THE LITTLE UNSAID / WALTZ IN THE SHALLOW END, 7TH MARCH 2015, OXFORD CELLAR
As Oxford music/arts collectives go, Bear On A Bicycle are the gawkier, more-awkward-around-members-of-the-opposite-sex cousins of the cooler- and holier-than-thou Blessing Force. Think acoustic guitars, xylophones and hairslides rather than fiddly time signatures and 80s production gloss.
Waltz In The Shallow End, just back from a recent tour, may feature BOAB founder member Jordan O'Shea alongside Kaye Dougall and Trenton Smith, but at first the trio's sunshiney (and, if truth be told, rather grating) tweepop is some way removed from his lachrymose solo material.
However, while the grins and goofy banter remain throughout, the metaphorical storm clouds roll in with the more aggressive 'Foxtrot Fitzgerald' and a lyric about "being better off dead", while the penultimate song's repeated refrain "Are we madly in love with you?" is simple, resonant and beautifully harmonised. Nightshift may not be madly in love with you quite yet, Waltz In The Shallow End, but our initial frostiness has certainly melted away.
Thanking your audience for attending by reminding them that "You could be doing anything else - you could be having a foot spa" is a potentially risky business, in that it may prompt some people to come to their senses and walk out. But multi-instrumentalist John Elliott, the man behind The Little Unsaid, clearly feels there's no danger of that; not only does he have firm faith in the quality of his songs, he's also hoping or even expecting us to share that faith. The band - Elliott, accompanied by bassist, drummer and viola player - are in the midst of recording a new album, Fisher King, with local producer Graeme Stewart, and Elliott is asking for crowdfunding assistance to ensure it sees the light of day.
After the first song, I'm tempted to find the nearest cash machine and withdraw my life savings, such is the whirlwind their amped-up indie folk kicks up. But after a while, I'm glad I resisted. Though there's a measure of anger and darkness in the lyrical content (the image of horses dragging bodies through the street is particularly memorable), things never get quite so bitter or bleak as to make the dubious endorsements they've received from Whispering Bob Harris and Jeff Buckley's mum seem improbable. Elliott has covered Nick Cave and at one point cites Tom Waits, but lacks their maverick spirit, offering little that would seriously unsettle a Radio 2 listener.
'Riot Song' is a case in point. Despite that title, some crashing crescendos and the sounds of police sirens and lampposts going through windows sampled from YouTube footage of the London riots, it's all a bit too neat and well mannered, as though you're watching the violent tumult on TV in the comfort of your own living room, rather than first-hand on a street corner, with bricks whistling past your ears.
There's no denying that Elliott and accomplices are accomplished musicians, and plenty of the gig-goers adding lusty vocals to set-closing sea shanty 'Lead The Way' would be happy to dip into their pockets to help fund their future, but personally I'd have preferred something a bit more raw and ragged.
(An edited version of this review appears in the new April issue of Nightshift, available to peruse here.)