Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: W

W is for …

… Scott Walker (Swiss Toni)

I think it would be fair to say that I like thousands of different songs by hundreds of different artists. If my iPod is any kind of indicator, then I have something like 6500 songs by 637 artists and spread across 607 albums. But how many of those songs would I say that I absolutely loved? Hmm. It’s a tough question. How many of those 600-odd artists would I say were truly great? A few? Several? Certainly not many.

For me, two artists stand head and shoulders above the rest and have dominated the soundtrack to my life. The first is easy: Morrissey was in THE BAND THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING and single-handedly rescued me from a lifetime of dodgy heavy metal (from the W’s alone: Warrant, Warrior Soul, Wolfsbane… see what I mean?)

The second artist is perhaps less obvious – well, he’s only recorded three albums in the last 22 years, for starters… Just by way of comparison, Tupac Shakur has released nine albums since his death in 1996.

Prolific he ain’t, but Scott Walker is still my hero.

I think I first became aware of the music of Scott Walker in 1993, fully 30 years after his heyday in The Walker Brothers. I suppose, if pushed, I could probably have identified ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More’ or ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, but beyond that I was almost completely ignorant of the man and his music. It’s Mark Preston that I need to thank: a mature student (well, he was 25, so he seemed mature to me) on my course who used to pop up to my radio show on the university station of a Sunday evening. As well as passing pithy judgement on the songs I chose (Manic Street Preachers were always “Welsh heavy metal” as far as Mark was concerned), he would occasionally convince me to play one of his records.

I think the first Walker track he encouraged me to play was ‘The Seventh Seal’.

It’s the voice that grabs you first: a majestic, honeyed, mellifluous baritone – instantly recognisable and totally unmatchable. It’s only later that you realise that this gorgeous voice is telling you a tale of a knight playing chess with Death for his life and losing, and it’s later still that you realise that this is a story based upon the Bergman film of the same name. I was hooked.

Here’s the thing: before he started singing songs about existentialism and death, Scott Walker was a teen idol. He had been in the biggest boy band of his era and yet he chose to escape from this adulation and to walk a different path. I can’t really think of a modern parallel, although I’m told that Brian McFadden comes closest… Or perhaps Charlie from Busted.

Walker’s most recent albums make few concessions for the listener but I never get the sense that this is because he is deliberately trying to alienate his audience. I think it’s because Walker is an artist and he is chasing his muse wherever it takes him. The man has got integrity and for me that’s something to be celebrated and to be cherished. I just hope he never reads my first impressions of The Drift...

… Warp Records (Caskared)

Warp are pretty huge now, and I wish I could say I was into their stuff from the beginning, but I can’t because I was only ten when they founded in 1989 – but they still felt like a secret when I discovered them in the mid 90s. The first few bands I was aware of were Sabres Of Paradise, Stereolab and Nightmares On Wax – weirdy hard plink-plonking sounds from underground. At art-school Warp was a byword for supercool with Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Plaid, Boards Of Canada and the like being an essential part of any self-respecting art student’s playlist. Warp nights toured universities and were frequented by both the happy house crowd and the indie kids, with both factions being surprised by the other’s presence, each claiming Warp as their own. Imagine ‘West Side Story’ but with more asymmetrical haircuts and baggy band T-shirts.

One of Warp’s founding principles was to treat dance music like the indie labels did, allowing musicians to develop and to take the label in whatever the direction goes rather than the other way round. This approach has nurtured so many bands resulting in a really rich catalogue of influential acts. Warp take chances and have diversified musically – a prime example was them taking on Maximo Park (straight from my art history class).

The videos for Warp artists have become essential viewing and they really invested in animators and film directors for the right outcome. Just to mention Aphex Twin once more, the videos for ‘Come To Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ are frightening and brilliant, so much so that the former was banned from various stations. Warp naturally moved into film in 2003; their first release ‘My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117’, featuring an incredible performance by Paddy Considine and written by Chris Morris, is as menacing and mighty as any Warp record. It won a BAFTA and is the sort of short film that could only be made with a freedom and belief from its backers.

… watching (Skif)

As much as it is sound that draws you in, we need live gigs to complete that picture, to see our heroes in 3-D flesh and get properly hectic in response to their sounds in the company (very close, and sometimes wildly aggressive elbow-flinging, company) of like minded souls. I wonder how many people have married on the basis of meeting at a gig. Furthermore, I wonder how many have divorced later citing “musical differences”. If I took my indiepop loving lady to some of the more esoteric, grimy gigs I go to, well… In these cases, of course, I just don’t invite her. Everybody wins.

When I was young, I derided the old bastards at the back for not getting amongst it, but to paraphrase, “a person who doesn’t mosh in their teens doesn’t have a heart, but a person who does as they’re nearing 30 (and beyond) doesn’t have a head, a job to get up for in the morning or an ability to assuage their fondness for little light frottage on the fly”.

So, you’ll gather, I don’t mosh so much these days, apart from when it’s Cardiacs, but I’m still fairly young in that crowd. Elsewhere, amongst the sparkly teenagers in the centre of the action, my increasingly wrinkly mush wouldn’t fit, and the rest of my body just isn’t fit. I hope said young-uns taking on my teenage baton of scorn towards the apathetic can take my pacy, slapdash hack scribbling at the back as a sign of being with them in spirit. These days, my gig-going is dictated by the desire to see something new, rather than to affirm my feelings for those bands I already know, but I can still excited by seeing the old favourites. Seeing The Magic Band certainly embossed my forearms with vivid goose-bumps.

Why do gigs have this effect? I guess it’s because we want to see it being made, to be able to look people in the eyes, just to make sure they are not faking, although I imagine being at THAT Milli Vanilli gig would have been quite memorable regardless. I think we also go with the idea that something unexpected could occur, and we want to have been there if it does.

Back to Cardiacs again, over the years at their London annual events, surprises have been a regular occurrence. One year, after going off, the encore began with a spotlight hitting two ex-members stood silently and majestically like Gilbert & George in the centre of the stage before they assimilated back into the band for a glorious quarter hour. Another year, they finished one song, dropped their instruments, support band Oceansize ran on, picked them up and played a note-perfect version of the ‘Acs ‘Eat It Up Worms Hero’, then they promptly ran off, in a hectic do-se-do, to be replaced by our heroes as if nothing had happened. Perfect.

I also love going to Fall shows just to watch what Mark E Smith does when he’s not wailing and drawling into a mic (that’s usually on a lead wrapped around his wrist and held to the side of his mouth, looking a though he’s trying to bite off a troublesome end piece of a Toblerone without spearing a nostril). Usually he’ll wander about fiddling with his bandmates’ amps or crashing down a fist on his wife’s keyboard. She once called it “live mixing”; I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard. The first time I saw them, at Phoenix ’96, he spent about five minutes before contributing to a song searching around in a plastic carrier bag for lyric notes before approaching the mic, screwing up the paper and tossing it on the floor. You maybe had to be there, but it was classic.

Then there are always the words of wisdom between songs. Billy Bragg is usually good value for this. One of his shows, particularly when it’s just him and a guitar, is part GMB Extraordinary General Meeting, part hustings and part stand-up show, between which is the occasional tune. Although I remember another occasion, when playing with the Blokes, that for their final encore tune of ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’, the band would finish the chorus, drop their instruments, run round the back of the stage, and then hastily pick up their instruments to do the chorus again, but faster, and faster, and this went on for a fair while. Good fun though.

When I went to see Whigfield deliver a PA (about eight years after the fact) at the University of Surrey out of curiosity while visiting a mate, she finished her set by essentially offering her non-vocal charms to any willing freshers. As I say, you never know what you are going to get with a live gig, and that’s why I keep on going.

… Watford (Jez)

If you could choose anywhere you like, where would you like to have been born? Maybe you’re from Liverpool and you grew up immersed in the legacy of The Beatles and regularly went upstairs at Eric’s. Perhaps you are from Manchester and smile at the reminiscent memories when you hear New Order and try to remember those sweaty nights at the Hacienda. Even London, dizzy London, any era is home to pop history, from the 100 Club to The Good Mixer and beyond. Bloody hell, even Wigan is the stuff of music legend.

However, my home town doesn’t possess such a legacy. Well, not in my eyes anyway. Watford has a population of around 80,000; not small, but not the bright lights and the deep smog. Suburbs have often been a hotbed for talent; not Watford though, at least not in my opinion. Unless you count Elton John, George Michael and, ahem, Geri Halliwell. I don’t really. I like some of George Michael’s stuff but it doesn’t say anything about a time and place that I know. I can understand why he’d want to forget the place though.

There was only one club worth going to, the New Penny. Dark, dingy, smelly and full of atmosphere. It was our holy grail, but it didn’t produce one decent band, and I’m including the bloke out of Gene picking his nose by the bar. It was razed years ago to build a shopping centre which sometimes features in ‘EastEnders’.

Perhaps Watford just wasn’t meant to produce a thrilling, vibrant band who encapsulate a fleeting feeling. Perhaps the coffee table music it has so effectively produced is actually representative of the area. Or perhaps, there’s a garage somewhere in Watford where some scrawny little kids are about to enliven people’s lives. Just perhaps.

… The White Birch – Codeine (Ben)

In the last ever episode of ‘Father Ted’, Craggy Island Parochial House becomes a temporary refuge for Father Kevin, a suicidal priest whom Father Ted and co are charged with nursing back to full health. Eventually cured of his depression by Ted playing him ‘Theme From Shaft’, Kevin leaves for the mainland on a bus with a big grin on his face – a grin which drains away when the bus driver opts to put on Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’. The truth is it could have been much worse for poor Kevin; it could have been Codeine.

As is the case with so many bands, Codeine’s story began in New York around 1989 when bassist / vocalist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw got together to record a demo. And what a demo it was: a nine-minute-long version of ‘Without You’, the Badfinger song made famous by Harry Nilsson. You know the one: “I can't live if living is without you / I can't live, I can't give any more”. The band’s choice of cover was both a (perhaps inadvertent) tribute to the song’s co-writers Peter Ham and Tom Evans, who both hung themselves, and a clear statement of intent, encapsulating what Codeine would be all about: absence, emptiness, despair.

