Fosca and Okkervil River
Tonight’s support band, Okkervil River, are from Texas. They sing earnest and angsty songs about worthy things. But with a smile. They are a bit Sparklehorse, a bit Ryan Adams, though without the occasionally magnetic melodies of either. They are rough around the edges in a very competent way. One of them plays a ukulele. But more arrestingly, they are as distant from Fosca as you can possibly imagine. It’s like having Schoenberg supported by Bob the Builder. Which is not to say that Fosca are like Schoenberg.
Schoenberg is famous for his twelve-note theory, for his atonal experiments, whereas Fosca are known for their singer, Dickon Edwards. Dickon, as you will see from my interview with him, is supremely interesting as a professional being. He is a unique experiment in the history of humanity, but he is not a singer. Or, dare I say it, a lyricist. The defining image of Fosca tonight is Dickon reading his own lyrics from a folder. One can’t help speculating that this is because they are so complicated and unmemorable (as opposed to his prose, which is eminently quotable) that even their author can’t remember them. Lines like “Your need to be kissed, to prove that you exist, has never topped your list till now” from Idiot Savant are awkward enough even if they could be heard.
At one point Dickon said: “The voice is the most important thing, the voice is the soul of the music,” which sounds – and is – true. But unfortunately his own voice doesn’t have the presence to convey the substance of his meditations. For example, the funniest moment of the night was when Dickon was talking about films (his between-song theme tonight) and a member of a London indie band, whose identity I will protect, shouted out “do the Posey Parker [sic] song,” unaware that they had just done so. She didn’t seem too embarrassed, but one would have thought the band would be, communicating so ineffectively.
The structure of Fosca songs is rudimentary. Verses are placed in stark contrast to the mantra-like repetitions of the chorus. These are Dickon’s kernels of wisdom, these are the messages people take home: “I’ve done something I shouldn’t have”, “I’m on your side”, “I’ll take the agony without the ecstasy.” These are audible because they are spelt out clearly, syllable by syllable, with the aid of Rachel Stevenson’s and Kate Dornan’s backing vocals. Although, without the context of the verse lyrics to invest them with substance they could not help but sound glib.
Fosca are not so much Lo-Fi (which implies a spirit of sneering rejection of contemporary varnish) as cheap-fi. For 90% of the set, the electronically generated bass and drums sound as wimpy and pathetic – and as simplistic and restricting – as those produced by my one-year-old nephew’s toy keyboard. The songs stutter along uncomfortably, as if embarrassed. There is something uptight, a frustration, which means that nothing ever flows. Musically, this is effected by having keyboards and guitar mirror the cheap, programmed rhythm section. Only on their last but one song did they show the ability to transcend mediocrity. For ‘It’s going to end in tears (All I Know)’ is sublime, worth the entry price on its own:
All I know of life is being cast aside.
All I know of love is how it’s been denied.
It’s going to end in tears.
Everything about the song – the descending chord changes, the lyrics, the guitar, the vivid drums and pumping bass – combines to create a very special moment. Moreover, Dickon’s vocal limitations, like those of Bernard Sumner, reveal depths that the technical ability of Heather Small, could never know. Like the best songs of New Order, ‘It’s going to end in tears’ crystallises an emotional and existential moment with precision. Flowing mellifluously from edgy verse to mesmeric ba-ba-ba’s, it is their only song with real drama. Indeed, it is a song which begs to be used as a template for all subsequent efforts.