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:: Young British Artists :: Male Bonding :: Pens :: Milk Maid ::
10 June 2010 / Sound Control / Manchester
By Cath Aubergine

Once upon a time Sub Pop was synonymous with grunge, pioneering the sound which went on to form the bedrock of the alternative 90s. And yes, they've still got Mudhoney on their books but recent times have seen Beach House, Fleet Foxes and Foals amongst many other diverse styles gracing the legendary label. Latest signings Male Bonding, then, are something of a return to their roots - described as a noise trio their publicity photos show three slightly different points on the line between Surfer Dude and College Geekboy. Right now, however, they're very much the sort of band that's more talked about (and blogged about) than heard, and with similar accusations easily applicable to their split-single and touring mates Pens, the ever-astute Sound Control promoters have stuck a couple of local bands on first. Early. Very bloody early. Damn. One of these days I'll actually get to see a full Milk Maid set, but this isn't it. Which is annoying, given that the one full song I catch is a wonderful chunk of noisy dirty fuzz-pop with a proper old-school indie Swell-Maps-via-Pastels thing going on.

Young British Artists, meanwhile, sound ferocious tonight: every song packs a punch as razor-edged guitar lines slicing like javelins across the claustrophobic rhythms. And we can't help noticing that their collective hair is getting bigger - something of a concern given the trouble they already seem to have standing upright. The great thing about them is the way they really don't slot easily into any of the current scenes - they even look like a group of genuine misfits - but there's something intoxicating about their bass-driven shots of unrest.

Pens are the sort of band it's hard not to have An Opinion on; the underground and grassroots music sites are full of such, and strongly divided at that. "They can't play instruments, they can't write songs, but because they're cute and female and DIY, everyone loves them" says one DiS forum post which pretty much sums up the cases both for and against. And it's true: nobody who's namechecked Swell Maps in a review is going to require virtuoso-standard playing and perfect pitch, but if there's a line between heroically rubbish and just plain old rubbish rubbish then Pens probably drew it. The drummer bashes away without much grasp of timings, the guitarist looks at her fingers every chord-change (not that there are a huge number of these) and they all sing in a sort of unison shouty chant. At least Hotpants Romance have the wherewithal to (a) be totally and unquestionably crap, gloriously so, and (b) look like they're giddily enjoying it. They do however suddenly take a sharp trajectory towards "better" in the last couple of tunes, whereby they bring in a keyboard, start swapping instruments and it becomes apparent the one who was stuck behind drums most of the set - now on lead vocals - might have a bit more talen than she's letting on. As a fun thing to do when you're young (it's not like anyone could mistake them for a band taking anything too seriously, I mean have you see their Myspace address? Clue, there's an extraneous letter "i" in the word "pens") I can see the point. But if they want to expand their audience beyond the sort of people who only go to gigs that have tables full of A5 zines, badges and cakes then some concession to actual tunes wouldn't hurt.

Anyway, our Sub Pop geek-dudes. Ah, look at them, Male Bonding couldn't be more American if they turned up in Mom's SUV fresh from the drive-in with a supersize popcorn and rootbeer: the singer's got a trucker cap, glasses and a full arm tattoo; bassist's a skinny blond-mopped mall-rat; so, er, where did they get those London accents from? They're British? Indeed they are, although this is only perceptible when they're talking to us. They make a big thing of playing at breakneck speed and this they do, dishing out a succession of two minute fuzzcore blasts, but with the vocals drenched in reverb, the guitar in distortion and the bass barely audible the general feel is that there's something good going on in there somewhere if only you could pick it out. Maybe it's just not the right venue for them. It's a wonderful space, a welcome addition to Manchester's venue map in a capacity range whose only real competition is the largely unloved Moho, but they're not really big enough to fill it in terms of either crowd draw or actual sound. And there's too much space between the band and crowd - they do suggest at one point that people come round in front of the barrier but realistically nobody's going to do that - and where you could imagine this band feeling like the best thing ever in a Roadhouse stuffed with a wild teenage moshpit, here the valiant attempt by all three Pens to get a bit of a pogo started falls a bit flat. And they're off in barely half an hour with no sign of a return. There's still a feeling that this was a good band on a bad night as opposed to a bad band, but tonight Male Bonding felt less like the hot new signings of a legendary label and more like the sort of thing you can see any night of the week on a flyer-deal bill.

Male Bonding
Young British Artists
Milk Maid

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