POP MUSIC REVIEW : Opening Act L. Kage's Performance a Gilded One


Here's a bit of nonsense worth remembering: L. Kage.

It signifies nothing, but it's the name of an extremely promising, uncommonly confident and talented new band from Birmingham, England.

Opening for the Trash Can Sinatras on Friday night at the Coach House, L. Kage didn't exactly steal the show: The better-established Scottish headliner gave a good performance and had no trouble satisfying a full house of its partisan fans.

But L. Kage's ensemble skills, and the striking talent and songwriting ability of the band's front man, a charismatic, good-natured, shaven-headed Brit named Dean O'Loughlin, positions it as a prime contender to break out of pop's crowded pack. Grunge's day must be nearly up (pray it so), and when it is, fans with an appetite for the next, more melodic wave (move over, Riot Grrrls, it's time for Hummm rock) will be well rewarded if they say, in their best cockney accent, "Give us L."

As the hometown of Black Sabbath, Birmingham gave birth to grunge 20 years before Seattle learned how to recycle plodding distortion and market it for not much fun but a lot of profit (OK, Nirvana and Pearl Jam are good exceptions to the dismal rule, but they're just pop bands hiding behind a curtain of noise). L. Kage (pronounced El Cage), however, follows in the unabashed pop-rock footsteps of Birmingham's finest musical export, the Move.

That late '60s/early '70s band was best known for the epochal rocker "Do Ya," which later became a hit in the Electric Light Orchestra's neutered version. (E.L.O. started out in 1971 as an alter-ego band featuring all three members of the Move, then transmogrified into something much bigger and slicker. "California Man," covered by Cheap Trick, also is a Move original).

L. Kage doesn't really sound like the Move; it just walks in its tradition of smart, tuneful, punchy rock. In a 10-song, 40-minute set that won strong applause from listeners who hadn't heard his band before, O'Loughlin sometimes recalled Glenn Tilbrook, the gifted singer and melody writer of Squeeze. There also was a bit of the Cure's Robert Smith in the mix, except that, where Smith sounds like a bleating sheep when he tries to sing high notes, O'Loughlin was able to soar with the ease and grace of a master aerialist.

The fetching "Freed by Your Love Cascade" sounded like the Cure at its most pop-appealing.

Surrounding O'Loughlin were Andy Pell, an honors student in the Johnny Marr school of pealing, chiming, textured lead guitar, and a good harmony singer as well. Bassist John Morrison and a drummer named just Hendricks formed a rhythm section that was crisp, nimble, and rocking at any tempo. L. Kage stayed mostly with middling tempos, unleashing its full force only on the aptly named "Is That Fast Enough for You, Baby?" the bracing rocker that closed the set.

Best of all, the lyrics stand up along with the music. O'Loughlin has ideas and imagination and is able to express them pithily and directly, in songs that often have layers of emotion. "Showtime," for example, was primarily a sarcastic lampoon of militarism, but, due to O'Loughlin's melodic reach, it also conveyed an aching plaint.

The set offered expressions of lust and sweet romance, of spiritual aspiration, and of gritty realism in a modern folk ballad that displayed strong narrative skills in its portrait of a worker's struggles in the factories of Birmingham, an industrial city reputed to be truly grungy.

O'Loughlin is especially moving when he uses animals as symbols. In addition to lovely songs inspired by whales and butterflies, L. Kage hit home with "Space Dog," inspired by the story of Laika, the canine launched on a one-way ride into space by the Soviets during the 1950s.


Like Lasse Hallstrom, director of the film, "My Life as a Dog," O'Loughlin made poignant use of this symbol. Inhabiting the role of the dog, he imagined it mystically transformed in space to a higher state of awareness and spiritual knowledge, a state far beyond the exploitative human ambition that had launched it on its death ride. "She soared past the moon to understanding," O'Loughlin sang, his voice sliding gorgeously upward on that last word to convey a sense of the sublime achieved. L. Kage's American debut album, "Brazilliant," is the place to start.

With their two albums as a starting point, the Trash Can Sinatras had a difficult assignment: how to take the recordings' delicately arranged, deeply internalized songs fraught with melancholy, and make a rock show out of them.

Singer Frank Reader was up to the challenge. The wispily built front man was a spontaneous and active performer who, in his best moments, recalled a less abandoned Michael Stipe. Most of Reader's songwriting and singing is the very embodiment of wist, but he added some rougher, gargling vocal bits and sudden loud leaps of passion to keep the 75-minute show from wallowing too long at any stretch in a pool of sobs.

Reader's finest moment came on "Hayfever," in which he enlivened an already bouncy, music-hallish song from the new album, "I've Seen Everything," with his most energized scooting about, while also emitting cries that sounded like Joe Strummer's baying on "London Calling."


Reader's four rather faceless band-mates also did their job to avoid fussiness. Drummer Stephen Douglas engaged in so much loose bashing of cymbals that it became obvious where the Trash Can part of the name came from. Most of the quieter songs had at least one passage where the band rocked before subsiding again--not that such purely delicate songs as "Funny" weren't delightful.

All that cymbal crashing, and the overuse of echo effects on Reader's voice, made it impossible to follow most of his metaphor-strewn lyrics, which on record leaven the pervasive moping with an element of playfulness. But the Sinatras' appealing melodies survived in the mix, abetted by able harmonies from guitarist John Douglas (Stephen's brother).

The band also sought to offset the melancholy cast of its songs and generate excitement with such touches as frequent strobe lighting, which was way overused. A ring of 10 tacky yellow man-in-the-moon plastic faces decorated the bass drum, flashing on and off incessantly and annoyingly throughout the show. A bit of levity in the staging is quite all right, but the Sinatras could have done without the tiki lounge effect.

They also could have done without the stale, conventionally snide covers of their namesake's "Somethin' Stupid" (the 1967 father-and-daughter duet between Frank and Nancy Sinatra) and "The Lady Is a Tramp."

Any band can do lounge parody. But such strong, impeccably credentialed rock performers as R.E.M. and Alex Chilton have enriched their shows by taking music from Sinatra and his pre-rock contemporaries seriously.

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