"This year's Shack" is probably not the most coveted accolade a new band could wish for, suggesting a future populated by slathering critical acclaim and total commercial indifference, but if anybody deserves tagging with the term then Doves are those men. They're a Mancunian trio consisting of brothers Jez and Andy Williams (guitars and drums respectively) and bassist Jimi Goodwin, and in a previous life they were the briefly chart-friendly dance act Sub Sub until their studio burnt down, taking all their equipment with it, and their label boss, Rob Gretton, died. (The sleeve of "Lost Souls" carries a dedication.)
Nowadays they make bleary-eyed but hopeful guitar music that sounds a little like Shack playing underwater. It's an achingly beautiful noise for the most part of their debut album's hour-long duration, but there are a handful of moments when proceedings snap sharply into focus and tower in an epic fashion, swelling into the kind of skyscraping friendly giant that the likes of Embrace and Oasis have spent their entire careers failing to synthesise the essence of. "Rise" is magnificent: ostensibly an ode to drowning; opening with birdsong, its woozily reflected ambience is shattered halfway through by Stuart Warbuton's immaculate harmonica solo. "The Man Who Told Everything" is almost as fine, and possibly even more dangerously addictive, it's Radiohead with soul and a slowly unravelling string arrangement. "The Cedar Room" is their big single, big in just about every sense of the word that stops short of bloated, the chorus of "I tried to sleep alone/But I couldnt do it" could make grown men weep. "Reprise" is a brief echo of "The Man Who Told Everything", another Shack trademark, come to think of it, before the album closes with "A House", which appears to revisit the scene of that studio fire, performed against a backdrop of the sound of flames that burns its way onto the album's closing lockgroove.
Two years in the making, "Lost Souls" is a real achievement. It sounds like the sort of album that will still be revealing new treasures after months or even years of concentrated listening (just lik Shack's "H.M.S. Fable" has proved to be). Although at times it staggers dangerously close to the whole hated Noelrock milieu, Doves' music has far too much passion, intelligence and beauty to be confused with the Gallaghers' pub-rock drivel, or Travis' petulant sub-Radiohead whinges. Steeped in the past but sunkissed with optimism for the future, this is an extraordinary debut.
DOVES The Last Broadcast (Heavenly)
Doves' second album finds them grappling with the slippery concept of The Big Music, the kind of grandiose stadium-swelling sound beloved of bands such as U2, Simple Minds and Echo And The Bunnymen. And although the more excitable corners of the music press are already declaring "The Last Broadcast" to be the album of the year, I would suggest some caution.
"The Last Broadcast" contains great swathes of the kind of profoundly humane, downtrodden but optimistic, rain-soaked guitar rock that made their debut "Lost Souls" so wonderful. But for a significant proportion of its duration the subtlety that Doves of old possessed has been trampled on in the headlong rush for Big-ness and significance. It's nowhere near as dramatic a decline as, for example, Simple Minds' music suffered between the wonderful, evocative and mysterious "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" and the tinselly trash of "Sparkle In The Rain", but it's enough to undermine what has traditionally made Doves so great. Try imagining where a "Lost Souls" classic such as "Rise" could hang its hat on here: it's practically impossible. Not that I'm suggesting that bands should continually regurgitate the same album time and again, but the kind of progression displayed here - towards bluster and bombast, predominately - could be interpreted by some as regression.
When it works, The Big Music can sound fabulous. First single "There Goes The Fear" is an excellent example. Spanning seven minutes from its wobbly tape recorder guitar intro (very "Beggars Banquet") to the rattling "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" percussion at the close, it's exultant and epic without being overwrought, a deserved top 3 hit. But how much of its success was due to the fact that the single sold for 99p, and was available just for one single, solitary day? A scam worthy of Malcolm McLaren, or a legitimate use of any means necessary to generate some publicity for a worthy cause?
"M62 Song" was recorded underneath the M62 flyover, and plays loosely with King Crimson's "Moonchild", testament to Doves' (albeit recycled) ambition. But "N.Y." shows the album at its worst. Brash, overstated and angular, its assertion that "This city is insane" rings somewhat hollow these days. It's The Big Music gone horribly wrong. "Friday's Dust" possesses at least some of the yearning of old Doves, but propped up on a gigantic string arrangement it almost topples over.
