Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book Clwb


My fourth gig in Cardiff, and my fourth different venue. Having sampled the Barfly, Chapter and one of the three university venues, it was about time I ventured to the legendary Clwb Ifor Bach - and what better reason than to see the band whose album currently holds sway over my stereo ahead of the likes of Mogwai, Cat Power and The Strokes?

It's a slightly disconcerting start, being asked who you've come to see at the door - surely the staff should know who's on? But all is well - it turns out that Clwb has two different small venues, and there are gigs taking place in both tonight.

By the time we make it up the stairs and into the right room, Lone Pine have just struck into their first song. They'd probably prefer to be labelled alt-country, but there's not too much alt about them - fairly straight bar-room boogie which is melodic if a little dull, mixed in with some slower-paced songs. Cardiff's answer to My Morning Jacket? Perhaps.

But, while they might sound fine on record, the problem with seeing them perform in the flesh is that they just don't look like a band, a coherent unit. Vocalist / guitarist Dan Catherall is the one wearing the cowboy-style shirt and hat, and it's clearly very much his band, the rest simply a supporting cast who play along without a great deal of visible enthusiasm. Superficial yes, but these things matter. (More on them later.)

You certainly couldn't accuse Semifinalists of not looking like a unit, or of being dull. For the first fifteen minutes of their set I'm convinced they're the most original band I've seen for some time - and I'd not been expecting that, the name conjuring up a bunch of dour indie losers from a provincial northern town.

The three members - Ferry Gouw, Adriana Alba and Chris Steele-Nicholson - met at film school in London, and it shows. They play against a backdrop of brilliantly vibrant projections, avoiding most of the usual post-rock projection cliches (collapsing buildings, power lines etc) and focusing instead on images from the natural world. At times it feels like watching an episode of 'Planet Earth' with a live soundtrack. The effectiveness of the visuals is enhanced by the fact that all three are wearing white, so they become part of the screen themselves, the images playing themselves out on their bodies as they perform.

The projections owe something to The Flaming Lips, and I gradually revise my initial judgement of their originality - towards the end of the set there are a couple of very Lips-esque songs, the diminutive and spectacularly fringed Gouw singing with his arm outstretched towards the ceiling in a manner very reminiscent of Wayne Coyne. But there's also something else going on in there, a punk spirit which approaches but never quite approximates Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And there's an eccentricity too, the last song morphing bizarrely into a half-speed snippet of Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody'. I'm certainly sufficiently impressed by their performance to be disappointed that they only have vinyl on sale at the merchandise stall.

Now, My Latest Novel. With a name like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that they're either an awfully earnest and downright awful emo band or an awfully earnest and downright awful bunch of schmindie bedwetters. Thankfully they're neither (though the lyrics to 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done' about wearing pyjamas and dancing to 'Footloose' do raise the spectre of the latter). The moral of the story being don't judge a book by its cover (arf arf).

The Glaswegians' debut LP Wolves, which comes conferred with the Bella Union seal of approval, is stunning. The Arcade Fire's Funeral is the most obvious point of comparison (the person previewing the gig on the Clwb site somehow managed to skilfully avoid mentioning the Canadians), but there's so much more besides: Mogwai's more refined moments, the stomp 'n' folk of Sons & Daughters, Delgados style epics, spoken-word narratives a la Arab Strap (though conspicuously without any sordid details about sexual shenanigans - see again 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done'). They even manage to make me consider revisiting or at least investigating Belle & Sebastian further. Yes, it really is that good.

What tonight's show suggests, though, is that they're not always quite sure what to do with it, and look a little nervous and awkward on stage. The set comprises nine songs in total, all but one of the tracks from Wolves making an appearance, and it begins with the first three songs from the album as well as ending with its parting shot, recent single 'The Reputation Of Ross Francis'. It's as though they don't yet realise they have the freedom to deviate from the album template and mix things up - perhaps it's a matter of confidence.

Ambient opener 'Ghost In The Gutter' and 'Pretty In A Panic' drift by before things really catch fire with the climax of 'Learning Lego', four of the five band members shouting in unison into their mics as the music gradually fades out. This is followed up with 'The Job Mr Kurtz Done' and 'When We Were Wolves', both of which depend for their impact on a similarly impassioned chorus effect, before the slight but beautiful 'The Hope Edition' and 'Wrongfully, I Rested' appear to soothe.

It's a near-perfect platform for last year's quite remarkable debut single 'Sister Sneaker Sister Soul', which begins life with an indiepop twinkle in its eye before revealing a real fire raging in its belly. A suitably stirring rendition of 'The Reputation Of Ross Francis' and its rousing chorus about "fighting tooth and nail" later, and that's it, drummer Ryan King - unfortunate to be obscured throughout by his front-of-stage bandmates - unscrewing his cymbals to scotch any possibility of an encore.

Never less than impressive, then, and with flashes of absolute brilliance. That lingering awkwardness will disappear before long once they get some more touring under their belts - and when they start to play in front of more people who own the record, which (if there's any justice) will be very soon.

One final word on the crowd - and it's a "talking at gigs" rant I'm afraid. The venue has a bar in a separate room, so why those who have decided to spend £6 each on a gig ticket and then talk throughout rather than just going to the pub for free couldn't have done their nattering in the bar area is utterly beyond me. To make matters worse, the loudest voices during My Latest Novel's set belong to members of Lone Pine. You'd have thought the Scots could have at least expected respect from their support act if no-one else - but no, Lone Pine are too busy guffawing to themselves to care. Fuckwits.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: O

O is for…

… Obsessive – Sidi Bou Said (Skif)

A great many bands fail to leave a decent epitaph. Rather they announce themselves in a blaze of hype or, for the greater many, put out an LP that has been several years in the making, capturing something of themselves that is perhaps lost once they’ve achieved that most wondrous of things, to record an LP of original material that has been well-received. In this instance, any follow-up is tainted by the pressure to keep up a standard.

This is why I guess I prefer those who operate relatively off-radar, and one of my favourites of the late 90s was Sidi Bou Said. Their association with Cardiacs never hurt them, for sure, and it is why I became aware of them but they were certainly their own band, creating some of the most beautiful, bendy, dramatic pop harmonies I’ve had the pleasure to hear.

The first time I saw them, at the Southampton Joiners in 1997, I only knew a couple of songs, it was a sparsely attended night and the magic didn’t hit me then. It’s not always an instant thing. However, once I got given a copy of their LP Obsessive to review for the University of Portsmouth mag Pugwash, I soon became overwhelmed by them.

The LP was subtitled “A game of death and paranoia for two to six players” and, as such, the sleeve folded out to create an elementary board game, had pieces to cut out and fold, while the side panel of the jewel case contained a mini dice. This was just garnish though.

The LP opens in strident fashion with the brimming title track attacking romantic possessiveness: “You’re so obsessive, can’t take you anywhere”. Throughout the LP, the coming together of the voices of lead singer / guitarist Claire Lemmon and drummer Mel Woods is a glorious burst of femininity that skirts around militant feminism (although ‘Bella’s aggression has greater impact for it being alone in its abrasiveness), instead displaying a kind of dainty femme-power. You’d call it Quiet Grrrl, if Gayl Harrison didn’t give the tunes such a weighty underbelly with her basstones.

Elsewhere there is the snaky hymn to low self-esteem ‘Funnybody’ while ‘Zazie (Dans Le Metro)’ and the great ‘Seams Undone’ are brisker and more direct. The two peaks of the LP though are ‘Bridge Song’ and ‘Twenty Thousand Horses’ which build slowly around orchestration from the KIF Quartet to showers of passionate vocal standard-bearing. Husband of bassist Gayl, and then Cardiac, Jon Poole produces with appropriate pizzazz and it is a magnificently complete set of songs.

Not that we knew it at the time but Obsessive turned out to be their final LP and it was a perfect way to go out in recorded format. There was also a farewell show at the Highbury Garage which I attended and it was everything you would hope such an event to be. There were tears. Some were mine.

Mel and Claire have worked together since; I have seen them as Tetra and Eva Lema, while apparently there was an untrumpeted one-off reunion late last year. The two of them can also usually be found providing backing vocals at the annual Cardiacs shows as well.

The song ‘Stopper’ from the LP concludes with a repeated roar of “I am not wanted / I am not preferred / I am not needed”. Well, they were by me.

… occupational hazards (Ben)

A career in music”. A phrase to raise my hackles, if ever there was one. I want to hear musicians say that they absolutely HAVE to make music. That, more than even a burning passion, it’s a compulsion. An obligation. There really is NO other course of action.

But the fact remains that, for many people, music is nothing but a career choice. An occupation. And a quick look at the official Occupational Hazards website (never let it be said that my research for these pieces isn't extensive and exhausting...) reveals that little if any consideration is given to the occupational hazards of being in a band. And make no mistake – rock ‘n’ roll is a dangerous business.

So allow me to play careers advisor. In the interests of health and safety, here’s a cut-out-‘n’-keep guide to the perils and pitfalls you might experience should you decide to go into “a career in music”…

1. You're starting out. That means the seemingly endless touring of toilets, where - appropriately enough - there might well be warm urine deliberately lobbed in your direction. Just hope that most of it falls out of the pint glass upon unsuspecting audience members en route to the stage. Utter indifference is a more likely response. You are forced to support shitty bands who think they're great. On these occasions, the sound mix is always geared towards the headliners, who are allocated twice as long to soundcheck. You must carry on trying to impress while sounding like a couple of cats fighting in a metal dustbin. Your guitar strings will break and your amps will cut out. Replacements? Pah. And that's not to mention the ever-present possibility of electrocution from dodgy wiring.

