It’s Monday night, it’s cold and wet, so a queue isn’t exactly forming all the way down Leeson Street outside The Sugar Club for the visit of Emma Lee-Moss and her band. Inside, the atmosphere is equally subdued. Most tables are taken, but it’s far from packed out.
Emmy the Great has been something of an underdog, part of the girl-with-a-guitar London nu-folk gang, but overshadowed by the higher profiles and mainstream success of her peers, most notably Laura Marling, with whom she has had some internecine boyfriend-stealing issues, and with whom she is most usually compared. The standard line is that Marling is the more visceral and emotive of the pair, while Moss is cooler and more cerebral. In truth, it’s a facile distinction, and there is a lot more to it than that. For a start, Emmy is more self-effacing on stage than the rather self-regarding Marling (what’s with that no encores policy in one so young?), and this can only be more endearing. Then, while she begins her set with a solo song, eyes fixed unflinchingly and unnervingly at the back wall, when she is joined by the rest of the band they reveal themselves as closer to standard indie rather than folk, old or nu or anti-. Shades of the Cocteau Twins or This Mortal Coil are more prevalent than anything sounding remotely like Mumford and Sons or Noah and the Whale, and there’s not an acoustic guitar in sight, save for the one Emmy uses on a couple of songs.
After her 2009 debut album First Love received plenty of plaudits, it was this year’s more idiosyncratic follow-up Virtue which upped her game. Written after her then-fiancé broke their engagement when he (rather unwisely, in my opinion) left her for God, what’s interesting is how she makes something universally relevant out of her personal pain. Taking a page out of J. G. Ballard’s methodology in the short story ‘Zodiac 2000’ from Myths of the Near Future, Emmy used symbols borrowed from fairytales and mythology, substituting the icons that have replaced them in our modern consciousness: industrial buildings, mushroom clouds, West London’s Trellick Tower. Lyrically, the influence of Margaret Atwood’s and Angela Carter’s stories, and the theoretical writings of Marina Warner, hover.
Reverential silence greeted both her older material and new cuts from the layered, dense Virtue. In many ways, the more resent material works better live, free from their sometimes overly ornate studio arrangements. ‘Dinosaur Sex’ is sparse and compelling, powered by guitarist and musical collaborator Euan Hinshelwood’s atmospheric drones, and lost love lament ‘Trellick Tower’ sends the audience into a collective shiver. ‘MIA’, her memory fragment of a car crash, is prefaced with the admission that it had been slightly rewritten in reaction to its eponymous heroine’s recent tweets to the effect that she wanted to hand out tea and Mars Bars to the London rioters. There’s even a cover of Weezer’s geek rock ‘Island In The Sun’ to prevent things becoming too solemn.
Regretful memories and burdensome experiences lie heavily on the characters in these songs, but the past is also seen as a fount of knowledge and a source of strength. This is hackneyed subject matter that could easily be trite if Emmy The Great did not approach it with such passionate articulation and wit. But while it is this directness which sets her apart from some of her twee, nu-folk contemporaries, with whom she is lazily associated, it’s not always obvious in tonight’s performance. The gig itself was enjoyable, if rather understated, especially for the last night of a tour, with some of the tracks blending together into a mass of undifferentiated tinkering. If anything, this was where the set slipped up, in that it didn’t prove particularly invigorating or memorable, despite the strength of tunes like ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘Paper Forest’.
At her best, as on ‘24’, the brutal ‘We Almost Had a Baby’ and the rousing ‘First Love’, she creates situations so immediate you feel she could be singing about your experiences. On the other hand, when the songs are less accessible and more obscure she can come across as just another singer-songwriter wrapped up in her own world. It’s a fine line: at times I drifted off into my own mind rather than staying with hers, which shouldn’t really happen at a concert, even if it’s not exactly rock’n’roll. Emmy The Great are occasionally exceptional, but often no better than good.
Still, the show offered intimations that Emmy The Great is now less of an underdog and could conceivably become top dog. She is Laura Marling’s more sinister, evil twin, but there’s no reason why she should have to live in her shadow.
Photos: Kieran Frost