Laurel Arnell-Cullen has been skirting around the darker edges of the indie-pop world for a few years now, but her debut album Dogviolet, released just a couple of weeks ago, allows the Southampton-born singer-songwriter to really establish her modus operandi; fierce, angry themes are accompanied by rugged, bluesy riffs tempered by a more contemporary pop sensibility and this approach translates with ease on the Soup Kitchen’s basement stage in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Tonight is only the second date of a long European tour and proceedings are not quite as polished as they could be, but this is actually one of the pleasing attributes of the evening; Laurel Arnell-Cullen has a convivial stage presence and after the slow-burning ‘All Star’ kicks off the night she provides personal observations and extended introductions to much of the setlist, which ultimately has to be shortened due to this, although a self-tuning guitar doesn’t help! 2016’s ‘San Francisco’ transports us back to an earlier incarnation; smoky and brooding, there’s a little bit of Lana Del Rey in the smoldering vocals, but there is less ambiguity in the themes and an accessible simplicity to the musical incisions.
‘Love Sick’ and ‘Hold Tight’ come next. Coming from the new record, they provide evidence of the shift towards a more distinctive style, both musically and vocally. More reverb and a lower timbre contribute to downbeat themes which are eminently satisfying. The mid-section of the evening sees Laurel ditch the band for a couple of songs and this is sadly not as successful as the rest of the show. This is not entirely the fault of the singer-songwriter; ‘Sun King’ is a sparse lament punctuated by discordant guitar but the desolate tone is unfortunately ruined by a couple of loud, obnoxious people towards the front of the stage, clearly disturbing the flow and intensity of the song.
The unwanted disturbance continues to be a distraction but Laurel welcomes back the band and the crunching brilliance of ‘Same Mistakes’ manages to suppress the ignoramuses with its bruising intensity, complimented by a cracking chorus. The track highlights the vital role her band plays; guitarist Polly Money deserves a special shout-out. Not only does she provide delicious backing vocals lending real depth to Laurel’s gritty amplitude but her lead guitar is an absolute dream. Clean, sweeping tones flow amidst Laurel’s crunching incisions and this is never more the case than with ‘Adored’ and ‘Life Worth Living’. Bluesy, bellicose and brilliant, yet still retaining that pop sensibility that makes Laurel so accessible, it’s a brilliant conclusion to the evening, demonstrating the potential this young artist has. Personable, funny and honest, Laurel has managed to package her distinctive songwriting skills into a hugely satisfying musical style all of her own.