Occasionally a critic will find him or herself at a gig where he knows little about the artist. It can be an intuitive process. I was actually at YES, Manchester’s newest venue, to review a support artist, another Australian, Olympia, but that didn’t quite work out, as will be revealed later.
Researching Julia Jacklin before the show I discovered that her style falls somewhere between ‘dreamy indie pop’ and ‘confessional alt-country’ and that she cites very broad influences that encompass Doris Day, The Andrews Sisters, Björk, Billy Bragg, Fiona Apple and Leonard Cohen and that, coming from a family with no musical history, she was originally inspired by Britney Spears.
Lyrically, I can relate to Cohen and Apple but in the main I’d place her in the ‘Americana’ category on the strength of this show, and on some of her songs, many of which were from her recently-released second studio album, Crushing, she came across as an outright country and western artist. That was particularly evident on the night in the opening clutch of songs, ‘Body’,’Eastwick’ and ‘Leadlight’.
She has an endearing look about her which also has an American flavour. From the back of the venue it could have been a younger Sissy Spacek up there. Vocally, she doesn’t seem to have a very wide range and it was only towards the end of the show that her voice got into the higher ranges and not at all into the lower ones. But she makes a very, very good job of what she does have, coming across as ‘sassy’, ‘sultry’ and ‘haunting’ as required.
The set was a compilation of what are essentially ballads with fairly simple instrumental accompaniments from a four-piece band of guitars, keys and drums, which really got in to gear from the fifth song in, ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ which was presented a little more dynamically than in this video.
One or two of her songs didn’t quite work for me in a live setting. You know how some songs are “at home” when they are listened to at home; particularly break-up songs that require a supply of tissues. ‘Turn Me Down’ is one of them. Quite beautiful as a recording, it came across as a dirge here, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention and the crashing intervention of guitars and drums in the middle grated.
My personal highlight came with ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’, which was performed solo. I reviewed Jenny Lewis’ latest album recently and listening to Julia performing this track it occurred to me that the song could be on a ‘C-side’ of that album, it is good enough to merit that accolade.
Julia doesn’t talk a great deal to the audience but perhaps she should, more often. Someone who has graduated in social policy and then lived in a garage while working in a factory is bound to have something interesting to say and at one stage she entered into a dialogue that referred to her show in Birmingham the previous night and what she’d been told that city was famous for, including heavy metal and pens. Moving on to what Manchester is famous for (trains and bees is all the audience could come up with) the discussion became quite entertaining in its own right.
As the set progressed to its conclusion the tempo picked up considerably and the last three songs, ‘Pool Party, ’Head Alone’ and ‘Pressure to Party’, together with the single encore song ‘Hay Plain’ in which she also inserts a gospel-like section, were out-and-out rockers compared to what had gone before, showcasing a different aspect to her abilities entirely.
She certainly attracts a wide audience range, from young women to middle-aged men and while there are always those at the back who will never be silenced irrespective of the quality of the artist, overall the full-house paid rapt attention to her throughout.
Owing to a misunderstanding I only caught the last two songs of Olympia’s set. She’s a guitar shredder but boy does she shred, and can she sing. She’s won plaudits in Australia for her live performances and didn’t disappoint in the ten minutes I saw of her.
Her persona, art-pop based, is vastly different to that of Julia Jacklin as this video (if I recall this was her final song of the set) shows, alternating different personalities from brides via models to the Incredible Hulkess to characters that might be out of ‘Farscape’. While she didn’t role-play on stage, the richness of her vocals here were very apparent.
She’s unique but if I was pushed to compare her with a better-known artist it would be St Vincent. A proper tour here would be in order but because of the distances involved that isn’t really practical, unfortunately.
So, two fairly recent additions to the burgeoning Australian scene that has thrown up the likes of Courtney Barnett, Stella Donnelly, Gordi and Geowulf amongst many others who are collectively proving that ‘Down Under’ should be ‘Up Over’.
A quick word about the venue, which is operated by Now Wave, a Manchester-based promoter, combining two roles. Open only six months, the main venue, the Pink Room, in this four-story building which was previously an auction house has a capacity of around 250, though there seemed to be more than that. With extensive air conditioning pipes of the type you see in spacecraft in sci-fi films (think particularly of the spoof on them in Galaxy Quest) it is quite atmospheric and the sound quality was good. You can have too much pink though.