Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: C

C is for...

… Camber Sands (Ben)

(Strictly speaking, perhaps this should have come under A for All Tomorrow’s Parties, but then I make the rules and you don’t. So there.)

Glastonbury mud. It’s legendary. It can be both sloppy and coagulant, but it’s always there. I’ve still got some from this June’s shindig on my as-yet-uncleaned boots. In fact, I’ve probably still got some under my fingernails. The only thing more ubiquitous when the English festival season comes around are bands like The Kaiser Chiefs and Texas.

But if that’s your idea of hell, and the word "leftfield" conjures up thoughts of idiosyncratic and experimental music rather than of being lectured in a tent by a crusty who’s overdosed on mushrooms and Levellers records, then All Tomorrow’s Parties – held at Camber Sands Holiday Centre near Rye in East Sussex since 1999 (when the place was invaded by hairslide-wearing Belle & Sebastian fans for the Bowlie Weekender) – is the festival for you.

Not that living in a chalet rather than a tent constitutes luxury, mind. The year I went (2000), we had no TV aerial for the duration of the weekend, the towel rail came off in someone’s hand and there was a constant procession of ants across the living room floor. Given the chemically-altered state of our party, how they didn’t get snorted Ozzy-style I’ll never know.

Mogwai were “curators” that year. The role involves headlining the event and handpicking not only the acts that play but also the films and documentaries shown on the chalet TV (examples: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘John’s Not Mad’, about a kid with tourettes) and helping to write the programme.

The personal highlights of the weekend are almost too numerous to mention, but they included: blagging my way into the photo pit for Sonic Youth’s now-notorious Saturday night set (first song: unreleased, 30 minutes long, labelled ‘New Drone’); being swept up by the majesty of Godspeed! You Black Emperor; accosting John Peel on the way to play football on the beach with a basketball; witnessing Sigur Ros’s debut turn on English soil and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s self-destructive fury; dancing to Jimi Hendrix with members of The Radar Bros; chuckling at Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite letting in goal after goal in 5-a-side; chuckling more loudly at Braithwaite’s permadrunk bandmate Barry Burns dribbling into the ear of Mary Hansen of Stereolab; and laughing outright at the joke with which Steve Albini broke the ice during Shellac’s set: “What’s orange and looks good on hippies? Fire…

In fact, it was so good that not even the spectacle of Newcastle’s painful FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea could dampen spirits for long. After all, Mogwai were going to be bringing everything to a triumphant close a few hours later.

For someone accustomed to returning home caked in mud, it was a pleasant change to be finding Camber Sands sand in my shoes months later.

… Casablanca Records (Jez)

Picture the head of a record company. What does this conjure up? If I give an automatic response to this I’ll say – something along the lines of a politician. Perhaps a background in law, driven by individual needs rather than those whom their actions may benefit, a deep awareness of a marketplace overcoming a desire to produce music with feeling, I could go on but you get the picture. However, if someone had asked the question thirty years ago…

Neil Bogart became the chief of Casablanca Records in 1973 with a reputation of spotting a trend and then running with it. One of his early business partners Art Kass said of him: “If it cost him three dollars to make two dollars, he would do it”. Bogart was not necessarily interested in the music but in attempting to sell it. His faith in himself showed itself when he split with his financiers because they didn’t share his belief in an unknown Kiss.

Casablanca flirted with bankruptcy for a year until it released a compendium of comedy moments from the ‘Here’s Johnny’ section of the ‘Tonight’ show. Bogart promoted this album so heavily that independent distributors ordered massive quantities. The demand did not meet the supply. The record was a huge flop but the company was kept alive because of the huge quantities that had been ordered. It was said to have shipped platinum and come back double platinum.

By 1976 Casablanca was having hits with Donna Summer, Village People and Kiss. Its gross revenues had grown to $55 million. Consequently, Bogart decided to move offices and the payroll swelled from 14 to 175 employees. The office interior was modelled on Rick’s Café (from the film ‘Casablanca’) and included a stuffed camel, ceiling fans, palm trees, throne-like cane chairs, Moroccan rugs all to the soundtrack of music that was played at ear-splitting volume. When Danny Davis joined the company after being a promoter with Motown he could hardly believe his eyes. On his first day he took receipt of a Mercedes 450 SEL, just like every other member of staff. At mid-morning (and each subsequent one) he was asked for his drug order for the following day. “On Monday or Tuesday I’d be looking for a secretary, I’d be calling her name. I’d look all over and there she’d be with a credit card in her hand chopping coke on the table. I’d be on the phone with a programme director and Neil Bogart would come in, run around with a golf club, jump on the desk and then swish things off. Then he would take a match and torch my desk”.

Meetings were fuelled by the intake of controlled substances; they would sit there for hours with nothing being done. Neil Bogart died at thirty-nine having almost destroyed a large multinational company.

… ‘It’s A Cool, Cool Christmas’ (Alison)

A Christmas compilation CD compiled by Xfm and Jeepster, just in time for the Christmas season! It’s as if the baby Jesus had planned the alphabet himself!

Grandaddy – ‘Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland’ / The Dandy Warhols – ‘Little Drummer Boy’ / The Webb Brothers – ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ / Eels – ‘Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’ / El Vez – ‘Feliz Navi-nada’ / Morgan – ‘Christmas In Waikiki’ / Drugstore – ‘Maybe At Christmas Time’ / Belle & Sebastian – ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ / Giant Sand – ‘Thank You Dreaded Black Ice, Thank You’ / The Flaming Lips – ‘White Christmas (demo for Tom Waits)’ / Saint Etienne – ‘My Christmas Prayer’ / Departure Lounge – ‘Christmas Downer’ / Six By Seven – ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ / Snow Patrol – ‘When I Get Home For Christmas’ / Titan – ‘Spiritual Guidance’ / Big Boss Man – ‘Christmas Boogaloo’ / Teenage Fanclub – ‘Christmas Eve’ / Calexico – ‘Gift X-change’ / Gorky's Zygotic Mynci – ‘Hwiangerdd Mair’ / Low – ‘Just Like Christmas’ / Lauren Laverne – ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’

This album is a little treat. It was released in 2000, with profits going to the Big Issue charity, and I’ve enjoyed it every festive period since. Not that I’m claiming it’s an amazing album, it’s really not. But we can forgive its weaknesses because a) it’s a Christmas album and this means cheese is to be expected and b) it’s a compilation and I’ve yet to come across one where I enjoy all of the tracks.

There’s a fairly splendid list of contributors, with a definite indie theme, and a mixture of re-worked Christmas classics and original contributions. ‘Feliz Navi-nada’ is the perfect soundtrack for Christmas shopping, chuck it on the Walkman (or whichever technology you do) and go get those stocking fillers! It’s such an antidote to the mind-numbing repetition of the traditional favourites we’re forced to endure in every shop from October onwards, it’ll have you upbeat and ready to tackle (literally) the crowds. The Giant Sands song highlights some of the poorly acknowledged benefits of winter weather conditions, and Grandaddy offer an amusing twist on the classic ‘Winter Wonderland’. Some of the artists recycle previous Christmas releases; Low the fab ‘Just Like Christmas’ and St Etienne their charming version of the Billy Fury classic.

One of my favourite things about this album is that there are some really upbeat songs which can be enjoyed on the dance-floor at the work Christmas Do (under the influence of alcohol, obviously), without calling for the always regrettable slow dance inspired ballop-to-ballop contact. Contributions from Titan and Big Boss Man fit the bill perfectly, while the Morgan song is a funk masterpiece.

Then there are the perfect end of the night tracks for those who’ve waited all year for an excuse for close-up-colleague contact; ‘Hwiangerdd Mair’ reminds me of a lullaby, but more phlegmy, Isobel Campbell’s beautiful vocals transform ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, while Teenage Fanclub offer up the enchanting ‘Christmas Eve’. Finally, singing along to the The Flaming Lips will make the post-party kebab hunt just a little bit more special.

My favourite track from this mixed bag is different every year but listening to the album this past week I’ve been loving the Eels ‘Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’. It’s a really happy, noisy tune with what is surely the best Christmas lyric ever written: “Baby Jesus, born to rock!

… Clearlake (Damo)

Call them "British made" (they like that). Just don't call them "quintessentially English" (they don't like that). Many interviewers have made this mistake (and it IS a mistake) - the only possible reason I can see is because singer Jason has the temerity not to sing in a fake American accent like so many British bands.

What do they sound like? Well, like many great bands they have influences that are all over the shop, which they transcend to the extent that they sound nothing like any of them. Try this selection for size: bass / drum nutters Lightning Bolt and legendary UK eccentrics Cardiacs at one end, the somewhat more subdued Minnesota trio Low at the other. And a bit of U2 somewhere in there too (former U2 producer Steve Osborne worked on their new record Amber).

One of the many things that endears this band to me is their frequent directness... in the hands of an inexperienced artist, hiding behind metaphors is a way of trying to pretend that they're a great deal more intelligent and / or “mysterious” than they actually are. And so it is here we find that, say, a song called ‘Don't Let The Cold In’ isn't a metaphor for the gradual decline of civilisation as we know it – it's about not wanting to crawl out from under the sheets in the morning.

Above all, what I like about them is that they really strive to do something different and original, but crucially it never sounds like they're trying TOO hard. If there's a string section there, it's because it needs to be there, not because it's the “done thing to do”. They revel in sparsity when it's needed (‘Dreamt That You Died’ is a simple and beautiful song where once again the title tells you what you need to know) and when the kitchen sink is thrown in (‘Amber’, ‘Neon’) it's because that's what works.

