Bat For Lashes - The Glee Club, Birmingham
Purchasing Bat For Lashes' first album Fur and Gold at the outer edges of 2006, some leftover Christmas money burning my pocket, I was expecting to add another enigmatic and left-of-centre female artist to the most prominent genre on my MP3 player, entitled 'Female Singer/Songwriters'. The critics had been wowed by her, and I thought 'Why not? May as well opt for her over Fergie'. Two months on, and her album is still comfortably sitting in my CD player, giving a smug two fingers to artists of the same ilk (Kate Bush and her gang of like-minded kooky songsmiths) who have been neglected due to my end-of-year purchase. Yup, Bat For Lashes aka Natasha Khan is that good. It's a shame I can't say the same about the night's support act, one Micky Greaney. Despite a powerful voice and a set of nice enough acoustic torch songs, including one very favourable one that name-checked Fleet Street, it all ended up sounding very anaemic in comparison to the night's main act. Maybe it would have been an idea to give him a backing band? It's a shame I wasn't bowled over because he seemed to be a very amiable chap. Better luck next time, maybe?
Dressed in a stunning white trouser-and-top combo - broken up by a bit of gold, of course, as you can see above - 'Bat Girl' didn't waste time, getting straight into things by belting out a bit of French over some atmospheric guitars. More about the instruments in a moment (I can't not comment on them for reasons that will become clear) but this off-kilter opening gambit proved to be an intro to the brooding Trophy. When she gets to the song's refrain 'Heaven is a feeling I get in your arms', you're certain you're the closest you'll get to heaven at any gig this year. Not many artists around at the moment, however talented, possess such an otherwordly and mystical sound. This has a lot to do with the instruments (again, I'll tell you about them in a mo!) but it's really something imbued in Natasha herself. Her voice is truly soaring, her vocal on tonight's performance of I Saw a Light especially magnificent, although the lyrics are also suitably strange. Whether discussing the 'shit-eating grin' of Sarah's titular protagonist or being the armor-clad 'chosen one' on Horse and I, her attractive and spell-binding stage persona will lead you into a world that manages to be utterly peculiar, unsettling, and comforting all at once. She claims that films are one of the biggest influences on her music, and this is abundantly clear; you'll come over all David Lynch on Trophy, stop off at a darker version of Oz during The Wizard, and then find yourself in Tim Burton territory during the tingle-inducing imagery of Bat's Mouth. I'm a Film Studies student, although I think I'd rather opt to go back in time and watch this gig than head to the cinema anytime soon.
Now, about those instruments. Despite Natasha herself being the focal point, you get the feeling she chose the name Bat For Lashes because her songs all feature a varied array of instruments, so much so that performing live would be impossible were it not for accompaniment. Seeing her tonight, it's like someone's raided a music box and handed the contents over to Natasha and the three members of her band. Her backing trio are all female, decidedly ethereal in appearance and adding their own flavour by divvying out backing vocals. However, their main joint talent is knocking out some music! The three young women share duties on violas, guitars, and some strange-looking mini-contraptions set up on a table - I want to say they were auto-harps and vibraphones but couldn't get a close enough look. Perhaps the most impressive instrumentation comes when the band mix up the percussion. There's not what you would call a 'drummer' per se for most of the songs but, during Horse and I, a snare drum is employed after the first chorus, kicking the song into gear. Meanwhile, the huge marching drum on What's a Girl to Do? gives it the extra punch that makes it a highlight of the live set. Natasha herself sits at her electric piano for most of the night, proving an adept pianist, especially during the weepy Sad Eyes. During the more guitar-led songs though, she takes centre-stage, wielding (quite provocatively, if you ask me) a huge Willy Wonka stick that she bangs against the floor to add extra 'oomph' to Sarah. Watching all this take place and moving your gaze from Natasha to each of her band members, especially seated in the atmospheric Glee Club, is a great joy that makes all the plodding indie guitar bands seem truly irrelevant. She even gets the audience to join in at certain points in the set, requesting wolf howls for one song and asking us to clap along to new single Prescilla.
Sadly, it's all over in an hour that flies by, something I'm going to put down to the magic that Natasha Khan can undoubtedly access. She still manages to squeeze in a cover of Springsteen's I'm On Fire, as well as an encore performance of the as-yet-unrecorded Moon and Moon which manages to sound as beautiful as anything on her debut record. The only thing that's stopping me from giving her a perfect ten is the fact that the haunting Seal Jubilee was not played, despite Natasha claiming they'd run out of songs to perform. This was a shame but didn't put a dampener on what is my favourite gig of the year so far. She's an exceptional talent and, in a world where everything is labelled as such but rarely ever is, truly 'alternative'. No-one sounds like her, and this originality will hopefully be noticed by the masses. Bat For Lashes deserves to be heard.
Check out her Myspace at www.myspace.com/batforlashes. Her official website is at www.batforlashes.co.uk.