Over the last few years the NME Radar Tour, formerly known as the New Noise Tour has established a reasonably high hit count of bands that have gone on to bigger and better things – La Roux, Crystal Castles, White Lies, Maximo Park, Friendly Fires and Marina and the Diamonds all being some of the alumni who have trodden the boards. As the latest chapter of the tour calls into Portsmouth it brings three variations of indie guitar sounds and one blast of self-important pop for judgement. The headline pop act produces the goods to suggest that it has the most chance of following other successful graduates to a wider audience.
Local group The Strange Death of Liberal England have a lost-in-their-own-world shouty intensity that forms a substantial racket. Performing mainly new songs they’re like a melodramatic cartoon rock band, each member formed with a different hairstyle (a cleaners mop of frizzy ginger, bald, long black) and moving in different ways on stage (jittery leg twitching, focussed haughtiness, head slamming energy). Calling them cartoon is a disservice though for there is no humour or gag with Strange Death of Liberal England - they obviously mean everything they do. Even though they sometimes lack in melodic edge they make up for it in passion - guitar riffs fight against each other to become victorious. Older song A Day Another Day is their best moment, with its chiming xylophone introduction and thrashing climax. The Strange Death of Liberal England sound is invigorating but the absence of a commercial edge means that they are unlikely to step their public profile up further than where they are now
“You guys came here to see a show,” announces curly haired New Yorker Darwin Deez, and so a show is what Portsmouth gets. Albeit this is a geeky, wacky kind of show with amateur choreographed dance routines in between songs to a variety of cheesy backing tracks such as Walk Like An Egyptian and Do The Bartman. It’s fun, but only in the same way as watching a Butlins holiday camp cabaret performed by the redcoats. When the skinny Deez and his band are not pulling shapes they knock out medleys of their poor mans Weezer / Strokes referencing songs and go down a storm with the crowd, but ultimately Darwin Deez are nothing more than a hipsters bad joke. With the exception of the chirpy and aptly named Radar Detector they simply don’t have the tunes to match the humorous performance.
The last time hotly tipped Manchester art rock band Everything Everything played in Portsmouth was just over a year ago, in a small pub just a few hundred metres from the Wedgewood Rooms. (Reviewed here) Boosted by a significantly more substantial sound system than that night they are taught, tight and deliver their tunes without gimmick. Songs such as the percussive whistle topped groove of Schoolin’ and the warped harmonies and rhythms of Photoshop Handsome are complex and not immediately accessible, but verge just on the right side of eccentricity.
Hurts (pictured) may be a rather mismatched booking for the NME Radar tour - a number of the audience drift away into the night before they’ve even played a note - but their grandiose 90’s influenced electronic pop is the best thing on stage all evening. Lead singer Theo has star quality written all over him, every action and move full of restrained emotion and aloof composure - his eyes piercing, his slicked back hair and face handsome. Suited in the style of Berlin alternative meets English gent coolness he caresses the lapel of his jacket before bowing his head and staring intently at the floor, placing one hand behind his back. If his minimalist performance is for real or carefully constructed and acted out matters not one jot - it’s mesmerising to watch.
Of course it wouldn’t matter how carefully constructed this visual aesthetic was if the music was poor, but Hurts have the songs. Big bombastic ballads such as Illuminated and Stay are incredibly portentous - like Vienna by Ultravox for a new worshipful generation. Lyrics such as “We don’t need your cheap salvation,” hint at power and arrogance, yet after new single Better Than Love ends in a frenzy of strobe lights Theo quietly and humbly thanks the crowd with the words “Thank you Portsmouth, the pleasure was all ours.” It’s the only sentence he says all night but it dispels any question of contemptuousness. Yet whilst Hurts dazzle it seems that the public at large may not yet be ready to engage with the band. Someone in the crowd shouts a few swear words of abuse at them and other punters stand arms folded looking somewhat puzzled. It may be that Hurts will find a niche audience who adore them, but that the average man on the street passes them by.
The previous time we saw Hurts was in a decrepit East End Music Hall (review here), and whilst The Wedgewood Rooms may not quite match up in terms of a sense of occasion, Hurts managed, for some, to transform the place into something heroically romantic for half an hour on a Sunday night.