What you really need to do is hear some for yourself... there's two albums already (Lido and Cedars); new record Amber (from which the examples in the previous paragraph were drawn) is one of the first things you can buy in 2006 (16th January) - it pushes the “rock” button far more than their previous releases yet is still recognisably them. Use that money you were saving for the Strokes record because let's face it, that's going to be rubbish.

… ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ (Pete)

One of Radiohead's unsung greats. They may well have lost their way a little in recent times, but this gem, stuck a good way into OK Computer is still memorable. It may well have become fashionable to slate the five from Oxford, but if there's one song that sits up and begs for you to give them a second listen, it's this one.

Ok, so it's definitely an archetypical Radiohead song; full of despair and angst, but it has a fair slice of aggression too, something that a few of their songs arguably lack. Like much of their material off their third album (and The Bends too) it has an eerie and haunting quality to it initially. However, the combination of the slow, but steady beat, Thom's voice and the assorted strings, gradually build up to a crescendo of guitar noise that kicks in at 3:09 and the song turns into what must be a very close aural approximation of the feeling that you are climbing up walls. For full effect play it loud. Very loud.

… Coldplay (Swiss Toni)

Chris Martin seems to live in a peculiar world of constant bewilderment, self-doubt and lyrical repetition; things are broken and can’t be fixed, puzzles are missing pieces, lines have been crossed that shouldn’t have been crossed and, of course, everything is yellow.

The man is in one of the most successful bands in the world. He is married to a beautiful Oscar-winning actress with whom he has a gorgeous baby daughter. He is rich beyond his wildest dreams… He should be happy, but still he worries. It’s as if he has ironed out all of the big creases in life and is now fretting over all the tiny little wrinkles.

The scale of their success means that it has inevitably become fashionable to knock Coldplay. When your music starts to reach those masses who only buy two albums a year, you are fair game for the music snobs, aren’t you? Whilst it’s true that in some ways X&Y isn’t everything that it might have been, and that it’s a little too similar to A Rush Of Blood To The Head to really be considered great, I’m not having it. I think Coldplay are brilliant.

Superficially it’s all about Chris Martin’s piano and his delicate falsetto, but dig a little deeper and you see a band that have come on in leaps and bounds musically since their debut. Listen to the pounding drums on ‘Speed of Sound’ or the soaring, stratospheric guitar on ‘Talk’, and compare that with the gentle strumming of ‘Parachutes’. This is the sound of a band steadily growing in confidence, a band with the potential to produce a really great album. If Chris Martin can escape his little book of lyrical clichés, then their next album should be really something to hear…

Coldplay really strike a chord with me. This is music that affects me on an emotional level. Perhaps it is because I share a similar background to Chris Martin - public school education, bit shy, losing my hair, late-starter with girls, prone to a bit of insecurity... that kind of thing. For all that he has achieved, he doesn't seem comfortable in his own skin, and I can relate to that.

Even when I'm not sure what Chris Martin is singing about, or whether it actually means anything, it still TOUCHES me. So much yearning. So much wondering... and amidst the wreckage of our lives, and the mess we've made of the world we live in – so much hope:

And we live in a beautiful world / Yeah we do, yeah we do / We live in a beautiful world”.

Repeat it until you believe it.

… The Concretes (drmigs)

Very occasionally, or very very occasionally if you're me, you discover a band early in their career, and have the pleasure of seeing them gaining exposure and notoriety. For me, I've had this pleasure with The Concretes.

I first heard The Concretes last year on a web-stream of The Blue Room. Three weeks in a row a tune of theirs was played, and eventually I could hold out no longer, I just had to have more. Two seconds on Google lead me to their excellent, if dubiously named, website Licking Fingers. Sadly at that stage, the only outlet to buy their eponymous album was in Canada. So some transatlantic plastic flexing later, 'twas imported. Why is it so much more exciting buying music from overseas? The only other time I've done it was for the Japanese import of The Flaming Lips short album Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell, which was also worth the effort. Anyway, back on message...

Their album arrived with a note along the lines of "Enjoy the tunes Brit dude", and went straight into the CD player. It's been back in there many times since. I've also noticed it slowly permeating into the CD collections of friends, and haven't seen anyone disappointed with their purchase yet. So what's so good about them? I think it's probably their freshness. Their music is clean and immediately accessible, mainly due to the excellence of their song writing. They also do a mean video too. Check out the .mov file of 'You Can't Hurry Love' on their downloads page. It's just err... really really nice - and a bit cheeky to boot.

I've tried to think who, or what sort of sound, they remind me of; the best I can do is that their vocals are reminiscent of the narrative style of St Etienne (well a Swedish version of... with a more acoustic microphone), and their sound is almost Velvet Undergroundy - I'm thinking in a 'Who Loves The Sun' / 'Satellite Of Love' kind of way. So image that if you can. And if you can, I think you'll like it. Purely on the rationale that you probably like the above if you can bend your head around the simile. So having made their sound in your head, you'll have now appreciated this ain't rocking stuff. It's music to listen to in the small hours, with a pair of warm socks on, whilst nursing the dregs of a bottle of something strong. Bascially, it's Scandinavian indie pop.

This was the bit where I was going to say: “So their first album is great, let’s hope they follow it up with another soon”. But they already have, I just hadn't noticed it. Needless to say a forklift truck in the Amazon warehouse is organizing a delivery to me as I write. Layourbattleaxedown can't come soon enough. If you are already converted, they are supporting The Magic Numbers tour next year. Should be a corker. I think this lot are going to be big.

… crowd-surfing (Paul)

Synonymous with the memories I have of going to gigs as a teenager is the memory of fat bastards’ boots clouting me on the back of my head as they surged their way towards the front of the stage and the welcoming arms of the security, whose sole job seems to be to hand water to the people getting crushed at the front, and to catch those who emerge from the gloom riding on the hands, and heads, of the packed crowd.

Videos and broadcasts of concerts that I had seen in my early adolescence had always filled me with a sense of curiosity as to the thrill of riding atop a horde of people, reaching out to the guitar-strumming legends on the stage, and now that I was part of the horde, the annoyance which greeted every accidental kick in the head made me slightly resentful of every crowd-surfer who came my way.

That all changed when I was 17.

Caught in the seething throng who had packed out Newcastle Uni Students Union to see Terrorvision I had, through a combination of subtlety and brute force, managed to squeeze my torso down to within a handful of rows from the front of the gig. There, by chance I met someone I knew who put his hands together and offered me the chance to launch my 6’ 5” frame over the top. With a cocktail of adrenaline and alcohol coursing through my veins I thought, “Why not?” and so began my love of crowd-surfing. Whilst I only travelled about 6 rows forward before landing in the welcoming hands of the pit crew it was a magical couple of seconds, and one which I repeated approximately ten minutes later as the gig reached a glorious climax.

For whatever reason, I had always been reluctant to seek to repeat my experience of that night. As my consumption of beer increased during my university years, the accompanying weight gain always made me wary of being dropped – a fate I’ve witnessed on far too many occasions, normally when over enthusiastic teens try to crowd surf from too far back.

Then, watching Bellatrix at Reading in 2000 the urge to crowd-surf rose up inside, and I managed to convince a fairly weedy bunch of youngsters to launch me skywards once again. This proved slightly more of a struggle than the Terrorvision gig those years before (hardly surprising given my intervening years of beer consumption) but I was soon up again, and lurching forward.

I have no idea how many people I kicked in the head along the way, and frankly I don’t care. The look of fear in the pit man’s eyes, as he summoned colleagues to his aid as I loomed out of the darkness of the tent remains a fond memory, and the thrill of the ride made all those previous kicks to my head worthwhile.

...Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! (Jonathan)

The odd thing about any band becoming famous is the way they drag other bands into the public consciousness; as if the joy of discovering a Blur or a Travis or a Libertines is nothing without the Elasticas, Coldplays and Arctic Monkeys which follow them through the gap. The recent arrival of that latter band makes it a bit early for Post-Arctic Monkeys bands to break through, but one band who have been dragged surprisingly into the spotlight since the Monkeys shot so suddenly to number one, is the New York band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who share fairly little in terms of sound (although both bands share The Libertines' instinct towards joyous, shambling takes rather than impeccably produced mixes) but both can claim to be 'broken' by the internet.

The Artic Monkeys story is not so very odd; a bunch of enthusiastic kids make decent indie pop records, get other kids to embark on mass marketing drives on myspace on their behalf, and then sign up with a record company when they make enough of an impression. Then it's straight to number one. Initially the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah story was similarly unremarkable; young, talented band makes wonderful debut album which blends the oddness of Arcade Fire and the excitement of Talking Heads with the basslines of New Order, and decides to self-release it. Lots of bands do that.

Thanks, however, to a couple of ecstatic reviews from hip websites and blogs, CYHSY managed to do what was beyond the Junior Boys when the same thing happened to them a couple of years ago; they started shifting CDs - over 25,000 direct from their website, remarkably enough. The CD itself, now available on Wichita in the UK, is a beautiful, odd record, containing a couple of songs ('Is This Love?' and 'The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth') which make most tracks released this year seem utterly bland. What's really interesting, however, is the nature of the deal.

Having proven that they can sell records off their own backs, the band have sensibly decided that instead of signing to a record label, they are only willing to license the album to a record company. In other words, no 4-album deal, no advance, no handing over of copyright, no record-company bullshit. When Wichita, who the band ultimately went with, have promoted the album fully then the band can start the next project under their own steam. They've not signed away anything, and can license the next record to whoever they like. If Witchita do a good job maybe they'll get another bite of the cherry. Either way the band have stumbled upon a revolutionary and incredibly modern model for record distribution. Very exciting to geeks like me.