That demo was enough to persuade Sub Pop to sign them up, and in early 1991 the Seattle label released the trio’s debut LP. Frigid Stars is ten tracks of unrelenting misery (well, nine – album closer ‘Pea’ is a bit of light relief, relatively speaking), and it’s brilliant. As the band’s name might suggest, it sounds like they’re playing under heavy sedation, or you’re listening under heavy sedation – or both. The sheer weight of the songs is staggering, the slow motion power chords raining down on your head as Immerwahr delivers his lugubrious lines spoken word style. ‘Cave In’ and its crashing chorus is the highlight: “This is a cave in / I’d said I’d stay”. Bleak doesn’t come close.

But, of course, by the autumn of that year they and their album had been forgotten about amidst the feverish excitement surrounding another threepiece who’d been given their big break by Sub Pop.

Codeine stumbled on in relative obscurity. Mini-album Barely Real was released the following year, featuring ex Squirrel Bait and then Bastro member David Grubbs on piano. Then Brokaw jumped ship (more on him in three weeks’ time…), and Immerwahr and Engle had to audition for a new drummer. Engle commented: "It was like stepping on kittens. It was really hard watching them try to play at our speed”. Eventually Doug Scharin was recruited, their first outing with him on board being the single ‘Tom’ which again featured Grubbs, now of Gastr Del Sol and this time on guitar.

1994 – incidentally, the year when Mariah Carey released her own saccharine-coated take on Nilsson’s ‘Without You’ – saw the appearance of The White Birch, on which there’s even more of a sense of the songs gradually unfolding and unfurling in space. Silence is as important to the texture as sound. As dissonant guitars howl and fade, the yawning gaps between drum beats are so lengthy as to become abysses and to make you wonder whether Scharin has nodded off.

The song titles – ‘Vacancy’, ‘Washing Up’ – hint at a very domestic mundanity. But “vacancy” refers as much to an existential condition as to an empty room-to-let or an unfilled position. And the ominous piano and unsettling chorus of ‘Washing Up’ – “Things keep washing up” – suggests it’s not about the misery of doing the dishes. Perhaps the simple title of the opening track sums it up best: ‘Sea’. The White Birch is barren and threatening, and you’re never quite sure what lurks beneath the surface – but it nevertheless has a stark and mysterious beauty that’s quite unforgettable.

The White Birch was Codeine’s last record. Almost without realising it, it seems, they broke down and drifted apart. Perhaps the weight of the songs finally became too much. Scharin went on to play with Rex, June Of ’44 and HiM (NB HMV shop assistants - the jazzy post-rock outfit NOT the goth band), and Codeine passed into legend.

And legendary they are. Together with Galaxie 500, Low and Bedhead they were founder members of the “slowcore” movement that has proved so influential on the likes of Mogwai and post-rock.

So, if you’re not acquainted with them, check them out. Just don’t do it if you’re a fictional Irish priest and have just recovered from a bout of depression.

… The White Stripes (drmigs)

So I'd well and truly taken my eye off the ball with all matters music, even though my flatmate Herr Nash was a muso, so too Captain Vinny (the landlord), and Damien across the road, and Caskared around one corner and Funky Si around the other. I was dabbling in music, but only dabbling, and then I heard this:

"I was watching / With one eye on the other side / I had fifteen people telling me to move / I got moving on my mind / I found shelter / In some thoughts turning wheels around / I said 39 times that I love you / To the beauty I had found / Well it’s 1 2 3 4 / Take the elevator / At the Hotel Yorba / I'll be glad to see you later / All they got
inside is vacancy

To be honest, ‘Hotel Yorba’ hit me square between the eyes. It sounded so fresh. Puppy like enthusiasm followed, as I was eager to share this great find - only to find out that yes they had all heard it … six months earlier when it had been released. It reminded me what else I'd probably been missing too. But not to worry, I'd discovered me something good, and what followed was a near obsession with The White Stripes for a good year or so.

What I really like about the White Stripes is the rawness to their music. It very much follows the “do what you need and no more” principle that I respect. It mainly does this by letting the various components of the music be prominent during their playtime; and that includes the silence. I love the bit (1m 52s) into 'The Union Forever' where all that is needed is a beat, so all that Meg does is tap her drumsticks together for 29 sec. Simple, and effective.

The style they default to is for all instruments to play synchronously on the beat, with silence between the notes. When the bass guitar does dominate, it’s often only for a verse or two, then it's back to the stock top hat abuse. It's as if they've listened to some thrash metal, and when the song has got right to the end, when all the musicians are slamming their instrument for all they're worth, Meg and Jack and gone "That's it, that's the sound we want! Let’s base our music on those last four notes".

The asset of this format is versatility. They have the license to explore beautiful gems like 'We Are Going To Be Friends' alongside the more structured raw-rock pieces such as the awesome 'Seven Nation Army'. However, the danger of this format is that with each new song they become a pastiche of their former selves. Indeed, criticism that their format is tired has been levelled at their later work. But I don't subscribe to the argument that they are past it. 'My Doorbell' on Get Behind Me Satan is a great song, so too is 'Little Ghost.' They still have variety and originality. And what better rebuttal than to offer the alternative, Jack's new project, The Raconteurs. For me, The Raconteurs offer little of the imagination and flair that The White Stripes offer (even if their website is geektastic). No, forget what it was like to hear The White Stripes for the first time, and just enjoy their music for what it is, raw imaginative rock.

… ‘The Wicker Man’ soundtrack (James)

I am not normally a great lover of movie soundtracks. There are some exceptions: John Barry had some spectacular moments, Ennio Morricone had plenty. Honourable mentions are due to Popol Vuh’s beautiful soundtracks to Werner Herzog’s finest movies, especially ‘Heart of Glass’ (‘Coeur De Verre’), and Michael Nyman’s scores to the Peter Greenaway’s 80s output are essential listening in my book. I recently heard Stanley Myers’ soundtrack to ‘Sitting Target’, which, when it gets going, is truly mighty (even though it is only 20 minutes long). However, if I was to pick a favourite it would have to be Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack to the cult-classic (a term unusually justified on both counts), ‘The Wicker Man’.

I am going to assume that you have all seen the movie. (If not, stop reading this now and go and watch it.) You will all be familiar with the film’s unease as Sgt Howie is drawn in on Lord Summerisle’s fateful wild goose chase. One of the underlying features of the film is the inversion of the orthodox Christian as intrusive, backward and insecure, contrasted to the freedom and earthy joyfulness of the pagan Summerisle.

The soundtrack captures this latter mood perfectly. All the tracks – especially the number of faux Scottish folk songs that populate the album – are playful and literally full of the joys of spring. The opener ‘Corn Rigs’ regales us with a tale of seduction amidst bales of corn and barley. This is followed by ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ – a tune that begs you to sing along in this paean to the aforementioned. This is a song made all the more discomforting in the film by the joining in of her father – the landlord himself. ‘Gently Johnny’ gives the account of a boy’s first time, and the enthusiastic tutoring of his mate. And so the soundtrack goes on.

One might be forgiven for dismissing the album as a folksy smut-fest – something akin to the cast of Bagpuss singing Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson songs. Two things separate it from this fate. First, the care and diligence in the construction and arrangement of these songs. No song demonstrates this more than ‘Willow’s Song’. The lyrics are predictable – “Oh, how a maid might milk a boy…”, but it is the music that lifts these sentiments from mere pervy-folk to serendipitous beauty. The tender acoustic fingering of a simple chord progression, the increasing beat of the rhythm, the delicate yet insistent violin, along with lyres, recorders and bassoons, all create a tidal pull of seduction - a piece of sensuous beauty that only the cold-blooded could resist.

The second quality that makes this album stand out is the slow march of darkness. As sure as summer is followed by winter and birth is followed by death, these songs of reproductive bliss are followed by the mournful yet exultant ‘Sumer Is A-Cumen In’. This processional march, based upon a genuinely traditional piece, is slow and ponderous, and remains so even when the beats quicken. It breaks into the song towards the end, which has a malevolent deliberateness about it despite the pastoral imagery it evokes. This is enhanced by the heavy bass drum and woozy bassoon, before it culminates in Sgt Howie’s realisation of his fate and his call on an absent saviour. Knowing the end of the film just adds the shock of this finale.

A good soundtrack should evoke the spirit of the movie it is born from. ‘The Wicker Man’ achieves this perfectly. And so it is my favourite. Although I wonder what might have happened had the letter for the week been G and my eye alighted on ‘Grease’…

… John Williams (Paul)

A couple of months ago, I was driving up the A1 to Newcastle when a piece of music came on the radio.

"Da da da dah dah, di da di di dah, di da di di dah, di da di da. Da da da dah dah, di da di di dah, di da di di dah, di da di dah..."

Suddenly the A1 isn't a road winding its way through North Yorkshire, it's a trench on the side of the Death Star, and I'm whizzing along in my small Nissan X-Wing. That piece of music captured my imagination and took me to another place, allowing me to enjoy my journey north that bit more for a few minutes.

The composer of that piece of music, and a whole raft of others, is the most successful composer of film soundtracks in movie history. His name is John Williams, and with 45 nominations to his credit to date, he is second on the all-time Oscar list to Walt Disney.

A list of his work can be found here, but for me the two that really stand out are the aforementioned ‘Star Wars’ theme, and this one, which I hear every time I swim in the sea:

"Da… dum... Da… dum... Da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da DAH".

… Wir Sind Helden (Pete)

… and other German bands. Wait! Come back! With the World Cup rapidly approaching, it's about time someone stuck up for German music. You see, despite what you might have been led to believe, it's not all about the 'Hoff making it to #1 (for six weeks running) and men in oompah bands quaffing beer at the Oktoberfest. Honest. In fact, there are quite a few good bands out there.

