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Live Review: The Veils at Spaceland

July 16, 2009 |  2:56 pm

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A singer's fragility is one of the trickier things for a band to make interesting. The Brit-rock canon is full of excellent sad-sack mopers, but just underneath Morrissey or Robert Smith's misery is usually a touch of camp, cocky snarl or starry romanticism that suggests they're going to make it out of the bar OK at the end of the night. You have to find different shades within your black moods and make something new from them.

Finn Andrews, the striking frontman of the Veils, has a streak of lovelorn bleakness as deep as the night is long. At Spaceland on Wednesday night, the U.K.-via-New Zealand quartet did something I'm not sure I'll see again in rock music today -- they really, truly frightened me. 

Their set was on a constant knife's edge between Andrews' vibrato-for-days vocals and relentlessly creative guitar playing, and the sense that when he sings a line like "There's a bulls'-blooded fountain in the pit of a moan" (from the fantastic noise blast "Jesus for the Jugular"), he might actually have seen such a thing on the walk from the club parking lot. His Flannery O'Connor-style creepy preacher hat, and an unshaven, alabaster complexion that suggests he lives off a varied diet of scotches, only accented the band's sense of gnawing doom -- though it was leavened with melodic sweetness and a lovely ear for arrangement detail.

Now, I'm a total sucker for this sort of thing. I have no idea if Andrews, after a show, is still a version of his onstage personality, or if he cracks a six-pack with the boys and plays Wii tennis. But as far as his set last night went, it was probably the most moving, unsettling and unexpectedly haunting thing I've seen in rock music this year. 

The thing that caught me off-guard about the Veils live is that, on record, they come from a long line of bands up to something similar. They were obviously raised on the good stuff -- the Smiths, Pulp, Scott Walker --  but going into their set, I wasn't sure if there was still blood to be squeezed from those stones. A quick pass through "Nux Vomica" and the recent "Sun Gangs" proves the Veils have obvious debts to bands with big tenors and dense verses. But whatever that weird, implacable thing is in a singer that makes you just have to look at them, Andrews is soaked in it. It takes an otherwise evocative song and makes it terrifying in all the best ways.

Take, for instance, a track like "Larkspur." It starts with a kind of inscrutable yet intriguing lyric -- "Always a Larkspur, no rest for my heart" --  over a simple, drone-rooted guitar figure that adds a sense of quiet resignation to the melody. But as it is building, the tension snaps when Andrews suddenly stops it to repeat "Something got a hold of me, baby" over and over until it seems an almost biblical warning. Then he drops his composure, and whatever it is that's got a hold of him starts to eat him alive. He flails. He grimaces. He rips off feedback solos that would make Thurston Moore stand up and golf clap. Then he takes a few minutes to catch his breath, trying to keep his modesty while making peace with his larynx.  It's the best kind of live-set theater -- Andrews is in total control of his physicality onstage, and it makes the transaction between him and his audience seem fraught with unanticipated intimacy.

It's not all merciless emoting on his behalf, however. Henning Dietz is a powerful drummer who turns simple accents into rivets that hold the song together, and the band's improbably named bassist, Sophia Burn, has an alluring severity to her playing that makes the song feel as thick as the lyrics suggest. And Andrews is just as powerful in the empty spaces. His quiet turn on "The Tide That Left and Never Came Back" was a redemptive bit of tenderness. When he sings "Don't fall into all those sad stories you write, your voice is so pretty when it gets caught in the right rhyme," you wonder if he's reassuring himself of something. If he isn't, then it's a line someone should really say back to him one day.

-- August Brown

Veils photo courtesy Beggars Group

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