Maybe the best album of the year, too.

* * * * *

Thanks to Jez, Alison, Damo, Pete, Swiss Toni, drmigs and Paul for their contributions this week.

(If you’re interested in becoming a regular contributor to this feature, drop me an email at silentwordsspeakloudestAThotmail.com and I’ll get back to you. Cheers.)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Three is the magic number


"Why aren't you all at Arab Strap?", comes the question from the stage. I'll admit to wavering in deciding to be here rather than next door in the Bar Academy, and, surveying the exceedingly sparse Monday night crowd - perhaps 30 at the most at present - it's evident that plenty of people have succumbed to the temptation of hearing "a drunken Scotsman shouting about his sexual indiscretions". It turns out to have been their loss.

The questioning voice belongs to Josh Pearson. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can with Pearson. Take a look at his appearance: wild unkempt hair beneath a stetson, enormous beard, massive metal belt buckle modelled on a ram's skull, cowboy boots. If you sawed him in half, it would read "Texan" right the way through like a stick of rock. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that not only is he the son of a preacher man, but he's also spent time working as a ranch-hand.

Pearson used to front Lift To Experience, whose LP The Texas-Jeruslam Crossroads - an extraordinary amalgam of thunderous post-rock and Nick Cave's Old Testament fire-and-brimstone rhetoric - he described as "a concept album about the end of the world where Texas is the Promised Land". His solo material follows along similar lines - tales of sin, redemption and too much whiskey sung in a voice like Mark Lanegan's, deep but somehow angelic too. The final song concludes with the repeated lyric "The devil is on the run / Let's have some fun", and he demonstrates a suitably wicked sense of humour throughout, singing to a former sweetheart "It's the thought of killing you that keeps me alive" in one song and interrupting another to talk about eating Mormons.

My one complaint would be that, as with J Mascis's solo performance at the Social in Nottingham three years back, the sheer volume of the distorted passages of guitar-playing mean that some of the subtleties and intricacies of Pearson's songs are lost. Great to see him onstage, though - some compensation for missing out on witnessing Lift To Experience live.

When Dirty Three emerge, it's evident that some of Pearson's cowboy chic has rubbed off on Warren Ellis, who is currently sporting a sizeable beard. With his long straggly hair, smart shirt and trousers, and slick white slip-ons, he looks like the sort of chap who lives in the woods and is accustomed to surviving on scraps of food pillaged from bins, but has been plucked from his predicament and pimped up on some TV makeover show.

He greets the audience - by now swelled to a still-disappointing 100 at most - and explains his enthusiastic grin with reference to the fact that he has two ancestors that came from Birmingham and that this is the very first time he has visited the city (he's been as close as Wolverhampton before, though - as recently as this time last year, when I saw him playing with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). One of these ancestors left Birmingham of choice, whereas the other "was asked to leave", having stolen a pair of shoes and a couple of silver spoons. Well, Ellis is Australian, after all - it all adds up. There follow a few moments of indecision when the band ponder what to start with, and then they launch into a raucous tuning-up session that gradually coalesces into a recognisable song, introduced as 'Sea Above, Sky Below'.

I've never heard Dirty Three before, let alone seen them in the flesh, but they really are something quite special. Call them post-rock if you must (an inevitability, really, given their vocalless songs), but they draw upon folk, jazz and avant garde traditions, live up to their name by leaving you feeling as though you've got dirt under your fingernails and are perhaps first and foremost a punk band - at how many Godspeed! You Black Emperor gigs would you expect to see a fistfight break out immediately behind you, as does tonight?

That said, unassuming guitarist Mick Turner never once threatens to become animated, while drummer Jim White - whose percussive invention behind the kit, even down to carefully and repeatedly dropping a drumstick to send it skittering across the snare, is amazing to behold - is a picture of concentration, only rarely breaking into a smile.

Nearly all of the energy comes from Ellis, who, though stood in the main with his back to the audience, is a magnetic presence. His frequently furious style owes much to The Velvet Underground and particularly 'The Black Angel's Death Song', and he attacks his violin with such gusto that several bowstrings snap each song while flailing his right leg out as if possessed. At some points he plucks the violin like a guitar, and at others shouts into the strings.

The set features plenty of material from new LP Cinder, their seventh in 14 years: 'Amy', 'Sad Jexy', and their interpretation of Hungarian fiddler Felix Lajko's 'Zither Player'. Josh Pearson joins them for the latter two, contributing bass and mandolin respectively while smoking a cigarette which comes perilously close to setting fire to his beard. Older tracks like 'Hope' and 'Sue's Last Ride' are also dusted down and greeted with cheers.

What is surprising and incongruous (though pleasantly so), given the melancholy and anger inherent in the music, is that Ellis is so affable if not hilarious between songs. He takes pot-shots at everyone from Iron Maiden to Sting, Phil Collins and Mark Knopfler (who he says he'd thought was Swedish), informs us that "Nine point five out of ten girls prefer combing their hair to Dirty Three than to Robbie Williams" and introduces one song as a Gothic number about when "you open the cupboard and you've got loads of eyeliner but no eyes".

The piece de resistance comes when he explains the solitary song which comprises the encore: "This is a song about listening to Donovan - early records - and taking too much speed ... and taking all the putty out of the windows looking for bugs ... and not being helped by your girlfriend who's screaming that they're coming down the chimney as well"...

If Ellis ever comes to jack in the punk-folk malarkey, then a career in stand-up comedy awaits.

Auton-matic for the people


It takes place on the third floor of Portsmouth City Library. The audience is seated in banked rows. There's an interval. There are platefuls of assorted sweets, and it's a bring-your-own-booze event. This, it is fairly safe to say, is not your average gig.

Held as part of Portsmouth's inaugural film festival, the evening features a bill of music and short films from a whole host of local artists - something of a celebration of the city's arts and music scene.

First up are singer / songwriters Chris Perrin (formerly of Thirst, now fronting Zuma) and Josie Watts, who perform one and two of their own compositions respectively. Both are evidently talented musicians, but the spark just isn't quite there. Watts in particular has a stunning voice, but disappointingly mangles and contorts it into a shape which resembles any number of contemporary coffee-table songstresses - a shame.

There follows Top Of The Pomps, a selection of videos shot by Portsmouth-based bands and artists over the past couple of decades. Cranes, beloved of The Cure, and The Beta Band feature, as do surf-skiffle legends Emptifish, shown larking around on the beach. The undoubted show-stealer, though, is the remarkable short film the American art rock band The Residents made for local avant-garde act Renaldo And The Loaf's 'Songs For Swinging Larvae'. Recently screened at the Royal Festival Hall to an amazed audience, it features sinister childsnatchers, sailor outfits and copious quantities of mysterious red liquid. Your guess is as good as mine, but it's certainly one to polarise opinion.

With that, it's time for the interval, and the assembled throng make their way out of the auditorium to sample some of the mysterious - and very alcoholic - red and orange and yellow liquids prepared by DJ Spangly.

The second half of the evening's entertainment kicks off with a special surprise guest appearance from Maria Szyrtisz & The Pyramids Of Mars. Well, when you're a one-man-band and called John, you could do with an arresting stage name. A veteran of the Portsmouth arts scene who once went under the moniker E-Coli, John not only plays but also makes all of his own instruments and equipment (electronic keyboard aside). The one song he plays tonight - featuring keys, tambourine, drums, chimes (played by jerking his right knee), glockenspiel and vocals - sounds like 'War Of The Worlds' as reinterpreted by Chas & Dave. Visuals man Jez - like me witnessing the live Maria Szyrtisz & The Pyramids Of Mars experience for the first time - vows there and then to shoot him a video.

Headline band Autons include amongst their number Tony Rollinson, curator of the event and author of the seminal biography of the Pomepy music scene, 'Twenty Missed Beats'. His co-conspirators also have form - lead singer / guitarist Dave Jones featured in both Screeper and Reinhardt, and guitarist Leon Tricker is better known as electro-art terrorist Qhixldekx.

'Different Eyes' is their impressive opening gambit, Jones's vulnerable yet insistent falsetto a marvel, but neither 'Lamplight' nor new song 'Watery Grave' quite live up to that level. It's with the slower, more reflective 'Maybe' that everything gradually comes together, and a second new song, 'Conspiracy Theory', with its thundering crescendo, maintains the momentum.

It's the last three songs that best illustrate their chameleon nature, however. First Brian Poole aka Renaldo And The Loaf dons a pair of goggles and joins them for a spectacularly stoned take on The Kinks' hippyish 'See My Friend'; then 'Class Traitor', a reworked Screeper club stomper, raises the beats-per-minute count dramatically; and finally the distortion-laden 'Snakes', a paranoid and confrontational gnashing of teeth, brings things to an abrupt conclusion, Tricker's snapped guitar string ruling out the possibility of an encore. Few bands can shapeshift so adroitly, even if it does make for something of a disconcerting experience for the onlooker.

Kung fu fighting


The gigs are coming thick and fast for fledgling Birmingham band StrangeTime - they played at the Bar Academy barely two weeks ago, and they’ve got another lined up for 15th December – and it’s having a noticeable effect on the performances, this being the slickest and sharpest yet, despite a shake-up to the set and the debuting of a new song, ‘Interference’. No difficulties locating drumsticks this time, and ‘Ex Boyfriend’, performed with gusto, makes for an arresting opening, while ‘Dressing Up’ and ‘Mundane’ (played last) steal the show as usual. Guitarist / vocalist Kate Finch and bassist Tara Hartel might remain static for the most part, but this could easily pass for icy cool as much as for nerves.