2. The meteoric rise to fame (NB it can happen to even the worst and most pathetically one-dimensional of bands, so best be prepared, eh?). The music press will write a lot of very complimentary things about you. Certain publications (eg NME, as Pete noted last week) will be hyperbolic in their estimation of your achievements and potential. This hype, together with the adulation of thousands of new recruits to your fan club (or MySpace page) and the inevitably burgeoning drug habit, will inflate your ego to enormous proportions. In short, you may well find yourself becoming an arrogant cunt.

3. More touring to cement your new-found fame. With playing every night, tinnitus may become an issue. Invest in a pair of earplugs - not luminous yellow ones, as they're very visible and make you look a bit old and sad and not the hip young gunslingers you obviously are. The combination of being away from home for long periods and the feverish attention of attractive young fans means that existing long-standing relationships are stretched to breaking point. If you're Matt Bellamy of Muse, this inspires you to wreak similar havoc with your friends' lives, urging them all to consort with prostitutes. If you're Phil Collins, this inspires you to dump your second wife by fax. Phil clearly would have benefitted from being told he'd become a cunt. (It's been announced in the last week that Phil has now split from his third wife Orianne, whom he married in 1999. Seven years. Phew. She must have a lot of patience. Either that, or an inexplicable passion for short, balding cunts.)

4. Things are on the slide. You've reached the peak - it's all downhill from here. You may have had snide and uncomprehending reviews in the past, but it's about to get much worse. No-one likes your new direction, not even your fans, who grin and bear it but at every opportunity clamour for that song you wrote five years ago that propelled you onto MTV but which you now loathe. Your turn to grin and bear it. Or to plumb the depths of bitterness and write a spiteful song about how spiteful people with the "wrong" opinion of your music are (see: Stereophonics). And, to make matters worse, you've contracted an STD from one of your groupies.

5. Further ignominy - you're dropped by your label. Strangely enough, their promise to support and sponsor your artistic endeavours and a positive review (even on influential internet weblogs like Silent Words Speak Loudest) counts for nothing when sales of your magnum opus fail to reach triple figures. The band collapses, and with it your friendships, your dreams, your future, your source of income. You might be able to make something out of this if you can convince a Kate Moss obsessed media that you're her beau, and a misguided genius and poet to boot. If not, the scrapheap and a job in Dixons beckons.

6. "Whoa there", I hear you say, "there are plenty of bands who never really experience stages four and five". True enough. But they still face occupational hazards. This might involve developing a messiah complex and thinking you can solve all the world's problems (see: Bono). It might involve burdening your child with a fucking stupid name (see: Chris Martin, Bob Geldof, Frank Zappa). Or it might involve developing repetitive strain injury by playing the same two or three chords repeatedly and subsequently being treated by Leicester City Football Club's physio (see: Status Quo's Rick Parfitt).

You have been warned.

… ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ and Will Oldham (Steve)

When I read a review in Melody Maker of Palace Brothers’ Drag City single ‘Ohio River Boat Song’, my interest was piqued by Everett True’s typically hyperbolic prose. Not even that prepared me for the experience of first playing the single when I finally got a copy. Right from the start, that song sets a fire of hairs standing on end that increases as the final verse takes hold.

And her dance was like the gleam of the sunlight on the stream / And the screeching bluejays seem…” – sung by unison vocals as the song almost imperceptibly increases in tempo and volume. The vocals split into broken and parched harmonies on “… to form her name when screaming…”, getting more impassioned for “But my heart is full of woe…”, by which point it’s game over and I’m a mess on the floor. Back to the start and play it again. And again.

It’s a song you feel you’ve known all your life, which seems to have grown out of the ground, natural as spring water – it could have been written any time over the previous 100 (200?) years.

The recording is suitably rough, ready and rustic, released in perfectly understated packaging – a list of thank you’s (“impossible without…”) with a dark black and white picture of men hunkered over instruments, one of them leaning back smiling to himself. Is he in rapture? Did he make a mistake? Perhaps some kind of private joke?

As anyone who has taken an interest in Will Oldham’s subsequent career will know, the answer is usually all of the above. A friend and I interviewed him over the phone once in those early days for a fanzine. As we knew next to nothing about the people who had made this music, we asked a dumb question about Slint and the music scene in Louisville, at which point he put the phone down, wandered around the office for what seemed like hours, before coming back and answering “Yes”. All subsequent responses were monosyllabic, until “click”.

I’ve followed Will Oldham’s work since 1993, in the hope of recapturing the feeling I got from ‘Ohio…’, mostly in vain. It’s not as if I don’t “believe” him anymore – right from the start, it was obvious that whoever was doing this was adopting a pose, telling a story, ACTING. If anything, Oldham is a great song-stylist, like Tom Waits he’s a great interpreter of American music – the fact that he’s not singing about his own pain or struggle doesn’t detract from the emotional connection and response that you have to the performance. But despite getting pretty close much of the time (especially with his Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona), I think Oldham nailed his “art” at that early attempt. I hope he proves me wrong!

… ohrwurm (Swiss Toni)

Have you ever had a tune that seems to be locked on a permanent loop in your brain? A melody so nagging that you catch yourself humming it over and over again? It could be the last song you heard in the car; it could be the theme to a TV programme; it could be the soundtrack to a computer game; it could be a mobile phone ringtone; it could be a jingle from the radio (and ‘Celebrity Tarzan’ is particularly guilty of this). In short, it could be anything.

If you have experienced this – and I’m sure that you must have – then you will already be familiar with the phenomenon. What you might not know is that this concept has a name: “Ohrwurm”. It’s a German word that literally translates into English as “earworm”, and refers to a song or tune that becomes lodged in one’s head. According to scientists, an earworm is a tune that creates a cognitive itch in the brain that can only be scratched through repetition. Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration (and, I kid you not, an earworm researcher) reckons that between 97-99% of the population are susceptible to earworms, that women are more susceptible than men, and that musicians are more susceptible than non-musicians.

I don’t know about that, but I do know that I get earworms all time, and that they are highly infectious. Earworms are transmitted from person to person like wildfire – if you hear someone singing a song, the chances are that you will catch yourself singing the same song within minutes. I get hours of entertainment out of this at work: the guy who sits next to me is extremely earworm-sensitive, and all I have to do is to think of as ridiculous a song as I can, start to hum it, and usually he will have picked it up before I’ve got to the chorus. He’ll catch himself singing ‘Tragedy’ by the Bee Gees (or something), look confused and then start cursing me. Sadly he is now all too aware of the fact that this is a game that works both ways – I caught myself singing ‘Shaddapayaface’ this morning.

I suppose it could have been worse. My own personal earworm low point was when I was walking back to my halls of residence as a student and realised I was cheerfully singing ‘Heal The World’ by Michael Jackson. Loudly. This was followed by the realisation that I had been singing the same song all day. I was mortified. It was all I could do not to turn myself around and try to find everyone I had met during the course of the day to try to explain to them that it was just an earworm and that I wasn’t a fan….

So what are the world’s most earworm-y songs then? Well, everybody will be different, but here are the five songs that I catch myself singing most often (well, today anyway):

5. ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ – The Foundations
4. ‘Ain’t Got No. I Got Life’ – Nina Simone
3. ‘I Predict a Riot’ – The Kaiser Chiefs
2. The theme from ‘Jonny Briggs’ (I cannot escape this)
1. Anything. Absolutely bloody anything.

Still. It keeps life interesting, and is certainly better than silence.

What’s in your head?

… omnipresent (Jez)

I can hear music”, said Beach Boys. Brian Wilson was probably also hearing imaginary birds chirping, tiny bells tinkling and massive goats playing the then unborn Darkness’ whole ridiculous catalogue on pan pipes out of their arses. But if he was defrosted from his cryogenic state behind that piano I’d be able to wholeheartedly agree with him, because I can hear music too. Everywhere I bloody go.

It’s not always a problem. If one of my few trusted sources is doing the choosing then things are absolutely fine. But what happens when I’m in a pub / restaurant / shopping centre etc can be completely nauseating.

I find much of it truly odious. A quiet Mormon church couldn’t be more offended if Burzum turned up on a Sunday morning and plugged in. If you think they’d be outraged you should hear me when I’m in a pub, taking my first welcome sip, and the opening bars to ‘Hot Legs’ dribble their way out of the speakers. Maybe it’s a conspiracy started by Sony and continued by Apple to simultaneously protect your brain and destroy your eardrums by forcing you to shove your earplugs in.

However, there is a shining beacon in the murk of background music. If that ramshackle load of bollocks who reckon ‘God Is A DJ’ are right, then He’s spinning the discs at my local Co-op. During my ten minute visit to pick up some milk today the Big Fella played Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere To Run’, The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’ and Edwin Starr’s ‘25 Miles’. Bloody marvellous. In fact, why don’t we have an A-Z party there? We can hang around the beer fridge gulping the stuff down before we’ve paid for it. What’s more, the crisps and nuts are in the adjoining aisle. The music’s great too.

(The Big G appears at the Co-op West Bridgford, Nottingham, Mon-Sat 8am to 10pm. Sundays he manages Burzum, for a giggle.)

… ‘Once More With Feeling’ (Caskared)

It may be deemed a touch geeky to like ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’. It may also be considered a teensy bit naff to enjoy karaoke. Some may posit that musicals are on the nerdier straits. But to all of that I say pah! I will play the musical episode of ‘Buffy’ with subtitles on to make it into a karaoke fest. I’m out and I’m proud: I love ‘Once More With Feeling’.