The first few time I DJed in Berlin I had the occasional request for German indie bands. My initial reaction to this was similar to that of Dr Statham in 'Green Wing': "Hmmm? What? German? Music? Hmmm?", and to stick on another Stone Roses record. But thanks to a fellow DJ and a like-minded colleague I was shown the light. So for the bolder of you out there, here's a brief introduction to a few German bands.

The first band I came across was Sportfreunde Stiller, the Munich threepiece, whose output is admittedly hit and miss, but have came up a with a few songs that are simply genius. 'Heimatlied' is one, while 'Wunderbaren Jahren' is the organ-driven and most happiest piece of guitar pop since The Supernatural's 'Smile'. Intrigued, I wanted to know more.

I was next introduced to Wir Sind Helden; led by the slightly delectable Judith Holofernes, they're the archetypical Berlin band. Youngish, energetic and part of the "Szene". Their best song to date is 'Aurélie', 3m 33s about a French girl's hunt for a German boyfriend in a city of confirmed singletons that blended Strokes-like guitars with a wit rarely seen elsewhere, the UK and USA included. I like to think of them as a sort of German Rilo Kiley.

However, Wir Sind Helden are very much newcomers compared to the highly influential Tocotronic, the last band I'll mention for now. In existence since 1993, they're very much the grandfathers of the current German indie scene, but nevertheless dislike being included in any musical movement such as the so-called "Hamburg School". This might be simplifying matters somewhat, but with their downbeat but original (in a good way) and constantly developing sound, I regard them as a sort of German Blur, although some of their song titles hint towards a humour that Damon lacks. I can highly recommend their eighth album Tocotronic.

So there you go, if you've got a spare tenner and / or you're feeling adventurous, you know what to look for. I'll save my thoughts on German hip-hop for another day though. Lucky you.

… www (Del)

We all knew the deal. Musical revolutions, one roughly ever 11 years. ‘55 was rock ‘n’ roll, ‘66 was psychedelia, ‘77 was punk, ‘88 was acid house, and then... nothing. At the turn of the millennium, every minor twist on an established genre was seized upon by the music press as THE revolution, the new new, but it was all false. Everyone scratched their heads, looking around in bewilderment as 2000 came and went and anticlimax became the norm. But everyone had missed the real revolution that snuck in without the industry's permission and changed music in a way only comparable with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll itself nearly 50 years beforehand.

Mp3. I first heard the word at a friend's house while I was still at school in 1998. Being interested in computers and music and using the two together on my Amiga, I already knew that storing sound files in CD quality on a computer used a hell of a lot of space. But my mate had a library of tracks sat on his hard disk. "How did you do that?", I asked him, and then, being even geekier than I, he blinded me with science... "They're compressed, it's a new way of encoding music as mpegs so it's about a tenth of the size, like with jpeg files" "Oh... Cool". And forgot all about it. I didn't own a PC. What did I care?

A year or so later, at uni, I did get a PC. And I started to care a lot. Trouble was, making mp3s was time-consuming and slow, ripping the audio off a CD and then compressing it. It could literally take hours. But then you had a library of all your tracks, instantly accessible. Pretty nifty! So far, so geeky. The music industry correctly assumed it was just nerds like me showing off, but then someone went and invented Napster. And everything changed again.

Music theft was rife, people swapped songs freely across international borders and respect for CDs and copyright disappeared. Nothing seemed sacred. The formerly inaccessible or unavailable was almost instantly downloadable. On a slow 52k modem connection, it could take 20 minutes to get a track. Then the internet got faster... and faster... and faster... And the music industry crapped itself and ran to the courts. Metallica sued their own fans. Manics drummer Sean Moore got banned from Napster for downloading his own record. Everyone in the biz resurrected the "Home taping is killing music" mantra from the 80s, blew the dust off it, and used it as an excuse to drop all the shit bands they'd signed at the height of Britpop absurdity. But it wasn't until Apple launched the iPod and then iTunes that it really broke out of college dorm rooms and into the mainstream, and by then it was more or less legit. Most normal people were too lazy to take the convoluted routes to get the track illegally for free, they just paid for it. The industry had more or less tamed the beast.

But not without changing the way we buy, and even the way we think of music forever. The single, long dead, has been reborn, with Gnarls Barkley storming to #1 on downloads alone, and, more importantly, staying there. As I write this, it's still atop the UK Singles Chart. On the flipside, albums are becoming less important, as the fillers are being left on the virtual shelf. Music distribution is more democratic, with sites like MySpace giving unsigned and obscure acts a place to be heard. People are becoming more eclectic in their tastes, sticking their mp3 player on shuffle at letting chaos theory decide what they hear. The revolution was not in the music, but the means of production, and it has hugely effected the way we consume the music we love.

And, for me a real sad note, the mix tape is dead. A CDR just ain't the same...

* * * * *

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

Tune in next week for what should be some fairly inventive pieces...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: V

V is for …

… Van Halen – ‘Jump’ (drmigs)

So I had this week's entry sorted a while ago. I was all set to write about The Velvet Underground [Good thing you didn’t!] and how they nursed me through dropping out of uni due to illness. It was going to be easy as it's a fairly memorable period of my life. However, plans changed when I turned up at the race I did on Saturday morning. As I approached the assembly area it was chilly and raining, I was still full of last night’s takeaway, and Rioja was still boogieing through my temples. I wasn't sure I wanted to be there. Then all of a sudden, there was Darth Vader, head-banging to ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. Of course I was in the right place. (I don't know why, but oddly, this ‘Stars Wars’ out-takes scene was somehow the perfect preparation for the run to come.)

‘Jump’ just makes me laugh. Not for the song itself, but for the strange hold it has over people. Can it really be that easy to make people do all those strange things with their bodies? It seems to have an uncanny knack of pushing people’s dyspraxia buttons. As a result, every ten-bob disco – from "Dave's Wicked Disco" to "Club Jake" (ah bollocks, that's me in trouble) – must, by contract, play ‘Jump’ as part of their opening sequence of songs. It's just the rules

But this rule doesn't just apply for the amateur DJ, the same rule applies for the professionals. Step forward Edith Bowman. Nervous about her first set at Glastonbury, Colin Murray tanked her up with some vodka flavoured Dutch courage (when I say some, I mean a lot), and convinced her that ‘Jump’ was the only responsible track to play. So at two in the afternoon, with ‘Jump’ playing at full volume, there was the magical voice-over radio of Edith getting angry / paranoid at Colin, and Colin giggling his head off whilst describing the two crusties in the corner working off their chemicals and dancing for Somerset. It's just that sort of song.

Yes, it's not big, and yes it's not clever. For Christ's sake… it's called ‘Jump’! But there's a ubiquity to it that means for some reason I can't let V go by without it being mentioned. For it to permeate all walks of music events, from Glasto to wicked discos to charity runs, then damn it, it only seems natural to let it permeate The Art Of Noise. As I said before, it's just that sort of song.

… Jean Claude Vannier (James)

This criminally unknown composer should possibly be as important as Morricone, Nyman, and Barry. The principle reason for this is that he is probably best described as an arranger, and so has remained in background, while the stars – Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, Jonny Holliday – have basked in the glory.

Take L’Histoire De Melody Nelson, for instance. This is, without doubt, Serge Gainsbourg’s finest hour (amongst many fine hours, let it be said), but it is Vannier who gave the LP the weird, cool charm that has caused such veneration. Those strings, which seem to pour in from another planet: Vannier. The eerie chorus on ‘Cargo Culte’ that captures perfectly the peculiarity of Melody’s demise: Vannier. Listen, in case you think I deride the genius of Gainsbourg: he is a musical saint in my eyes; but it is Vannier that catapults this work into the stratosphere.

Or check out Gainsbourg’s work on soundtracks: ‘Cannabis’, for instance. Each track is lovingly constructed out of rock’s remnant parts, creating a decadent, murky world. For all the joy of Gainsbourg’s melodies and listening to Jane Birkin moan – as she did so well – again it is Vannier who brings the work to life. Strings, early keyboards, guitars; each take turns to push the mood higher. Listen to ‘Avant De Mourir’ and you will hear every trick that Air ever knew. It predates some of the best elements of prog rock without whispering “pomposity”.

Even Jane Birkin’s solo work, which can be slight and a little too lighter-than-light, is given a greater range of textures thanks to Vannier’s input. Birkin was always Gainsbourg’s muse, and so many of his conceits are on full display. But here again, notice the slightly-too-insistent strings on ‘C’est La Vie Qui Vent Ca’, the slightly inappropriate drum, the guitar work. This is Vannier’s influence.

The real jewel, however, is the recently re-released CD of his only LP (to my knowledge) L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches on the genius Finders Keepers label. It is nearly impossible how good this CD is – and it was released in 1972! It has pretty much everything that is good about rock music in the 70s. It is funky, scary, melodic, discordant, silly, terrifying with a palette as broad as China. It has heavy riffage with glockenspiel backing, choirs that pour through the cracks in the music like hands pushing through the walls in Polanski’s repulsions, atmospheric sounds (cigarettes being lit, footsteps, water pouring through drains, pool tables etc) that give the LP a cinematic feel. It has Gainsbourg reading the story, industrial shrieks, and some kid who apparently is the child assassin of the flies jabbering away in French. It has gorgeous strings and pianos that effortlessly glide into truly frightening soundscapes that could form the soundtrack to some lost Jodorowsky masterpiece, which in turn make way for some jaunty tunes that could have been the theme tune for some Polish kids cartoon circa 1967. I could go on.

If you do nothing else with the rest of your lives, go and buy this CD.

… vantage points (Jez)

How many times have you been to a gig and been unhappy with your view? I suppose a lot depends on how tall you are. I’ve never really had a problem with that but I now see things through different eyes. I’m about 6’2” but my girlfriend isn’t, anything but in fact. She reliably informs me she is 5’2”, oh, and a half. How come there’s always a half when people aren’t happy about something? She won’t read this so I can inform you she has a Lilliputian passport. So now my gig going experience involves finding vantage points.