Cardiff’s The International Karate Plus, I am reliably informed, are named after a cult classic computer game. I’m imagining it must be quite violent, judging by the evident relish that the threesome set about boxing in our ears. The initial brutality recalls the sadly defunct Mclusky, but as the set gradually calms down (or is it just a matter of acclimatisation?) it’s the unjustly ignored Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi who are brought to mind.* They also look the part – energetic guitarist, tall rangy bassist brandishing his instrument like a weapon, sunglasses-wearing drummer knocking over his mike stand in the heat of the moment but taking the chaos in his stride – and there’s no better lyric than “Everything I like about you, I like about someone else” delivered tonight.

The nominal headliners labour under the moniker I Am Zeitgeist in several ways. Firstly, and most obviously, because it's pretty terrible. Secondly, because there's nothing particularly zeitgeisty or cutting-edge about them. Of course, even if there was, then that'd only be the case for six months to a year, but we could have hoped for something better than competent but rather stale American rock filtered through British (and particularly Manc) indie. It's a shame, because of the three bands they're evidently the most at ease - or perhaps simply the most under the influence of chemical relaxants / stimulants, especially bassist JJ whose grin is just visible beneath his enormous afro.

* Update Since putting this review up online yesterday, I've been in touch with Rich of The International Karate Plus, who informs me that two thirds of the band were once in Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi! Meanwhile, Simon of Sweeping The Nation has made the same point in the comments box. Before seeing them live I knew precisely nothing about them, so I guess that suggests my perceptive faculties are sharper than I thought...


Pete’s review of the gig, which was the last of the fourteen in his Going Deaf For A Fortnight endurance test

MySpace pages for The International Karate Plus and I Am Zeitgeist

Purevolume page for StrangeTime

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Art Of Noise A - Z Of Music: B

B is for ...

... Backini ... eventually (drmigs)

The A - Z of music is conceptually a great thing, however, the letter B is where the whole concept crumbles to pieces. What, already? Err, yes. Why? Because I could write an article for the next 26 weeks simply on bands beginning with the letter B. There's just too much damn choice.

The Beatles: where else to start? They wrote what is probably my favourite ever song, 'Norwegian Wood'. A song that was over-listened to in my sixth form, because it was far too resonant for James, Paul and myself. Many bottles of red wine were consumed from James's parents cellar to this, and other such balladic Beatle sounds. It's simply beautiful.

The Buzzcocks. I first heard 'Ever Fallen in Love' at the tender age of fourteen on Samantha Meah’s Radio WM show. At the moment I heard the song I was undoubtedly in love with someone I shouldn't have fallen in love with. This song became my personal gateway out of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman circle of hell. You'll therefore understand my fondness for this song. And also understand my outrage and distress in the Newcastle University Student Union when I heard the Fine Young Cannibals murdering it. I can't imagine what Elton John has done to it on his single released yesterday. I'm hoping to never find out. Quick, time for a new B.

Blur. Seemingly some of The Art Of Noise’s least favourite band, but I like them - a lot. It may be to my advantage that for their early years I only ever heard their songs; TV wasn't invented for me until late 1997 (mine was a Spartan up-bringing…), so my judgments were relatively immune to their video and media aberrations. If it was The Buzzcocks that lured me away from saccharine pop, it was the opening lines of 'Girls and Boys' that made me sit up and really get in to music. I've been sucker for them ever since.

Then there's the Beach Boys, my favourite “Driving to Druridge Bay on a summer’s day” music. Bjork. The Icelandic pop pixie, who is to popular music what Icelanders are to sexual relationships; broad-minded, unconventional and highly adventurous.

However, 367 words in, I don't want to write about any of them. I want to write about the genius that is Backini.

Backini, like Alabama 3, record out of Brighton. Rob Quickenden, (the man who is Backini), has a special talent for fusing swing, jazz and big band with downtempo electropop. And 'Company B-Boy' is, in my opinion, the best example of his genius. Now let’s not beat about the bush, this should go horribly wrong. This mix of the 40s and electropop ought to be an automatic musak generator for Woolworths. But Backini get this genre right. Very right.

’Company B-Boy’ samples The Andrews Sisters’ 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy'. It does this by scratching it up B-Boy stylee, and cutting in spoken word samples such as a camp Noel Coward recitation which includes the immortal lines “When Eve said to Adam / Start calling me madam / the world became far far more exciting”. The song is smart, distinctive, humorous, and has a something new to it on each airing. It's one song I can't hear too many times. Go listen to it, now.

... bass guitars (Alison)

Standing for what seems like an hour in a dark, packed out, sweaty room. Trying to hold two pints, because it isn’t worth even trying to queue at the bar and get back to your mates again before the band comes out. Having some tall bloke (with big hair), push past, apologising, just to stand right in front of you. Noticing, that without intentionally moving backwards, the stage is getting further and further away. Considering whether it would be easiest just to see off your pints because rude buggers keep knocking into you, meaning you have more beer down your front than in your glass, and you can’t manage a cig and you really want one. But worrying if seeing off your pints would just mean needing to pee faster, and if you have to leave to pee you may as well have left to go to the bar and avoided all hassle in the first place. You’re exhausted, grumpy and just not in the mood to be out on a school night. Then the music starts. The first few notes of bass played reverberate; through your ears, through the floor, through all the bodies packed around you. They pulse through you and modify your physiology, leaving your mood no option but to follow the music.

I love everything about bass guitars; they’re just so bold and manly compared to regular guitars. They look significant on stage, the way bassists hold them with their legs apart and their arms longer and lower than seems natural. Of course the coolest bassists are all female: Kim Deal, Maureen Herman, Kim Gordon, Jennifer Finch, Kristen Pfaff… Bass means you don’t just hear music, you feel it too. Hearing the bass in songs like ‘Cannonball’, ‘Debaser’, ‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Around The World’ and even ‘Groove Is In The Heart’, I’m forced to dance, no matter where I am. But it’s not just about the big dominating, funky basslines. In songs like ‘Guns Of Brixton’, ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘Heroin’ the lingering bass journeys to disturbing places and drags you along with it. Music without bass would be music without a pulse.

For far more insightful talk of bass, have a look at Stylus’s Top 50 Basslines.

... black (Ben)

Just as Henry Ford famously pronounced of his most celebrated car, rock ‘n’ roll can come in any colour – so long as it’s black.

Traditionally the refuge and mode of expression of the outsider, the form is a dark art, and this is reflected in the colour with which it has become inextricably associated. No-one has better embodied or given fictional voice to that archetypal outsider, skulking in the shadows on the margins of society, than the late Johnny Cash, singing songs about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and performing for an audience of San Quentin prisoners. The self-styled Man In Black has influenced whole generations of musicians, not least Nick Cave, who in the sleeve notes to The Essential Johnny Cash collection recalls his first experience of ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ at the age of nine:

The show started off with Johnny Cash’s back to you, silhouetted, and then he’d swing around, look into the camera, and say, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, and then off he goes, you know, The Man In Black. I remember that very, very clearly, because it was the first time that I saw what it was to be the forbidden side of rock ‘n’ roll. It was my first taste of the outlaw in rock music, and suddenly I took an interest in rock ‘n’ roll music … I guess you could say that Johnny Cash broke my cherry. What I thought at the time, as a kid in short trousers, was that I saw something evil in music, and that had a huge effect on me”.

The correlation between black and “something evil in music” is essential. Little wonder, then, that when a bunch of hairy pot-heads from the West Midlands invented heavy metal at the very tail-end of the 1960s, they chose to call themselves Black Sabbath. The perfect name for a group whose lead singer notoriously bit the head off a bat, and the template for a million bad European metal bands.

More recently, we’ve had The Black Keys, youthful purveyors of swamp blues who are seemingly intent on reminding us that rock ‘n’ roll’s existence is ultimately founded upon Robert Johnson’s decision to sell his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for the ability to play the guitar; The Black Heart Procession, avowed fans of Black Sabbath, whose eerie Eastern European folk influenced songs (scratchy violins, liberal use of saws) have something of the night about them; and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, whose name deliberately harks back to James Dean and the cigarette-toting black-leather-jacket-clad nightmare of conservative middle-class America in the 50s (the same imagery and iconography, incidentally, that even a Danish band, The Raveonettes, have sought to exploit).

Though they appear to have experienced something of an alt-country epiphany since sales of second LP Take Them On, On Your Own failed to take off, BRMC originally styled themselves musically and aesthetically on The Jesus & Mary Chain. They in turn drew inspiration from The Velvet Underground, who, by dressing all in black and wearing sunglasses as though they were glued to their heads during the height of the technicolour hippy era, made a very potent statement about their oppositional relation to the culture in which they found themselves.

If one of rock’s credos is “Turn it up”, as I suggested last week, then another is – as The Rolling Stones would have it – “Paint it black”.

... Blackpool Empress Ballroom (Swiss Toni)

I was delighted when Morrissey was announced on the bill for Glastonbury in 2004. I had passed up the chance of seeing him on the Vauxhall And I tour in 1994 and he hadn’t toured again in the UK since then, hadn’t released an album since 1997 and was apparently languishing in Los Angeles without a record deal. It looked as though my chance had gone.

I was wrong. 2004 saw the release of a great new album, You Are The Quarry, and I was thrilled that I was finally going to see my musical hero perform. Of course, it pissed it down for most of that Sunday, and Moz was forced to perform his set in front of a crowd waiting for Muse to close the festival. On the whole, I thought he was pretty good, but he looked like he hated every second, and I was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. I wanted more.

Morrissey being Morrissey, he decided to cash in on the critical and commercial success of his comeback by announcing a three-date tour of small seaside towns in the North of England, places like Blackpool and Bridlington. I snapped up tickets to the Blackpool date and set about looking for a B&B.

