Live Review: Peter Bjorn And John

Scala, London, Thursday, March 5

Despite the straitened times we live through, politeness reigns. Even the hookers and touts outside the Scala offer deferential, gap-toothed smiles. But that’s nothing compared to the queasy, anodyne atmosphere in the venue, as Swedish charmers Peter Bjorn & John showcase material from new album ‘Living Thing’.

If only their music was as seedy as they look: Peter and John resemble dodgy art dealers, while Bjorn is someone you might find getting fluffed in the outtakes of a ’70s porno. Yet mannered, derivative songs barely drown out the chatter, as ‘Living Thing’ and ‘I Want You’ arrive at Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ via a less exotic route than the one Vampire Weekend took last year.

Mid-set, there are a few moments in which PB&J stop sounding like a power-pop trio who’ve left their charger at home. Most notable are a cover of The Feelies’ ‘Fa Cé-La’ and recent single ‘Nothing To Worry About’, during which a children’s choir seems to be screaming to be freed from the sampler.

The tumult provokes Peter to daringly remove his cravat. Unfortunately, the taunting refrain of ‘Lay It Down’ misfires by sounding like Chumbawamba and indifference returns. The curtain behind the stage has ‘Backdrop’ written on it in large print, and PB&J’s music seems equally self-conscious. As the kind of thing that plays in graphic designers’ offices it requires no deep engagement, and as such falls short in 2009. With plywood hoarding filling our high streets, we need music that provokes more than nods politely.

Inevitably, tonight’s crowd appear to have gathered to hear one song only. At least ‘Young Folks’, with its fiendishly addictive whistled riff and Anita Blay, aka Thecocknbullkid, on backing vocals – offers escapism. Surprisingly it’s not the set closer, but it provokes a reaction so delirious as to illustrate the problem facing PB&J. An albatross hangs around these three necks, and its squawking is the rudest thing about them.

Luke Turner