The rumours of a musical episode of ‘Buffy’ began six months before it was aired in 2002 on BBC2 in the UK. Me oh my what a delight it was from the opening title sequence with its strings, harp and glockenspiel accompanying smiling faces rostruming over the moon, to the operatic “Grrr, arg” of the mutant enemy monster at the close. Joss Whedon (‘Buffy’’s creator) wrote the music and lyrics over a summer on his four-track and brought demos in to be arranged by the show’s regular musical people Christophe Beck and Jesse Tobias. The music has always been a key aspect of the show, for example ‘Hush’ where the citizens of Sunnydale were silent due to voice-stealing meanies, and ‘Once More With Feeling’ took it in a whole new direction.

The premise is (and I’ll not give any spoilers for soft eyes) a demon is causing the townsfolk to express pent-up feelings through bursting into song and canny choreography, and occasionally flames. Cue ballads, counter duets, retro pastiches, runaway pop hits, rock outbursts, and it turns out that the devil does get all the best tunes with ‘What You Feel’ and some mean tap dancing by broadway star Hinton Battle.

The lyrics are hilarious and super-smart, and what’s more they scan beautifully. During a patrol in the graveyard a chorus of demons:

She does pretty well with fiends from hell / But lately, we can tell / That she's just going through the motions (Going through the motions) / Faking it some how / She's not even half the girl she – ow”.

Or the big band cameo sung by writer/producer David Fury in celebration of his dry cleaning:

They got, the mustard out (They got the mustard out)”.

Or in the duet between Xander and Anya:

(Anya) “When things get rough, he just hides behind his Buffy. / Now look, he's gettin' huffy. / Cuz he knows that I know”.
(Xander) “She clings, she's needy, she's also really greedy. / She never...
(Anya) “His eyes are beady!
(Xander) “This is my verse, hello? She...
(Anya) “Look at me, I’m dancing crazy!

And Dawn and Sweet the demon:

(Dawn) “What I mean / I’m fifteen / So this queen thing’s illegal”.
(Sweet) “I can bring whole cities to ruin / And still have time to get a soft-shoe in”.

Other fabulous moments include Anya’s bunny outburst in ‘I’ve Got A Theory’, the parking ticket, the dancing sweepers and the tinkling bell of the Magic Box not to forget how much they got away with at primetime through song. What is a Chumarsh tribe?

As the actors are just that, actors, and not necessarily singers, so there is a bit of manipulation in who has all the songs. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) makes do with a few strained supporting lines whereas her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head who had a stint in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’) lead the way. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) does admirably and it’s not obvious she hated every minute. Her pain was our gain!

… Ooberman (Pete)

Now and then, and especially when spring and summer approach, I get fed up with listening to indie miserablists and I need a dose of pure pop. Indie pop of course. None of yer bog-standard chart rubbish mind. More often than not, it will be the first St Etienne album, but sometimes I'll pick up Ooberman's debut as a refreshing alternative instead.

There was (and still is) always something endearing about Ooberman's intelligent but fun take on pop music. Fronted by Danny Popplewell and the possibly delectable Sophia Churney they contrived to come up with The Magic Treehouse, a collection of – as the name might suggest – happy-go-lucky, summery and occasionally slightly psychedelic tunes.

'Blossoms Falling' was the 2m 31s long (or short) single that first drew my attention to the Liverpool / Bradford fivepiece. A joyful ode to waking up to your loved one might well have been over almost as quickly as it started, but it stayed in my ears for a lot longer. They weren’t a perfect band by any means. Some songs were almost too earnest and a little too fey and naïve, but the occasional moments of wide-eyed musical innocence made the band even more endearing. To me at least.

A few tracks off the album did stick out though: 'Sur La Plage' was an excitable tale of escaping dreary Blighty for a summer of European travel, while 'Shorley Wall' was the lush, mournful but touching track that managed to get a bit of airplay on Radio 1.

It remained their only song to get any airplay too. Like so many bands, they never quite made it. Despite the debut album and the accompanying singles being well received by the critics, it was the usual tale of press acclaim not turning into sales (and how many times have we heard that clichéd sentence?). Dropped by their first label, they never recaptured their early form on their second album. Add to this the decaying relationship of the front pair and Ooberman finally bit the dust in May 2005.

I still occasionally kick myself for going for a pint instead of walking the long walk to my old student union to see them live (for free I should hasten to add). Not only did sod's law prevail and it turned out to be a cracking gig (probably the last decent one at Surrey University), but I never had another opportunity to see them again before they folded. Bugger.

… Beth Orton (Paul)

"Went down to a central reservation / In last night's red dress / And I can still smell you on my fingers /And taste you on my breath".

Taken from the title track of 1999's Central Reservation album, it takes Beth Orton four beautifully crafted lines to capture the sense of a lover reminiscing on her previous evening, and the time spent in the company of someone else.

The album itself is a wonderful collection of songs, all performed in her beautifully softly spoken voice and evoking feelings shared by young (and not so young) couples everywhere - from the sense of lingering memories in ‘Central Reservation’ to the forward looking ‘Sweetest Decline’:

"What's the use in regrets? / They're just things we haven't done yet / What are regrets? / They're just lessons we haven't learned yet".

Shameless romantic I may be (at times), but the sentiments echoed in the above songs, and others on the album, are ones in which I find a sense of hope, and a descriptive outpouring of emotions which I feel in relation to certain instances in my past, and people in my present.

Whilst I remain yet to be convinced that Orton's subsequent work has necessarily continued to meet the same standard, and having been disappointed when seeing her perform live, I still firmly hold Central Reservation up as a wonderful album containing songs that are guaranteed to see my eyes drift slightly out of focus, and a smile spread across my face. I may still have lessons to learn, but like Beth, I maintain that life would be infinitely less enjoyable if that wasn't the case.

… Otis Lee Crenshaw (drmigs)

Some people have issues with “comedy songs” but I think comedy and music are natural bedfellows. As the joke that just doesn't work in writing goes, the art of comedy i - timing - s good (or something like that). And music can provide the framework in which comedic timing can flourish. Now whilst I admit that all that Mockney ‘Knees Up Muvver Braan’, 'Have A Banana’ nonsense can be somewhat trying, there are also well-structured gems out there. Few are better executed and well crafted than the works of Otis Lee Crenshaw.

Otis Lee Crenshaw aka Rich Hall's Confederate felon alter-ego performs dark country music. It isn't jazz: "Jazz ain't nothing but when you throw a blues quartet down a long flight of stairs". It's true to the genre, and it's also damn fine comedy; no lyric not thought out – for both comedic and emotive content. There's a particular genius in the ability to weave surprise into a song with a caustic lyric, and a cunning rhyme. And his songs are littered with throw away one-liners that seamlessly appear from the natural meter and rhythm, and catch you unaware. Forgive me for listing (yes, I know I've done it before), but it's easiest to make the point by giving examples. Take the following:

From 'Drunk':

"These boring Mormons / They don't have hormones / They just exist".

From 'Women Call It Stalking':

"When I see her there'll be tears down my face / It might be love and it might be mace".

From 'Trailerland':

"We thought he was retarded / Just turns out that his pants were too tight".

I don't want to ruin all the songs for you, so I'll leave it at that. But whilst you might not be comfortable with the blackness of the material, you get the point; lyrics can be funny within the framework of a song without disrupting flow. For me, this type of comedic song writing only really works when it's done by comedians who are also songwriters. As glib as Rowan Atkinson's song about the women leaving the fields to fight the fascists is:

We're the women leaving the fields to fight the fascist / Oh yes indeed it is a lovely day / We're strong, we're free, we're women / Oh and we're also Nicaraguan by the way”.

It is missing the essential element that is the crafting of a song that works as well musically as it does lyrically. There are countless examples of comedic songs that stand up on their own both musically and lyrically, from Tom Lehrer's politically astute 'It Makes A Fellow To Be A Soldier' to the stunningly well performed musical pastiche 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' by Monty Python. And taken as a collective, they simply add a different perspective to music. As such, they should be equally appreciated alongside more mainstream offerings, not looked down upon as a cheapening of the art form.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, Steve, Swiss Toni, Jez, Caskared, Pete, Paul and drmigs for their contributions this week.

Unfortunately, circumstances are going to make an A-Z feature for next week impossible, so it'll be back in a fortnight's time. With a vengeance (whatever that means).

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: N

N is for…

… Naked Truth (Skif)

I know we’ve had one about quintessential “local” bands, but I can’t remember if we’ve had the entry yet to signify the first band you ever saw live. Now there might be some internal dispute regarding the long-forgotten-never-really-known Naked Truth as my first gig ticket read “Living Colour” and they were indeed the headliners but, strictly speaking, the Truth (as I never called them) find themselves first on the list.

Yes, I keep a list. It’s vital. Like I apparently once saw Foo Fighters at a festival, but I can remember not a jot of it. In addition, I discover looking through today that comedian Ross Noble strutted his stuff, and no doubt extended some monkey-related tangents, before me halfway up a Wedgewood Rooms comedy bill eight years ago. I was clearly oblivious to his future stardom.

That’s an anally-retentiveness-betraying aside though, as the thing about this is, the question “Who was the first band you ever saw?” like “What was your first record?” demands either a cool, or a desperately but humourously uncool, answer. On both counts I fail. My first record was Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. Cool artist, you might argue, but not exactly one of his finest hours, artistically speaking. So it’s not quite right, is it? It was 1984 after all, so it could have been ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ just as easily as it could ‘Agadoo’. A very unhelpful mid-ground.