This was my first time in Blackpool and as I walked into town to check out the venue, I saw it could easily have been the inspiration for “Everyday Is Like Sunday’, the original “coastal town that they forgot to close down”. The Empress Ballroom is inside the Winter Gardens near the Tower, and although it was a good three or four hours until the doors opened, the hardcore fans were already starting to queue.

Things were starting to warm up as I walked back into town a little later on, and saw the full horror of a Saturday night in Blackpool for the first time, with stags and hens marauding freely through the streets. “Come Armageddon come”. The Empress Ballroom is magnificent. It has a barrel-domed ceiling, a sprung dance floor and a capacity of about 3000 people. It exudes a kind of faded glamour and is a throw back from another era – a bit like Morrissey himself really. There couldn’t be a better place to watch the miserable old sod perform.

The man himself burst onto the stage with ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and played for fully two hours, liberally mixing songs by The Smiths with his solo stuff. When he closed his set with ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, I thought I was in heaven. Perfect.

And then 3000 Morrissey fans, many with quiffs and gladioli, poured out into the mean streets of Blackpool on a Saturday night….

Then someone falls in love / And someone's beaten up / Someone's beaten up / And the senses being dulled are mine”.

It was clash of cultures that I think Moz himself might have approved of.

... The Bluetones (Damo)

...but I can't really start to talk about them until I've done this...

Coincidentally, B is also for “Britpop”. One of the most cringeworthy terms ever invented. The musical (and, to an extent, political) downside of the term has already been well described on this blog. That wasn't all that was obnoxious about that (cough) “movement”. There was the rise of Loaded magazine and its (then) editor James Brown talking of the main argument that they used to have in the office at this “high” time - which was... whose turn it was to go and buy the champagne next.

But “Britpop” as a term was little more offensive to me than any other music label I ever heard (“New Acoustic Movement”? “New Rock Revolution'”? “New Wave of New Wave”? And a number of others that didn't start with the word “New”). Why? Because this, as with all terms, gave the music press the excuse to do something they still feel the urge to do, which is to “pigeonhole” bands. And de facto, when they deem that the “movement” has died, then in their eyes so has everything that they classed under it. Irrespective of whether that band was a) good or b) never worthy of any mention in the first place. In 1994, a Melody Maker opinion piece on Britpop ended by saying what a great time this was to be young. Now the term is only used in the press as an insult. It should just never have been invented.

(...and you can shove the embarrassing nationalist chest-beating that came from it where the sun don't shine too. Ahem.)

Someone else may already have chosen Britpop for the letter B, so I'll stop there.

The Bluetones, then. They were around during that era. And they're still around. This week they released a new EP and they've just signed a two album deal with Cooking Vinyl, so evidently they're not going anywhere either.

Seeing the gig, not much has changed. They still play 'Bluetonic'. And they play new material that is recognisably them. If anyone does talk of them these days, the word “veteran” tends to appear, which is ironic as they emerged around 1995, roughly the time that Oasis ceased to carry any artistic relevance... and yet we're still talking about Oasis.

Another thing hasn't changed either - singer Mark Morriss still looks about 20 and is still too good looking by far.

So why are they still worth talking about? Simple:

1) They still do the one thing that they do very well. The records they make now still sound as good as the ones that got the plaudits in the mid to late 90s.

2) They harbour no bitterness whatsoever about the fact that they no longer play particularly large venues.

3) The live performances still seem like they were meant for the purpose of entertaining the audience. Sounds obvious but plenty of bands haven't worked this one out. (Did someone mention Oasis again?)

4) Because it's pop music in the purest sense. And they know that pop music is nothing to be afraid of.

5) Their new EP has the happiest song you'll ever hear about the joys of losing your mind.

I rest my case, m'lud. And although I've never been in a fight in my life, if I see one more article that lumps then in with bilge like Sleeper or Menswear, I'll...

... bootleg T-shirts (Pete)

They seem like a good idea at the time, don't they? You've seen the band, sniffed at the prices for the official products inside and walked outside only to be accosted by some lovable Cockney (they're always Cockneys, even in Berlin) bellowing “FIVE PAAAND A T-SHIRT”. In the post-gig euphoria the design does look rather good. And it's got the tour dates on the back and everything, so at this point you'll probably be justifying its purchase by saying “I'll now have a souvenir from one of the best gigs ever”. That is, of course, until you wash it for the first time and half the print (if you're lucky) comes off.

But even before then, you'll get home and look at it carefully under proper light. Notice the odd spelling mistake, the cheap material, the wonky stitching and a dubious reproduction of the cover of the band's / artist's most recent album. Yes, you can now hang your head in shame; you've just bought a bootleg T-shirt.

Regular gig-goers will have all been there at least once. My worst was a vile black polyester(!) example bought at an Ash gig in Guildford, which was as bad as it sounds. It only narrowly beats the Mansun bootleg that I bought at Guildford (I can see a pattern emerging here) for £2. It was too good to be true.

I've learnt my lesson now and so should you. Remember kids, just say “no”.

... broken hearts (Jez)

You’re alone with the curtains drawn, a soaking handkerchief (or tissue, perhaps), a pain in your chest and a deep, deep desire to die. But hold on, you manage to gather the strength to put on some music, and as long as it’s the right music, suddenly you’re not alone. Somebody, somewhere, understands.

It would be wrong of me to mention specific songs here, you and I both know what they are but they’d never be the same as each other. Why? Because they belong to only one individual and nobody knows them quite like that very person. When Cole Porter played his minor keys and mixed them with melancholy lyrics popular music changed course. They sold by the armoured car load because of the direct emotional correlation with the troubled society they addressed. Nowadays even Bernie bloody Taupin recognises that sad songs say (pay) so much.

So why is it that we feel we can directly relate to these tunes? The importance of music is that it does not appear to have a social production, this allows the experience to appear to be, somehow, within the music. This means the music can be both produced and directly related to a private and inner soul that belongs to both the listener and the music itself.

To quote Simon Frith: “We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us ‘out of ourselves’, and puts us somewhere else. ‘Our music’ is, from this perspective, special not just with reference to other music but, more important, to the rest of life. It is this kind of specialness (the way in which music seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition) that is the key to our musical judgements”.

In other words, you’re not alone.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Alison, Swiss Toni, Damo, Pete and Jez for their contributions this week.

(If you’re interested in becoming a regular contributor to this feature, drop me an email at silentwordsspeakloudestAThotmail.com and I’ll get back to you. Cheers.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thinly veiled brilliance


Tonight's support act are four unassuming Icelandic sylphs who waft in from the wings to tinker with an assortment of instruments (violins, acoustic guitars, synths, glockenspiels, brightly-coloured plinkety-plonkety children's toys), in the process conjuring up remarkably arresting instrumental folk-and-classical-influenced avant garde music in the vein of less apocalyptic and more pastoral A Silver Mt Zion upon a stage which initially appears much too large for them but which they gradually come to fill.

A band in their own right, Amina are also Sigur Ros's string section. Being let out to play and having full roam of the stage is obviously the source of some pleasure to them, but after a relatively short set concluding with a short, sharp curiously up-tempo electro tune it's back to the day job.

The best part of half an hour passes - hot and sticky amidst the capacity crowd, ambient noise recurrently fading in and out of the speakers in lieu of a DJ's soundtrack - during which time a thin white curtain is pulled across the front of the stage. Then the background music stops, the lights go up, the headliners emerge, and we're off. The curtain, however, remains resolutely in place. No, not some comical 'Spinal Tap' esque instance of mechanical failure, but a deliberate ploy.

Sigur Ros, you see, could be described as pretentious - prog rock alive and well in 2005, though mercifully without capes, lyrics about wizards or the merest hint of Rick Wakeman's presence. Indeed, their innate ridiculousness has preoccupied me before. So how to explain, justify or defend this tactic?

In dramatic terms it creates a literal "fourth wall" between them and their audience that can be ceremoniously removed at a later point.

It perhaps signifies a recognition on the band's part that they're a fairly faceless bunch of musicians, and that it's the music itself that people are here for.

It symbolically shields the audience from the immensity and power of the first song of the set, 'Glosoli', the first track proper on new LP Takk and one which sounds like nothing so much as glacial frottage.

But perhaps most obviously it allows the band to appear as silhouettes, their form and position constantly shifting as the lights behind onstage change, at the same time as providing a "canvas" onto which additional images can be projected.

As 'Glosoli' dies away, however, the curtain draws back and we're suddenly in more intimate contact with them. That's how it stays for the remainder of the set, which is a near-seamless featherbed of stately, gently undulating, occasionally pompous post-rock illuminated by Jonsi's extraordinarily piercing vocals and his penchant for playing his guitar with a violin bow. At an hour and a half long, it's enough for most of the crowd (myself included) to get completely wrapped up in, but perhaps lacking the spark of sheer excitement that might ignite fervent belief in the atheistic onlooker.

That is, until the encore. As the band walk out onto the stage, the curtain edges across once more and they launch into 'Untitled #8', the final track from 2002's ( ). Eight minutes it takes to build to its explosive climax, all restraint now abandoned in spectacular fashion as the drummer, freed from the straitjacket of the main set, attacks his kit with violent relish and a strobed flurry of projected images strikes the curtain. It's a fireworks display a week and a half too late. It's the sort of all-out sensual assault that would put Mogwai and Spiritualized in the shade. And it's an awesome conclusion to a very fine gig.

Guilty of taking themselves too seriously? Yes. Pretentious? Probably. Mindblowing? Too damn right.


