Part musical-polymath, part stand-up comedian
Atlas Sound - Live At Scala, London

Maybe it’s symptomatic of the fact that nobody but Adele sells albums anymore, but it seems like the vast majority of artists adopt a business-like attitude to gigs nowadays, eschewing audience interaction to focus solely on delivering note-perfect recreations of their records. Sure, this showcase approach is great for convincing hesitant shoppers, but it can leave audiences feeling a little short-changed; were it not for the obligatory “Hello (insert name of city here)”, you could easily recreate the experience at home with the album by sipping tepid beer, and turning the lights down and the volume up.

There is, however, a rarefied group of artists for whom context is everything, the album is merely a reference point and a “show” is precisely that. With his reputation for witty banter, leftfield covers and remoulding his own material into surprising new forms, Bradford “Atlas Sound” Cox falls gloriously in the latter camp, meaning there’s always a frisson of excitement at his gigs.

Admittedly, on occasion it can backfire: Cox’s unpredictable temperament wasn’t so great for the Minnesotan audience back in March who were “treated to” an hour-long rendition of ‘My Sharona’, when Cox took umbrage at a heckler requesting The Knack. Thankfully for us, he shared the playful side of his personality at the Scala tonight.

Sporting a straw Stetson and riddled with a nasty case of jetlag, Cox is part musical-polymath, part stand-up comedian. There’s a surreal, stream of consciousness monologue about Moses and an Android phone. There’s an improvised song about a pet raccoon called Saxophone. There’s even “moisturiser humour”. But there’s music too.

Bathed in blue lighting, Cox kicks off with an echo-laden a capella rendition of ‘Moonshiner’ by Appalachian folk musician, Roscoe Holcombe, before segueing into a new song. It’s like space-age alt-country; languid harmonica notes meander over programmed synth lines, evocative of clouds rolling overhead. One otherworldly cover of Hank Williams Jr’s ‘Your Cheating Heart’ later, he moves onto material from excellent latest album ‘Parallax’.

The sprawling reworking of ‘Te Amo’ is excellent. Cox spends four minutes looping and layering the glittering, electronic piano arpeggios before adding guitar and rhythm, beating the body of the guitar for another two. Next comes that voice, variously bewitchingly ethereal and punch-drunk in timbre. Finally, discordant notes are added to the whirligig, until the melody is enveloped entirely, swallowed by a throbbing storm of feedback.

None of these are carbon copy renditions of album tracks. ‘Mona Lisa’ benefits from the addition of a blowsy harmonica solo and the Deerhunter-esque ‘My Angel Is Broken’ is stripped of its church organ and Elvis-like snarls, to become something sparser and shockingly beautiful. Best of all is the twinkling ‘Terra Incognita’, a lush soundscape which arrives just before the encore.

One incident at the beginning of the set sticks in the mind, though. While tuning up, Cox wonders aloud, “What would happen if I lift my voice on every tone of the guitar?” and then, to our amusement, tries it to see. “Let’s give you one of those shows. It’s called jet lag and it’s better than most drugs you can buy, especially in London.” Strikes us, the same can be said for the music of Atlas Sound.

Words by Gemma Samways
-

Follow Clash: