Emmy The Great
TOBY PARKER-REES is brought to his knees by a combination of archly-aerated love songs and an unfortunate venue choice.
The Junction, Wednesday 12th October, £12.50
I had to sit down. Watching a gig sitting down is hollow, rotten and staid, like trying to coax poetry or philosophy from the collected works of Carol Ann Duffy. I went to see the Zombies at the Corn Exchange a while ago, and it was so thickly dusty I was forced to develop a theatrical manifesto just to liven things up. The audience can barely sway – and Emmy the Great sings songs that demand swaying at the very least.
The Junction’s sprawling pros arch and teeming gallery give the feel of a brutalist Globe – which sounds sort of perfect for these songs, but wasn’t. The ideal stage for her to make the sounds she made on Wednesday night would be a crystal conch, suspended in the trees above Speakers’ Corner. Virtue, her most recent album, is quietly anthemic, as if she is rousing a slightly awkward army of post-feminists to besiege parliament and implement a new benevolent dictatorship based on aesthetically-elevated understated wit. Yet again, however, I went to a gig at the Junction and found myself not at all in Speakers’ Corner in Central London. And there weren’t any conches, as per.
Emmy the Great
Emmy-Lee Moss is easier to forgive than the Zombies, though – and not just because she has far nicer knees. The tone of her songs on record – a Birkin breathiness that allows lines like ‘I will forget like I piss on a grave’ to sneak right up on you – is replaced with restrained swagger. Everything remains warm, supple and small, but it becomes so emphatically mouthed out that it takes on the tenor of a lesson. This is fine, because we are sitting down to learn, and the lesson itself is closer to Saki than Christ.
The band achieved the admirable feat of filling the ludicrously high space without overwhelming the necessarily brittle quality of the vocals. Emmy’s voice crests Cureishly-arch basslines like a fantastic dolphin, and brings woeful similes burbling from the gaping maws of onlookers. If I cried at anything other than Pixar films I would have probably cried, I imagine.
There is always a danger, best exemplified by Steps’ Tragedy, that singing songs about loneliness and melancholy while in vigorous synchrony with the four people around you will muddy the picture of isolation. Not here – the danger was acknowledged and flirted with. Songs from First Love – the title track and MIA in particular – along with rarities like Canopies & Grapes, soared teasingly towards a cognitive dissonance between medium and message. The woody anti-folk of this earlier work – soft, bitter, shy and wry – is replaced with crashes and jangles that feel confusingly redemptive. This was a useful tension, however; a graceful underlining of the complications, contradictions and lack of resolution that drive the songs.
Between songs Moss retained a gentle enthusiasm and airily barbed wit, both mainly expressed through an insistent preoccupation with what Q Magazine would call ‘pop cultural ephemera’. Continued references to the Backstreet Boys and Pizza Express vouchers reminded me of Stewart Lee, which means they were good. Quotations and allusions run through the songs as well, in both lyrics and music – from Beckett to the Friends theme tune. Intertextuality is sexy, as I have always maintained.
This was a taut performance of superlative songs. If you can make a date on this tour, do. Avoid places with chairs.