No longer can I just turn up with two pints of “lager” in my fists and enjoy the gig. I now have to reconnoitre the venue imagining I’m Ronnie Corbett. Balconies have taken the place of the middle of the room and the hustle and bustle of other people tall enough to see. We have to get to the venue early, see the end of the supporting set and wait until people leave their vantage points, then pounce. Then we hang on like limpets. It’s all so undignified. I’m now expert in watching roadies set up. At least she gets to see the gig though.

I heard a new twist on this dilemma the other day. Swiss Toni, who’s a good 3” taller than me, says he actually feels guilty for blocking people’s views at gigs. Not only is he taller, but he also has a much higher moral standing. Suddenly I feel I need that extra half of something.

… The Velvet Underground (Swiss Toni)

What can I tell you about The Velvet Underground? Has there been any other band that has been anywhere near as influential as The VU and sold as few records? The Velvet Underground & Nico (the album with the famous Warhol banana artwork) is frequently acclaimed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Suspend your scorn of polls and lists for a minute; in 1998, the readers of Q magazine voted it the 71st greatest album of all time. In 2003, VH1 ranked it at 19th. Rolling Stone placed it at 13th. I know these polls are nonsense and were probably all topped by Radiohead, but I think we can probably at least all agree that The Velvet Underground & Nico was pretty cutting-edge for 1966.

It must have been; in spite of the patronage of David Bowie (who apparently loved the record so much that he stood on the street handing out copies to passers-by) it only charted at 171 in the Billboard chart, and took some 25 years to go gold. That’s quite some achievement. Mind you, the subject matter of some of those songs would still raise eyebrows today. Can you imagine the tabloid apoplexy if Pete Doherty released a song like ‘Heroin’ or ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ (assuming anyone could recover from the shock that his meagre talent had managed to produce a song so good)? What about the, er, “alternative lifestyle” described in ‘Venus In Furs’? Surely it’s the great Conservative party anthem that never was…

Actually, good though that album is, I don’t think this is their best – I prefer 1968s The Velvet Underground. But look. I’m not going to go on about the history of the VU. You can go check that out for yourself at Wikipaedia. Let me tell you instead about my experience of the band…

Of course, The VU acrimoniously broke up long before I was born, but I was lucky enough to be at Glastonbury in 1993 when the reformed band with the classic line-up (Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker) was headlining the Pyramid stage.

Who could pass up a once in a lifetime opportunity like that? The festival had already been good to me – I had seen the myriad delights of acts like The Kinks, Van Morrison, Verve (back in the days before they had a definite article), Orbital, Lenny Kravitz, Dodgy… Some of the greats. This would be the icing on the cake.

So what did I do? I went to go and watch Suede instead – then in the middle of that heady period around the release of their debut album. Suede were actually OK, and it remains the only time that I ever saw them play live… But with the best will in the world, they’re hardly likely to make it into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame any time soon, are they?

I did see The VU finishing off their set with a barnstorming version of ‘Venus in Furs’ as I trudged up the hill towards the farmhouse and my tent, so I suppose that TECHNICALLY I saw them playing live… But… Let’s just say that it wasn’t the best piece of festival decision-making I’ve ever made.

Whenever I think back to that night, I can’t help but kick myself. Hard.

Oh. And don’t think that seeing Lou Reed solo will be any kind of adequate substitute for passing up the opportunity of seeing one of the greatest ever bands. Let’s just say that it’s two hours of my life I will never get back…

… The Velvet Underground – ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ (Del)

Sex. Drugs. Rock. Roll. We know the roll call. Now, we all know that there's nothing more boring than listen to other people's drug stories, especially if, like me, you stubbornly decide not to indulge yourself. But for some reason, I can't get enough of artists wailing about their own personal addictions on record.

The very term “cool” was partially derived from jazz singers numbed by heroin addiction, and so it is. The dead eyes of The Velvet Underground are just about as iconic as rock gets. And this is wonderful itchy fidgety edgy anxious drug rock. One shot and you're hooked. So do I support the abuse of drugs in the pursuit of artistic endeavour? Of course. They take the drugs so I don't have to. It's all in the small print of that deal with the devil. Please stay just sane enough to actually produce some good music. Lovely. My conscience is clear, how's yours?

One time I was stood waiting for a lift. The doors opened and inside was Lou Reed. He looked completely fucked. But he was still Lou Reed.

… verdicts (Ben)

What is being a critic all about – apart from being pompous enough to label yourself as such and studiously trying to avoid cliché? Verdicts.

Making value judgements about music: everyone’s at it, from print journalists and fanzine writers to web magazine contributors, Amazon reviewers and bloggers like us.

The specialised use of the word “verdict” in a legal context is significant. Just as a judge or jury assesses the evidence and deliberates before reaching a conclusion, so do we gradually form an impression of an album that, once crystallised, can be delivered as a verdict. (Of course, in some cases it’s a shame, of course, that that verdict can’t be followed by a lengthy jail term for the perpetrators. Cue whimsical thoughts of Jamiroquai getting buggered in the showers...)

But the key question is: how long should one deliberate for? How long should an album be given to reveal its charms? How long should be allowed for its initial seductive gloss to tarnish? It seems to me, at least, that there’s a curious but unignorable psychological imperative to come to some kind of considered view as quickly as possible – which can result in verdicts that, with hindsight, are too gushing or too dismissive. In other words, there can be – and frequently are – miscarriages of justice.

The biggest danger, then, is the “first impressions” verdict. I’m sure Swiss Toni won’t mind me mentioning this, but he recently committed to the web his initial disappointment with Scott Walker's new album The Drift. Of course that verdict is contingent and subject to change – but the fact remains that first impressions, once spelt out, are difficult to overlook or surmount.

Pronouncing a premature verdict, then, can ultimately pervert the course of justice – as I know from personal experience. The one judgement that sticks in my mind is that of Sonic Youth’s last LP Sonic Nurse. Initially my enjoyment was tempered by the disappointment that it suggested – for the first time in their career – a certain stagnancy and creative inertia. And I committed myself to that verdict sufficiently to put it on my blog. A few weeks later, and I was rather sheepishly hailing it as brilliant, my favourite Sonic Youth album since Dirty.

Sometimes the process of re-evaluation – of earning a reprieve – can take place over a much longer period of time. My lukewarm verdict of The Icarus Line’s Penance Soiree upon release in 2004 has gradually been superseded by a passionate and enthusiastic attachment, one only cemented by January’s A-Z contribution on them.

Of course, miscarriages of justice can work both ways. There are some verdicts that I look back on and cringe. Sparta’s Wiretap Scars, for instance: a record I loved unreservedly in the year of its release, but one which – while still sounding impressive four years on – it was rather hyperbolic to hail as my Album Of The Year for 2002.

I guess that, if I’m honest, this whole contribution has been inspired by my current struggles to get to grips with Ten Silver Drops, the latest Secret Machines LP. Despite repeated listens I still can’t fathom it – or why I’m continuing to grant it more time. I may already have come to a kind of verdict – though that was a cowardly act of fence-sitting. How much longer will I give it? What will be my final verdict (if there is such a thing as a “final” set-in-stone verdict)? Who knows.

Of course, one response to all this is that I should try and escape this impulse to sit in judgement on everything and just enjoy it. But then reaching a verdict is half the fun, don’t you think?

… videos (Pete)

Music videos that is. There’s nothing more memorable than a good music video that’s witty or has some other redeeming feature, so it’s disappointing to still see so much guff out there on The Amp, MTV, E4 Music and the rest of them. Yes, by this I mean every boy-band ballad video, as well as most R ‘n’ B videos. After all, when you’ve seen one baggy-clothed muppet cavorting with skimpily-clad lasses on or in a high-end sports car, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Luckily, these videos never hang around for long, but nevertheless it still saddens me to see Channel 4 viewers vote ‘Thriller’ as the greatest pop video ever. People, it’s just Jacko with a group of dancing zombies in a sixteen- minute-long video. Seeing as so many of the great British public have chosen their favourite pop promo, it’s only fair that I mention a few of mine. Call it self-indulgent, but I can’t think of anything else for the letter V.

Electric Six - ‘Gay Bar’: You have to love the unabashed and tongue-in-cheek imagery of Abe Lincoln, leather and hamsters.

Aphex Twin - ‘Windowlicker’: The faces of two lasses morph into Richard James’ grinning visage. Brilliant, if not unforgettably disturbing, like most Aphex videos.

Doves - ‘Caught By The River’: Until I saw the video I didn’t really appreciate the song. Jimi and the boys play what is really quite a simple tune in a quite simple video, but somehow setting it in some mansion somewhere gives it some class and poignancy.

Basement Jaxx - ‘Where's Your Head At?’: Monkeys with faces of the DJs go mental in a lab and trash the place. Classic.

Blur - ‘Coffee & TV’: Great video of the little milk carton’s adventures while searching for a missing Graham Coxon.

Massive Attack - ‘Unfinished Sympathy’: The best of any “walking through a town” video including ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. The song is beautiful and is happily matched by the single take of Shara Nelson wandering through LA.

… Violator – Depeche Mode (Caskared)

I love this Depeche Mode album to bits! I love its mix of clinical electronica humanised by velvety vocals, I love its melodies and its delicious harmonies. I love its intelligence its spareness and building textures. I love its wry sampled noises. I love its pure moments and its sleazy ones too. I love its artwork. And I love even more what the band have done with the songs when I have seen them play live.

After a pure pop early 1980s the band descended into darkness with albums such as Black Celebration dealing with the sounds and subject matter of a guilty soul, songwriter Martin Gore. He’s the one with the platinum ‘fro and penchant for outlandish stage outfits. At the vanguard of electronic experimentation (and winners of the first Innovation award from Q magazine) playing the same sound twice was verboten for several albums, sampling anything and everything including the car engine in ‘Stripped’. By the time they recorded Violator in Milan, London, New York and Denmark, they had already conquered America and been at the top of their game for half a decade. They produced it with Daniel Miller and Flood, which undoubtedly brought a claustrophobic freshness to the mix.

Violator begins with the cover. A single red rose stands against a black abyss with the sweetly handwritten word “Violator”. Anton Corbijn created this iconic image to neatly show the veneer of beauty, the thorny suffering, and the fusion of nature and artifice that make the Mode great. I love a bit of pretension in my pop.

