REBECCA LALLY attends elusive London-based band’s headline ICA show, with support from new favourites NEW YORK.
bar italia are a name on everybody’s lips. Last Thursday, Rory and I hit the mall for a headline set from elusive London-based band in the ICA theatre – tickets sold out fast. The night would see the band performing from their new album, Tracey Denim, debut from Matador records.
Over the last two years bar italia have built a low-key but devoted following, via releases on Dean Blunt’s World Music and word-of-mouth. As is typical of artists associated with the label, they cut an elusive figure, not giving interviews and couching identities behind poor-quality images and lo-fi production. It was only relatively recently their lineup was confirmed to be Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton, of Double Virgo, and Nina Cristante, long-time Dean Blunt collaborator, with releases under NINA.
The avoidant approach is part of their draw. I had heard so many whispers– I knew bar italia were ‘cool’ before I knew who they were. Outside the concert it is a warm summer evening. Everyone is mostly wearing black and smoking cigarettes; I spot all the usual culprits. I am buzzing to see the band’s biggest headline yet, and how they might pull off their typically evasive stylings live. Bar italia have until now enjoyed underground infamy and traded off a certain ‘IYKYK’ cachet; hailed by some as London’s ‘best new band’, they navigate the beginnings of mainstream success.
NEW YORK are opening for bar italia– and I’m trying to place where I’ve heard of them. NEW YORK is London-based music and performance project of artists Gretchen Lawrence and Coumba Samba; they self-released debut album No Sleep Till N.Y. in 2022 and are kind of everywhere, opening for The Hellp in LA last month. We catch the back end of their set. They forgo the stage to dance, sing, circle one another in the crowd, laptop on the floor– the effect of this staging is high school fight video or quasi-lesbian rap battle. They are well dressed with charming, ‘impulsive’ poise, and the crowd is into it.
Cool, ‘gritty’, IDM– pared back electronica. Their sound circles around royalty-free loops, clicks, glitches, and chopped vocals. ‘Makeout’ is refreshing confessional with lyrics as… ‘I’m just a lazy girl… trying to get by… caught in a popular body.’ Their recent single ‘night n day’ makes brilliant sample with (Coumba?) crooning… ‘they only want you when you’re seventeen…’ for a laid-back party-girl anthem.
NEW YORK is what being a girl in the big city is about– boredom, romance, making beats. I appreciate the duo for their leaning into vocal fry and digital phenomena. Girl Band NEW YORK are definitely captivating, like Chicks on Speed for the cloud age.
After the intermission we file back in to The Beatles’ greatest hits playing over the speakers, which I understand only later for the cursory signalling it is. The band comes onstage to no introduction, getting right into their most-streamed track, ‘Skylinny’, for about a minute. They start and stop as abruptly through the compact, hour-long set, playing through most of their new album and ‘greatest hits’, with no chat between songs or encore.
Having heard mixed reviews of their live performances– they sound really good. Guitars take the foreground; the mix is ‘drivier’ than studio recordings and angsty drawls translate well. Trademark of bar italia’s sound is the three members share vocals, singing with variously brooding, aroused, or European affectations. The Boy-Girl-Boy setup is very chic, and front-woman Nina, swaying in place, is as enchanting as she is a powerful presence.
At worst, the concert threatened with being a little slow. I remember almost nothing of which tracks were played or when, the set blending into one murky (but gorgeous) night. I enjoy myself a lot, because I have been bumping the new album all week and it is a joy to hear live. There are many, many brilliant moments I describe as ‘2008’. I take the band’s considered nonchalance for what it is, and they get by on their great strength, which is setting heavy, alluring mood. The after-show chat is: bar italia are generally good, but friends wished the band would ‘give’ just a little bit more. Enigma may only take them so far!
Mainstream reviews of Tracey Denim were quick to make comparison to British bands of the late 80s and 90s– The Cure, even Joy division. But the ‘post-punk’ tag lumps them in with, as well as literally everybody, a certain group of London acts who are doing little for contemporary rock, and reading bar italia as symptomatic of the ‘long 90s’ misses the point. Bar italia conjure a cooler, British past, but are really very contemporary.
Bar italia give little away, but have been spinning a web of conscious, curated signals. ‘Killer instinct’ off their 2021 album Bedhead morphs halfway through into bathetic cover of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. The name is lower-case reference to Soho bar and/or the last track on Pulp’s 1995 album, ‘Different Class’, and The Beatles signal a conspicuously British model. Recent ‘Punkt!’ video evidences a commitment to their brooding, affected indie schtick, and a group who names their first E.P. ‘Angelica Pilled’ are obviously very online.
This to say: bar italia situate themselves (I don’t want to say tongue-in-cheek) in an annals of British music which skirts around Britpop; Tracey Denim is a rock record with as much in common with trip hop. They are both very modern and the best of classic indie– a proper band and a SoundCloud phenomenon. It is a thrill to see a band at what you perceive to be the ‘right’ moment… a point of nascent fame, the crowd still small and beautiful. Tracey Denim marks a development from the band’s non-committal earlier releases, pushing a more polished sound and substantiated body of work. I’m just happy to be here.
I might have been tempted to dismiss bar italia for their studied, too-cool-for-cool pose and manufactured obscurity. Beyond what a Dean Blunt endorsement has done for them, they are of a certain (London, fine-arts facing) zeitgeist, the Tracey Denim tracklist reading, for example: ‘my kiss era’, ‘horsey girl rider’. But their music is narcotic, and I keep coming back. For now, bar italia are too cool, and getting away with it.
You can listen to bar italia’s new album, Tracey Denim, on most streaming platforms.