Noah And The Whale Swim Through The Misery
Koko; London, England, UK; October 2, 2009
by Jono Russell
It’s fair to say Charlie Fink, frontman of London indie-folksters Noah And The Whale, hasn’t had the best run of luck. First, he endured a painful relationship split from former band member – and now accomplished artist in her own right – Laura Marling, an event that seems to have provided much of the inspiration for the band’s second album, The First Days Of Spring. Then, not long into the tour to promote the second album, the band had thousands of pounds worth of irreplaceable equipment stolen after a gig in Manchester. It’d be enough to make even Tony Robbins frown, so you’d be inclined to forgive Fink if he moped his way through Friday’s gig in London.
Yet even without Marling and his beloved 1963 Fender Jaguar, Fink and his four bandmates soldiered on to produce a compelling 90-minute set. It revealed the band, who now have their sights set on cracking America, as a much more mature outfit than the creators of the addictive yet twee “Five Years Time” (ironically their only serious chart success to date).
They’ve achieved this shift without a complete abandonment of their earlier sound or songs, making it seem like a natural progression. “Give A Little Love,” from the debut album, opens the gig – though the absence of Marling’s vocals is telling. “If you give a little love / You can get a little love of your own / Don’t break his heart,” encourages the refrain, but it doesn’t take long to find out that someone did indeed end up heartbroken. “Blue Skies” is next, the first single from The First Days of Spring. “This is a song for anyone with a broken heart,” sings Fink, before going on to vow this is the last song he’ll write “while still in love with you.”
On paper, the lyrics seem bland and cliché, but Fink’s earnest delivery, coupled with a beautifully textured sound (an extra member, tasked with playing keys and guitar, has been added), make for an affecting combination. At various points, his voice seems to crack, and you can’t help but wonder if singing these reminders of heartbreak night after night is just prolonging his agony.
Several tracks from the new album boast complex studio arrangements – “Love Of An Orchestra,” for example, is backed by brass and a choir – yet they easily translated into the more basic live setting, with fiddle player Tom Fiddle (we’re not making that up) providing some needed spark.
As you’d expect from a band more interested in singing about heartbreak than hedonism, there isn’t much that’s rock ‘n’ roll about Noah And The Whale. On a couple of occasions before slow songs, Fink politely asks the crowd to keep quiet, and such is the mesmerising spell he had cast over the capacity Koko crowd that, for the most part, they complied. It’s just as well, as the softer songs provided the best moments of the show. The brutal honesty of Stranger – “Last night I slept with a stranger / For the first time since you left” –was particularly moving, especially as the minor chords made way for the happier coda: “You know in a year, it’s gonna be better,” the band sang as one, with the venue’s supersized mirror ball adding a nice visual touch.
The fans who were there just to see “Five Years Time” weren’t disappointed: it was the penultimate song of the encore, though the trademark ukulele was lost in the move to a slicker, more electric sound. That shift was finally explored to its full potential in the last song of the night, “My Broken Heart.” It is the emotional climax of the album and was a fitting closer. The last words - "you can break my broken heart" - make way for a haunting fiddle riff, which is soon drowned out by a Fink guitar solo. It builds to a mess of noise, and it's the closest Fink comes to letting out the anger - of which, let's face it, there must be some - all night.
Despite – or in spite of – all the misery, Noah And The Whale has emerged from the ‘winter’ as a much tighter and more accomplished live act for whom the future is very, very bright. Thieves may be able to steal guitars, but thankfully they can’t take away talent.