Albatross round the neck or not, the Mercury Prize remains as hard a fought piece of music industry back-slappery today as it ever has. And tonight, playing with Michael Kiwanuka and The Maccabees, it’s Alt-J that make the strongest case to be thrown into the full media spotlight come November 1st.
The Cambridge band’s set is an almost note-for-note recreation of ten crafty songs from their inventive but instantly accessible debut, ‘An Awesome Wave’. Appropriately enough, seeing as tonight’s venue is a converted church, ‘Interlude 1’ sees three of the four-piece harmonising like a group of monks, softly cooing together about who knows what.
Fizzing with genre-bending idiosyncrasies the songs may be, but these quirks don’t cover the fact that Alt-J’s kingdom is built on orderliness, control and, above all, melody. Take the track ‘Something Good’ as evidence, with its beguiling time shifts and magnetic chorus.
Like The xx (another band no stranger to the Mercury merry-go-round), each Alt-J track is lean, measured and concise, pricking the attention and then doing just enough to hold it. The crowd seems transfixed throughout and when the set has finished, men whistle the riff to ‘Taro’ as they pee together in the gents.
After they’ve had their two shakes, the unabashedly smooth Michael Kiwanuka takes to the stage, surrounded by futuristic beams of blue lights rather than a sea of lava lamps, as would befit his retro take on ‘70s soul.
The singer-songwriter’s ‘Tell Me A Tale’ nestles neatly in-between two classic styles – the free-swinging jazz of Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ – in such a way that’s undeniably comforting, but ultimately borrowed.
Yet, despite Kiwanuka being more sound of 1972 than Sound of 2012, he still deserves a place on the Mercury stage. The woozy ‘Rest’, which the charmer dedicates to a recently married couple (n’awwww), silences the chattering coming from the bar, while ‘Home Again’ rises above any timeframe as one of those songs that just won’t get old.
Next up it’s The Maccabees who, once upon a time, were fun and sung about swimming pools with wave machines. Now, they’re an altogether different proposition- surly but shy and armed with effects pedals and smoke machines.
The Maccabees’ set is weighed down by a nagging sense that, whereas Alt-J manage to sound relatively innovative in the face of retromania, the South London band’s muscular and accomplished indie rock moves in well-trodden, rather than unchartered, territory.
Not that there’s no kind words to say; ‘Pelican’ is impressively beefy, establishing a stark contrast between Orlando Weeks’ gliding, affected vocals and the violent stabs of guitar. But the maturity and depth in sound apparent on the band’s third album is hard to pinpoint live. Instead, most of it simply washes over the senses, rather than invigorates them.
Words by Nico Franks