Photography: Tayler Little

Art School Girlfriend

I Love Live Events @ Sound 13/10/18

There may have been some foreshadowing in the name of tonight’s headliners. No less than an hour after the doors open into the basement of Sound, half of the sparse crowd in there look like they haven’t yet sat their GCSEs. This isn’t what you might expect from an audience for one of the UK’s up-and-coming emotional synthwave artists. For first impressions, this is more like walking in on a birthday party, albeit with a licensed bar instead of jelly and ice-cream while the Talking Heads play from the PA.

There’s a smaller group of people who seem sufficiently old enough to buy a drink. They’re down the front for first support HARRY MILLER. He cuts an amiable character on stage; lanky and fairly undemonstrative, but with an honesty that cuts through the need for over-the-top stage presence. With songs dealing largely with love and loss, there’s something of a stripped-back Verve in the look, sound and feel of Harry’s northern introspection. It’s not massively original, but not majorly irritating, either. ADAM JAY, the magnetic force of youth at this gig, follows with a set that doesn’t leave much of an impression.

After this, the Adam Jay fans dissipate entirely and are immediately swapped out for fans of a more senior, chin-strokey, beret-wearing variety. This equally satire-worthy demographic is here for ART SCHOOL GIRLFRIEND. The project of Margate-based/Wrexham-born singer-songwriter Polly Mackey extends to a full-band when playing live, including a keyboardist providing backing vocals, a lead guitarist and drummer. Mackey pitches in with bass and lead vocals.

Considering the simplicity of her recorded work – voice and synths with a minimum of percussion – seeing the songs performed live opens up the tunes. It gives them a greater emotional and aural resonance. Maybe it’s the contrast, but it’s an icy chaser of maturity after the bubble gum cocktail that has preceded. Mackey comes across like a young Beth Gibbons, simultaneously louche and slick in her baggy suit. Musically, there are bits and pieces of synthwave, chillwave and dark pop in the mix – call it what you will. There’s nods to Everything But the Girl’s stunted melancholia, and the passion and romance of London Grammar and The XX – albeit without the nagging naiveté of both. Latest single Moon closes the set; it’s the highlight. As it rises and falls, its orbit takes in 80s synthpop and 90s trip-hop, derezzes in a way Daft Punk might have in the 2000s but, ultimately, comes back to Mackey’s bruised yet still shining vocal. Though still young, her voice and her songwriting reveal her to be an mature soul. How nice it would be there were more of those around town.

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