Live at The Refectory on Thursday, 31st January 2002
The last few years have hardly been a triumph for Embrace; set up as "the next Oasis" their debut album reached the number one spot and, while not selling 'shed loads' ('tent loads' anyone?), did seem to set them up nicely for future records. Unfortunately sales have been downhill ever since, despite the fact that both follow-up albums urinate from a great height over the 'bombast-on-a-stick' (over) production of their more well known predecessor.
From the outside at least the band currently seem to be in a state of limbo. While the 'kazoo-agogo' 'Drawn From Memory' wasn't a commercial success it did at least succeed in exorcising the sullen faced ghosts of Britpop cool that had hovered round the band ever since four twenty-somethings, straight outta Huddersfield, appeared in the pages of the music press trying to look disinterested in photos, shouting about how they were going to be 'the best band in the world, mate' (© every indie band '94 - '98). However despite the quality of new album, 'If You've Never Been', it does mark something of a retreat to the rent-a-ballad Embrace of yore and as such is a bit of a backwards step, suggesting both a drying up of ideas and acquiescence to the record company cattle-prod; HMS McNamara, once so resolutely steered towards 'The Land Of Rock N' Roll Greatness' by her fresh faced captains appears to be floundering in rough seas off the coast of 'General Apathy Island'. Will Danny and Richard ever have another encounter with the friendly daytime radio dolphin? Will the many tentacled Octopus of 'what-the-fuck-do-we-do-nowness' be slain by the band? And what does wild-eyed janitor Mr Peters want with bass player Steve Firth? Stay tuned for more adventures of the indie kind as we 'Embrace the University Refectory'! (ahem).
There is, however, the small matter of Witness to take care of before we can rejoin our heroes... Only now managing to shake off the tag 'Nick McCabe's mates', Lady Luck has stubbornly refused to uncross her legs in the direction of Wigan's second best band. First album, 'Before The Calm', was sporadically brilliant but then came last years 'Under A Sun'. Described by the Sunday Times as 'one of the great rock albums of the year' but by any sane person as 'a load of fucking shite' listening to this record is like discovering your parents laughing at Jim Davidson, the feeling of disbelief, the burning sense of betrayal, the desire to never see them again; all present and correct.
Thank God then for Witness live! Gone is the 'pleeeease can we be R.E.M.' desperation of recent single 'Here's one for you' (er, no thanks you keep it), back are the sheet metal guitars and pounding rhythm section. 'Cause And Effect' in particular sounds amazing but just when I'm thinking of rushing home and putting 'Before A Calm' on they decide to finish with the most appalling country and western (!) tune ever. Bollocks. Somewhere in the heart of the beast that is Witness there's a good band trying to get out which makes it all the more frustrating that they seem to have lost the plot recently. Most of tonites set does, at least, give a modicum of hope for the future.
Back to Embrace however; this is a band with plenty of material to choose from so you'd naturally expect them to pick an upbeat number to start the show and get the crowd going right? Er wrong, instead we get a solo Danny doing a partly cappela version of early single Fireworks - riiiight. Strange start to a strange gig then; the new album is almost entirely ignored in favour of a set that relies heavily on 'The Good Will Out'. Rather than mix songs up we are given three or four songs from a particular album in a row - an admirable attempt to stop the mood from fluctuating too much but one that results in things coming over 'a bit 1998' at times.
That said we are treated to scorching versions of songs such as first hit proper 'All You Good Good People', 'My Weakness' and 'The Love It Takes' (a hidden gem in the Embrace back catalogue). Sadly, as the famous phrase almost goes, too many ballads spoil the broth; no 'One Big Family', 'Blind', 'Last Gas', 'Yeah You' etc mean that the crowd have only limited opportunities to fully show their appreciation in the time honoured tradition of 'jumping up and down like a muppet'. Only when the band play 'New Adam, New Eve' and the Richard McNamara penned (and sung) 'Save Me' does widespread 'moshing' break out.
Although one could never accuse Embrace of being lacklustre tonite (or any nite), the celebratory feel of previous gigs was missing, a distinct air of uncertainty present in its place. The band really need to find their feet again and learn to be less reliant on old material. As 'Drawn From Memory' proved they are capable of recreating themselves successfully and this is something Embrace seem in dire need of repeating at this stage of their career should they wish to stay relevant. As for Mr Peters and the bass player, you'll just have to tune in next time - let's hope there is one.