That someone writes songs like this... that's the surprising, heartening thing about C Duncan, Caledonian composer who makes the ridiculously intricate seem straightforward. This evening at the Bullingdon begins with Be Good, whom I'm seeing for the third time - this is definitely the strongest they've been. 'It's Cool but It's Not You' has a really nice groove, harmonically minimalist yet vague, like the best of Solange. Their new stuff bears the mark of a unit that's been in the throes of recording, so arrangements have been pored over, reworked and bolstered. They're 'doing' soul, reminiscent of Dave Sitek's work for Kelis, inasmuch as there's a reassuring 'clunk' to their classicism. 'Night Bus' is epic and sweet too - arrive early if they're doing more support slots soon.
Next, a set from Duncan's touring partner Stevie Parker who brings a London Grammar vibe, or maybe more of a Bristol Syntax. I love how she uses her voice - the lines she traces with melody are unpredictable, sometimes delicately reminiscent of Persian folk music, and moves from abrasive PJ Harvey pronouncement to a whisper in a second. The songs may not be terribly memorable, and the monochrome functional outfits of musicians thus far makes my reviewing partner say that tonight's dress-code was 'PE kit'. But the grooves they hit in the last couple of songs are awesome, a forceful bhangra-derived rhythm alone enough to infect the crowd.
From the sartorially black-and-white to the musically kaleidoscopic: C Duncan's entrance is hailed by a fairytale-like dissonant soundtrack of contemporary orchestral music and blue lights. Which makes me think this might be the performance of a somewhat precious, (underlined) serious artist. The music bears this out - very composed, with adventurous harmonies marshalled into streamlined indie-pop shapes and some marks of a Royal Conservatoire-trained musician. But he turns out to be the most affable man on earth, like your favourite librarian or a bashful Scots usher.
Moving from the varied, winsomely organic Architect that was Mercury-nominated, his new album The Midnight Sun comes on like a moody arpeggiator-fest, but a live band brings the thin drums to wonderful, three-dimensional life. Single 'Wanted to Want it Too' in particular sounded massive, combining the new album's hallmarks of minor-key melancholy, relational honesty and banner-simple wordplay. Then just to keep things fresh, the next song sounds like Debussy being played by mid-70s Pink Floyd. Which is absurdly pleasing.
Honestly, I'd expected those millefeuille harmonies to be muddied or wonkier in a live venue - but every band member is pitch-perfect, and they brought their own mixer just to make sure. So recordings as intricate as the streamlined concoctions of Prefab Sprout, or even (gasp) Enya can be reproduced. They also have something of the Beach Boys' barbershop bounce now and again, all behind subtly retro arrangements like those of 'Say' and 'Architect', which here appear stronger than ever.
A wonderful change of texture two-thirds into the set sees those vocals laid bare but for Chris Duncan's Spanish guitar: 'Castle Walls', written for Record Store Day, is lyrically minimal, like a folk riddle. Somehow, descriptions of how rain interacts with old stone, and how moss overrules the strict geometry of paving slabs, seem quietly emotional. It's a beautiful moment of calm, and a song I could merrily listen to every night before I sleep. Soon they were doing the pretend-to-leave-then-encore routine, and hit the pleasure-centres of our brains with 'Garden', a maybe uncharacteristic song for Duncan. At its close, I said "that's basically cheating, isn't it?" - my friend agreed that no song should be that happy. It's like a well-trained Belle & Sebastian, and for all its beats-per minute, it finds euphoria in the mundane, like human-made squares of nature in suburbia, or a stolen moment on a fire escape. "I feel so alive," he sings, which has remained in my head ever since, ousting the tenacious La La Land soundtrack. "Throw all the woes of the day away" - it's a little more easily done alongside music this good.