And, as I have suggested, when it comes to first live band, I have Naked Truth as the bottom rung of a funk-rock double bill in a quarter-full Portsmouth Guildhall. I remember I’d never had a sonic experience like it, the noise making my young milky ears ring for the best part of a week and certainly kept me awake that night, the entire gig kind of re-running itself in my head. I thought all gigs would be like that. Sadly not. Ah well though, these days I need to keep earplugs with me to prevent my tinnitus getting any worse, so perhaps it’s for the best.

My second gig was not long after the Living Colour show; Manic Street Preachers at the same venue supported by indie hip-hop midgets Credit To The Nation and the gloriously brassy Blaggers ITA who, with the benefit of hindsight, were a pretty great little band all told. I’d be proud to have the Blaggers propping up my myriad others like Atlas under a heap of musicians comprising the lauded; the derided; the famous; the forgotten; and, errr, Whigfield. Ahem.

As it is I’m stuck with Naked Truth. Although not necessarily. The list can lie. If we pre-date it to include concerts attended with parents, I can proudly announce that the first band I ever saw were the Royal Marines Band featuring the Milton Glee Club Choir. Ow’s about that then?!

… Nick (Caskared)

Who has a deep, rasping voice that seduces listeners into his baroque and brooding world?
Who sung the opening line “I don’t believe in an interventionist god” on a song played surprisingly frequently on radio?
Who had a chronic heroin habit and also a song on the ‘Shrek 2’ soundtrack?
Who won the Q Classic Songwriter Award?
Who duetted with Kylie Minogue in a ballad about murder?
Who wrote an introduction to The Gospel According To St Mark?
Who retains an epic and macabre spirit throughout three decades of recording?
Who writes nine-to-five in an office?
Who covered a Johnny Cash song, and was also covered by Johnny Cash?
Who won Time Out Book of the Year?
Who else would call a double album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus?

Who featured in a BBC Radio 2 documentary presented by Brad Pitt?
Who was born in Rangoon but grew up in Warwickshire?
Whose gravestone reads “And now we rise / And we are everywhere”?
Who is cited by Graham Coxon, Lou Barlow and Lucinda Williams as an influence?
Whose songs featured posthumously in the films ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘Garden State’, ‘Hideous Kinky’ and ‘Fever Pitch’?
Whose right hand finger-picking technique has internet forums in a frenzy 32 years after his death?
Whose romantic autumnal folk was a stalwart of sculpture studios’ stereos in Newcastle Upon Tyne?
Who created airy and floating phrases by beginning on the third beat?
Who is the reason for annual meetings in the church of Tanworth-In-Arden?
Whose soft melodies and tender swelling orchestration timelessly wrap around the listener?

Nick Cave and Nick Drake respectively are my answers.

… NME (Pete)

When I was young and foolish, I treated the established printed music press as the Gospel truth. I consumed – no, devoured – Q, Select, Melody Maker and especially the New Musical Express. Swells, Kitty Empire and the rest provided vital weekly reading. Occasionally my fix took me to new levels and I bought a copy of Mojo. But for some reason over the last few years I've not bought a single copy of a music mag (weekly or monthly) for ages and the NME especially.

I suppose there are a number of reasons for this such as plentiful free reviews on t'internet, but there's one thing in particular. The hype. Here's an example from a recent NME issue (that I didn't buy I should hasten to add): "The greatest band in the world today"… Hmm. Well, I don't have anything against The Go! Team per se. In fact, I think they're pretty damn good. But "the best band in the world"? I'm not buying it.

Yes, I realise that the circulation numbers are falling and that hype sells issues, but it just seems as though it has become a bit excessive of late. Somebody might want to correct me, but the NME's writers recently declared the Arctic Monkeys’ debut the fifth best British album of all time. Riiight.

I think the turning point, for me at least, was back in 2000. On the front of one week's issue there was a blacked-out silhouette with the headline that went something along the lines of "This man is the future of rock". And whose visage were we blessed with the next week? Andrew WK. 'Party Hard' indeed. After that, the only thing I can say is: "Don't believe the hype". Especially the NME's.

… nobodies (Ben)

The flame of punk may only have burned brightly in Britain for the briefest of periods in 1976 and 1977, but its subsequent influence on almost all aspects of popular culture (music most obviously, but also film, art, fashion, literature, comedy…) has been enormous and can still be traced today – not least in the ‘Pop Idol’ / ‘X Factor’ style programme. No, really. Bear with me on this one...

The early to mid 1970s. A time when rock stars were rock stars. Untouchable and utterly beyond the reach of the fan, the mere mortal, who could only dream of breathing the same rarefied air as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin and was expected to gape open-mouthed up at the stage while the caped figure of Rick Wakeman wanked off another self-indulgent-in-extremis harpsichord solo. Rock was not for the common man.

Then came the inevitable backlash – punk. Suddenly being a technically gifted musician meant next to nothing. Indeed, you didn’t even have to be able to play at all (see: Sid Vicious, first “drummer” for Siouxsie & The Banshees and later infamously the replacement on bass for Glen Matlock in The Sex Pistols). This and the DIY ethic was enormously exciting and liberating. Punk bands generally didn’t (and couldn’t) style themselves as somehow “superior” to those who came to see them, and if they did the audience knew it was a lie. There was no chasm between the bands and the fans, either in lifestyle or literally in the live environment. It’s no coincidence that stage invasions were commonplace – the dividing line between performers and audience members was permeable. Music was back in the hands of the people. Anyone can play guitar (as Radiohead put it).

And it’s that essential democratic principle which stands at the heart of ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘X Factor’: anyone can do it, anyone can become a pop star. Talent is almost irrelevant. If packaged in the right way – receiving the right intensive voice coaching, buoyed by the right level of hype (hysterical), performing the right songs, backed by the right amount of money (lots), dressed by the right stylist – it could indeed be you. It’s an achievable dream.

That’s the message the programmes propagate, and therein lies their mass appeal. It’s not a fiction or myth either. How else could you possibly explain the triumphs of Gareth Gates, Michelle McManus, Rik Waller and most recently Shayne Ward? It’s a simple recipe: take people out of their humdrum existences, put them on a pedestal and let the British public’s overdeveloped sense of pity and love of the underdog do the rest. The sympathy votes flood in. And it all has precious little to do with music or ability.

All of which makes Liberty X’s ‘Being Nobody’ an astute piece of self-reflexive pop criticism. The video depicted the five band members (the band from ‘Popstars’ over whom Hear’say triumphed, lest we forget) being assembled like robots on a factory production line, and the song itself was a Richard-X’d-up cover of the Chaka Khan song ‘Ain’t Nobody’, its meaning altered by the simple fact of who was performing it so that it became a comment on the star-making business.

The album on which it appeared was called Being Somebody, the way it contradicted the single title pointing towards the transient and ephemeral nature of the fame game (and – presciently – towards their own fate). One day nobody, the next somebody, the next nobody. Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes is more like five. Anyone remember Alex Parks? Chico and Journey South will go the same way, thank fuck (if only they’d consoled themselves with The Go! Team’s ‘Everyone’s A VIP To Someone’ and stuck to singing the shower…). The reason is simple and familiar: anyone can do it, and will, and they’ll be fresher, brighter and more novel than you. It’s not so much that nobody does it better (see below) as that everyone can do it just as well. Longevity depends on having been a somebody in the first place.

Grossly simplified and half-baked though this undoubtedly was, the general point I think remains. Punk is responsible. So next time you find yourself watching John Lydon sat in the jungle grumbling about Peter Andre and his ilk, just bear it in mind.

… ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – Carly Simon (Paul)

‘Nobody Does It Better’ is one of only two Carly Simon tracks that I can listen to. So my love for the record is certainly not out of a strong affinity for the artist.

Instead its inclusion is a result of two factors: the first and obviously most important is that it was the song which my wife and I first danced to on our wedding day, and consequently whenever I now hear it, I'm instantly transported back to one of my happiest days on the planet.

Secondly, and crucially for this particular piece, it's my favourite James Bond theme song. Now that's quite a bold statement, because there are several strong contenders for the role, but I think on balance it has the edge.

Bond themes themselves are a curious beast. The first, ‘Dr No’, itself has no real recognised theme music (in the way that we'd today consider a Bond theme). However, once ‘From Russia With Love’ had set a precedent, every subsequent Bond film sought to produce a piece of music that instantly captured the flavour of Bond, gave a hint of the story and allowed plenty of time for scantily-clad silhouetted women to gyrate and play with firearms.

Shirley Bassey, the undoubted queen of Bond music, singing ‘Goldfinger’, Louis Armstrong's timeless We Have All The Time In The World’, or Wings giving birth to new Bond Roger Moore with the slightly darker ‘Live And Let Die’ all are rightly held high in my esteem.

Like every other fan of Bond I have my favourite, in the same way that they'll have a favourite Bond, Bond girl, villain and film.

For me, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is a classic in terms of iconic imagery (Bond's Union Jack parachute, the submarine being swallowed by the ship), villain (Jaws), and girl (Barbara Bach) but it's the music that really sets in apart, and for that credit must go to the vocal talents of Carly Simon. Many have tried but nobody has done it better.

… Nottingham (Swiss Toni)

I moved to Nottingham on the day that Princess Diana died: 31st August 1997. I had idly turned on the television as I was packing up my videos (remember them?) and was confronted with the tragic news. Over the course of the next few days and in between the unpacking of boxes, I watched with fascination as a small patch of grass around the corner from my new home began to disappear beneath floral tributes. They arrived slowly at first, but soon a little sign went up on the tree – “for Diana” – and as the fever gripped the nation, a trickle became a flood became a torrent, until you couldn’t see the ground at all for rotting flowers. I’m sure the fact that there was a florist over the road has no significance. It’s only in my cynical head where the owner put that sign up on the tree, isn’t it?

