I might have mentioned it a couple of times already, but I honestly cannot fathom which concerts will sell out these days in Budapest, and why. (Apparently the Despacito person’s gig will sell out any time now, in his case I could confidently cover the which part, but will forever stay confused over the why.) Returning to actual music, I was positively impressed that Cigarettes After Sex sold out, though I would not have necessarily expected it. Greg Gonzalez’s group is rather well known, occasionally revered, and often used as some sort of a hipster credential wild card in indie circles, yet I would not have bet that the local crowd will flock to the deck of A38 on a hot summery night.
But they did, amidst a bit of uncertainty, as there seemed to be no opening act, and the main one was firmly scheduled to start at eight, both of which are oddities in the A38 universe. I must confess to being relieved at the no support band bit- as those who occasionally read the reviews on this blog will know, I usually manage to miss them altogether, more or less intentionally. It’s just that I often go to a concert with a certain mood, set on the main act, and don’t want to spoil it- there are of course excellent bands that I discovered as openers (Public Service Broadcasting, for example, who are coming to A38 as a main act later this year, but I got to know them when they opened for Editors in December 2015), but most of the time they’re just a musical backdrop to queuing for beers and waiting for your lazy friend to arrive.
The above scenario is particularly poignant when the main act are Cigarettes After Sex, who are very much a mood band- described alternatively as shoegaze (which is what I most associate them with), slowcore, dream pop or ambient (which is what I am most vary of, as it brings about echoes of Café del Mar mixes used as background music in indeterminate bars and relaxational tea houses). Whichever genre you pick for them, it is however one which seems more fit for listening at home, maybe in bed, perhaps having a cigarette, after sex, if you insist. A concert, on the other hand, might prove tricky- how do you keep a house, or, in our case, deck full of people glued to the stage for more than an hour and avoid the greatest risk inherent to your musical style, tedium, to use a nice, ambient word for it.
The answer is simple: you have great songs. Looking back at the group’s career, they have been active for almost ten years now, yet their output can be considered scarce: a couple of EPs along the way, and a debut album released only a month ago, self-titled and one of the best of the year so far. Each track thus feels like a slowly, carefully and lovingly polished dark diamond, no rough edges left in the process, and no aggressive brilliance either, just scattered glimmers of light in an otherwise uninterrupted night.
As such, there’s no need for any stage antics either, the band are hardly lit, almost always in diffuse pale white, with smoke slowly moving across the stage and two screens to the side projecting almost still sequences of what feels like the slowest bit of a really slow arthouse movie- there’s an almost Lynchian thrill in the air. There’s also a feeling, that, after the above mentioned close to ten-year wait, with songs featured in mainstream hits such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Cigarettes After Sex are on the cusp of some sort of a breakthrough, and here we got to see them while still being partially, tantalizingly obscure but already brilliant.
Finally, saving a very personal remark for the end: I’d started the day with yet another one of my defeats, namely forgetting to save the group’s latest album to my iPod, so I decided to listen to something else, but fitting instead, and went for Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. Greg Gonzalez then wore a T-shirt with the album’s cover for the gig and I felt this was one of those moments when the universe aligns in a very small, but also very significant way.