‘World In My Eyes’ opens with one line of synthesiser jauntily making its way to be joined with another synth line, soon clicking complex rhythms begin and Dave Gahan enters. Artificial strings swell, more layers, warm backing vocals from Gore, and more interlacing rhythms showing listeners the world of Violator.

There are so many treats in this album I’ll try to be brief. ‘Sweetest Perfection’ is one of the songs with Martin Gore on lead. His heartfelt croon is backed by samples of bird chirrups and marble runs in a play with stereo as the sounds veer from one speaker to the next. Gore also takes lead on ‘Blue Dress’, which has a viral intimacy.

‘Personal Jesus’, inspired by ‘Elvis And Me’ by Priscilla Presley, is anthemic and brilliant, even carrying off a breathy bridge. The band had vetoed traditional instruments and used to have a drum machine standing centre-stage in their early gigs. Violator saw them relaxing this law and ‘Personal Jesus’ actually using a real guitar.

‘Halo’ and vice-ridden ‘Policy Of Truth’ are of a similar vein to ‘World In My Eyes’ and ‘Waiting For The Night’ and the closing ‘Clean’ are with the ‘Sweetest Perfection’ thread of rolling, veiled, moody Mode.

But the absolute highlight is ‘Enjoy The Silence’. I adore it! (I can’t stand the remix, but never mind.) The opening bars are a joy, it has a samba momentum that loftily carries the song along to make it the most perfect piece of pop that I think I will sing along with into my dotage accompanied by the vision of Dave Gahan dressed as a king carrying a deckchair.

… Vivian Stanshall (Skif)

I’m a sucker for an eccentric, and they don’t come much more rainbow-coloured of mind than Vivian Stanshall. He hated the “eccentric” tag himself, saying that it suggested he was putting on an act. Whatever title you want to use though, Viv Stanshall was the real deal, a genuine one-off.

I guess the first “tune” of his I ever heard was his ‘Mr Cadbury’s Parrot’ jingle for the chocolate company’s Mini-Egg strand. When I went on the factory tour there, I noticed, in the section where they show a reel of Cadbury commercials over the decades, that it wasn’t present. A shame really as for all the others, aside from maybe the Flake one, I did require a memory jog. ‘Mr Cadbury’s Parrot’ has stayed in my head ever since my nipperhood, sat just alongside the Shake ‘N’ Vac and the medieval Ruddles ads. After reading reading his biography ‘Ginger Geezer’ many years later, it came as no surprise to me that Stanshall was also involved in the creation of the latter.

Both sets of adverts were heavily inspired by two of his most celebrated incarnations, the Mini-Eggs being a rework of The Bonzo Dog Band’s ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’, while the Ruddles story-boards were heavily influenced by Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, his surreal stories of upper class family life that were recorded as session vignettes for John Peel’s show in the 1970s and eventually ended up both in LP and film form.

Now I’ve have spent a lot of time talking about his involvements in commercials, and I should say this was merely a later by-product of his output, but it was the posthumous use of another of his tunes, ‘Canyons Of Your Mind’, on a cider ad that finally pushed me into investigating the Bonzos and Stanshall’s solo work. The Bonzo LPs Tadpoles and Keynsham filled in the gaps between the seemingly unrelated adverts that had lodged in my head like few others have been able.

That was Stanshall’s skill though; however far-fetched an idea, he could sell it with his deep leathery vocal tones that were as powerful as an orang-utang, and just as playful and comforting. One of the nation’s finest racontuers, he went about his story-telling in a richly witty manner, being as much about traditonal comedy, music hall and vaudeville as he was Monty Python-like intellectual surrealism. In short, he was the psychedelic Noel Coward.

As is often the case with keen minds such as his, he was prone to self-destruction, depression and alcohol addiction (he was big chums with Keith Moon) being present in several episodes of his vivid life. While living on a boat in the 1980s he had twice set himself alight and in the end it was another fire, recorded dubiously as “accidental death”, that took his life in 1995. John Peel said after Vivian’s death that he was “one of the few people I actually wanted to be”, while he could also count Stephen Fry, Paul Merton and Jarvis Cocker amongst his devotees.

Vivian Stanshall was a fascinating character who could embraced Dadaism as well as the culture of elder generations. He brought his own colours to British culture, and we really should treasure his memory.

Because he was totally hatstand of course, and not despite it.

… VW Camper Van (the strangest thing I’ve ever seen at a gig) (Paul)

It's summer 1999, and Glastonbury Festival is in full swing. The weather (for once) is holding firm. On the Other Stage, the Super Furry Animals’ fantastic set is drawing to a close, and whilst they've been onstage night has fallen. Traditional curtain call ‘The Man Don't Give A Fuck’ is just starting up, and the crowd are winding up for one last mass pogo.

Out of the corner of my eye, something grabs my attention.

Someone appears to be driving their VW Camper Van into the mosh.

Slowly, the van inches its way through the crowd before coming to a stop in line with the middle of the stage. Festival goers cling on to its side, illuminated against the dark night sky by the spot lights from the stage. Then, one person climbs out of the crowd and onto the van. Then another, then another. They start to dance - bouncing up and down on the roof (which starts to buckle under their weight).

People are now swarming onto the van, with many more clinging to it like drowning sailors to a piece of driftwood. I recognise my friend's afro hair silhouetted in the lights, as he desperately tries to climb onto the by-now swamped and badly buckled roof.

From inside the van, a large man climbs out of the cab and up onto the roof. Seemingly aggrieved at the horde of festival goers who have the audacity to climb onto his vehicle he pushes them back into the crowd. Defending his territory like a psychotic only child he finally launches the last overenthusiastic person back into the crowd, and stands defiant, daring anyone else to take him on.

At which point, the set ends (possibly cut slightly short due to safety concerns), and the crowd and van go their separate ways; festival goers with a story to tell, in some cases with a few new bruises to add to the collection; and the van, I suspect, requiring major repairs.

* * * * *

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

18 till I die

Out now, in paper 'n' print as well as on that there internet: issue #18 of Skif's Vanity Project fanzine. And my what goodness it contains...

Interviews: Autons

Album reviews: Mogwai, White Rose Movement, Soledad Brothers, Cat Power, Dakar & Grinser, Hefner, My Latest Novel, Saint Jude's Infirmary, Pete Dale & The Beta Males, Millionaire, Six. By Seven, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, Dawn Of The Replicants, Dilated Peoples, Charlie Parr, Jethro Tull

Single reviews: Be Your Own Pet, This Et Al, Autons, Lovemat

Live reviews: Manchester Vs Cancer, Ladytron, The Like, Shitdisco, White Rose Movement, Boy Kill Boy, Gogol Bordello

Fanzine reviews: Homelovin'

And much more besides - including a review of an album featuring twelve Swedish artists covering Haddaway's early 90s Eurodance favourite 'What Is Love?'... How can you resist? Visit the Vanity Project site for details of how to avail yourself of a copy.

(Incidentally, my review of The Invisible Clock Factory's double A-side single 'Penelope Rose' / 'The Quantum Particles Rock And Roll Song' is now up.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: U

U is for…

… unintelligibility (Ben)

Researching my piece on The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band's 'The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes' for last week’s installment of the A-Z, I needed some guidance in deciphering the song’s lyrics, and so naturally I turned to the internet. But is it “a pathetic rain” or “a chemical rain”? In the end, I went with the consensus: “a pathetic rain”.

The web is littered with sites which appear to promise accurately transcribed lyrics, but which also carry a icon that you can click if you spot a mistake that needs correcting. They’re not infallible – far from it.

Why are such sites necessary? Well, they wouldn’t be if all albums came with the lyrics printed in the inlay booklet or on the record sleeve (something else to recommend packaging - though of course things need to move with the times, so surely it won’t be long before bands are issuing downloadable lyric sheets alongside their downloadable albums, if they aren’t already). Countless are the times I’ve been thankful on that score, perhaps most notably with The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. Regardless of James Dean Bradfield’s more recent sins, a quick glance at the lyrics to the likes of ‘Of Walking Abortion’, ‘Faster’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Archives Of Pain’ is more than enough to make you feel sorry for him. Having to get your mouth around Richey James’s essays would be a stern test of anyone’s verbal and vocal dexterity.

And thus we get to the crux of the matter: lyrics are very often unintelligible. No matter how many times you play and replay a song, certain lines simply refuse to compute. With The Holy Bible, the problem is the sheer rate at which Bradfield is obliged to spit out the words to keep pace with the music. With the likes of Arab Strap and Arctic Monkeys, it’s that regional accents can prove impenetrable to ears unaccustomed to them. With Mogwai, it’s that – on the rare occasions there are vocals at all – they’re either so heavily treated as to be unrecognisable as such (Barry Burns) or so hushed as to be almost inaudible (Stuart Braithwaite). With the heavier side of metal, it’s that even the most articulate lyrics are emitted as a low throaty rumble, growl or grunt from the mouth of a man (and yes, it’s invariably a man) who looks like he’s in the throes of childbirth.

And then there are some bands and lyricists who just like being enigmatic. Pretentious, you might think, but there’s no denying that often lyrics don’t sound nearly as good once you’ve seen them written them down. In the right hands and set to music which provides a sympathetic context for them, even the simplest and most mundane or clichéd of lines can possess a beauty and emotional weight of which they are shorn when set down nakedly on paper. Unintelligibility preserves that air of mystery and magic.

But enough of that. What I really want to talk about (and what, I suspect, you really want me to talk about) is those instances when lyrics are misheard to comical effect…

It’s no surprise to learn that apparently the #1 misheard lyric is that line from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ - “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”.

But what about my mate Marc, who for years thought that that the chorus to Bananarama’s classic single ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ was “Robert De Niro’s waiting / Talking to Tanya”, not “Robert De Niro’s waiting / Talking Italian”?

Or my girlfriend J’s friend, who thought Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh was singing “Everyone needs a buzzard for a pillow”? (Not very comfortable, I’d wager.)

