The Mercury Prize, named for a now defunct telecoms company that tried to challenge British Telecom’s dominance back in the 90’s, is one of the highlights of the UK’s musical calendar. It’s the one high profile award that annually breaks away from the mainstream and run-of-the-mill fare that usually weighs down the pages of NME, and each year it plucks some more or less deserving soul out of the ranks of relative obscurity and rewards originality with fame and glory. The variety of the nominees is really encouraging, and musical flair abounds. This kind of flair and talent is something that really outshines production values, and live performance is the crucible in which all musicians and performers reveal their true ability. Although it’s difficult to compare the artists directly, as the performances range from the back room of a bar to Glastonbury via the Radio 1 Live Lounge, I’ve tried to pick videos with decent sound quality, and they’re of such different types of music that direct comparison is almost impossible anyway. I’ll season each video I post with my (very personal) opinion.
Florence and the Machine – To my ears, these guys sound much better stripped right down like this, a belting little performance from a band with a pleasantly unabashed pop sensibility. Strident.
Kasabian – The big kids in the playground at the moment, following in the well-worn indie footsteps of bands like Oasis, The Killers, The Kaiser Chiefs and so on. Stripped of their glamour and singing on a sofa, I think the infectious sing-along simplicity of their songs shines through. Swaggering.
Bat for Lashes – A more upscale performance on ‘Later’ here from BFL, but one that shows off how tight and together they are. They kind of remind me of a mix between Bjork and the Cocteau Twins, with New York Pony Club doing the production, the kind of thing you have to be in a particular mood for, but nonetheless pretty original. Lilting.
La Roux – Synthpop played live can sound a little sterile, but these guys pull it off; something about the flat, school classroom neon lighting setup here appeals to me too. Am I alone in thinking the lead vocal sounds a bit like Jimmy Somerville? Quiffs abound.
Glasvegas – The Elvis Costello haircuts belie the raucous nature of this band, swaggering, black-leather-clad rock that is obviously meant to be played live, in front of a bouncing audience rather than on your Macbook speakers. Unapologetic.
Speech Debelle – This year’s Mercury Prize winner, very urban sounding, in the vein of Mike Skinner’s Streets, and (don’t hate me for this) Just Jack. The mixing on the BBC’s ‘Introducing’ stage at Glastonbury leaves a little to be desired but you can get the idea. My favourite things about her are 1. She’s a girl 2. Simon Cowell wouldn’t give her the time of day. Innit.
Friendly Fires – More rocky stuff here, great setup on ‘Later’ once more. A band so young and ‘fresh’ that I don’t feel like criticising them. Current.
The Horrors – It’s a toss up between these guys and Led Bib for the least mainstream band in the nominees list this year; they blast out a kind of psych-out trance rock wall-of-noise thing that is definitely unique, and would probably get a disapproving tut noise from your granny. Challenging.
Lisa Hannigan – Much more to granny’s taste, Damien Rice’s old band mate is now making pretty, elfin folk tunes by herself. She usually has a little light up plastic mushroom on top of her hand powered bellows organ/keyboard thing and looks wistful most of the time. Charming.
The Invisible – The only band for whom I couldn’t find a live performance. This is obviously cheating, and you should dock at least a point as you listen to their heavy bass (check out that beard!) leading a thumping, funky, intricate sound. Sexy.
Led Bib – Jangling, broken up, super complex jazz that’s so out there it’s come back and is looking over your shoulder at what you’re eating, making you feel a bit nervous and wondering if you’ve missed something. They’re clearly all phenomenally good musicians, and they’re trying to do something really different, and there are moments and sections that really flow together, but then they’re smashed apart by a confrontation between the instruments that sounds like a pack of dogs are chasing a one man band through a clown convention. Barking.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Gentle guitar strains over the keyboard line from Castlevania on the Megadrive, at least on this track from the Punkt festival. Americana updated, like the Eagles bumping into Crystal Castles in a pub and getting on really well until a vampire spills their drinks. Lilting, darkly.