Come January, when the proper pop stars are all in the gym working off the pounds before they emerge, blinking and svelte, into the watery winter sun, the small venues of London attempt to pack in the curious by filling their schedules with seasons of up-and-coming artists. In east London this past week, the excellent promoter Eat Your Own Ears ran three free nights of new acts. In Islington, the Lexington offered first the Winter Sprinter — five nights of sweet-toothed indie pop, where you might have caught the Portland Brothers, the occasional duo featuring Steven Adams, once of the Broken Family Band, and the best songwriter almost no one in the country has heard of — and then the Five Day Forecast, in conjunction with the new music website the Line of Best Fit.
Not all 15 artists from across the week are going to have their moment in the sun. But I suspect the world will hear more at some point from Alfie Templeman. It’s not that he was brilliant — he was not; he was perfectly fine — but he appeared to be wholly uninterested in anything other than making people happy. He’s 16 years old (though he could pass for 17, at a push) and pretty in that second-best-looking-boy-in-the-form way, and his music fizzed with brightness, all sunny, chiming guitars, and falsetto harmonies from his bass player. The drawbacks? Sturdy though the songs were, they did exactly what one expected them to do, and his voice had that thin whininess that’s meant to sound sensitive but filled me with the urge to shout at him to enunciate properly.
Much more interesting (and much less likely to be played on daytime radio) was Sinead O’Brien, who rather invited comparisons to the young Patti Smith by being a poet reciting over the top of electric guitar and drums. She’s at the edge of brilliance, but not quite all the way there. Her voice was draped in reverb, which meant the words became hard to discern, but her delivery — lilting so far up and down you were at risk of motion sickness — was compelling. And the music behind her was not just a placeholder: her guitarist, Julian Hanson, was deliciously inventive, providing melody lines that complemented rather than just accompanied her.
A couple of nights later, and the problems faced by no-budget artists coming over from America were apparent. Both Harrison Whitford and Frances Quinlan have made really pretty decent albums with backing bands. But neither of them — presumably for financial reasons — had their bands with them in London, which rather dulled their impact. Quinlan had backing tapes for part of her set, and the difference they made was startling: the songs suddenly burst into colour.
The best of the week, though, was a teenage quintet from Wisconsin called Disq, who played at the Five Day Forecast on the Tuesday, then an early evening slot down the road at the Old Blue Last on the Wednesday. They’ve featured on some of the picks for 2020 lists, which meant that even at 8 p.m. the Old Blue Last was pretty full, and they deserved their crowd. You wouldn’t call them original — they owe such a debt to Pavement, the defining US alt-rock band of the 1990s, that they should pay them royalties — but they played with such desperate enthusiasm that it was hard not to adore them. Better still, they only copy the good bits of Pavement. Their songs are all melodies, albeit fuzzy, slacker melodies, with none of the wilful look-at-us-be-eccentric diversions that sometimes made listening to Pavement such a frustrating experience. Their first album will be out in the spring, and it’s terrific.