Anyway. I digress. The number one single that first Sunday I spent in Nottingham was just perfect. ‘Men In Black’ had been toppled after four weeks at the top, and Elton was yet to take up residence with his execrable re-working of ‘Candle In The Wind’. For one glorious week ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ sat at the top of the hit parade and for once the best selling single in the UK was also the best single on sale.

Maybe it was an omen for my time in my new city?

It’s sometimes said that no good bands have ever come out of Nottingham. That may be true, but that doesn’t stop Nottingham being a musical town. Firstly it’s a great place to watch bands. Over the course of the last nine years, I reckon I have probably seen more bands and attended more gigs than at any other time of my life. I wish I could tell you that this was because I indulge my love of music by spending every night scouring the pubs and clubs in search of live music. It wouldn’t be true though, as my gig-going experience in Nottingham has been largely confined to three venues: The Rescue Rooms, The Arena and Rock City. Of the three, Rock City is my favourite, and may be my favourite venue full stop. Since its refit, it’s not quite the sweatbox of old, but when it’s full it’s still a bearpit, and the floor is still reassuringly sticky.

These aren’t the only places to hear music in Nottingham though. Almost every pub seems to have a live act on at weekends. As you might expect, the same names appear in different venue across the city, but special mention should be made of one man. Forget Bob Dylan’s Neverending Tour, Roy de Wired must be the hardest working singer / songwriter in the world. Judging by the number of posters, this guy must be playing at least two gigs a night. He’s everywhere, and he does a very respectable cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Freefallin’’ too…

Nottingham is such a small city that you even become familiar with the buskers. There’s the Patagonians – ‘The Fast Show’’s generic name for those bands with Pan Pipes – who play outside Marks & Spencer. There’s that bizarrely talented and bluesy guitarist who is always outside H&M. There’s that homeless guy up near Ted Baker with his tin whistle doing a shrill version of ‘Dirty Old Town’. Lest we forget too, there is also a plaque dedicated to the old guy with child’s xylophone who used to play a couple of notes and then triumphantly lift his hands to the sky and beam toothlessly at passing shoppers. He may not have attracted the same number of floral tributes or books of remembrance as Princess Diana, but he won’t be forgotten. I’m proud to live in a city so musical that it remembers its buskers with such affection.

… nutters (Jez)

If pop musicians were sold in cans, their major ingredient would be listed as “nutters”, just in front of “filler” and “animal derivatives”. Fuelled by a need to be adored by absolute strangers these egotistical fruitcakes are normally rejected before they even see the signpost marked “fame”. Although for some it is that very “uniqueness” that gives them the key to the golden door.

So, what do they do when they pass Go? Well, we hated them in the first place. They were outsiders remember, eschewed by society. Stardom is just circumnavigation of society, we are undeserving of the affection they had previously offered and as any dictator has probably said as a fledgling: “Boy! I’m gonna make them pay”.

Examples? There are hundreds of them; maybe you can add your own. The criterion is along the lines of – any sort of rock star behaviour that makes the royal family seem vaguely sane qualifies. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Pete (Man Of The People) Townsend telling Mick (Idiot) Jagger: “Never go on the tube, man – the dirty, smelly people are down there”. Jagger just looked on quizzically wondering what the tube was. Nutters.

Celine Dion, being far too important for anybody to see her move her Gillian McKeith look-alike body from dressing room to stage, would get into a box and get pushed by her lackeys past the great unwashed. Nutter.

As Thomas Dolby said: “It was us made them that way”. Mind you, he was probably a nutter too.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, Caskared, Pete, Paul, Swiss Toni and Jez for their contributions this week.

Here comes the rumour mill big time*


The Barfly is my kind of venue: underground, dark and dank, sticky-floored and with a DJ spinning The Jesus & Mary Chain and the Bloc Party remix album between slots. The archway gives it a particularly unusual feel, as though the gig's taking place underneath a railway bridge (of course, the massive pillar is a major obstruction to any view of the stage, but I manage to position myself advantageously). They even flyposter their own toilets.

Tonight it's pretty much packed to the rafters, but there's little difficulty in finding elbow room and getting served at the bar. It's over 16s, you see - which means huddles of youngsters conspicuously without pints in their hands making the rest of us wonder where our own youth went. Bitter? Moi?

Sadly there's no International Karate Plus, the sudden departure of vocalist / guitarist Rich having forced the hometown heroes to pull out at relatively short notice. Instead we have Shy Magnolias, who start off impressively. To invert that old muso hack's cliched description of a band sounding "like X on drugs", they're like The Coral off them - less paranoid and also less imaginative.

But I'm tapping my foot hoping the real killer song is just around the corner when the fuzzy-haired keyboard player switches to bass, the erstwhile bassist to second guitar and it all goes horribly pear-shaped. Of course, the tedious indie of the remainder of the set (not entirely dissimilar to that of another band I could mention...) is all the more disappointing given that initial promise.

We've not been in Cardiff long, but it's already apparent that the city boasts a clutch of sonic terrorists. Take The Martini Henry Rifles, for instance. Given what preceded them, they might be regarded as akin to Al-Qaeda, striking indiscriminately and without warning in order to cause maximum impact.

Every song - an unholy union (I use the term loosely) of drum machine, ultra-heavy distorted bass and guitars - is a devastating incendiary device. I've never heard Big Black, but this is how I'd imagine they might sound if dreamt up in an art-school cafeteria. It's not hard to believe their album is called Superbastard.

As tracks like 'John Wayne's Old Man' and 'Asian Swimmer' fly past, I'm troubled by the same question that always occurred to me when watching Nottingham's Wolves (Of Greece!) live: are they actually any good? I'm not sure. "Punishing" is the word that springs to mind - and to be punished this hard we must have been very, very naughty.

The set ends with 'Chinese Seagull' - I'm sure they couldn't sustain it for much longer than the twenty-odd minutes for which they're on stage. Afterwards at the bar, I overhear the Robinson Crusoe lookalike barman telling bassist Fudge that if they work on their choreographed moves they'll really go places. He laughs. Don't expect this lot to be bothering the charts anytime soon.

I'm sure there's an awful lot being written about The Young Knives (a great name, incidentally, but one which might sound foolish in a few years if they stick around - cf Sonic Youth) at the moment, but I approach them having read nothing but one gushing live review and heard nothing but recent single 'Here Comes The Rumour Mill'. Sometimes coming at things with fresh ears and eyes is best, and so it proves tonight - though of course I might inadvertently end up parroting what has been said about them elsewhere, for which I apologise.

Some bands just look like bands. Unmistakeably so. You know the sort. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The Cooper Temple Clause. The Strokes. The Young Knives, it's fairly safe to say, do not. Think not of carefully styled hair and so-hip-it-hurts clothing, but of swotty prefects dragged behind the bikesheds by their school ties and forcefed strong cider from green plastic bottles until they turn a strange shade of green. Guitarist Henry sports a burgundy tank-top, ferchrissakes. Meanwhile, bassist The House Of Lords - a plumper Ross Millard of The Futureheads - has opted for a shabby suit, tie and ghastly orange shirt. Fellow frontman Henry jokes that he's on the pull. Watch out: this man just might become the most unlikely sex symbol since, well, ever.

Enough of the sartorial analysis. What about the music? Well, it's good. Very good indeed. There's more than a hint of Sunderland's finest about the wiryness of the songs and particularly the vocal harmonies, but also a heartwarmingly English eccentricity and sense of humour. 'Here Comes The Rumour Mill', which appears mid-set, is the obvious stand-out, but there are plenty of other fine tunes to rival it, not least 'Part-Time' and 'The Decision' (a single last autumn). Even when one song is introduced by Henry as "one I wrote when I was 14 - it's a bit shit" ('Elaine'), there's no drop in quality.

The band The Libertines could have been? Perhaps - it's too early to tell. The encore song features the chorus "You were screaming at your mum, I was punching your dad" (or something very like it). If, unlike Doherty and Barat, they can steer clear of internal frisson and channel any aggression elsewhere, they've got the potential to avoid a messy collapse and subsequent lapse into self-parody.

Not that the crowd seems to recognise a genuine prospect when they see one. Many people have disappeared by the end (would it be malicious to suggest it's past their bedtime?), and those that remain are strangely and surprisingly unappreciative. Somehow I doubt it will be long before those who came out and stayed out are dropping into conversation that smugly superior aside: "Of course, I saw them in a small venue before the album came out...". I'll just get it out of the way now, then, shall I?

* Well, it's better than the other option, "The geeks shall inherit the earth"...

Friday, March 10, 2006

Cold comfort


CF10, the smallest of the University's three venues, has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. By day a bright and airy cafeteria for staff and students, and by night a darkened honeypot for the city's music lovers. Tonight's visitors include a gentleman with a heavily tattooed head, only the comically incongruous pot plants giving much indication of the room's daytime alter ego.

First up are the frighteningly youthful Neath outfit Adzuki, whose drummer Dean Gorno is sat exactly where I was enjoying a leisurely lunch earlier in the day. Perhaps not surprisingly for a foursome with an average age of around 18, they wear their influences on their sleeves - fellow Celts Funeral For A Friend (on whose label Mighty Atom Records they released their debut EP 'Five / Four'), Sparta (the chap at the merchandise stall flogging their wares sports a Sparta T-shirt, appropriately enough), a touch of Yourcodenameis:milo, the more melodic end of the screamo scale.