My review of Sigur Ros's Takk on the Vanity Project website.


A warm welcome to Phill of Danger! High Postage, the latest blogger to join The Art Of Noise as a permanent syndicator / contributor. Then there were four...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A sour note

BBC2's documentary series 'Girls And Boys - Sex And British Pop' ended on Sunday with the final installment, devoted to the 90s, a disappointment to me for a number of reasons.

The main one, perhaps inevitably given my prejudices, was the mostly uncritical reflections on the Britpop period. Justine Frischmann, whose band's self-titled first album I really quite liked (especially 'Stutter'), unwittingly summed the phenomenon up by saying it was inspired by a hatred of American bands and a desire to hark back to the English pop tradition. That's precisely why I disliked Britpop at the time - the narrow-mindedness, the shallow jingoism, the insistence on seeing everything through Union-Jack-tinted glasses. Johnny Marr was one of the lone dissenting voices, commenting (I think very astutely) that he saw it as the final flowering of Thatcher's Britain rather than something inextricably associated with the emergence of New Labour.

And, of course, if Britpop was all about "keeping it real" and asserting one's own identity, then why did the frontman of the archetypal Britpop band, Blur, continually persist in affecting Cockneyisms and indulging in - as one talking head put it - "class tourism", most obviously exemplified in the trips to the dogs and the new-found discovery of football? It was forced. And the programme also completely ignored Graham Coxon's passion for American alternative rock, no doubt because it failed to fit the narrative - a narrative which, incredibly, found some intellectual and artistic merit in 'Country House' and its pathetic video.

I was equally nettled by the dismissive statement that grunge was the preserve of the unreconstructed, macho and overtly heterosexual man - a point illustrated with footage of Pearl Jam performing 'Alive' - whereas the sexuality of British rock and pop, by contrast, was more androgynous and confused. So Nicky Wire wore a dress and Brett Anderson made ludicrous statements like "I'm a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience" (for a more positive appraisal of Anderson's contribution to 90s music and culture, see here). But that conveniently ignores the fact that there was another side to grunge - Kurt Cobain wearing a dress, the affiliation and affection he felt with the K Records / Olympia scene and Scottish indie bands like The Vaselines and The Pastels.

Lastly, it would have been good to have had less attention devoted to the Spice Girls - massive though shallow cultural impact that they had - and at least some to the early 90s riot grrrl movement which, if not as significant here as it was in the US (with bands like Bikini Kill and Babes In Toyland), nevertheless mattered at least insomuch as it helped launch the careers of artists like Polly Harvey.

Still, having said all that, it was ultimately an enjoyable and engaging series - a pat on the back for the BBC.

Feel good hits of the 17th November

1. 'Milano' - Sigur Ros
2. 'Ode To LA' - The Raveonettes
3. 'Number 1' - Goldfrapp
4. 'Push The Button' - Sugababes
5. 'Welcome To The Jungle' - Guns 'N' Roses
6. 'No Fun' - The Stooges
7. 'White Riot' - The Clash
8. 'Dressing Up' - StrangeTime
9. 'Like A Rolling Stone' - Bob Dylan
10. 'American English' - Idlewild

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Art Of Noise A - Z of music

Welcome to a brand new feature, which is exclusive to The Art Of Noise (ie it won’t be appearing anywhere else). A very simple idea, but then the best ideas often are.

Each week a panel of contributors – which includes both bloggers and non-bloggers – will write a short music-centred piece. The subject could be a band, an artist, an album, a song, a genre, an instrument, a manager, a label, a record shop, a magazine, a critic, a fanzine, a concept – the only limitation is that the chosen subject must begin with the letter of the week, ‘Sesame Street’ stylee.

So, let’s start at the beginning…

A is for…

Adam & The Ants (Alison)

Not cool, but who needs to be cool when you’re dandy? Starting out as an artsy post-punk group in the late 70s, Adam’s drive for mainstream success led him to bring in Malcolm McLaren, who proceeded to nab the original line-up for Bow Wow Wow. Backed by new Ants, hit after hit, they dominated the early 80s and certainly my early childhood.

Lyrically, there was nothing too challenging: “Young Parisians are so French, talk nothing but French”. Drumming, chanting, howling / yelping, and incoherent babbling were the ingredients of a perfect Ant track. But nothing without Adam and by 1982 he dropped the Ants, though his writing partnership with Pirroni (an original Banshee) continued. The image was at least as important as the music. I always loved the fact that the sight of Adam & The Ants could make my folks tut disapprovingly, but then a couple of Castaways into any mobile disco night out and they’d both be up dancing. I was actually bullied into loving Adam & The Ants; my big brother was obsessed with them and needed a backing singer. He got to wear the make-up and frilly blouses, while I stood in the background “a didly qua qua”–ing.

You certainly couldn’t claim that all output was good; many of the tracks fall on their arse when you listen to them now. After a couple of years of unmemorable songs, in 1985 Adam Ant offered up the fantastic ‘Apollo 9’ and the awful ‘Vive Le Rock’. Then all went quiet until the mid nineties when Adam tried to fit credibly into a business that was only prepared to consider him a novelty act from the past. Then, every tabloid’s dream, he unravelled in full public view. Hopefully he’ll be better soon and the fickle British public will learn to respect our Prince Charming of Pop.

Alabama 3 (Dr Migs)

You woke up this morning, / Got yourself a gun, / Mama always said you'd be / The Chosen One. / She said: You're one in a million / You've got to burn to shine, / But you were born under a bad sign, / With a blue moon in your eyes”.

Every now and then a piece of music becomes so synergistic with a different media form that one without the other just doesn't seem quite right. Think John Barry's James Bond theme, think ‘Dr Who’, think ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Woke Up This Morning’ by Alabama 3. ‘Woke Up This Morning’ has such a direct chill to it that it simply forces you to sit up and pay attention. And I for one wanted more.

Alabama 3 are an undeniably dark band. For one they’re made up of ex-rehab patients who share a twisted outlook on life. All Brits, they sing with Southern US accents, and base themselves out of Alabama State Penitentiary (albeit their recording base is Brighton). Their music isn't dynamite, rather the cold barrel of a Smith & Wesson pressed against your temple – as you fall to your knees in the car-park of a low-rent motel. Don't search them out if you want some sing-a-long light relief.

Should you chose to sign up to this genre, the rewards are good. I can hardly profess to be learned of their work, but what I've heard I like. And what I've heard are a couple of albums and an mp3 or two. Their tunes tend to be either experimental or self-indulgent, but always idiosyncratic and wrapped up in a sound that (I think) is a fusion of electronic, blues, techno and gospel. This can (unsurprisingly) lead to a hit 'n' miss feel to their albums. But the hits are well worth the misses. Personally I'd much rather hear a few gems and a few turkeys on an album than ten mediocre songs.

If I were to be pinned down to what my favorite Alabama 3 song is, I'd have to fudge and say two. The passionately anti-national ‘Woody Guthrie’, and the beautifully dark ‘Devil Went Down To Ibiza’. Two different songs that show the two sides to the band. As the prophet said: “Seek and ye shall find”. Seek I say, and enjoy the sound that is Alabama 3.

amplification (Ben)

What do Bob Dylan and Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel have in common? Not much, you’d imagine – and you’d probably be right. But both appreciated the value – or indeed necessity – of sheer volume.

In 1966, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for electric mid-set. He’d done it before, but this time it elicited Keith Butler’s now legendary heckle of “Judas!” Dylan’s alleged response off-microphone – “Play fucking loud!” – exemplifies perfectly why amplification is key to rock ‘n’ roll, a musical form historically rooted in dissatisfaction, unrest and outright rebellion: noise annoys. “Going electric” was Dylan’s way of kicking sand in the eyes of all those folk purists who thought they could pigeonhole him and claim him as theirs. And, of course, if you’re going to make a point – as his songs invariably do – then you’re better off making that point loudly.

Nigel Tufnel’s pride in the fact that his amp goes up to 11 might be more to do with primal machismo than politics (as is the boastful title of Motorhead’s third live album, Everything Louder Than Everyone Else), but the fact remains: decibels are fundamental to what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

Which is why the NAM (the New Acoustic Movement – remember that?) – mercifully short-lived and killed off by The Strokes – was its antithesis, wetter than water and just as colourless. It is perhaps significant that some of the most celebrated leftfield indie acts of recent years – The Arcade Fire, The Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens and company – have plumped for an amplified sound to match their populous stage presence.

With bands like Mogwai, it’s a matter of feeling the music physically as well as emotionally, your whole body set in vibration (via the quaking floor) rather than merely your eardrums. You are quite literally moved. For me, tinnitus isn’t so much an unwelcome post-concert condition as evidence that I’ve taken something of the gig home with me.

Of course, amplification is more than simply a matter of volume – rock ‘n’ roll characteristically involves or demands an extraordinary amplification or exaggeration of appearance, mannerisms and ego, a fact to which the likes of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Morrissey and John Lydon attest, as do the catalogues of behavioural excess otherwise known as band biographies (Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ being a prime example). Rock’s credo is not “Turn it down”, but “Turn it up”. Preferably to 11.

Anderson / Butler (Phill)

For many music fans of a certain generation, the classic songwriting partnerships would be Lennon / McCartney and Jagger / Richards.

For people slightly younger it might be Page / Plant, Strummer / Jones or for those who should remain nameless Gibb / Gibb / Gibb.

In the 80s it was Morrissey / Marr or maybe Berry / Buck / Mills / Stipe.

For 90s indie kids, in those dark pre-Britpop days, there was only one songwriting partnership worth bothering with - Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler of Suede.