Or J herself, who was under the impression that the chorus to the single that made Radiohead’s name was “I’m a creep / I’m a window”? She’d just thought it was Thom Yorke being “arty and pretentious”.

No wonder, then, that she’s a big fan of Maximo Park’s Paul Smith "because he enunciates really well and you can hear what he's singing"…

(There are loads more here. Add your own in the comments box.)

… university (Swiss Toni)

One of the most crucial moments in your university career happens just a few moments after your parents have bid you a tearful farewell. You are alone in your room in your hall of residence and you are in limbo: your old life is just setting off on the long journey down the motorway to the family home, but your new life has yet to properly begin. All around you people are sat in rooms just like yours, excited, but perhaps looking a little bit wistfully at their unopened suitcases and wondering what is supposed to happen next. Some will be wondering if they should make a cup of tea; others will be thinking that they should perhaps wander down the hall to introduce themselves to their new neighbours.

You know exactly what to do. You leave your suitcase where it is and go directly to your stereo. The first thing that needs to be sorted is the silence. The future can wait until you’ve got some music on.

But what do you play? You know that what you choose now will probably define your life. It may be the most important decision that you will ever make. It will certainly be the first thing that your neighbours know about you, and it will shape their perception of you for the rest of the year at least, and possibly for the rest of your life.

Maybe you hesitate as the enormity of the situation hits you. It’s a big decision and you wouldn’t want to rush it. What should you choose? Should you go for something popular? Perhaps something from the charts? Out of the question – you don’t own any. A timeless classic? Hmmm. Perhaps. The Beatles? Too obvious. Some cheese? Something ironic? Too risky. You don’t’ want to be remembered as the guy who liked Erasure would you? Not on your first day, anyway…

Nah. Bollocks to that.

You can’t pick music based upon what other people might think of it. Not now. This is your big chance to make a bold statement of individuality; to stand out from the crowd and to assert your identity. You have to go for something that speaks to you; an album that is close to your heart and will give you the courage to face this brave new world you find yourself in…

You reach for the CD, pop it in and crank up the volume… Now you can relax and your new life can really begin.

The first CD I listened to on my first day at university in 1992? The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion by the Black Crowes. When I listen to it now I can almost see the nervous and slightly gauche kid that I used to be, nervously sitting in his room waiting for that first knock. My discovery of “the band that changed everything” lay just in front of me, but the fact that I reached for that album and not something else is an indelible reminder of who I was on that first day.

What was the first thing you played?

… university radio (Paul)

With a nod to my fellow student DJ Del, U could only ever stand for university radio.

During the time in which I was involved, the University of Nottingham student radio station broadcast from a tired ageing studio in a World War II Nissen hut. The two studios, and in particular their mixing desks, were held together by a mixture of electric tape and solder affixed with great competence by a collection of unnervingly geeky students who looked like they shunned daylight in favour of nights lying on their backs soldering iron in hand, but who would cut loose magnificently given the opportunity to get within a sniff of alcohol.

The DJs themselves varied greatly, from those who worked hard on their shows, writing jokes and scripts to keep the listeners entertained, and honing their skills in the hope of one day landing a real radio job (a significant portion of which went on to do just that) to those in it purely for their love of music; they didn't care how ramshackle the show might sound, it was all about playing record after glorious record. Unsurprisingly, John Peel was their idol.

Like any student medium, the station inevitably attracted its share of CV points-scorers, and those simply on the scrounge for free stuff - but they tended to drift by the wayside, as the prospect of honing a demo tape or making the trip up the hill wore them down.

However, for those who kept going the student radio ride was a great one.

From a personal perspective I really enjoyed the opportunity to work on the sports show, phoning in live match reports from the press box at one of Nottingham's many sporting venues. Equally, witnessing a man in an orange boiler suit compete with and eventually trounce one time student DJ Simon Mayo in his quest to enter the Guinness Book Of Records for the longest radio show is a major highlight. Student radio awards evenings came and went, with Radio 1 DJs looking like startled rabbits as a myriad of drunken students talked at them about something (in my case it was Kevin Greening before I went off to "acquire" a large banner).

Student radio may at times be shambolic and badly prepared, but at its heart live a bunch of people willingly sacrificing their degrees to keep things going. That many of them go on to work in the broadcasting industry is testament to the skills they acquired as students.

… unsigned and signed (Jez)

The cream always rises to the top, or so they say. There are supposed to be 56,000 aspirant pop acts in the UK at any one time. Being signed to a major record company is surely the holy grail for the vast majority of them. However, for many the start of the journey is also the end.

There can be little difference between being signed or not. A&R departments tend to sign in bulk, using the theory that if they sign everything they won’t miss something. Therefore, it’s not unusual for a band to be signed and never actually release anything as often signings are made to stop the competition finding “the next big thing”. This search is often a paradox as A&R folks follow trends rather than setting them. How many more Jamie Cullums can there be until that particular well runs dry?

A slight change in the cultural wind can make a style of act redundant, resulting in swathes of “droppings”. Business strategy can also change a life. In the Island / Polygram merger, the sort of thing that has become commonplace in the industry, reshuffling saw Island dropping 181 acts overnight. They just ceased to be pop acts. Even just the change of one office’s personnel can seal a band’s fate. A sacking or move to another record company means the act will not be supported by the next incumbent.

We all come to music as consumers. Because music has a powerful emotional effect it is difficult not to think we are emotional with it. But this is an illusion. It is a manufactured product with the traces of production rubbed out.

Do we really choose what we actually hear? In some ways yes, but in others, no. At least we can choose what we buy. Can’t we? If the word “marketing” was actually spelt "varketing" I’d have ruminated on the subject next week.

… untitled (Pete)

I have a confession to make. Last week I bought the new Snow Patrol album. In my defence, this was mainly because I loved their first two albums and thought number three wasn't too bad. Whoops, I'm straying already. Track twelve on their latest release is called '–', which, as the title suggests, doesn’t offer much in the way of music, instead featuring 3m 55s of kids laughing in the background. Luckily, I bought it off a leading Jersey-based online retailer and so paid less than I would have elsewhere for someone accidentally leaving the Record button on. Rant over. But it still leaves me pondering why so many bands insist on using untitled tracks, hidden or not?

Chaps, if it ain't good enough to make it on the album proper, then don't stick it on after the last tracks and another five minutes of silence. Put it on a B-side or release it as free download. Apart from the majority of these songs being a load of guff, it always seems to me that I'll stick an album last thing at night, only to be shocked out of my slumber by the screaming intro of a hidden track. I Am Kloot's 'Because' is a perfect example of the latter, with Minuteman, Placebo, The Verve, Starsailor, The Magic Numbers, Travis, Turin Brakes (on two albums) as well as countless others equally as guilty of the former.

For those bands who feel they absolutely have to use a hidden track, try and be inventive like Super Furry Animals. For those of you who own the CD version of Guerrilla, make sure you're at the beginning of track one, hold down rewind and you'll see what I mean.

In my eyes, the preferable alternative is to call the song 'Untitled', but deem it good enough to include it on the tracklist. While you could feel disappointed at the lack of inspiration, more often than not, this approach results in a good tune such as Interpol's opener to Turn On The Bright Lights. In fact, I'm thinking that a compilation of songs of this ilk might be a good idea. So far I've come up with DJ Shadow, the aforementioned Interpol, Six. By Seven, Stellastarr* and I Am Kloot. Any other suggestions?

… ‘Up A Lazy River’ – Leon Redbone (Skif)

Have you ever had one of those early morning conversations with someone when they’re half asleep, where your cheery salutations mingle with whatever dream they are having? Well, recall the cadence of their drowsy responses and you’ll be closer to having an understanding of Leon Redbone’s vocal style, particularly on his wonderful version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Lazy River’, and it is this on which my entry is centred. So, I guess I’m cheating a bit bu placing it at U;, however the album it is from, and the main lyrical motif of the piece, extends out to ‘Up A Lazy River’. Ideal.

My first proper appreciation of Leon Redbone was when he appeared as one of the musical guests on Jack Dee’s original Channel 4 “nightclub” series, a format the deadpan comedian has never bettered I might add. The two songs Redbone played, at the end of each half of the programme, showcased both ends of his jazz stylings. There was his version of ‘Champagne Charlie’ where he honked like a curmugeonly goose, but I was far more taken with ‘Lazy River’, the sleepy front-porch delivery suggesting his pristine white tailored suit should take guard against the immediate threat of oncoming dribble.

On the LP version, Dr. John plays equally narcoleptic piano, while Bobby Gordon sweeps us downstream on his mellifluous clarinet, and it all sounds just perfect. It is this wearied sound that saw Redbone make his probably most famous contribution to British popular culture, with his 1986 ‘Relax’ advert for BR’s Intercity Rail. He also composed Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ jingle.

Despite these commercial interests, Redbone is nonetheless an enigmatic character, with precious little set in stone regarding his background. Mainly thanks to similar top-lip furniture, rumours did the rounds for years that Redbone was merely Frank Zappa in disguise, although the latter’s death put paid to those. Well, most of them, anyway. Leon Redbone is accepted by most not to be his real name, particularly as the surname is a breed of dog apparently used for hunting racoons. Some say that despite early career ties to Toronto, he may well be of Cypriot or Armenian heritage, with some claiming his real name to be Dickran Gobalian.

Another source of mystery is his age, in that since his first appearances in the 1970s he has consistently looked middle-aged. The myths flying around the internet, and his performance schtick of claiming to have written the almost turn-of-the-century vaudeville, medicine show and minstrel tunes he performs in his act haven’t helped pinpoint his date of birth. The Internet Movie Database once had him down as born in 1921, but around 1950 appears more believable.

Redbone is a private individual, and certainly a little eccentric, who believes that personal details have nothing to do with his performing, and thus neither confirms or denies any of the rumours that circulate about him. Even his manager claims not to know his exact address. In another quirk, after being involved in a small plane crash in the 1980s, he now reportedly travels to all shows by road transport. Although how he made it to play a show on the Isle of Wight a few years back (which I only found out about afterwards, despite living in Portsmouth at the time, grrrr), I have no idea.