As it winds towards its conclusion the layers of artifice fall away and "The Last Broadcast" begins to sound more like the Doves of "Lost Souls", almost as if the goal was to grab the listener's attention with flashy pyrotechnics at the outset and lead them hypnotised to the gentler, calmer material that contains the album's real worth. "Pounding" is exactly that, a glorious, optimistic carpe diem of a song that catches the last ray of sunlight out of some neglected satellite town. "Last Broadcast" is slighter but more typically melancholic and haunting, whilst "The Sulphur Man" is a sweet and chiming drug ballad.
"The Last Broadcast" is no disaster, but in the face of almost universal critical approval it sounds somewhat constricted and compromised. Perhaps it's an attempt by the band to reach out to the larger potential audience they feel exists for their frequently fabulous music, and much as they would hate to admit it there's little critical or commercial harm in the handy 'new Radiohead' tag they seem to have lumbered themselves with recently. It seems telling that the parts that work most successfully are those that most closely appropriate the sound of "Lost Souls", and avoid the blatant empire-building obviousness at least some of the album is hampered by. Maybe a few more plays are required; perhaps I'm just reacting angrily to the lousy, distorted vinyl pressing; possibly it's the shadow cast by the Heligoland album, which plays not totally dissimilar tricks (Friese-Green even admits to a King Crimson influence) but with a markedly different and staggeringly successful outcome. Certainly a large number of people are going to love this album, which might signify that in 2002 being generally competent is wonder enough.
DOVES/THE DELGADOS The Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union 6 December 2002
And not even a week later who should touch down in the same venue but Badly Drawn Boy's old backing band, and perhaps Mr Gough would have benefitted from the kind of metronomic precision they display tonight. But first the unbilled first act put paid to the mystery support band syndrome that seems to afflict this venue in particular by beaming their logo onto the stage backdrop, proving without doubt, and to my delight, that they are The Delgados. Probably lazily but effectively described as a Scottish Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, they take similar indie and Incredible String Band threads and weave them into something familiar but different, great, circling chunks of fully dovetailed melody that don't exactly rush to greet the listener with open arms and slobbering lips but which nevertheless have a kind of quiet but intoxicating charm. It's best demonstrated tonight on familiar material from their Dave Fridmann-produced "The Great Eastern" (particularly "No Danger"), but it's abundant even in songs that are new to me. Despite being swollen to almost Lambchopian proportions by a flautist, two violinists and a cellist (and how can playing support slots be anything other than a labour of love rather than a question of economics when you've got nine mouths to feed?) they muster one of the clearest, most intelligible sounds I've yet heard in this venue, and a rightly appreciative audience seem to be justifiably impressed. Maybe an entire evening of their music might be pushing the point, but 40 minutes of The Delgados is an unexpected treat.
It also sets a high standard that, initially at least, and surprisingly, Doves fail to attain. Their appearance is presaged by a fitfully amusing sepia short film fairytale-cum-nightmare that seems to star the band themselves, but when they take the stage their affable, starstruck demeanour seems refreshingly unpretentious. But as they attack the aptly titled communal sharing experience "Pounding" it seems as though something is badly wrong with the mix, with the percussion up way too high and/or everything else turned down low, making the first few songs sound painfully hollow - if you couldn't recognise them from the drum rhythm you'd be utterly lost. The situation gradually remedies itself during the evening, but compared to the warm, pindrop opulence of The Delgados' set it's a disappointment.
Nevertheless, Doves have arrived with two albums' worth of almost uniformly fantastic songs, and during the course of the evening they play most of them. I stand by my earlier comments that the more obvious moments of "The Last Broadcast" are a pale shadow of the dark, brooding mystery and majesty of their debut, "Lost Souls", but in the context of a finely-tuned set that offers copious amounts of both it seems churlish to grumble. Best bits: "There Goes The Fear", with its cataclysmic closing percussion meltdown, a fast but fabulous tumble through the first Doves song I ever heard, the lush, liquid "Rise", "Catch The Sun" sounding as immaculate as ever, "The Man Who Told Everything" dedicated to Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals by singer/bassist/guitarist/percussionist Jimi Goodwin - "They frighten us, man, they're so good. He probably doesn't even fucking like us!", the monumental "The Cedar Room", the surprise appearance of the gentle, acoustic "A House" in fact, apart from the omission of "The Sulphur Man", this could be the definitive Doves setlist. Frequently the band threw the lights on the audience to see the fans' faces, a gesture I've only seen made before in concert by the even humbler and even more brilliant Blue Nile. And throughout the evening films played on a screen above the band - whether a deliberate tactic to divert attention from the four figures on the stage wrapped up in their music or an attempt to provide some visual entertainment for the shorter members of the audience I couldn't say - the vintage Wigan Casino footage being particularly entertaining.
