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Annette Berlin
Jess Marlowe

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London
Sunday February 17 2013

The familiar back room of the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen is tricked out with fanzine stalls and craft areas tonight. You can make things out of felt and card and string and glue, should you feel the urge. All the kit is provided, including needles and scissors, which are not the kind of items you're likely to find made available to the audiences at most rock gigs. I'm surprised they managed to do all this without somebody popping up to wag a finger and recite the traditional mantra of Health And Safety.

We'll take our lives in our hands and pay some attention to Jess Marlowe - who also seems to be known as Jessica Marlowe, depending on which bits of the internet you look at. She almost plays a set of plangent indie-folk, her guitar fuzzy like a mirage, drums shuffling carefully behind her, and violin tentatively hovering in the background. Almost.

If that makes Jess Marlowe seem like a rather vague and indeterrminate proposition - well, that's exactly how she comes across. She can barely get into a song before calling a halt to tune up and, after much delay, try again. Her set, such as it is, progresses in a series of false starts and apologies.

The bits we get to hear hint at good stuff, in a kind of Mazzy Star-meets-Laura Marling kind of way, but we don't get to hear much. Time runs out before anything has really happened, and I'm left with the rather underwhelming sense of having witnessed somebody's first tentative bedroom rehearsal. I know the Hoxton Square B&K isn't exactly the enormodome, but even at this relatively modest level I think it's reasonable to expect our artists to be ready in a way that Jess Marlow just doesn't seem to be.

Jess Marlowe / Annette Berlin

Fortunately, Annette Berlin is ready. Very ready. On guitar and vocals, with an impressively controlled but punchy drummer behind her, she's a minimalist maelstrom, all Pixies-ish powechords and PJ Harvey-esque post-punkisms. She whacks out her songs with an impressive sang-froid, keeping an air of unruffled cool even as the guitar stirs things up like a troublemaker in a pub, and her vocals scrabble and holler an angst-soaked blues.

I'm always partial to maximal minimalism, and Annette Berlin's skilful deployment of guitar-drums duo-dynamics results in at least as much of a racket as a full band. Her songs, terse, economical, new wave blues, do the business, too.

ManfluHardware is heaved into position. Manflu are a five-piece band, and they've got the gear to prove it.

Manflu are also the musical equivalent of those needles and scissors on the craft stall - their songs are all slice and stab, chop and scratch. The wallop and clamour of the drums is sewn together (shall I stop this metaphor now?) by the nimble running stitch of the bass (I'll stop in a minute, honest) while the keyboards add their touches of sonic embroidery and the vocals knit it all together (there, that's it).

But that's the thing about Manfu's music: the component parts are given their own space, their own territory. You're always aware of what, say, the drums are doing, or where the bass has positioned itself in the racket. And you're certainly always aware of Manflu's lead vocalist, as she prowls the stage in boots 'n' stockings 'n' T-shirt, and not much else. She fixes the crowd with a gimlet stare and gets her groove on, and suddenly Manflu's weirdo disco has the place moving.

Manflu manage to be off-kilter and enticing all at once, clattering mightily under the pink lights to the obvious apprioval of the audience. Yep, they've got this gig sewn up. Sorry, I just had to throw one last one in.

Manflu: Website | Facebook
Annette Berlin: Website | Facebook
Jess Marlowe: Website

For more photos from this gig, find Manflu by name here.

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