The songs could perhaps be stronger, as could Dan Thomas's voice, but there are certainly the seeds of something good here if this sort of stuff is your thing and they look the part, guitarist Richard Williams having that jack-knifing style of movement down to a tee.

And, as it turns out, Williams's purple patterned golf jumper and bassist Matthew Fry's Hooters T-shirt are perfectly in keeping with what follows. Tonight CF10 is a man's world, the testosterone hanging heavy in the air, thanks in no small part to Taint.

Much of Taint's power rests in the element of surprise. The ponytailed and trucker-capped bassist aside, they don't look much like sonic skullcrushers. If my memory serves me correctly, bearded vocalist / guitarist Jimbob bears more than a passing resemblance to Malcolm of the Viz comic strip The Modern Parents. If it wasn't for his tattoo, you might expect to bump into him at a church fete. Drummer Al looks similarly out of place setting up his equipment on stage - until, that is, he takes off his shirt and they start playing. According to their MySpace page, they sound like "thunder". I won't disagree.

It's not hard to see why Taint caught the ear of Cathedral / Napalm Death frontman Lee Dorian, whose label Rise Above released their most recent LP The Ruin Of Nova Roma. Their songs, blessed with such titles as 'Zombie Barnstorm Revival', are slabs of awesomely heavy sludge metal but with more than a hint of a post-rock sensibility, suggestive of Clutch jamming with Mogwai, or Aereogramme had they come from a metal background. I note their forthcoming show at the Medicine Bar in Birmingham - as good an indicator as any of their leftfield credentials. Not your average knuckledraggers, then, and to the liking of many of tonight's audience (myself included), judging by the swift mass migration towards the merchandise stall at the end of their set.

I'm not entirely sure what to expect from Cave In. From their inception in 1995 a ferocious hardcore metal band, they gradually morphed into a more experimental outfit. The Jupiter LP was a landmark, and they left underground label Hydra Head to sign to RCA / BMG, which released Antenna in 2003. In many ways Antenna was - and still is - a remarkable record: melodic, muscular, epic and ambitious, if occasionally lyrically absurd ("Nothing in his mind, the rent there's much too high", anyone?). With a striking album under their belts, major label money behind them and the patronage of Dave Grohl, the future looked more than rosy.

But, as is so often the case in these instances, it didn't work out, and while last year's Perfect Pitch Black LP didn't signal a step backwards to the hardcore days of yore, it did mark Cave In's return to Hydra Head. For much of their core fanbase, Antenna must have sounded utterly alien, a betrayal or - yes - a caving-in to the lure of mainstream success. How will they respond?

Vocalist / guitarist Stephen Brodsky's Anthrax T-shirt says it all. Sure enough, they kick off with a dual-vocalled bludgeoner which finds Brodsky and bassist Caleb Scofield taking it in turns at the mic, the former crooning and the latter emitting a fearsome vein-popping growl.

The next song is much the same.

And the next.

I've spent much of the day refreshing my memory of Antenna and the mini-LP that preceded it, Tides Of Tomorrow. Before long it's apparent that I needn't have bothered. During a set that can only be around an hour long Cave In don't play a single song from either record, meaning that the only song I recognise is the rendition of Nirvana's 'Breed', which comes towards the end after a trio of breakneck-fast Misfits covers.

All four covers feature guitarist Adam McGrath on vocals - a rarity, he assures us, but also apparently a necessity. Brodsky, you see, has a cold and doesn't feel up to singing much, meaning the set-list is decimated - hence being reduced to cover material. Sure enough, he's coughing away, but this is the last night of the tour (as they point out on more than one occasion) - surely he should be prepared to risk it for the sake of the fans who've come out if there's no reason for him to conserve his voice for a gig the next day? I'm feeling cynical, though, and - rightly or wrongly - can't help but think that it's a convenient way for them to ignore material which they've grown to dislike, even if that's primarily what many of us have come to hear.

No matter about us, though - the band are clearly having a great time of it, if Brodsky's incessant grin and McGrath and Scofield's self-absorbed banter are anything to go by. When they scuttle offstage and don't return for an encore, it's almost a relief.

As the lights go up I'm handed a flyer by a chap from local promoters Lesson No. 1, and subequently spot him in conversation with Jimbob of Taint. Another Cardiff date for them in the offing perhaps? At least then something good would have come of the night.


Review of Cave In at Nottingham Rock City, February 2003

Review of Cave In at Leeds Festival, August 2003

Red Sparowes, Made Out Of Babies and Una Corda @ Medicine Bar, Birmingham

Originally posted here

And so it was off to the Custard Factory arts complex in Digbeth, Birmingham, for a Capsule gig. And a very good gig it was too.

Una Corda - Andy GFirst up were local boys Una Corda who I've seen a couple of time already. They appear to be on something of a step-up in the wacky world of post-rock, doing a fair number of support slots for Capsule and with their first London gig on Friday / tonight (at the Camden Underworld with the same lineup as here should you be in the area and fancy it) which is good and in many ways deserved as they've got a good thing going on.

The set was a little scrappy but not in a bad way and the band seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot. Bassist Paul (in green) was bouncing around with glee towards the end and this is one of the things that marks them apart from the usual crop of intelli-metal instrumental bands who just stand there all dull-like - Una Corda actually have a personality, both in their music and their stage presence. Musically they were very enjoyable with some new pieces and I suspect that, while this genre is not a massive one, they're on the cusp of going somewhere within it. But of course I'm biassed. I live with one of them.

Made out of BabiesIn the middle were Made out of Babies who I'd describe as a bit like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but more metal, less art-rock. Standard four-piece with guitar and bass on the sides and a diminutive female singer pacing around the middle. Which made a change, having someone interesting looking to photograph at a rock gig, so I did.

It was very refreshing to see a band who, while their music was of-a-type, actually had some kind of "act". And even though the whole neurotic girl thing wasn't 100% convincing there was enough conviction and passion behind it from the whole band to draw me right in. Very good stuff and a keen example for other four-piece bands of how to do the stage thing. Me liked a lot.

And then the headliners, Red Sparowes who, as I said before, I wasn't expecting a lot from. I'm a stranger in this scene, to be sure, but I'd got the impression that in the world of soaring post-rock the Brits don't take it too seriously while the Yanks take it very seriously indeed. Pelican, another American post-rock band seen last December were technically brilliant but didn't do anything for me really. Red Sparrows, on the other hand, were somewhat fantastic.

Red SparowesAfter I took the photo shown here I was tapped on the should and told the band didn't want any flash photography, which was fair enough (and I only tend to use it when I see others doing so) but they were playing with the lights completely off and just a film projection above their heads. So that's knocked the photos on the head then, I figured, and went to the back to take in the show. Initially I wasn't overly impressed as the music did the complicated quiet-loud thing but then something clicked and I found myself getting into it. And then I found myself getting tired as my legs gave way and I needed to lean against the wall. Eventually I was sitting on the floor nodding my head to the music, and it's not like I'd had a busy day - got up at noon, went shopping, made a curry, went to gig - but I was really knackered. I've got no idea what it was that did this. Yes, they were loud, but it wasn't like I was being beaten by the sonics in an aggressive way - more that it was punching me subtly from the inside. Or something. By the end I was utterly drained though I had no sense of what it was that had drained me. I was, in effect, a boiled frog, albeit a happy one.

The playing in the dark with projection thing was an interesting move, acknowledging, perhaps, that the band on stage were utterly uninteresting to look at. For the last couple of tracks I moved to the front with a good view of the stage from the side and the guys were just milling around, swapping instruments and twiddling with effects peddles (and something that looked like a high-tech zither). They were more like lab technicians than rock musicians and while the live performance was utterly necessary it wasn't necessary to see them do it. That said, I'm getting more and more jaded with the projections you tend to get at gigs. The general theme here was decay with old newsreels of buildings being demolished, post-war cities in ruins and curious medical experiments. If the Belsen photos had cropped up I wouldn't have been surprised and thankfully they didn't but it was all kinda uninspired and I preferred to shut my eyes and really experience them in the dark than be distracted by the magic lantern show. It's a very tricky line to tread between doing something meaningful but chilched and plunging into tedious irony and very few people manage it, possibly because while the music has been refined over many years the film show is often done as a extra, often by someone not intrinsically connected with the band so it doesn't quite mesh. However, like I say, I'm naturally cynical about these things - maybe most people appreciate them, who knows.

So all in all an excellent gig that left me happy, tired and not that bothered that I'd only got a few photos.

Capsule have a shedload of gigs scheduled for April and in theory I'd like to go to them all. Maybe I will. April shall be Capsule month. At the very least I'll be looking to see KK.Null on April 8th cos I'm a sucker for Japanese experimental noise and Noise Noise Allore! (previous gig review) supporting some foreigners on April 16th.

Radio ga-ga

Congratulations to two up-and-coming bands of my acquaintance, who have both featured on national radio in the last week. On Monday night Steve Lamacq gave an airing to 'Snakes', the fast and furious debut single from Portsmouth's Autons, on his Radio 1 show. Meanwhile, last week on Radio 6 Lovemat's 'Between The Lines' was played by none other than Bruce Dickinson - which makes my description of the track as sounding "like The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster rubbing themselves inappropriately with Iron Maiden LPs" rather apt.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: M

M is for…

… Manchester (Ben)

A few weeks back, this very feature found me celebrating Glasgow’s near-impeccable musical heritage and pedigree. But, as I implied then, were you to ask music lovers which British cities could justifiably lay claim to having been creative epicentres as important in the grand scheme of things as London, Manchester would no doubt top the list by some distance.

