel show late at night. The best bits – a song about finding dead sea life washed up on a beach, each creature wearing a ridiculous hat – evince a dark whimsy reminiscent of perennial Peel favourites Ivor Cutler and Vivian Stanshall. After Peel’s death, you heard a lot about his support for Marc Bolan and the Fall, but substantially less about his ceaseless enthusiasm for a certain kind of leftfield novelty record – There Goes Concorde Again by And the Native Hipsters, the Colourblind James Experience’s Considering a Move to Memphis, the oeuvre of I, Ludicrous – an almost forgotten sub-genre of music into which what’s performed tonight fits so perfectly that, as the songs end, you can virtually hear a vaguely Liverpudlian burr cutting in: “… and that’s at No 38 in this year’s Festive 50”. Indeed, if you wanted to be irksomely specific, you might note that huge swathes of the material sound almost identical to the Shapes’ Peel-championed late-70s single Wot’s for Lunch Mum (Not Beans Again).
The inbuilt problem with novelty songs, leftfield or otherwise, is that the novelty wears off: there’s a reason Wot’s for Lunch Mum (Not Beans Again) seldom turns up as a selection on Desert Island Discs. And so it proves tonight. There are certainly moments where what’s happening on stage is quirkily engaging – there’s a good gag about the Glitter Band – but an hour of it amounts to pushing your luck: an EP’s worth of material padded out into an album.
- At the Old Market, Hove, until 12 May. Box office: 01273 201 801.