Like most great songwriting partnerships, Anderson and Butler were two very different characters. They were both talented individuals, but together something else altogether...

Anderson - androgynous, with cheekbones you could grate cheese on, flouncing around in a blouse, preening and pouting.

Butler - silent, peering out from beneath his fringe, making a beautiful sound ring out from his guitar.

Suede's debut album was the first I ever bought. The tape I had eventually destroyed itself, I played it so much. Even listening to it today, it sounds to me like a masterpiece. The three singles ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘The Drowners’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ are all stone cold classics, amongst the best of the 90s. The rest of the album was packed full with seedy and sordid slices of sex and drugs, all delivered in Anderson's trademark mockney yelp.

At the time the band seem incredibly exciting and dangerous, though in retrospect much of what surrounded that band, and particularly the pronouncements of Anderson in interviews, were a little bit foolish. “I am a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience”, he was once quoted as saying in Melody Maker.

Sadly as part of the recent wave of Britpop Revisionism (a topic I will talk about next week), Suede's influence on 1990s British music has largely been relegated to a footnote. What we must remember that in the early 90s the British music scene was stagnant and dreary place. Suede did the hard work and paved the way for other bands to follow.

Butler of course left the band in 1994 during the recording of second album Dog Man Star, leaving Suede to lurch into self-parody, eventually stuttering to an end few years ago. Now they're reunited as The Tears, but it's now over a decade too late.

As an aside - I bumped into Brett Anderson and Suede keyboard player Neil Codling at an Ultrasound gig (anyone remember them) in the late 90s. Anderson seemed like a bit of a tit and slightly out of it. But I wasn't surprised, just slightly disappointed - as by then the mystique had already gone.

anyone (Jez)

It’s simple really, but that’s the beauty of it. From its origins in the underclass, popular music has evolved into something that spans the social divides. From Dizzee Rascal and Crass to the Rolling Stones and Genesis, pop music’s Venn diagram would look like a giant’s chain mail. And the reason for this? It is perhaps the only cultural pastime that can be attempted by anybody. Whether it’s a one chord thrash, a kid with a kazoo and a tambourine or schoolboys attempting a rock aria, nobody needs to be put off giving it a go, even if you call your band Ugly Rumours. John Cage doesn’t feel you even have to make any noise at all.

I’m not suggesting that anyone can (or would even want to) make a living from it. Only one in twelve bands signed to a major label ever gets to release a single. It’s a fallacy that the cream rises to the top. The life of a band is often dependent on the breeze of the marketplace rather than the talent they possess. Often to be found here are the rich seams of originality that companies were unwilling to give a chance to but were disinclined to let anybody else do so just in case they’d missed "the next big thing". This is no matter; there are so many undercurrents, subcultures and fleeting glimpses to thrill and disappear almost before they even arrive. Longevity is rarely something to be celebrated. The mixing pot is to be rejoiced. For me, I don’t care for the homogenous karaoke machine. And you know what? I don’t have to, because there’s something there for everyone that has been made by anyone who’s anyone.

... Apple Venus Vol I (Jonathan)

Apart from Sonic Youth, I'm not sure that I can think of a band capable of recording what might very well be the best record of their career twenty years after their first recording. In rock music terms it's improbable, almost impossible to imagine a band redisovering, much less retaining, their best form. I can't think of another band, that is, except XTC.

When Apple Venus Volume 1 was released at the tail end of 1999 I stumbled across it in a record shop, thinking dully, "Ah, whatever happened to XTC?" In the late 70s and early 80s they made some of the best and most original punk-pop in the world, a kind of small-town UK Talking Heads. By the mid 80s they were creating the oddest kind of English pastoral music, a peculiar blend of psychedelia and folk mixed with lush string arrangments, African rhythms, and Partridge's peerless lyrics and improbably original melodies. Since 1992's lacklustre Nonsuch they had been on strike and then, presumably, retired.

Apple Venus, which had been pulled together in Andy's shed in Swindon during the missing years, was and is an utter and effortless delight. Eschewing the rock arrangments of their previous records, and without the guitars of Dave Gregory, who had lost his patience during the seven year hiatus, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding created a dazzlingly ambitious orchestral pop record.

'River of Orchids', the opener, is a glorious, complicated rant against cars set to a collage of rain drops, sequenced string samples, horns and layered voices. "Take a packet of seeds, go out today", Partridge sings, "I want to see a river of orchids where we had a motorway", declaring "I had a dream where the car was reduced to a fossil". In terms of composition it's quite unbelievable; like much of XTC's best stuff, there are times where the melodies veer alarmingly off-kilter. More than one listen and you'll remember them for ever.

If all that hippy stuff sounds a bit romantic, 'Your Dictionary' documents the break down of Partridge's marriage and is one of the most bitter and direct pop songs I've heard ("S.H.I.T - is that how you spelt me in your dictionary? Four-eyed fool you led round everywhere") before effecting a remarkable volte face at its close, switching to a joyful epilogue, Partridge declaring "Now your laughter has a hollow ring and the hollow ring has no finger in. Let's close the book and let the day begin, and our marriage be undone".

XTC were never the sort of band to dwell on spite, and in Colin Moulding, who only contributes two songs to the album, they have the perfect counterbalance to Partridge's occasional side-swipes. On 'Fruit Nut', Moulding (every bit the settled family man, although he now writes a tone lower than his natural timbre because he's shy of singing in front of his children) sings "Tending my fruit, tending my fruit, well you've got to have a hobby. A man must have a shed to keep him sane". It doesn’t seem fair on poor old Colin that he, a man capable of writing songs as unbelievable as 'Making Plans For Nigel', should have to play second fiddle to Andy Partridge, even if the latter is the country's finest songwriter and lyricist.

'Easter Theatre' is possibly XTC's finest moment, deliciously complicated and odd, Andy singing "Flowers climb erect, smiling from the moist kiss of her rainbow mouth" over fragmented strings before a rousing chorus, "enter Easter and she's dressed in yellow yolk". What the hell IS this song? Contemporary classical music? Psychedelic pop? Impossible to say. In the sleevenotes Andy writes that during the haunting, worn-out sounding middle eight he felt "every pore of my skin … smiling fit to burst". Likewise.

Yet the closing triumvirate of songs are the most astonishing feature of the record. 'Harvest Festival' is the centrepiece. Partridge sings "see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows" and recovers from spite: "See the flowers round the altar. See that you two got married. And I wish you well". And gets away with a recorder solo. The surrounding songs, the heartbreaking 'I Can’t Own Her' and 'The Last Balloon' are equally wonderful - stark, slow, deeply personal ballads.

The latter picks up where 1989's 'Chalkhills and Children' left off. In that song, Partridge sang "And I'm getting higher, wafted up by fame's fickle fire 'til the chalkhills and children anchor my feet". But 'The Last Balloon' finds Partidge with a big enough vessel to take everyone else with him. "Climb aboard", he impores, "climb aboard you menfolk. You won't need any bombs or knives. Climb aboard, climb aboard you menfolk. Leave all that to your former lives".

The song fades slowly out as the balloon drifts away. Over minimal, fading piano chords and an astonishing flugelhorn solo from Guy Barker, Partridge croons, "drop us all. Drop us all. Drop us all like so much sand". The album slowly fades out.

XTC never left Swindon. They just kept watching, and they kept getting better.

You don't see that much these days.

Asian Dub Foundation (Pete)

Or rather my first proper gig. Yep, besides the odd pub gig watching friends play out some short-lived dreams and the '97 Reading Festival, (more of which in about 15 weeks) ADF's gig in Prague during the spring of 1998 was the first time I paid to see a signed band at an indoor venue. And they were corking. For a Britpop kid looking for something beyond Britpop, Chandrasonic's frantic guitar and Master D's rapping was a refreshingly different sound and they remain one of the most energetic live bands I've ever seen. Although, with hindsight, it's certainly possible that a few excellent Czech lagers may well have artificially heightened the enjoyment at the time. I saw them a few years later in Berlin, but they weren't quite as memorable as the first time round.

However, the real reason this gig sticks in my mind is that my mate Si and I managed to blag our way backstage. Perhaps it was easier being two English lads abroad, but a quick pre-gig chat with the sound and lighting engineers outside Roxy (the venue) resulted in an invitation backstage. Wow. Not bad for a debut gig. Admittedly, it wasn't all that exciting, we had a few sandwiches and some beers from the rider and chatted to the band while they eyed up Si's then girlfriend. And that was it. Rock 'n’ roll eh? Nevertheless, backstage is backstage.

The Auteurs (Swiss Toni)

1993 was a good year for albums. We had Suede’s much trumpeted debut, Blur released Modern Life is Rubbish, Radiohead made their debut with Pablo Honey, Belly released Star, New Order released Republic featuring the song with the best intro ever (‘Regret’), Nirvana released In Utero… tucked away amongst this lot was the debut album by The Auteurs.

From the first chime of ‘Showgirl’ through to the final flourish of ‘Home Again’, it is abundantly clear that New Wave is a masterpiece. It was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize that year, but Suede’s win (by a single vote) heralded the beginning of the Britpop era, and by 1994 the bang and bluster of Oasis was pushing the subtler charms of bands like The Auteurs into the fringes. They had a cellist for heaven’s sake! Although further releases quickly followed, it felt as though the moment had passed: Now I’m A Cowboy in 1994, After Murder Park in 1996 and How I Learned To Love The Bootboys in 1999. All were well received by the critics, but only sold moderately – an absolute crime in the era when even no-hopers like Menswear could get into the charts simply by hanging around in the Good Mixer and being mates with a few journalists.

