all words: William Alberque
all photos: Nick Balleza
London’s Still Corners are an intoxicating proposition live, with the breathy, endlessly gorgeous vocals of Tessa Murray backed up by an extremely talented band, including Leon Dufficy, Luke Jarvis and founding member (and expat American) Greg Hughes. If you weren’t at their show at DC9 on Tuesday night…I don’t know what to tell you. Unless you were busy giving birth or saving lives or something similarly transformational, you made a terrible, nearly irrevocable mistake. Among the many highlights of an astounding year of concerts, this was by far the most beautiful and will live long in my memory.
I can’t say enough good things about this band. Their sound, their lyrics, their music, their recorded product, and their live shows are absolutely perfect. I suppose it is possible not to like the Still Corners, but it likely is indicative of some sort of deeper problem with the listener.
I tipped their debut album, Creatures of an Hour, as one of the albums of the Fall a few months back, and have followed with baited breath each of their releases, from their superb (and impossibly rare) Remember Pepper debut EP, to the hypnotic “Don’t Fall in Love” 7”, to the split single on the Great Pop Supplement, to the Cuckoo 7” on Sub Pop. Each release a treasure; each song a lullaby. The most obvious reference is Broadcast, but there are huge swathes of Hope Sandoval and the Warm Intentions and the beautiful ambiance of 4AD Records’ best.
And so, to the concert!
I missed the opener, but showed up for the second of three bands on the bill, local stars Olivia Mancini and the Mates. They’re a three piece, from DC – the lead singer/guitarist (Olivia) and the drummer (Randy Scope), and a pretty red head with a fringe on bass – and they have quite the stage presence. Their banter is engaging and theatrical, filled with in-jokes and hilarious asides.
The music is straight ahead pre-grunge college rock and roll with a twinge of early Americana thrown in, kind of like the Throwing Muses, but without Kristen’s amazing lyrics and occasional howls – so, more like Tanya Donnelly solo, then. The songs are engaging and hook-laden, with standout “For Ricky” lingering the longest on the palette. The galloping surf of “You’re the One” borders on the territory of traditional Americana, and they share some common touchstones with the god-like Long Blondes from time to time (and a bit of the fabulous Northern State, but you’ve probably never heard of them). Ultimately, this is fun music that would go down a treat on a movie about a late 80s college party. I’d see them again.
But what the hell were they doing opening for the Still Corners? The Corners inhabit a world of 1960s mysterious French black and white movies about love. Each song builds from gorgeous ambient noise before Tessa’s vocals and the spectral guitar lines, insistent drums, and driving bass pull you through the undertow of beauty to a distant shore. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, made more jarring by the incredible light show they bring.
The members of the Still Corners drape a sheet across the back of the stage and set up the projector to cast dreamlike imagery of stills, home movies, and found footage, psychedelic explosions of color and light timed to the different swells of the songs, further adding to the mystical and wholly entrancing atmosphere of the music. Even the between-band music mirrors the huge juxtaposition between what we just heard and are about to hear. I instantly thrilled to hear a track from Spacemen 3’s Recurring and other space rock as the two bands switched out.
As they take the stage, I’m struck by how absolutely gorgeous Tessa is in person. Her outfit is both simple and incredibly stylish, marking her out as someone *not* from here in the same way that Olivia’s outfit screamed, hi, I’m from DC. “Submarine” starts out with ambient noise before Tessa begins cooing gorgeous soothing noises and the deep bass keyboard, gentle but piercing guitar effects and drums kick in. It’s like the best Broadcast song I’ve ever heard – the same insistent drums, the gorgeous bass guitar, the amazing guitar noises – but with a bit more 4AD thrown in.
The Corners dive back into the first EP for the unspeakably great “History of Love,” reminding me of a less mathematical and lovelier version of Broadcast’s “Living Room.” It makes me both miss Trish Keenan terribly and want to hug each member of the band in turn. They break right into “Endless Summer,” a fever-dream summer swoon of a song with a big Phil Spector-ish beat creating tension against the shimmering vocals and long-held keyboard notes. The bass drives through the chorus and sweeps me into purest ecstasy.
It’s more gloriously ambient keyboard swells introing the next song – the staggeringly beautiful “Cuckoo” – and I can hardly stand when Tessa adds a gentle vocals embellishments to the mid-section of the song. I can’t remember the last time I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of a concert. They follow with a faster instrumental track – but still so swathed in beauty, it reminds me of early Stereolab being smothered in goose down-filled velvet duvets.
Just when I don’t think things could become more jaw-droppingly beautiful, they break into a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” that is as beautiful and placid and dreamy as though Hope Sandoval herself had pulled up a stool and decided to sing a song. Another cover follows close – “Eyes,” by Rogue Wave. Whereas Rogue Wave serves up a banjo Americana piece of ramshackle loveliness, Tessa’s vocals and Hughes arrangements turn this into the song I immediately want to project on to the memory of me kissing a girl on a lovely summer day, at dusk, with the air heavy with insects and dandelion seeds. The sad fact is the song is better than any such memory I possess, so I have to look away. It’s all just too beautiful.
The next song is “I Wrote in Blood,” and it’s good, but not my favorite on the album. I know there are only a few songs left, and I’m starting to worry that I won’t hear…well, all of them. “The White Season” is next – one of the stunning highlights of the album, with a spare drum machine beat to start and gorgeous, simple keyboards with Tessa’s knee-tremblingly beautiful delivery of lines like, “softly, soft as snow, whisper all you know…is it true? Is it you? Is it love?” Wow, I hope so, because if there’s something better than this feeling…
I don’t have long to wait for another of a string of pearl-perfection moments of the night. The big beats and swells over the Bunnymen guitar of the intro to “Into the Trees,” before breaking into a more spectral middle section. I’m reminded of Gravenhurst at their best (download “The Velvet Cell”); with a steady drum beat and mesmerizing bass line. The song builds and builds to plateau after plateau of seemingly impossibly higher levels of beauty before giving out at the end.
Mind fully blown, I try to talk to Tessa and Greg afterwards, asking them to sign my EP (“oh, I wasn’t on that, but I’m happy to sign it for you.” Er, what?) and just generally chat them up. They’re quite nice – Greg is loquacious and very engaging. Turns out he got to London by following a girl from California, got dumped, and, in compensation, started the band. His loss, our gain.