Saturday 7 June 2008

Time to steal it back

Earlier today Postcards... was having one of those desultory flicks through bookmarked MySpace pages seeing if any bands were playing live soon, and came across this rather excellent five track studio video of the pretty excellent John et Jehn. I first came across the band at Shunt and wrote a rather ambitiously flowery article about them for the Guardian Music blog (posted below), which for one reason and another I never quite got around to sending. I've been meaning to write a post about them here ever since, but have never been all that happy with the stuff that could have accompanied it. But I reckon this video gets closer than most to capturing something of what I saw at Shunt – with the added advantage that it makes them look like something out of Katie Mitchell's Attempts... (if you're going to have aesthetic preferences, Haydon, make sure they're predictable)...
(If you're pushed for time, I reckon the second track, starting at about 05:15 is about the best shot and most listenable)

The below was originally written for

As a theatre critic I don’t generally get to see many bands playing live, so I was pleased that after Unlimited Theatre’s excellent The Ethics of Progress at the Shunt Vaults, there was also a live band. John et Jehn are French. They’re also a couple. Their music live sounds like, well, like the most comprehensive tribute to my record collection that I’ve ever heard. It’s all there, in glorious live monochrome; imagine Siouxsie Sioux fronting the Stranglers, playing the Clash, with lashings of Joy Division, Johnny Cash, the Cramps, Nouvelle Vague, the Glitter Band (before such comparisons were a dirty word) and God knows who else thrown in for joyous good measure - then you’re about halfway there. I’m not sure I’ve ever been at a gig which contained so many people just smiling broadly at their sheer good luck at happening to catch such a great band.

The strange thing is, listening to them afterwards on their MySpace page, and the odd promo video on You Tube, only a fraction of the brilliance of the live article comes across. Granted, my tinny laptop [told you it was an old article] reduces even the most complex sonic engineering to something that sounds like Crass playing inside a biscuit tin, but I think there’s something more significant at play here.

What is crucial about John et Jehn is the performance. The band have an absolutely arresting stage presence. Imagine the White Stripes if they’d been invented by Tim Burton. John is all painfully thin and ill-looking; a sort of four-way cross between Lux Interior, Ian Curtis, John Cooper-Clarke and Paul Weller. Jehn, by contrast, looks like a feral Audrey Tautou cut with equal parts of Wednesday and Morticia Adams. While John is all laconic, dismissive French wryness, Jehn's onstage presence seems carved from raw sexual passion.

This is “playing live” of a whole different order. Here we have drama, passion; a pair of performances that cross cathartic display with a display of ongoing, unstoppable sexual attraction. I’ve seen a fair amount of faked sex on stage in my time as a theatre critic, most of it pretty dreadful; this was the first time I’ve ever felt like the I was watching the raw human desire that actually drives people into bed.

But, crucially, it was also performance. This was two artists who knew a thing or two about stagecraft. This wasn’t just two people who fancied each other annoyingly having to interrupt their sex-life to play a gig, it was perfect theatre. And, Jesus, was it effective. Rather than two people standing on stage, looking into the crowd playing their instruments, the audience sees interaction, a real dynamic, and human desire. There’s also a neat line in understated cool and a very Gallic irony at play.

Theatreland has been making some pretty extensive, and often ill-advised borrowings from popular music in recent years. John et Jehn prove that live music stealing a couple of good ideas back is long overdue.

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