In Luke Haines, The Auteurs had arguably the most acerbic and inventive lyricist since Morrissey, but this was an era when lyrics seemed to be undervalued like never before (just listen to ‘Supersonic’ and tell me that you disagree). It is somehow hard to imagine Noel Gallagher being brave or talented enough to come up with ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, isn’t it?

Since they dragged the lake / You know they seemed au-fait / Cordoned off some wood / And gave the photo to a psychic / Presumed dead / Unsolved child murder”.

‘Idiot Brother’ actually foreshadows the arrival of Definitely Maybe and the Gallagher brothers by a whole year.

(That's) you and your idiot brother / Waiting in the wing / Which one holds up the other? / Which one pulls the string?

Perhaps Haines had gazed into the crystal ball and seen what was coming.

Other bands may have sold more records, but while Parklife and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory remain rooted firmly to the shelf, New Wave is the album I keep going back to.

* * * * *

Right, that’s it for this week – thanks to Alison, Dr Migs, Phill, Jez, Pete and Swiss Toni. Would it be insulting your intelligence to say what’s coming up next week? Probably – I don’t think we get too many Maroon 5 fans on here.

(If you’re interested in becoming a regular contributor to this feature, drop me an email at silentwordsspeakloudestAThotmail.com and I’ll get back to you. Cheers.)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The other Jonathan's Indiepop Odyssey; songs 7-9

7 Everthing But The Girl...... These Early Days

They wore sensible cardigans and sang about bringing up babies- what could be less rock and roll than these two middle-aged-before-their-time musos with the short back and side haircuts? On the other hand they were very finely-crafted tunes, and even better- produced cardigans. I ended up falling slightly for the music, but wholesale for the attire- every term I would go into Wolverhampton Marks and Spencers and spend forty pounds of my grant on something designed to be worn by my grandad. Hell, if I’d asked him he probably had a few he could have lent me. Everything But the Girl have a lot to answer for.

8 Madness....... Waiting for the Ghost Train

You’d better get used to obscure Madness tracks cos there’s going to be a few of them. This one was their very last single before they broke up- only to launch the first in their interminable series of comebacks. I still think it is one of their very best, though. Apparently Suggs’ opaque lyrics concern politics in Apartheid South Africa, but if you believe that then you probably think Baggy Trousers is a stinging critique of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Really I think it is about trains.

9 Voice Of The Beehive....... I say Nothing

Some remnants of the Madness rythym section (this is before the start of the interminable series of comebacks) got together with a pair of kooky American girls they had met at a bus-stop, or somewhere, and the result of this happy pop union was Voice of the Beehive. They were like Blondie only with better tunes and if there was any justice in the world would have been just as famous, or at least somewhat more well-known than Katrina and the Waves. As it was ‘The Beehive’ had to settle for being swooned over by a handful of discerning devotees. I was one of them and spent six months in Valencia playing a cassette of their one and only hit album on a tiny tape recorder which was constanty in danger of melting in the forty-degree heat. Come to think of it, I think it eventually did.

slightly delayed faust post

Wow, saw the incredible Faust at the Old Market in Hove the other night and was massively impressed; I woke feeling fragile the next day wondering how I was going to convey either the music they created or their unique stage presence, so am relieved to note that the also-in-attendence Andrew has done a proper job on it over at B4L, describing how he wasn't quite prepared to see:

"a 50-something French hippy (Jean Hervé Peron) ironing an audience member's jacket on stage, as a burly German drummer (Zappi Diermaier) beats the steel pipes he is holding aloft with a hammer before carving them up on stage with an axle-grinder, sparks flying across the stage. A flautist attempts to play a real clarinet and a child's plastic one simultaneously. A screaming-chorus of local popstrels accompanies one song, a marching band of local trumpeters and saxophonists another."

Musically, they sounded impossibly fresh given their age, veering from bursts of extreme avant-noise to shards of melody. My only regret is that I didn't catch as much of it as a sober version of me would - I kept veering into the bar, although happily, as Andrew noted, "it's liberating to be able to hit the bar during a performance, drift back, and find the band still in full flow."

At one point about two hours into their set, the marching band who had been accompanying them left the stage. With Peron thanking the audience for their support (support which, incidentally, was in places delirious; we stood next to a portly elderly hippy with his shirt open who was clearly transported back to '68) the venue clearly mistook the mood for a finale and raised the house lights. They stayed on for a minute, all of us blinking, (note to Faust, you guys look better with the lights down), during which I was compelled to shout 'turn the lights back off'. I'm not sure if Peron heard me or not, but he seemed to look over in our direction when he reassured us 'Don't worry, we're not even half done yet'.

Best gig I've seen all year, and I missed half of it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The other Jonathan's Indiepop odyssey: Songs four to six

4 Fuzzbox... What’s The Point?

I say Fuzzbox, but of course this quintet of violent-haired Brummie lasses really called themselves We’ve Got a Fuzzbox And We’re Going To Use It, and for a few short months in 1987 it seemed their curiously engaging brand of electro pop, the shambolicness of whose execution made early Talulah Gosh look like the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, was about to take over the world. Tragically however, good sense prevailed and the Fuzzbox girls went back to playing on their Bontempi organs and scrawling their schoolgirl-crush lyrics in marker pen on West Midlands bus-shelters. A sad loss.

5 Colourfield.... Thinking of You

Terry Hall left the chart-busting Specials, dissappeared off the face of the Earth for a couple of years, then reappeared on BBCs Saturday Superstore (the weekend morning show that the fey indie-kids of tomorrow watched; Tiswas was just so vulgar and, oh, mainstream) with a new female vocalist (who he had met a bus-stop or something) and this mournful, plinkety-plonk offering, the sort which gets into your head and refuses to leave for twenty years. Treat this apparently throwaway melody with the respect it deserves!

6 Specials..... Friday Night Saturday Morning

‘I hope the chip shop isn’t closed, because their pies are really nice’. Terry Hall (for it is that man again) is evoking the end of a typical weekend night out in his native Coventry- but it could have been Liverpool, Nottingham, or Newcastle in the early 80s, as unemployment soared, and a nation’s dissaffected youth sought solace in drinking, brawling, and late night steak and kidney puddings. Friday Night Saturday Morning was the B-side of the more celebrated Specials ‘State of the Nation’ address, the number one hit Ghost-town. The B side, I say! These boys were so talented they had songs like this to throw away, apparently.

Songs five to seven of this rummage through my box of Silk Cut- scented seven inch singles to follow on Friday.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Take the rough with the smooth


Early in the evening it may be, but the Bar Academy is disappointingly sparsely populated. It's also very dark. So dark, in fact, that late additions to this Catapult Club night bill StrangeTime run into difficulties before they've even begun their set. "John can't find his drumsticks, laughs vocalist / guitarist Kate Finch, before adding, "They're black". Their goth credentials enhanced, they launch belatedly into 'Mundane'. Thereafter the set takes a familiar shape with which the band are evidently increasingly comfortable, the longer slower songs spiked by the unfussy and brutal PJ Harveyesque punk of 'Dressing Up' and 'Ex Boyfriend'. It's when they have that fire in their bellies and in their eyes that they're at their best.

On their website, Augustine claim to have been influenced by The Smashing Pumpkins. They've got a point. Frontman Jody Wyeth has been so influenced by them that he's the spitting image of Billy Corgan. Unfortunately Wyeth shares Corgan's fondness for faux-naive lyrics about being a "little boy", the sort of lines that make you want to grab the Pumpkins man by the collar and tell him to grow up and stop sucking his thumb. Wyeth's voice is perhaps as much an acquired taste as that of Corgan, though mainly because it's a little off-key. Musically, however, Augustine are quite something - an emo-influenced Bends-era Radiohead, with lashings of deliciously scrawling guitar courtesy of John Wallace. The songs don't always match up to the scale of their ambitions, but those ambitions are laudable, particularly given what comes next.

What comes next is Jetlag, and - there's no other way of saying this - they are awful.* Serving up a soporific sub Chili Peppers stodge that starts off badly and hardly improves, they do themselves no favours by including a cover of 'No Woman No Cry' that morphs into a reggae rendition of Green Day's 'When I Come Around' (y'know, from back when Billy Joe Armstrong and co were just green-haired dweebs writing songs about wanking rather than about the political disenfranchisement of youth and US foreign policy). Listening to Jetlag, then - about as pleasurable as suffering from the condition after which they are named.

The Light Era aren't really much better. Much more focussed and slick in what they do, yes, but utterly identity-free and unable to conjure up even the ghost of excitement in yours truly. Airbrushed and Americanised MOR indie songs with titles like 'Gotta Find A Way' and 'She Is Everything' (straight out of the James Blunt School of Profundity) is their thing, and that of many of those assembled. Oh well, I shrug my shoulders and make my way downstairs, bemused by the topsy-turviness of the bill.

* A self-defensive post-script inspired by a recent conversation with Kenny and Andy. Contrary to what you might think, I don't enjoy tearing into local bands, or bands that are just starting out (of course, it's a different matter when it comes to the big hitters - they're fair game to be shot at). In fact, I respect anyone who has the guts to get up on stage and play songs which they have written and to which they are very intimately and emotionally attached, just as I admire anyone with the courage to try their luck as a stand-up comedian in front of an audience demanding to be entertained.

It's just that I'm something of a born critic, and I find it hard to compromise and bite my tongue, honesty all too often getting the better of me. So what remains to be said is that I genuinely mean no offence by these sort of reviews - I just call it as I see it. Ultimately it should all appear in parentheses and be prefaced with that old blogger's get-out clause: "in my humble opinion". And, of course, the comments box and email address are there for you to tell me to dismount from my tall steed.