The irony of it all being, of course, that everything was jump-started by one of the English capital’s most celebrated groups. As Jon Savage suggests in ‘England’s Dreaming’, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Sex Pistols gig at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976. Despite Malcolm McLaren’s very vocal attempts to drum up interest in his charges (including standing outside the venue shouting), Johnny Rotten and co did not prove a massive draw. However, some of the faces in the crowd were soon to become very familiar – future members of Joy Division and The Buzzcocks, Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett and a youthful New York Dolls fan and serial NME letter writer by the name of Stephen Patrick Morrissey.

The gig gave The Buzzcocks the impetus to push on and form their own scene at some remove from punk’s London heartlands; when the Pistols returned on 20th July 1976, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley’s mob made their debut. As documented in Michael Winterbottom’s superb film ’24 Hour Party People’, Joy Division were inspired to pursue their own idiosyncratically bleak and uncompromising vision. And it ultimately led, some years later, to the literate, sophisticated and quintessentially English music of The Smiths (see Swiss Toni’s piece below).

But there’s another strand to Manchester’s musical history – one in which groove is valued over grit, collective experience in clubs over solitary confinement in bedrooms, live-for-the-minute hedonism over melancholic wallowing. Ian Curtis’s suicide on 18th May 1980 brought Joy Division to an abrupt end, but out of the ashes rose a new band who tentatively heralded this new dawn: New Order. 1983 single ‘Blue Monday’ is rightly legendary – and not just because it remains the biggest selling 12” of all time, or because New Order’s label Factory still managed to make a loss due to the elaborate packaging costing more than the single’s retail price. It was a song custom-made for the dancefloor.

It was another Factory act, though, that really embodied the new club crossover ethic. The fact that they even drew inspiration from ‘Blue Monday’ for their name was revealing – but so was the change of adjective. Along with fellow Mancs The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays embraced club culture, got E’d up, partied incessantly down at the Hacienda and in the process wrested indie from the clutches of bitter misanthropes like David Gedge and bedsit poets like Morrissey. They might not have been interested in music as cultural commentary, preferring pills, thrills and bellyaches, but what they produced is in many ways as much a reflection of and on the times as the contents of The Queen Is Dead.

As declared in a caption on the episode of ‘Rock Profiles’ (Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s pre ‘Little Britain’ collaboration) dedicated to The Happy Mondays, they are one of Manchester’s most successful exports; “other exports from Manchester include crime, poverty and arrogance”. That might just as well stand as the ingredients in the recipe that created the city’s last great contribution to British music. Oasis had the swagger, the hunger, the grit, the determination, the fuck you attitude, the hedonistic streak, the appetite for destruction. The North / South fault lines within Britpop were clear: Blur were by contrast literate, thoughtful, middle-class. The Good Mixer in Camden might have been Britpop’s birthplace, but Oasis – along with Manc bands like The Charlatans and (The) Verve (Wigan, I know – but close enough) – made Manchester synonymous with it and with mainstream indie in general.

Over the last decade there’s been something of a lull. Oasis have been a bloated and tedious parody of themselves for years. Having emerged from Manchester’s club scene as Sub Sub before moving in the opposite direction to New Order, Doves are worthy but a bit dull. Nine Black Alps have turned their back on the city’s heritage and looked across the pond for inspiration, at a time when New Yorkers Interpol and The Rapture are ignoring the heritage of their own city in favour of taking tips from Manchester's finest (Joy Division and The Happy Mondays respectively). There was Badly Drawn Boy, Twisted Nerve and the so-called New Acoustic Movement a few years’ back, but that was mercifully strangled in its infancy by The Strokes.

It won’t be long, though, before Manchester has another band of which to be proud. You can’t keep a good city down.

… Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Del)

This album was revolutionary for many reasons. The political overtones were almost unheard of from a mainstream soul artist. The scope of the record is still relevant today. The musical themes resonate through all nine tracks, so it feels seamless. Even the cover shot was a shock for the Motown execs, who expected their artists clean cut and clean shaven. But more than that, it's the almost dreamlike quality of the music that makes this an all time classic.

It's an impossible task to try and describe how wonderful the music and vocals are on this album so I'm not even going to try. But there's something magical about the way it all comes together. 'What's Happening Brother' follows the story of Marvin's brother returning from active duty in Vietnam, finding such bittersweet happiness in returning home, looking past the headlines to what's really going on:

What's happening my man / Are they still getting down where we used to go and dance / Will our ball club win the pennant, do you think they have a chance? / And tell me friend, how in the world have you been?

It's joyful, yet behind it lies an intense sadness. Time lost, the terrible things our war hero has seen, and the fact that he feels a stranger in his own neighbourhood. It's a sympathetic and emotive portrayal of the solider, who realises that those left behind are suffering just as he has in battle.

These are quite simply the most beautiful protest songs ever penned. By the time the chiming piano of 'Inner City Blues' breaks through the strings, hand claps and harmonies, Marvin had changed the way soul music would be written and produced for ever. And of course, he had that voice. What's Going On was hugely successful, making hit singles out of political statements and social commentary. Motown didn't want to release it, which would've been a musical warcrime. Music for the soul, but also for the mind, this is what makes Marvin Gaye not only one of the greatest singers of all time, but also one of our most extraordinary artists.

… ‘Men Of Harlech’ (drmigs)

So there you are, faced by 4000 Zulus in the mid throws of a war dance, what do you do? Well it's obvious isn't it? You clear your vocal chords and send forth the baritones. Or that's what the films would have you believe. But why would any movie-going public possibly buy into this?

Well, communal singing in the defiance of an aggressor is a well-recognised way to generate l'esprit d'coeur. Somehow, the words of a song sung alone, however rousing, sound hollow in comparison to an ensemble of voices. In the film ‘Zulu’, 'Men of Harlech' is initially sung as a brave defiance of the Zulu war dance. However, it later morphs in to a rallying call to unite the British army - a call to arms that gave the soldiers self-belief. By the end of the song - to a man - their prerequisite lamb-chop sideboards were left bristling with pride and vigour. All had the same purpose, to battle for Britain and each other.

Leaving aside the morals of the British military history in Southern Africa, why does this scenario seem so plausible? Well, although the literal equivalent isn't prevalent today, there are similar precedents. In particular I think of the combative examples in the sporting arena. Rugby is as an obvious example, as the parallels with military battles are abundant (nation vs nation, physical combat etc). In preparation for their international matches, the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka, a Maori war dance. It is customary for the opposition to passively observe this dance, but now and again it is faced. Notably, the Irish faced the Haka in the late 90s. Up stepped the forwards - faces made from spare parts, stomachs from spare tyres - and with arms around each other's shoulders they sang a chest-pumping rendition of ‘Danny Boy’. Within bars the backs had joined in, and then the whole crowd. By the end of the Haka, the All Blacks looked strangely meek.

Again, go to any protest – be it union, peace or religious – and songs are sung. Songs that unite the people. So is this something special to confrontation - communal singing empowering people? Of course not. It taps in to something that readers of The Art Of Noise will all have experienced; the experience of live music. Music, when live, takes on a quality that is greater than the sum of its parts. Be it in a Baptist Church, a classical orchestra, or in a muddy field in Somerset; music is a thing to be shared. Because when music becomes a collective thing, it has the power to hold the emotions of a collective. It is dependent on the maker of the music as to whether it is used as a force for good, hedonism, domination or control. But the essence of the effect is the same. Music changes the way people act, and that is one of the many reasons that we love it.

… Missy Elliott (Caskared)

Pop fact number 1: Damon Albarn named his daughter after her.

Missy Elliott rules. She’s one of the most important figures in rap and she continues to drive and invent without becoming clichéd or tired. She inspires across the genres just as she samples from as diverse sources. ‘Get Ur Freak On’ melds Asian tabla, ‘Teary Eyed’ has an electronic soul, her hooks mix up and deliver. She’s respected both critically and popularly.

Pop fact number 2: You can buy the Missy Elliott clothing range in boutiques across the globe.

When walking along Kuznetsky Most in Moscow I double took at the gleaming boutique window. Staring back out at me was a cherry red tracksuit with “Missy” emblazoned across the chest. Her looks can be amazing – cue her iconic inflated Bakelite suit circa ‘Supa Dupa Fly’. Her MTV award outfits of golf tartans or sequined DJ tracksuit are certainly idiosyncratic. But back to the music.

Pop fact number 3: ‘I Want You Back’ went into the Top 20 in the UK charts.

Who else can make a Spice Girl sound good? Missy has her acolytes and prodigies that are helping shape the next generation of krunk, or whatever the hip young things are calling it, including Tweet (with empowering, and very rude, lyrics) and Ciara. The names she has collaborated with – be it as a producer, writer or guest vocal – are stellar. Elliott alumni include Madonna, Mary J Blige, Wyclef Jean, Timberland, Ghostface Killah, Nelly Furtado, Big Boi…

Pop Fact number 4: ‘Gossip Folks’ was a rebuttal to tittle-tattle.

Musi ques, I sews on bews, I pues a twos on que zat / Pue zoo, My kizzer, Pous zigga ay zee”. One of the most played songs on MTV, ‘Gossip Folks’ is Missy putting right the rumour mill. Her lyrics are rhythmic, high-density, and often arch. Her voice ranges from the strained and distorted, to slacker, to melodic singspeak, always using the syllables to beat out complex and captivating cadences. I refer to my statement: Missy Elliott rules.

