American pop-noir band seduces Leeds with sweet-sour love songs – 4/5
It is Tuesday night at the Brudenell Social Club and the cosy venue is swimming with a curious mix of indieheads, faux-fur-wearing 30 year olds, gruff middle-aged men, and the odd group of teenagers who look like they might have wandered into the wrong pub. As Cigarettes After Sex (CAS) make their entrance, the pub’s colourful kaleidoscopic lights dim and the stage takes on a minimalist black and white theme. The band assumes position, backlighted by a morose black and white photograph of ancient city ruins.
Launching instantly into ‘Starry Eyes’, frontman Greg Gonzalez engulfs the audience in his soothing vocals of liquid gold. He sounds exactly as he does in the studio recording; his voice is soft and tender, yet rich and luxurious, and the audience sways in appreciation. It is a beautiful opening to the set. The sweet slowcore tune brimming with lulling androgynous vocals evokes stirrings of melancholic romanticism in the room, and a deep sense of calm washes over the crowd.
As he addresses the crowd for the first time (“hello Leeds”), Greg’s deep speaking voice comes as a bit of a surprise for first timers at CAS’s gig, as it contrasts starkly against the soft tone of his vocals. Yet in a sense, there is a likeness in the way he speaks and the way he sings – he goes about both in an almost offhanded fashion, and in hushed murmurs. In this manner, CAS steps into their most poetic tune ‘I’m a Firefighter’, that features mellow bass riffs and lyrics as painfully poignant as “trapped in a burning house in a silent picture/ & there is no way out except to watch the love between us die”. It is Greg’s favourite song to perform (he shares that with us here), and his passion is obvious in the way he croons about love found and lost, with his head emphatically tilted to the left. The band also performs “K.”, their newly released single about the warmth, hope, hesitance and fear involved in early burgeonings of love. It is this that distinguishes CAS from other diehard romantic bands – there is always a hint of darkness to their tenderness, an underlying sweet-sour pain intermingled with desire.
CAS’s is a kind of quiet confidence – the band remains motionless throughout the gig and there are no gimmicks: there is no fancy lighting, no flashing neon backdrop, no dancing or any attempt whatsoever to get the audience hyped. Black and white images of warzones and dilapidated buildings are the only accompaniments they employ. They take small humble bows after every song. It is almost the anti-thesis of the typical 2016 live show, yet all eyes and ears are on the band and the room is suffused in quiet entrancement.
The band goes through other tunes that are similarly haunting and captivating to hear. Their cover of REO Speedwagon’s ‘Keep On Loving You’ is stripped of all trace of 80s rock and rendered bleak. Ridden with dreamy shoegaze vibes and shades of Mazzy Star, it conjures an air of film noir that adds to the intimacy that saturates the room. ‘Affection’, the song Greg introduces as one “about getting drunk and being mean to someone you love” has the audience excitedly crooning along to its semi-sadistic lyrics: “so what does it mean if I tell you to go fuck yourself/ or if I say that you’re beautiful to me/ it’s affection always”, morphing it ironically into some sort of a jolly ballad. ‘Dreaming of You’ screams of the desperation of obsessive love.
Ending on the song that blasted them to fame, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’, the band coos brazenly sexual lyrics with such sweet seduction that the couples in the audience have their arms around each other and sensations of longing are undoubtedly stewing in the rest. On this note, CAS takes a final bow to a smattering of applause, and even after they leave the stage, their infectious hazy intimacy lingers in the air. It is with this blanket of tingly warmth (and for some, perhaps, creeping loneliness) that the crowd disperses into the cold rainy streets of Leeds.
(photo credits: Michael T. Wilcox)