Perfume Genius - The Oobleck, Birmingham
Before the gushing (verbal variety) can start, a quick word about the support act. I rarely catch the support nowadays, usually choosing instead to be obnoxious and have a natter or to investigate the bottom of my plastic pint - but tonight I actually listened and was pleasantly surprised. Mauvelle are a local boy/girl DIY duo, with singer Melissa Hollick stabbing synth keys to the accompaniment of Joe Sullivan's drum pads, guitar and assorted bits of laptop trickery. Although the live setting doesn't completely break the shackles of a bedroom, where these tracks were clearly made, there's something there. The sound remains suitably moody despite subtle tempo changes, suiting the icy room and shruggy audience, yet there's an underlying ambition beneath the lo-fi electronic layers. Plus, Hollick has a commanding voice, with shades of Kate Bush cool shining through. A lofty comparison, for sure, but for an upcoming duo who only have 700-plus Facebook likes (sort it out!), that's a pretty good start.
Now, where were we? Oh yes. Perfume Genius...
Since succumbing to the sad and sublime soul of his debut Learning in 2010, I've been occupying a full-on fanboy space. After four years of waiting to hear these songs live, I have no shame in admitting I would have been happily hyperbolic if the Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, had come onstage and mimed for 30 minutes to the latest Cheryl record (*shudder*). However, if you're rushing to find an objective review away from my raving recommendations, then please consider this: my plus-one was fond of what he'd heard of Hadreas's music, which was the debut album and the odd track since (including only a cursory pre-gig listen of the new album), yet came away as impressed as anyone else in the room - and, judging from the stunned 'oohs' and 'ahhs' being emitted on the way out of The Oobleck, that's everyone.
Three band members take their cues first (the good ol' setup of keys, drums and guitar) before the menacing bass of 'My Body' announces the arrival of a black-clad Hadreas. It's a startling statement of a song to take top billing: ugly, discordant, downright nasty in some parts (witness Hadreas spitting out the lyric "I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you can handle the stink" while nightstalking the stage), its sinister squall is basically an opening salvo to scare off anyone who's not on board with this new scent of Perfume. Nobody leaves. Of course they don't.
The song is indicative of the new direction favoured by third album Too Bright; while uneasy listening has always been a comfort zone for Hadreas, his unflinching lyrics now come wrapped in harsh electronics and untethered dissonance. Of course, moments of bold beauty still punctuate the crazier turns of the record - and the live show embraces the sonic shifts, making room for every mood and taking the audience on an unpredictable tour of a discography that has yet to fall shy of remarkable.
It's hard to pick out favourite moments when all these songs have been so good to me. The segue from 'Body's in Trouble', a cover of a Mary Margaret O'Hara song where Hadreas switches from sultry blues diva to screaming man-banshee (and I literally mean screaming), into a pulsing and vital performance of 'Grid' shows how far this guy has come. All three albums are acknowledged equally, with jetblack murder ballad 'Lookout, Lookout' sharing setlist space with the sexy slow-dance of 'Floating Spit' and the pop swoon of 'Take Me Home'. A middle section slows things down substantially (the main man self-effacingly chuckling, "If I say it's slow, then it's slooowww"), with Hadreas at his own keyboard for a classy rendition of 'No Good', a solo performance of little-known early track 'Dreem', and a yearningly pretty version of 'Learning', where keyboardist and partner Alan Wyffel joins him on keys. The crowd - a third hipster, a third Grindr, a third muso (sometimes in a 3-for-1 skinny, geek glasses combo) - are hushed throughout, transfixed and very possibly perfecting the art of sobbing in silence.
Two performances stand out: firstly, new single 'Fool' shape-shifts in a live arena as well as it does on CD, a finger-snapping doo-wop groove bookending a ghostly heartland that culminates in some awesome high notes from Hadreas; and secondly, 'Hood' which is my favourite song and is here extended so the spine-tingling build, where the sparse keys are suddenly backed up by crashing Spector drums, is performed with gusto not once but twice. Talk about a treat.
When 'Queen's defiant glam-rock pomp signals the nearing end, it's with a feeling of cathartic celebration that we've survived the dark parts of the night through the fragile protection of these uncompromising songs. There's the epilogue to come though, in the shape of the shockingly wry 'Mr Peterson' and a gorgeous version of 'All Along', a bruised blues ballad that recalls namechecked inspiration Cat Power and is performed perfectly by Hadreas and band. With final lyrics "I need you to listen" ringing out, the Genius can rest assured that we did, we have and we will continue to do so.
Setlist: My Body / Take Me Home / Dark Parts / Lookout, Lookout / 17 / Body's In Trouble / Grid / Perry / Fool / No Good / Sister Song / Learning / Dreem / Hood / All Waters / Floating Spit / Rusty Chains / Queen // Mr Peterson / All Along