John Grant’s beautifully realized debut ‘Queen of Denmark’ was an undisputed landmark album, heralding the arrival of a major new singer songwriter.
Word of mouth and a huge touring schedule subsequently won him a devoted fanbase, and three years later his much anticipated follow up album Pale Green Ghosts is with us. Produced by Birgir Þórarinsson, a.k.a. Biggi Veira, of Iceland’s electronic pioneers Gus Gus, it’s a radical departure from its Midlake produced folk rock predecessor, discarding the skeletal arrangements of old and dipping its toes in the waters we call disco. It was a brave move and one that could have possibly backfired; I mean, how can you be sensitive without a very large shiny grand piano?
Somewhat surprisingly, John is now using a five piece band, gone apparently are just his vocals and keyboards, so when he launches into Queen of Denmark tracks such as You don’t have to and Marz the songs are fully fleshed out.
It’s a little disconcerting to hear the fragility of these Queen of Denmark originals revamped and rewired, it works on some such as Dreams and Sigourney Weaver but is slightly overbearing on others. Caramel for example takes quite a battering, the only old track that benefitted hugely from the overblown rock action is Queen of Denmark. This is always a stunning tune and really hits you in the face with its supplemented guitar, bass and drums.
Finally the new material arrives amid a polite light show, and much bleepage, Pale Green Ghosts, Sensitive New Age Guy, Vietnam and best of all the fantastic Blackbelt (with the greatest use of the word ‘supercilious’ in a rock song ever ). They all sound tremendous, and whilst heading off into Giorgio Moroder/New Order territory, the resulting aural melee provides John the opportunity to throw some shapes, not something I ever expected to see! But these new tunes are so funky you have to have a little dance.
The new album proves to be more enjoyable than the older tunes, proving effortlessly that you can be sensitive and not have a grand piano. GMF is greeted with the same audience reaction as the winning Wigan goal one hour previously (in the FA Cup Final), we sing, we laugh, we cry and Glacier takes our breath away.
Three encores later he leaves us with love, sore feet, and grovelling to the security to pass us the set list. Job done. Pale green ghosts better than QOD? You better believe it.
*Support was from a nervous new kid on the block, an Icelandic artist called Asgeir Trausti who is blessed with a trembling and distinctive voice pitched somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Jónsi Birgisson from Sigur Ros.
He’s evidently self conscious and kind of shy, only playing a handful of tunes but going down really well, although the presence of his band seemed slightly superfluous. They tended to drown out the subtleties inherent in the music and I got the feeling he may be better served playing solo. Enigmatic and engaging, though, here’s somebody we might be hearing lots of in the future.
Words by John Haylock, pictures by Arthur Hughes