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:: Scout Niblett :: Ed Cottam :: Ora Cogan ::
02 June 2010 / Ruby Lounge / Manchester
By David Edwards

Manchester is indeed a quite beautiful place in the summertime. The sun glints and squints across the office blocks and tramlines as pretty girls walk on by smiling, laughing and catching the beams of admiring glances from the off-duty office workers clutching frosted glasses as the fading light sweeps through Northern Quarter. In a city known so renowned for its rain and stoical greyness; any hint of blue sky is greeted with a sense of euphoria and compelling lunacy; be it running fully clothed through the Piccadilly Gardens fountains or impromptu kickabouts in the green spaces. But there’s only so much sun you can take before you become cynical and need your daily dose of musical patchwork. So we put away the sunglasses, shun the light and descend into the depths of the Ruby Lounge; all ready to indulge in some prettily misaligned surrealism. Bonkers, you say? Why, thank you for noticing.

To call Ed Cottam unique is to do him a disservice. He writes songs that are singular, intelligent and densely fascinating; oscillating between songs of sardonic comedy and drop-of-a-pin-silence-inducing heartbreak. Frequently within the same verse. He delivers the first portion of his set on keyboards; hands dancing across the keys and his vocals; a combination Gilbert and Sullivan and Nick Cave, imparting narratives full of Brechtian satire, loss and remorse. “Tulips” flows like Neil Hannon covering Cole Porter while “Friends” is the soundtrack to an episode of The Simpsons with Tom Waits guest-starring to serenade the grotesque, familiar faces in Moe’s Tavern. There are touches of both Monty Python and Morrissey in the humour but the most fascinating thing of all is how the smart asides and witty couplets actually enhance the melancholy, outlining the sorrow. Together with the theatre in his voice, it’s almost like a mask to protect to soft sadness underneath. Moving to guitar for the second part of his set; the mood maintains with soft, understated chord patterns. “Have a Nice Life” echoes with poignant reflection and tender, minimalist guitar craft, while “Writing a Novel” induces gales of laughter from the crowd with its whip-smart cabaret and acerbic asides. There aren’t many people doing this sort of thing and fewer still who have the talent and intelligence to pull the whole plan into action. He is doing something comprehensively and unmitigated outside the punctuation of the typical singer-songwriter text and deserves to be taken to the heart of the local music scene. He truly is one of a kind.

Ora Cogan is actually quite terrifying, in a fundamentally compelling sort of way. She comes on and stands there with her beautiful Gibson archtop; head cocked to one side in an aloof, seductive, indifferent manner. Her fingers weave dexterous jazz arpeggios and chords across the frets as she sings in a dense drawl of fragmented words and ideas. The songs are a combination of fractured innocence, broken stories and traditional Americana; though delivered in a voice that verges frequently into off-key and lo-fi territory. There is something distinctly unsettling about the whole package and performance; reminiscent of Daniel Johnston or Joni Mitchell if she had a complete breakdown and was recovering through music therapy, tablets and insomnia, indeed; what her seminal 'Blue' record would sound like re-interpreted by Madcap Laughs era Syd Barrett. In the dark of the Ruby Lounge it’s claustrophobic, tense and the entire better for it. She flits through songs of deep resonance, looking a perfect mixture of vintage calm and modern angst. Not easy to listen to, but thoroughly compelling.

Scout Niblett is a rare musical British export; moving from these shores to the US recently, where you would expect her quaint, introspective charms to be a little better received than here, where we seem to have deeply questionable approaches to songwriters, both male and female. She alludes to this early on when someone asks her what she misses most about the UK. Her answer? “Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup”. This intercontinental lack of viscous glucose may go some way to explaining how her set proves as devoid of sugary sweetness as you can get. Her style is built upon blending the Seattle quiet-loud-quiet template with Cat Power quirks of introspection and fractious, off-kilter lyrics married into heavy instrumental shoving and shrugging with drummer Dan Wilson. Which initially is fine and interesting; until the point where you begin to realise nearly every song follows rather an identikit path; though interesting and idiosyncratic; it lacks any genuine flair or true redemptive quality. The song-writing is beguiling to a certain point, but the absence of something truly standout begins to grate after a while; especially considering the dense melodic twists and turns of the previous two acts. I’m sure it’s not meant to be polished and I’m sure her die-hard fans adore her. And maybe if I listened again I would think better of it. But when you’re asked to make a snap decision on someone based upon one performance, you’ve got to consider all aspects objectively; songs, performance, delivery, aim and objective. And too often, it comes across as self indulgent and striving for independent territory, even if it’s barren tundra with nothing but a curious rock and a sarcastic tree stood upon it. Stripped to its bare elements tonight, it’s like the musical equivalent of a Gok Wan makeover: every crease and wrinkle is all too cruelly exposed. She’s intriguing, clever and absolutely justified in a desire to do something that stands out from the massed, cloned hoards of female singer-songwriters that emerged from the mid-nineties onwards. But to me, there is nothing of particular sonic interest underneath the veneer. Different is good, sure. But focused, concise and inspired is much, much better. Considering her obvious talents, it comes across tonight as a missed opportunity.

Scout Niblett
Ed Cottam
Ora Cogan

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