Review: Beth Prior

 

The music business has changed dramatically in the last decade. With streaming and downloading now commonplace, artists are struggling more than ever to make a living from their music. One method many have turned to is internet crowdfunding, so an artist’s supporters can contribute financially to an upcoming album, project, or tour. One such artist is Beth Prior, who managed to raise £7000 in 2015 to record her new album Little Acts of Kindness and go on her tour of the same name, which visited The Cellar in Oxford on Thursday 22nd September.

Prior describes her work as a mixture of reggae, ska, folk, and dub, which may indicate a messy sound of jumbled influences. Add to this a seven person collective of various instruments — including a trumpet, saxophone, keyboardist and a few guitars — and the last thing you might expect is to hear the tight sound, wonderful harmonies, and general melodic excellence of her opening number ‘One Love’. With lyrics reminiscent of Bob Marley at his most optimistic, the number of instruments added an extra dimension to a song that could easily have been played on just an acoustic guitar. The trumpet especially added a moody undercurrent to the song, lacing its positivity with a sombre irony.

beth-prior-tour

Prior’s vocals work best when she extenuates her syllables and elongates her words. She has a remarkable ability to maintain a note while the other instruments jam around her, acting as a kind of stabilizer to the sounds around her. Her songwriting, whilst economical and studious, also allows room for a manic sound from the rest of her band. Though the set was clearly rehearsed a great deal (there were very few mistakes), it still felt improvisational and unpredictable, so much so that the act at times resembled a neo-psychedelic band like Neutral Milk Hotel.

This is the paradox with Prior’s music, and it makes her all the more captivating as an artist. Her songs are, when broken down, carefully structured, and she has clearly studied songwriting a great deal. But she disguises the meticulous construction so well behind the rough and tumble indie aesthetic of her band and stage presence that it’s never pretentious or boring. She is both impulsive enough to carry a show in the dingy Cellar, and melodic enough to fill venues ten times the size.

The ska elements of her set were the most noticeable, especially with the underlying ‘2 tone’ bass beats that she favoured for many songs, reminiscent of Madness and The Specials (among others) in the late seventies. This bouncy rhythm, however, sometimes lent her songs a childlike quality, which didn’t fit well with the mood of the show. The album title song, ‘Little Acts of Kindness’, for example, sounded a little too much like “a girl sitting on a bed and uploading a video to YouTube of herself playing a ukulele” for some tastes, despite the earnestness of the song’s message. Nevertheless, when the song’s refrain arrived, the band really came into their own and added a raucousness which was previously lacking.

What viewers of Prior’s show will be left with is the sheer proficiency of the musicianship on display, and the amount of fun they have doing it. What they may not realize is the technical nous that went into making these songs. One of the arts of great songwriting is disguising how much hard work and craftsmanship goes into the process and instead appearing spur of the moment. Beth Prior and her Collective achieve this and, combined with their raw yet melodic sound, it makes them a joy to experience live; far better than any studio recording could render.

Tom Bonnington

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