You could say that timing has never been the House of Love’s forte… just when they looked set to dominate the world with their brand of visceral, thoughtful indie-rock, along came grunge in the early 1990s and swept them away in a tide of lank hair and lumberjack shirts. Drugs, alcohol and depression did the rest and they never fulfilled their brilliant, early promise.
And tonight, on a rare eight-date tour to promote their first album in eight years, they arrive in Manchester on the night that United play City. “Great time to do a gig,” quips Guy Chadwick “I’ve never been one for football.”
It’s often a bit of a gamble seeing a band that you loved back in the day. Will they play the hits? Are they just doing it for the money? Is the new material any good?
Taking to the stage to the strains of Canned Heat’s On The Road Again, the House of Love tackle these issues head-on. With Chadwick leaning into his mic like his life depends on it, and Terry Bickers’ guitar somehow sounding gentle and turbocharged at the same time, they kick off with two new songs before they even say anything.
And…it works! Brilliantly, as it happens. I never managed to see the House of Love live, either before or after Chadwick and Bickers fell out so spectacularly, and it’s amazing to see the musical chemistry between them working on stage again. I’d never realised how much, and how well, their voices fit together to create harmonies that fill the post-industrial loft space of Sound Control on New Wakefield Street in Manchester.
The new songs, from their recently-released album on Cherry Red Records, are up to the standard of almost anything they’ve done before and blend seamlessly into their early material from their Creation Records period. Hope and Road are greeted by the Manchester crowd like the valued old friends they are. Terry Bickers starts to get his indie guitar hero mojo working, leaping around the stage like Pete Townshend, and Guy Chadwick sings of “a better place, a better way” and evokes the dreams I had when I was back in Staffordshire doing my A-Levels. The bloke next to me checks the footy score on his smartphone. 1-1, since you ask.
Chadwick flails at his guitar in a rhythmically controlled way and introduces the title track from the new record, She Paints Words In Red. To be honest, it’s outshone by some of the other new material, but that’s a high-quality issue rather than a low-quality one. And then he plays what someone nearby recognises as a G flat chord and says “This is an old one…Really old…Too old…”
Actually it’s only from their 1991 album Babe Rainbow by which point the band were five years old and on their second post-Bickers lead guitarist. Crush Me was their lowest-placed chart single from their major-label Fontana period, and the fact it only got to number 67 just goes to demonstrate that there’s no justice in this world. The early 1990s weren’t necessarily a place to be for the beautifully crafted and thoughtful.
The information that it’s Manchester United 1 Manchester City 1 draws a wry smile from the stage. “That means no fighting,” says a relieved-sounding Chadwick, before introducing “a punky little thing called Never Again which lifts your reviewer’s heart and all but persuades him to buy the new album. The lyric “never let a good thing go” stands out, sung by the House of Love’s 57-year-old lead singer like one who knows – and he ought to, with the amount of personal demons he’s battled both before and since the band split up 20 years ago.
Suddenly it dawns on me that they’ve not played anything from their Fontana album – like the one on Creation, it was officially called The House of Love, but you’ll know it as the one with the butterfly on the front. That’s soon fixed with Se Dest, and for the first time I can *feel* as well as hear the thump of the bass and drums. It’s incredible to hear it live – the sound in the venue does the band justice perfectly, and I realise for the first time that they’re supposed to sound like a heartbeat. Wow.
“My dad was born in Oldham,” muses Chadwick, apropos of nothing. It gets the biggest cheer of the night…until they launch into their second-biggest hit, The Beatles and the Stones.
Which is followed by what’s described as an old song that’s become a new song, and Terry Bickers’ guitar sound shimmers so beautifully and warmly that you could almost take a bath in it. Until a rock riff unexpectedly appears from nowhere and clobbers you around the head.
The crowd, not quite a sell-out but pretty well attended in the circumstances, are loving it. Hearing them in an intimate venue with good acoustics like Sound Control is just about perfect. Another single from the Fontana album, Don’t Know Why I Love You, is lapped up, as is another of the new songs. Which clearly makes it worth the band’s while to be doing it. “Thank you very much…that was a good reaction. We’ll come here again.”
Love in a Car from the Creation album creates a thunderous finale and leaves me wondering two things:
a) will they come back and play the couple of songs their appreciative audience is hoping for,
b) did the House of Love accidentally invent shoegazing?
If they did, nobody’s blaming them. The first part of the encore, Phone, leads into the song they’re known for above all else: Shine On. And considering they’ve been so spot-on musically for the whole gig, it doesn’t quite scale the heights we’ve been become used to over the last hour or so. Slower than expected, it plods where it should thunder, and the band don’t seem to quite mesh properly. Who knows, maybe they’ve played it too often?
But nevertheless, it’s great to hear it. Once the House of Love has given us Destroy the Heart and left the stage, the whole of Sound Control unites in yelling, applauding and stomping them back on for a well-earned second encore. “We’ll do Christine if you’re quiet!” promises Guy Chadwick, before playing a lovely little new song called Lost in the Blues.
And to finish, the song that pretty much any indie kid who was around in 1988 would kill to hear played live again. “This is called Claudine” is the white lie that introduces it, and Bickers produces an incredible sound from his guitar like sounds like nothing so much as a chorus of yowling, growling, but incredibly tuneful cats.
Meanwhile at Old Trafford, City have grabbed a winner late in the second half. And, 25 years after the initial five-year career that first made them famous, the House of Love can’t be written off from doing the same.
Review by Drew Savage
What: House of Love
Where: Sound Control, Manchester
More info: http://www.soundcontrolmanchester.co.uk/