Desert Hearts - The Menagerie, Belfast
Desert Hearts, Third Man Theme, Charles Hurts
Friday, April 21, 2012
The man with the best band name in Belfast (sorry Little Sausage Disorder, pipped at the post…) is slowly but surely coming into his own. After a period of fronting a slightly ramshackle three-piece band, Philip Quinn has been joined by Steven Henry (Documenta, ex-Clone Quartet among others), and Charles Hurts are all the better for it. There are a couple of false starts as the pair struggle to sync up with the laptop, but once into their stride, the strength of Quinn's songwriting shines through. He recently joined Girls Names as a guitarist and synth player, and fans of that band's gloomy post-punk aesthetic will feel at home with Charles Hurts, but just as important is Quinn's love for crystalline Sixties pop. His jangling guitar and rich croon mesh with the glorious twang of Henry's six-string bass, and the pair end on a high note with the help of backing singers "The Hurtsettes". 'Ain't Going Nowhere' sounds like a decades-old FM radio classic, while their sinister doo-wop cover of 1963 obscurity 'The Answer Is No' is a seriously classy way to finish.
Third Man Theme is another band whose development has been a pleasure to watch. Initially focused on caffeinated post-punk, it's far from the Belfast three-piece's only trick, and their experimental bent is making things a whole lot more interesting. Three-minute nuggets of herky-jerkiness are now in the minority, with the set mainly composed of lengthy tracks informed by Krautrock bands like Can and La Düsseldorf. Their set-up of drums, scratchy guitar and synth is sparse and minimal, but they push these simple tools to their absolute limits from the first song, with Brian Farquhar's robotic, tom-heavy drumming establishing a thunderous, locked-in groove. It's several minutes before any vocals appear – no compromises. The band do a nice line in self-deprecation – "This is as close to a pop hit as we're tempted to write," says Matthew Rodger, presumably referring to its infectious, hollered chorus, while Claire Hall cheerily introduces one number as "our disco track. We're doing all the genres." That might be pushing it, but Third Man Theme sound like no-one else in this town, and that's something to cherish.
Desert Hearts are well known for their wired energy, too. Their two albums so far marry the Pixies' spiky intensity with the browbeaten tenderness of Arab Strap, and with their third record finally due for release later this year – six years after the wonderful Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki – the four-piece band are using this show as a chance to road-test the new material. The success of any Desert Hearts gig can depend on what mood the famously unpredictable Charlie Mooney is in, and tonight he's on good form. "This is like Wembley for us," he says, ironically glorying in a headline show. "I never normally see midnight on a Friday." The banter is there, but there's a spark missing. While a set almost entirely made up of new material is no doubt useful for the band, it doesn't give the crowd much to cling to, especially given the affection for set stalwarts like 'No More Art', 'New Kings' and 'D Moon Pilot', all of which are absent tonight. And although we haven't yet heard the recordings, some of the new songs sound disappointingly pedestrian – too many sad-sack indie rock songs in a row begins to drain the Friday night buzz from the room. Still, one brand new power-pop number crackles with energy, even if Mooney proceeds to undermine it with more irony, referring to the band's "Foo Fighters direction". Closing with the exceptional 'The Usual' and the immortal 'Sea Punk' means Desert Hearts leave the stage on a cathartic high. But there's a question mark hanging in the air. Let's see what the album is like.