… Morrissey / Marr (Swiss Toni)

Right. For starters you can forget about the Woolton Parish Church Fete in Liverpool in 1957 where John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Don’t worry about that primary school in Kent where Mick Jagger first met Keith Richards. You can also keep your Liebers and your Stollers. You can stick your Burt Bacharachs and your Hal Davids up your jumpers. You can certainly cast the Elton Johns and the Bernie Taupins from your mind. Butler / Anderson, Strummer / Jones, Doherty / Barat, PJ / Duncan… you can forget about all of them. For me the greatest songwriting team of them all began when a certain cocksure Mancunian guitarist knocked on the door of a nondescript terraced house and asked if he could speak to young Steven.

Morrissey / Marr.

I was a latecomer to The Smiths. It wasn’t until I was eighteen years old that I really discovered them via a taped copy of The Best of The Smiths Vol 1. It was track six that got me, ‘Half A Person’. There was something about the lyrics, something about the mournful tone of the singer that really chimed with me. That was it. I was hooked. By that time The Smiths had broken up. I vaguely remembered hearing about them when I was at school, but they were one of those bands that I hated on principle (like The Cure) for no other reason than I didn’t like the people who liked them. I was happy with my Whitesnake and my Iron Maiden (dear God!). Ironically I discovered the other day that I actually watched The Smiths making their debut on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Apparently they played ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ and a gladioli-waving Morrissey made an indelible mark on an impressionable generation. He made no impression on me at all, and my only memory of the programme is of Billy Joel performing ‘Uptown Girl’.

Better late than never though. From that summer in 1993 onwards, I couldn’t get enough of it. From the greatest hits albums I discovered their back catalogue, and I was staggered, especially by Hatful Of Hollow (which at the time you could only get on import CD, and I eventually got hold of a copy from a record fair held at the NEC in Birmingham). Like millions of other teenagers, before and since, I was mesmerised by Morrissey. In my hormone-addled adolescence, it felt as though he was talking directly to me.

In the darkened underpass / I thought ‘Oh god, my chance has come at last’ / But a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”.

Story of my life, mate.

Those lyrics spoke to me then, and they speak to me now (even though I have subsequently managed to get myself a girlfriend). The more I listen to The Smiths now though, the more I am beginning to appreciate what Johnny Marr brought to the table. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the more solo material that Morrissey releases, the more I realise how good Johnny Marr was. It’s not that Morrissey’s solo stuff is bad – although a good chunk from the 1990s needs to be approached with caution – it’s just that the instrumentation that accompanies him is consistently underwhelming. These days, Morrissey sounds his best when he is accompanied by lush orchestration. When he is accompanied by guitars, as his is on his new single ‘You Have Killed Me’, it just sounds a bit limp. Not so with The Smiths. Marr’s guitar work for the band was consistently good, and occasionally breathtaking (the coruscating intro to ‘The Queen Is Dead’, the wobbly bit at the beginning of ‘How Soon is Now?’, the blistering intro to ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’).

Of course, the tragedy about Morrissey / Marr is not just how Morrissey is not quite the same without Marr, but also how Marr isn’t the same without Morrissey. He’s worked with loads of people (including The The, Electronic and now with The Healers), and I’m sure he’s doing alright… I just can’t help but wonder what might have been. But then, it’s that wondering that makes me appreciate the genius of The Smiths all the more.

… Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters (Paul

Imagine the scene: it's the summer of 1998, my friends and I have just completed our first year exams at university and the summer is stretching out before us with only a handful of days of solid socialising left before heading home for the break.

With festival season fast approaching, the rumours spread like wild fire.

Apparently, there's a band called Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters playing at Rock City tonight. Naturally, we reckon it must be Dave Grohl and co playing a secret warm up gig before their scheduled appearance at Glastonbury next week.

So off we trot, making sure we arrive nice and early to get tickets and a good position to see the stage. Strange that they are playing the smaller downstairs room, rather than the main auditorium, but presumably it's because it really is meant to be an intimate gig. One of those "once in a lifetime, tell the grandkids" moments.

Excitement mounts as we stand and wait.

Then out they come.


It's a bunch of blokes wearing dresses.

There are at least five of them, and none of them look like they've even met Courtney Love, let alone become involved in a massive legal dispute with her (although there's a school of thought which suggests they've possibly raided her wardrobe).

And so it was that we watched Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters perform their unique brand of cross-dressing rock. Seemingly aware of the confusion and rumour which had preceded their gig, the lead singer actually apologised for their not being the Foo Fighters, or Ash (as some other rumours had apparently suggested) mid-way through the set.

However, even eight years later, two songs from that night stand out in the memory.

The first, a rousing rendition of ‘Turtle Power’ from the soundtrack to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (incidentally that soundtrack was the first album I ever bought, but we'll gloss over that. Cassette, since you ask). The second, their set closing cover of the ‘Postman Pat’ theme tune (I kid you not.)

It may not quite be a "tell the grandchildren" story, but it's certainly one of the most memorable gigs I've ever witnessed.

… Muse (Pete)

The first time I saw Muse I didn't think much of them. In fact, I didn't realise I'd seen them supporting Skunk Anansie in Liverpool (in 1999 I think) until a friend pointed this out a year or so later. But since then they've become a favourite, especially live, which might strike some as being a wee but ironic.

Like quite a few bands around that time, the first time I heard their stuff properly was on the dance-floor of Sophienclub in 2000 after four (or more) beers. 'Showbiz', and the anthemic guitars of 'Sunburn' and 'Muscle Museum' in particular offered something new, even if they came enclosed in the worst album cover in decades.

Being a three man band is always difficult; either one runs out of ideas (like the Stereophonics) or you flirt with additional band members a la Supergrass and Ash. But Muse have still managed to come up with tight, energetic rock with the odd flushes of punk as well as mad classical pianos. The sort of music you play very loud when you're driving. So what you might say? How about "difficult second album syndrome"? What of it; simply come up with the 'Newborn', 'Bliss', 'Plug In Baby' and the like instead. The cover of 'Feeling Good' was a particularly nice touch too.

Muse are frequently accused of overblown and self-important pretentiousness. I say, sod it. You need a bit of excitement now and then. In any case, when they play live, this pretentiousness comes across well. The full-throttle rock of 'Plug In Baby' at dusk, with a backdrop of a lightning storm over a Reading stage? Yes please! Oasis following on was a letdown in comparison (or so people told me). They've even made a gig in Portsmouth entertaining.

Nevertheless, I still go through phases with Muse. The pomposity can get overwhelming at times; there are only so many times you can hear Matt Bellamy's banshee screams among the general hysteria. Still, you only have to hear the opening bars and military beat of 'Sunburn' to realise that they're a special band.

And to think that people once regarded them as just “the next Radiohead”.

… ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’ – The Magic Band (Skif)

… or how I stopped worrying and finally understood Captain Beefheart’s more avant-garde material. Perhaps this is a shameful admission but while I took to Don Van Vliet’s Mojave-inspired desert blues with its subtle polyrhythms pretty much straightaway, it did take me a long while to fully get my swede around the more free-jazz stylings of Trout Mask Replica. I didn’t hear the similar-in-ethic follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby until recently, due it being the only Beefheart LP that hasn’t been fully re-issued, but again I imagine I would have found it difficult to love, at least initially.

After those LPs, Van Vliet decided he’d had enough of being acclaimed but poor and headed in the direction of mainstream rock, producing two albums about as essential as the Leo Sayer compilations that should soon be flooding the market. Returning to form with three fine LPs before retiring from music to life as a painter of the American landscape, Beefheart’s legacy lives long in the realm of alternative culture.

However, this is a double entry for M quite deliberately, for I am talking about The Magic Band’s recent reunion sans the Captain and, particularly, their instrumental exhibition of the radiant ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’. The “reunion” could easily have been a disaster, particularly as the four members came from different eras of the ever-shape-shifting Magic Band and had never played as a unit prior to 2003. Nonetheless, between them they brought experience of virtually all the variant album line-ups into one cohesive unit paying tribute not only to Van Vliet’s music, but to their part in its conception and execution.

One of the most startling things about the contemporary Magic Band was the strength of drummer John “Drumbo” French’s vocal performance, but also that about a third of the set was allowed to breathe as instrumentals with Drumbo in his more traditional position; on the stool battering out startling patterns while Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston’s physique oscillated in time with his extraordinary bass lines and Denny Whalley held things together more subtly on stage left, letting the lunar notes not just float, but take flight.

The thing that captured me most, possibly because on both occasions I have seen them (at Highbury Garage in 2004 and Liverpool Carling Academy in 2005) I have been standing on the side of the stage taken by Gary “Mantis” Lucas, was the complexity of the composition. His fingerwork really was a treat to watch and, I guess, seeing it all come together in a live setting made it all click into place, particularly on ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’ with its twitch and jerk-back guitar motif, which managed to lock me in completely, forcing my body into allsorts of semi-random jolts. Filled with a heat, a passion, but also an intricacy that is the meeting of science and serendipity, this performance made me view musicianship with more than my usual respect; y’see, this was quite awesome. I am no ‘Classic Guitar’-reading muso, but listening to Trout Mask Replica or indeed the Grow Fins box-set of out-takes from those sessions is no longer a dutiful chore, it is a reminder of how rewarding music can be.

(My interview with John French can be viewed here.)

* * * * *

Halfway through, then, and this just might be the best week yet. Thanks to Del, drmigs, Caskared, Swiss Toni, Paul, Pete and Skif for their contributions this time around.