In the last 30 years, he has released eleven studio LPs, the most recent being 2001’s Any Time, and four live records. I’d recommend ‘Up A Lazy River’ to start, just for the title track, which really is like dozing on a raft whilst chewing straw. Many have recorded this song, including Louis Armstrong, but if any one of them has captured the mood as perfectly as this, I’ll eat Leon Redbone’s panama hat. And his sunglasses. And his moustache.

… ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’ – The Boo Radleys (Caskared)

… or an excuse to talk about The Boo Radleys. ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’ is the second song on the 1993 album Giant Steps. The Boos, from the Wirral, were a baggy band with Spiritualized-influenced white noise filling their early albums Ichabod And I and Everything’s Alright Forever. Giant Steps was a departure point, the album is experimental, idiosyncratic and was unafraid to be grandiose albeit keeping within the indipop umbrella. The NME voted the album the second best of 1993 (at the top spot was Bjork’s Debut) and they topped lists for Select and Melody Maker. The album received critical acclaim, but sadly only few actually bought it. It was only with the unashamedly pop Wake Up! that The Boo Radley’s actually gained any kind of popularity… or income.

Giant Steps begins with backward voices calling “Boo be with you” leading into the jangly ‘I Hang Suspended’. A cracking melody and layered sound, it ends with a looped low tremelo leading into the feedback blaring of Martin Carr’s guitar. The baseline and drums kick in and keep ploughing throughout ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’. Sice’s vocals are as distorted as the guitar, which picks up a ska sensibility (which creeps back in songs such as ‘Lazarus’). The song, which is nearly five minutes long, seamlessly changes gear several times ending with quietly chugging cellos before the happy hand-clapping trumpeting pop of the next song, ‘Wish I Was Skinny’.

Giant Steps constantly switches mode and alternates quiet contemplative moments with loud confident riffs as in the elephantine ‘I’ve Lost The Reason’ or keyboard glitches with the cowbell mode in ‘Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce)’. The album could have been more conventional were it not for the constant search for new solutions to noise-making with an electronic hip hop influence which is clearly manifest by the time they released C’mon Kids. And they were not afraid to include straight forward sing-along four-chord pop songs such as ‘Barney (…And Me)’.

It is an album that the Boos made at a make-or-break point in their career and everything is in there – emotion, experimentation, and ultimately a hopeful energy that pushes it to the top of my indie list.

* * * * *

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

What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo May 2006

(aka The Scrawny Little Brother Of The Parallax View Album Review Compendium)

The Strokes - First Impressions Of Earth

First impressions of The Strokes' third LP were good, and it just gets better with every listen (though it's a touch too long to be really effective).

Naturally it was the singles 'Juicebox' (Noo Yawk cool goes metal!) and 'Heart In A Cage' that initially grabbed the attention, and then the track on which they're most obviously pushing in a new direction, 'Ask Me Anything'. For a while, '15 Minutes' promises something different too, until it all speeds up unexpectedly and rather unnecessarily. On each spin a different track catches the ear - 'Fear Of Sleep' with its tremendous chorus, closer 'Red Light', 'Electricityscape' (on which Fab Moretti's drumming is as great as anywhere else on the album). It's as though in the three years since Room On Fire all the media attention and pressure has shifted elsewhere, allowing them to do what they come back reinvigorated.

Not that you'd draw that conclusion from Julian Casablancas's contribution to the album, mind. He spends the early part of the aforementioned '15 Minutes' doing a passable impersonation of Shane McGowan after his third pint of whiskey of the day and singing beyond-paranoid lines like: "They've got it in for me, I know".

Elsewhere it's much the same story: "The world is in your hand / Or it's at your throat". That's from 'Razorblade', which contains perhaps their most gorgeous chorus yet, over which Casablancas declares: "Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours / Oh, drop dead, I don't care, I won't worry". Later he changes his mind - "Sweetheart, your feelings are more important of course" - but the line's not so much dripping with sarcasm as sodden with it.

Not that Casablancas's world-weariness manifests itself only in the form of a loathing for others - there's a fascinatingly honest self-disgust in 'On The Other Side': "I hate them all / I hate them all / I hate myself for hating them / So drink some more / I'll love them all /I'll drink even more / I'll hate them even more than I did before".

So there you have it: not as good as Is This It, but certainly the first Strokes album on which the lyrics have grabbed me as much as the music - all of which makes a mockery of Casablancas's claim on 'Ask Me Anything', "I've got nothing to say".

(The words to 'Ize Of The World' are a bit cringeworthy, though, and the less said about the line "Don't be a coconut" the better...)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

One of those surprises that, in hindsight, we should have seen coming.

Back in 2003 Yeah Yeah Yeahs were an art-rock band you could actually MOVE to, and their debut Fever To Tell was an absolute fucking blast of an album, lead single 'Date For The Night' only one of several songs which made you want to glug wine like it was going out of fashion and thrash around on a dancefloor with no concept of age or shame.

But even in the midst of it all there was 'Maps', the album's stand-out track - and not simply because it struck such a different chord. It was evidently 'Maps' rather than 'Pin' or 'Man' that provided the blueprint for Show Your Bones - it's more sensitive, restrained, ambitious, multi-textured and (yes) mature. All of which means it's less fun. The ceaseless partying obviously took its toll, and at first this sounds like the hangover - not the worst in the world, but a hangover nonetheless.

But that's unfair. The new tracks, though likely to induce you to start fires, are undoubtedly stronger songs than their predecessors, and much more emotionally involving - 'Dudley' is particularly special. What's more, once the initial surprise has worn off, it turns out that there are plenty of moments when Nick Zinner's guitar and Karen O's paint-peeling yelp come together to familiar and superb effect after all - 'Fancy', the jerky genius of 'Phenomena', the climax of 'Mysteries'. One of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' responses to suffering a hangover, it seems, is hair of the dog.

All the same it's revealing that 'Deja Vu', arguably the closest they come to the material on Fever To Tell, is tacked on as a bonus track, the album proper coming to a conclusion with the predominantly acoustic 'Turn Into'. They're evidently intent on moving on rather than standing still - which is laudable in itself, but has led to a sophomore record that, whichever way you look at it, is just less darned exciting.

The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers

(Look, I know this was a 2005 release, but I've just dug it out and decided to include it here as it slipped through the review net last year.)

Excitement is in even shorter supply here, and therein lies The Magic Numbers' greatest problem.

Instinctively you'd imagine that a band's faster more upbeat songs would fare best in the live environment, whereas with Romeo and co it's swooning slowies like 'Hymn To Her' and 'Wheels On Fire' that routinely hold the audience enraptured.

And yet on record, where those same slowies could potentially come into their own even more, they fall a bit flat. Their existence beyond the confines of a darkened tent and when not witnessed as part of a hushed but beaming mass seems somehow wrong. Listening to them is like having a magician show you how to perform a trick that had previously confounded and amazed you.

What don't disappoint, though, are the two transcendent singles 'Forever Lost' and 'Love Me Like You', a pair of power-pop rays of sunshine. It's just a shame that the album overall is light on such moments, instead burdened down by plodding and too-wet-for-their-own-good ballads.

Secret Machines - Ten Silver Drops

Now THIS is a hard one to call.

Loved by David Bowie and former touring partners of Interpol, Secret Machines draw upon both prog and Krautrock - intriguing, you might think, and you'd be right but it's certainly not all good.

'Daddy's In The Doldrums', weighing in at nearly nine minutes, has a bassline that might have come straight from the new Tool album, but even that indicates the extent to which the Texan threesome worship Pink Floyd. Fine to a point, but then I'm wary of anything that old prog-rockers are likely to hold up as heralding the return of "proper" music. You know, the sort of humourless bores who not only failed to see any merit in Scissor Sisters' cover of 'Comfortably Numb' but silently pronounced a fatwa on them too.

Ten Silver Drops is in many ways rather like the Ridley Scott film 'Kingdom Of Heaven', which I saw at the weekend - epic, but forcedly and studiously so, to the extent that more often than not it's ponderous and occasionally tedious with it (thankfully, though, Orlando fucking Bloom doesn't make an appearance). The worst culprit is 'I Want To Know', which comes across by and large as a mid 80s power ballad. It opens with the sound of thunder and rain a la 'November Rain', for fuck's sake - the mark of all that is blustery and pompous.

And yet the following track, album closer '1000 Seconds', gets it as right as 'I Want To Know' is wrong, doing a decent job of approximating The Flaming Lips as it builds to a heady climax. Plus a part of me is actually glad to find a much-hyped band that are so completely at odds with the prevailing trends - scuzzy Arctic Monkeys style indie, disco-punk, the "new emo", "grindie", whatever.

At least for the moment, I keep going back to Ten Silver Drops without quite understanding why, rather like I did with ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's World's Apart. And I'm not really any nearer to knowing what I think of that, over a year on...

* * * * *

Other recent albums I've had difficulty prising off my stereo include Mogwai's Mr Beast, Cat Power's The Greatest and My Latest Novel's Wolves - click on the links for reviews. There have also been a couple of oldies in residence: The Wedding Present's Bizarro (is there a better and more furiously bashed-out song in their canon than 'Crushed'? I doubt it) and REM's Reckoning (ah, so THAT's what Idlewild have been styling themselves on, and quite successfully too).

On top of that there are albums from You & The Atom Bomb and Lovemat for which reviews will hopefully appear over there soon (ie when they're written...), as well as a double A-side single from The Invisible Clock Factory.

