Live Review: Lawrence Arabia - Toff In Town

6 July 2012 | 2:03 pm | Guido Farnell

There is honesty and wit within Arabia’s lyrics as he narrates and reflects upon awkward growing up experiences and falling in love.

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“The room is filling up,” exclaims Ben Mason was we enter the Toff and cross the largely empty floor. The Smallgoods frontman introduces the evening's entertainment with a selection of pop songs that are delivered in a loose, casual manner. You can close your eyes and imagine these tunes fleshed out with a band, but tonight Mason's bare-bones presentation brings into focus his skill for crafting timeless songs.

It is not long before feisty Aussie singer/songwriter Emma Russack appears onstage with a cheeky smile. Russack and her band deliver a selection of songs from her recently released album Sounds Of Our City. The hazy, golden-hued vibe they produce grooves gently and feels dreamy. Russack's deep, husky vocals add just a little extra honey to an already delicious mix. Much like Mason, she is clearly influenced by a huge range of seriously classic songwriting influences. The candour of Russack's lyrics is charming, especially when she sings about being seduced by a lesbian. Reflective, intimate and tinged with a little melancholia, it is easy to drift away to the steely twang of Russack's reveries.

Lawrence Arabia, the solo alter ego of New Zealander James Milne, is in town to let us know that he is about to release his third album The Sparrow on Robin Guthrie's illustrious label Bella Union. Interestingly, the word on the street is that Arabia recorded this album in just five days with minimum rehearsals as he wanted to capture something more spontaneous on this album. Arabia looks dapper in a suit and tie and those expecting to find him wearing a dishdasha may well be disappointed. They kick off the set with Listening Times, which instantly suggests that he continues to be influenced by the classic sounds of '60s pop music. As they play Travelling Shoes Arabia washes over a bit like Patrick Wolf's wholesome, straight-laced, down to earth cousin from the country. Much like Wolf, Arabia crafts pop nuggets that lend themselves to ambitious flights of orchestral fancy. Tonight instead of a string quartet we get a violinist bowing his way into the mix. There is honesty and wit within Arabia's lyrics as he narrates and reflects upon awkward growing up experiences and falling in love. Silencing the audience when he introduces a new song called The Bisexual, Arabia enters the confessional in much the same way that Momus did on Tender Pervert. Conscious that fans are keen for older material, Arabia treats them to Talk About Good Times off his first album, which provides the most accessible hooks and only sing-along moment of the evening. “Only people from Christchurch would know that song,” he exclaims. “Melbourne you may not know it but a lot of people from Christchurch live here now,” he adds and, as the crowd cheers, the room suddenly seems to be filled with expats. Arabia alternates between playing the guitar and piano throughout the set but when he is at the piano the results are somewhat more sombre. Older material such as the afro shuffle of Auckland CBD and Apple Pie Red lightens the mood. As they bring down the night with a driving version of Fine Old Friends, many leave the Toff impatient for The Sparrow, which will be released later this month.