Published: 18/02/2014 09:19 - Updated: 18/02/2014 15:32

REVIEW: Embrace return to face the future

Danny McNamara spurring on the crowd. Picture: Callum Mackay
Danny McNamara spurring on the crowd. Picture: Callum Mackay

IF you’re going to be away in the songwriting mines for eight years, come back with some diamonds.

Like EMBRACE.

No, the problem’s not there …

The only trouble with layering up your setlist with a three-song intro to April’s album release – also called Embrace – plus a couple more newies in the middle, a set-closer and an encore starter – it creates a gulf with  the older, great singalong classics.

The older material should sound like antiquarian curiosities alongside the dancier, more adventurous rhythms and sound textures that the new songs create.

It should.

But Sunday night’s set at the Ironworks showed the gap wasn’t as embarrassingly wide as it could have been. Though new single Refugees and first encore song Quarters are a long way forward from the satisfying chug of Ashes or Gravity, there's Embrace DNA pulsing through all of them.

Bassist Steve Firth (left) onstage with Embrace. Picture: Callum Mackay
Bassist Steve Firth (left) onstage with Embrace. Picture: Callum Mackay

The McNamara brothers’ songwriting strengths for a traditional post-Britpop guitar band have been cunningly updated around their impressive core values:

1 big melodies

2 lyrics that put a catch in your throat and a tear in your eye as you pump the air

3 fail-safe singalong lines that a crowd could uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh or la la la in its sleep – or through the aftermath of more booze than you care to remember.

But it was hard to appreciate the new songs on a first live listening, thanks to cruelly muddy sound that sank a lot of the vocal clarity into a squashy mush of pure noise.

Yet too often that was a blessing.

The intonation problems of frontman Danny continued through the entire set.

Sometimes it just seemed like a wobbly uncertainty of where the vocal line should take him , sometimes the singer’s wincingly flat singing just screamed against the keyboard and guitar notes.

The shame of it is that there’s something about Danny’s voice, some kind of truth - and a beautiful tone - that can stop you in your tracks. His voice’s vulnerability can add an extra emotional power, as in the epic anthems like Come Back To What You Know or Nature’s Law.

And anyone who first heard the band’s breakthrough song All You Good Good People soaring out of the radio back in the late 90s probably gave the band their heart and their loyalty there and then. And kept themthere, despite time, the long silence and the often harsh critics.

Danny centrestage with brother Richard on guitar. Picture: Callum Mackay
Danny centrestage with brother Richard on guitar. Picture: Callum Mackay

The brothers’ songs do unusual things with melody, often side-stepping the obvious place the tune should go – as in second-last song of the night, Looking As You Are, to make something trademark Embrace.

With the new songs, Richard’s voice is a major asset – plaintive and high on first single Refugees where he sings the lead.

Danny, in control of the band's heart - and the crowd. Picture: Callum Mackay
Danny, in control of the band's heart - and the crowd. Picture: Callum Mackay

New songs In The End and set-opener Protection used Richard’s voice to anchor Danny’s – as he sang the melody high to Danny’s low or joined it for the double strength of the two singing together, sometimes made three with keyboard-player Mickey Dale’s harmonies added in.

But if you wanted to earmark the likeliest hits from the new album on the evidence of the gig, the big winners included next single Follow You Home with its stomping beat and the crowd happily bellowing their “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh” lines back at the stage.

For drama, set-finisher A Thief On My Island delivered  - after we’d all sung happy birthday on Danny’s orders to lighting guy “Monkey boy”. On the dramatic Island, Danny’s wavering vocals sounded intentional and a bit dangerous before a menacing migraine-like grinding three-beat pulse introduced Richard’s final guitar freak-out.

The new dance beat's at the heart of upcoming album tracks. Picture: Callum Mackay
The new dance beat's at the heart of upcoming album tracks. Picture: Callum Mackay

The impressive power of the Embrace engine couldn’t have been more different from the opening support set from COLIN MACLEOD, former Boy Who Trapped The Sun.

One man and guitar doesn’t seem any kind of short-changing when the Lewisman is rolling out songs like long-term standout Home.

He’s got an easy charm which lends itself to talking to a quietly-gathering crowd.

"I’ve spent four nights doing Embrace’s support and this is the first night I’ve been able to hear myself speaking!" he grinned.

The bonus was that against the odds of playing warm-up to a bigger band’s potentially noisy crowd, it turned out there was optimum quiet for hearing the songs that included Colin’s tribute to a Lewis character, before sharing news of a lost capo, a found pick and offering us the choice of which cover he’d play – it had to be both in the end to keep everyone happy.

His version of the theme to family movie Toy Story was typically quirky, while his version of Dancing In The Dark by Bruce Springsteen – he’s supported Springsteen, you know – was familiar enough to keep the diehards happy.

But it still sounded like something Colin the surfer might have dreamed up staring out over the sea from his green bus on Lewis, thinking of America.

Devil Pavement – "hiding out in a place that’s too dark for life" – was, like Saints, a pretty perfect advert for Middle Of Nowhere Recordings EP The Anchor and an enticement to keep faith on March 3 for the release of digital single California (which also features on The Anchor for those who like their music physical).

"I’ve got this idea of writing songs I can barely play," he joked in the short Ironworks set, never looking anything other than relaxed and in control. In a new song, he says "have some comfort in your own skin" – and his performance is the singing, strumming, living example of it.

Danny's at the centre of Embrace's identity. Picture: Callum Mackay
Danny's at the centre of Embrace's identity. Picture: Callum Mackay

Though Embrace's last Scottish appearance on their return wasn't a perfect gig, the flawless ability of Danny and the rest to whip up the crowd to share the sense of an epic event, triumphed.

The mission to showcase the new songs and album where the band embrace the new, was a success - and I can't wait to hear such an intriguingly-trailered new set of songs.

But afterwards, mutterings of long-term fans disappointed by the band's choice of sound mix - and Danny's under-par intonation - signalled they five-piece will have to come up with a live solution to make the most of the new album's opportunity.

Margaret Chrystall

 

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