Live Review: Ella Hooper, Darling James, Gena Rose Bruce

19 February 2016 | 1:56 pm | Tim Kroenert

"Ever 'the girl next door', Hooper's first task when she appears is to make fun of her outfit: "I went with 'Asian grandma'."

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Apparently tonight's advertised openers, Mouth Tooth, couldn't make it because "someone had a baby". Luckily, Gena Rose Bruce is here to fill in. There's more than a little Katy Steele about the captivating Melbourne singer-songwriter, whose voice combines breathy cutesiness with soulful gusto.

She's followed by Darling James, the current vehicle for former The Boat People co-frontman James O'Brien. Their set begins in a murky fug of synth and builds to something resembling Neil Finn-era Split Enz, characterised by eerily jangling guitar, the occasional falsetto vocal and some pretty sharp drumming. They are well-drilled and at times intriguing, but unremarkable overall.

Up until now The Gasometer bandroom's retractable roof has been open ("It's like it's 2002," says O'Brien, noting the smokers on the balcony), but it slides closed as Darling James depart and the stage is reset for Ella Hooper and band. Ever 'the girl next door', Hooper's first task when she appears is to make fun of her outfit: "I went with 'Asian grandma'." It's disarming, if vaguely racist.

Tonight is a showcase for her angry 2015 EP Venom and its forthcoming upbeat sequel, New Magic. "I'm going to play a shitload of new material," she promises. But, first things first, she kicks off with Rats: Venom's scene-setting opening track. It's obvious these songs have a different life when played live; Hooper performs with a clarity and crispness that is sadly absent from the EP, and it serves the songs well. The 'venom', after all, comes not from gimmicks, but from lyrics like, "There's always a Sarah, a Sarah, a Laura/Somebody to shit on the love I have for ya," (Sarah Sarah Laura). The live arrangements add depth to the dark, noisy corners of Rapeseed and help bring Couldn't Have Loved You More to a raucous Wilco-esque climax.

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There's a short break and when Hooper reappears she has discarded her high heels. "This next set is all about when you find your comfort again," she says. Indeed the new songs are noticeably warmer than Venom's, from the gospel-flavoured title track to a song called Break Up Blonde that channels, appropriately enough, Blondie. The best of them is a pop song with jittery drums, syncopated keyboard and guitar that give it an air of knowing eccentricity reminiscent of latter-era Crowded House. On the available evidence, New Magic is going to be well worth a close listen.