In the old showbiz tradition, they saved the most astonishing moment for last, a version of Sub Sub's "Space Face" (Sub Sub being Doves in a techno-saturated previous life). Played under mad rushing cut-ups of "2001 A Space Odyssey", what might (might, not would - I haven't heard Sub Sub's original) have been dismissed a decade ago as uninspired Shamen-esque Eurodance is reborn tonight as a fantastic, euphoric experience, the ultimate expression of the potential power contained in the much maligned phrase 'indie-dance', as a guitar band kick out a brainwarping slab of banging dance music. It ranks alongside Van Morrison finally playing something from "Astral Weeks" and Queens Of The Stone Age playing, well, anything, really as one of my most jawdroppingly amazing concert moments of the year. For that, their caring, concerned attitude and their fabulous songs (if not their slightly wayward sound engineering) Doves are one of the country's greatest living bands.
DOVES Some Cities (Heavenly/EMI)
Despite the rave reviews Some Cities has received from virtually every other quarter, I continue to have misgivings about Doves third album. It seems to mark a continuation of the worrisome trend initiated last time around on The Last Broadcast, the substitution of flash and effect for depth and subtlety. Its further down the road towards hollow stadium pomp, with a side order of grim Northernness exaggerated to almost Four Yorkshiremen proportions.
Proceedings begin agreeably enough. The title track is an optimistic airpuncher with a swaggering Motown beat, immediately outdone by Black And White Towns Town Called Malice glam racket stomp and woozy piano figure. This exciting new cutting edge soon becomes blunt, however: the ghost of their debuts opener Firesuite hovers over The Storms scratchy, processed loungecore, and the feeling of déjà vu is swelled by Walk In Fire, a lower octane revision of the rolling There Goes The Fear. The pub piano nostalgia of Shadows Of Salford is close to horrible, and the inevitable sensation of relief when its followed by the thumping good Sky Starts Falling is soon undercut by the realisation that the latter is a softened, autopilot version of Pounding.
Sadly, I cant see Some Cities as anything other than a further drastic erosion of Doves greatness. The humanity and musicality that characterised their best work has evaporated, leaving only this tinfoil approximation of their former selves. Too many of these songs sound like pallid reconfigurations of existing canon fodder, diluted rehashes surely destined to crumble in competition against old-school anthems like The Cedar Room. The fact that I seem to be the only Doves fan of this opinion doesnt make the apparent passing of their genius any less saddening.
DOVES Preston Guildhall, 14 December 2005
One of Doves songs is called Pounding, and its an observation thats near impossible to escape tonight. Performing practically everything as a thudding stadium anthem, they swamp the parochial confines of a venue sited in one of those satellite towns their music is so alive to the delicious possibilities of escape from.
This approach enhances material from 2005s Some Cities the Motown stomp of Black And White Town, for example, gleefully shakes off the records shackled production - but also hammers the subtlety out of their contemplative earlier work. The aqueous, Robert Wyatt-esque wash that distances Sea Song and Rise from the works of any number of other Northern gloom-mongers evaporates in the mosh. Nevertheless, bullet-proof big singles The Cedar Room and There Goes The Fear prove resilient to the sonic mistreatment.
This evenings set desperately lacks dynamic range. Moments of respite are provided only by Jimi Goodwins bungled acoustic attempt on The Doug Wood Bands Drag Racer, performed in honour of the Guildhalls snooker-loopy day job, and their rewrite of King Crimsons Moonchild, M62 Song.
The white noise breakdowns and witty video projections take tentative steps towards an immersive concert experience. Unfortunately, the bands relentless thump conspires against it.DOVES / MANIC STREET PREACHERS / CHERRY GHOST Royal Festival Hall, London 12 September 2008
Yet again my journalistic rigour was compromised at a London gig as, after an incident involving the escalator at Archway underground station and my rain-slippery Converses, thorough consideration of the performances was forced into second place behind the need to try not to bleed all over the place. Let’s start with some facts, then: this gig and the Beth Orton / Magic Numbers extravaganza detailed below were part of a weekend of Southbank Centre events “celebrating eighteen years of Heavenly Recordings”, as the lavish and entertaining free programme put it. Consequently, first on the bill were recent-ish signings Cherry Ghost, a Bolton band reduced by recent childbirth to two-fifths of their lineup plus a deputising Dove. Having seen them in full-blown mode supporting the Manic Street Preachers, semi-acoustically stripped down to guitars and keyboards their power was inevitably diminished but they still sounded very fine. Playing a mix of new material and songs familiar from their debut “Thirst For Romance”, their lush, romantic but realistic music suggested a more upholstered, velveteen Elbow, which, in these times especially, isn’t a bad thing to be.
Oddly enough Cherry Ghost were supporting the Manics tonight as well, the Welsh band earning a place in the lineup by virtue of having released two EPs on Heavenly back in 1991, which they played in their entirety. Conveniently, even the fair-weather fan would probably be familiar with the likes of “Motown Junk”, “Spectators Of Suicide” and “You Love Us”. It was a brief but fiery set of the band’s punkiest material from a time when they had everything to prove, and far more committed than the cardboard-cutout imitation of same they proffered with millennial anthem “The Masses Against The Classes”. (But then again, which got to number one? Hmmm.) It gave James Dean Bradfield the opportunity to express continued, almost paternal, affection for their teenage lyrics, but even so these songs’ attack must have been softened by the intervening 18 years – after all, they didn’t have a keyboard player back then.
It’s my contention that the quality of Doves’ output has been in gentle decline since the lock groove flames burnt out at the end of their magnificent debut album “Lost Souls”, and nothing in their performance tonight forced me to revise that opinion. Yes, they played a satisfying selection of old stompers – “Pounding”, “The Cedar Room”, “There Goes The Fear” with its multi-percussionist outro, “Rise" – and they even made an impressive fist of the borderline stereotypical “Black And White Town”. Unfortunately, however, the inevitable new material punctured both continuity and atmosphere, leaving me wondering whether they could ever be truly great again, or even whether they ever were in the first place. That can’t be good, surely.
DOVES / SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Manchester Central 18 December 2009
The thing about Manchester Central is that it’s not the kind of venue where it’s worth checking your coat: gripping tenaciously onto its railway station heritage it can get chilly in there during mid-December. Surprisingly, though, its acoustics are more flattering of loud rock music than its purpose-built upscale neighbour across the road, The Bridgewater Hall.
Due to the nation’s public transport infrastructure kicking its wheels in the air on encountering the first snow of the winter I miss opening act Delphic. I’m here in time for Super Furry Animals, though, who are something of a revelation compared with their headlining performance at the Ritz two months earlier. In opening with one of that set’s few highlights, “Slow Life”, there’s a very real fear that proceedings will tumble rapidly downhill, but mysteriously, they don’t. (The band are wearing an array of hoodies and cagoules, I notice; perhaps it’s a bit nippy up on stage as well.) Gruff Rhys is still armed with his audience-manipulation placards bearing legends such as “Woah!” and “Applause”, but, in a new trick, he invites us to welcome…John Lennon!...at which point somebody wanders on stage in an orange cagoule and a homebrewed John Lennon mask. Even a high concentration of their most inane material (“(Drawing) Rings Around The World”, “Golden Retriever”) somehow fails to irritate, and “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” is emphatic, if necessarily curtailed. (And what a Christmas number one that would make.) Heck, a trim rendition of “Crazy Naked Girls” even sounds like it’s mixed in stereo, guitars cropping up all over the place.
Maybe it’s something to do with their support band status, but, operating under strict time constraints, tonight there’s no flabby indulgence, just a 40-minute bam-bam-bam of selected hits and album tracks, with everything that made that Ritz gig such a trial for me skilfully excised. For the first time in a very long time, SFA leave me wanting more.
In front of their largest crowd yet, we’re told, the homecoming Doves arrive with an array of evocative video footage and the London Bulgarian Choir to add mysterious voices where required (and elsewhere, as well). But they’re hamstrung by the quality of their recent material, too much of which reuses the template of their vintage classic “Pounding” to diminishing effect. When they’re good, though, Doves can still be deeply satisfying: the formerly instrumental “Firesuite” is at least as fine with the addition of the choir, the country and Northern “Kingdom Of Rust” is by far the best of the new album’s material, “Here It Comes” is, as usual, played against that brilliant Wigan Casino footage and although “The Cedar Room” staggers a bit under its own weight at times it emerges triumphant. Honourable mentions, too, for some fine takes on “Caught By The River” and “There Goes The Fear”. Returning for a final time, they launch into “Space Face”, dating from when they were the band currently known as Sub Sub. It’s hardly Orbital – heck, it’s not even Fatboy Slim – but it’s good old-fashioned euphoric fun nevertheless, especially when accompanied visually by “2001: A Space Odyssey” cutups.
There are redeeming features aplenty, what with all that choral experimentation and some effort expended to put on some kind of a show with the video footage, even though this audience is effectively an open goal for them. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t sustain the ability to make interesting records as long as they have their knack for staging satisfying concerts.