Amongst many other albums stacked up by the stereo that I've yet to give a proper hearing are The Flaming Lips' At War With The Mystics, The White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan (yes, yes, I know - Jack White's already onto his side project...) and two old PJ Harvey LPs. With new records from Howling Bells and Giant Drag winging their way to me as I type and Sonic Youth and The Futureheads both about to bless us with new releases, it shouldn't be too long before another What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo feature - but then I'm sure that's what I said last time, back in August...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: T

T is for …

… ‘Take Me Out’ – Franz Ferdinand (Swiss Toni)

Music is one of those things that I can’t help having a gut reaction to. When I hear something for the first time, I’m rarely indifferent to it. Songs just seem to grab me, and I know from the first note if I’m going to love it or hate it. That’s not to say that my instincts are in any way accurate. For every ‘Hey Ya!’ or ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, songs that I have loved from the very first time I heard them, there must be countless examples of songs that have grown on me, or songs that I have grown to hate with every listen. I think it’s fair to say that almost all of the albums that I love the most are the ones that I had to make a bit of an effort with. I never really GOT OK Computer until the day I listened to it through headphones…

Franz Ferdinand exploded into the charts with this little number in January 2004… It was immediately recognisable, with its chopping guitar intro, slow start and that key moment 54 seconds into the track when the song seamlessly changes pace. It reached #3 in the UK singles chart and has been voted by Q magazine as the 34th best song ever recorded by a British group (what an accolade!).

It’s a classic.

I hated it on first listen. It seemed like horrible glossy 80s schlock and put me in mind of a particularly cynical Duran Duran covers band. It was ubiquitous and I couldn’t bear it.

Then, over time, it began to worm its way into my skull. It’s that stomping, driving beat. You can’t escape it. I’m tapping my foot now just thinking about it. My hatred turned into a sneaking and slightly guilty desire to hear the song on the radio or to see them performing it on telly, then I sheepishly went out and bought the album. By June 2004 my turnaround was complete when I stood with several thousand other people at the Other Stage at Glastonbury to watch what I thought was the performance of the festival from a band very much on the up. They were brilliant. They are always brilliant, and this song always brings the house down and sends shivers up and down my spine when they start on that intro…

So much for first impressions.

Perhaps there’s hope for that new Keane single yet… And maybe Westlife ARE a classic band and just need a fair listen through headphones?

… Talulah Gosh / Tender Trap (Skif)

Like with many things with music, I took my time discovering what the all the fuss was about with Talulah Gosh. I had always been fascinated with the name but getting hold of a record to satisfy my curiosity proved too much of a hassle – reissues of their work don’t exactly flood Mr HMV’s warehouse. Eventually I was pushed into looking a bit deeper into it after I happened, in my fanzine writing, to come across Tender Trap, a band containing Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, formerly of the Gosh.

Amelia was the quintessential mid-80s pin-up for shy, retiring indie-boys; indeed when I started my previous job and the subject of my having put one of Amelia’s bands at a gig, my jangle-favouring gaffer instantly came over all misty-eyed and vacant. But I digress…

In time I managed to get hold of Backwash, a CD that captures all their studio recordings plus session and live tracks. Needless to say, being that they only lasted less than two years from first gig to final single, the glorious pre-Riot Grrl scream of ‘Testcard Girl’. More’s the pity as aside from the hurtling ramshackle stuff, they could write elegant, sophisticated pop music, such as with ‘Talulah Gosh’ (including its quasi-religious coda) and ‘Bringing Up Baby’.

Often lumped in with the C86 crowd, they themselves came about a touch too late to appear on the NME LP that launched the movement and therefore the twee-pop banner has been more common. In truth though, there was plenty of grit beneath the fingernails of the Gosh and memories of them may be affected by the lighter sounding bands that rose from their ashes. Pursey, Fletcher, her brother Matthew and Peter Momtchiloff formed Heavenly, who released material on the ultra-twee Sarah Records prior to its self-induced implosion, releasing their final LP Operation Heavenly on Wiija. Just prior to this, Matthew Fletcher committed suicide and, as a result, the band withdrew the name Heavenly, continuing as Marine Research for a time.

In 2002 Amelia and Rob regrouped once more as Tender Trap which, on their first LP, allowed them to marry the miniature schisms of Talulah Gosh (such as on ‘Dyspraxic’ and ‘Chemical Reaction’) and the serene pop of Heavenly (‘Talk In Song’) with bassist DJ Downfall’s contribution bringing out a new electronic side (‘Face Of ‘73’). As a result of hearing this album, which started my exploratory journey, I booked them for a show in Portsmouth, one of their last UK shows before a two year hiatus during which time Amelia and Rob became parents together.

Sadly on the night of the gig, rain plummeted upon Portsmouth and being an unticketed show, the audience figures were not what I had hoped. There was not one word of complaint about being dragged down from London to play for twenty people, or any “I’m an indiepop star name, y’know” stuff. They came, had dinner, played a lovely show, and went home seemingly quite happy with their lot. If all bands were like that, I might still promote.

… Teenage Fanclub (Pete)

The Fannies (more on this name later) are a band I frequently drift away from, not playing any of their records for months, only to return to the jangly pop and warm harmonies of Grand Prix or Songs From Northern Britain for days on end; a sort of musical comfort blanket if you will (much like The Bluetones' debut).

Once hailed by Kurt Cobain as "the best band around today" (or words to that effect), the Fanclub remain criminally unknown to the masses. They release a gem of an album every couple of years to little or no public interest, that is stubbornly never discovered by more than a few. Admittedly, the albums have never grabbed my attention the first time round either.

I got hold of a second-hand Grand Prix back in 1996, but it wasn't until I was at a loose end one Sunday afternoon a year later and came across 'Discolite' that I was hooked. My mate Ingo made me a copy of Songs…, but it remained unplayed for months, despite him maintaining that it was their best album by far. Even though 'Can't Feel My Soul' is now one of my favourite songs of all time, you'd think I'd have learnt my lesson when it came to Man-Made, their most recent release, but no. I bought my copy in Berlin last May on the way to the airport, but it wasn't until I was back in that city last September that I finally got round listening to it.

So there you have it, a short sort-of-ode to a long-lived band that deserve a mention, although you suspect that if they had stuck to their original and possibly unwise name of Teenage Fanny, I wouldn't be writing about them in this post.

… television theme tunes (Caskared)

Oh I like a good TV theme. Especially if it’s something I can sing along to. And it helps if the programme is good too.

Crafted to introduce the flavour of the show, these diminutive bursts of song are played so much they embed themselves in our memory (and frequently ohrwurm it up). So, what types do we have?

The regular-as-clockwork theme: ‘The Archers’ – if I hear this it means it is 7pm on a week day and I have to make the decision whether to turn off the radio after the 6.30 comedy and ‘Front Row’. The bouncy dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum was written by Arthur Wood and its accordian is the aural embodiment of rural British life, possibly tinged with a little May Pole paganism. Other examples: ‘News At Ten’ (on ITV), ‘Neighbours’.

The explanatory theme: ‘The Wombles’ – “Underground overground wombling free / The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we / Making good use of the things that we find / Things that the everyday folk leave behind”. How neatly the lyrics over the clarinet boogie-woogie set us up for what the Wombles are about. Admittedly it doesn’t explain what the mutant mole-like creatures are in the first place, but they recycle so it’s all OK. Other examples: Anything with Dennis Waterman, ‘Dad’s Army’.

The comedy theme: ‘Blackadder II’ – silly songs make me laugh especially if they’re sung in a faux-falsetto with Elizabethan pronunciation. And Howard Goodall wrote a cracking tune giving it a perfect treatment throughout the Blackadder series.
Other examples: ‘One Foot In The Grave’. A sub-genre of this is the satirical theme eg ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’.

The pop song: ‘The Sopranos’ – it’s been mentioned in the A–Z before) so I’ll keep it short, but the Alabama 3’s ‘Woke Up This Morning’ is superb with its synth gospel sleaze and growling voice of the singer accompanying the mobster boss Tony on his drive home. Other examples: ‘It’ll Never Work’ (Depeche Mode ‘People Are People’), ‘The Office’ (albeit an orchestrated version of Fin’s ‘Handbags & Gladrags’ in the opening titles).

The puts-shivers-down-your-spine theme: ‘Doctor Who’ – theremins are the byword for the future, the unknown and the alien in my book. That’s why ‘Good Vibrations’ will always be a bit sinister to me. But ‘Doctor Who’’s theme is a curious little melody that takes as many unexpected turns as the adventures, leaping an octave and a semitone in its first breath. And I like what they’ve done with the revamp. Other examples: ‘Inspector Morse’.

The sporting theme: Wimbledon tennis coverage – it’s bright, it’s energetic, it was clearly written in a bygone era and nobody has the heart to change it. Very jolly hockey-sticks. Other examples: snooker, ‘Ski Sunday’.

I could happily write all day about these tiny snippets that signify a serious bout of entertainment is coming my way. But instead I will direct you here and give a final shoutout to some of my most memorable theme tunes: ‘Bergerac’, ‘Yes Minister’, ‘The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin’, ‘The Good Life’, ‘Father Ted’, ‘Paddington Bear’, ‘The South Bank Show’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Edge Of Darkness’ and possibly the most iconic theme tune of them all… ‘The Magic Roundabout’.

… Terrorvision (Paul)

Rock City - as Ben has previously mentioned - is a favourite haunt of any right thinking music lover in Nottingham. My favourite ever gig which I witnessed there has to be Terrorvision for two simple reasons: firstly, having seen them live previously (and crowdsurfed) I'd wanted to see them perform live again for ages, and it was with great delight that I finally had the opportunity. Secondly, because I got to drink a chunk of the band's rider. All night. For free.

Whatever your views of the Bradford fourpiece it's fair to say that they delivered an excellent live show. This tour was to promote their recently released fourth album, Shaving Peaches, and they were riding high in the charts with ‘Tequila’ (thanks to the support of Radio 1 Breakfast DJ Zoe Ball and a ropey remix of the weakest song on the album). Anyway, the gig was great, and following on, my friends and I decided to stay in Rock City and enjoy the delights of a typical club night.

Standing upstairs, on the balcony, we were intrigued to see several burly members of Rock City staff start to cordon off a small area with some fencing and then start stacking crates and crates of booze behind it. Loitering around, in the vague hope that the band might appear, we were delighted as security arrived in the fenced off area, and slowly but surely it filled with pass holding people before finally the band began to filter through.

Picking up autographs and chatting across the barrier to the band was a massive thrill, but then one of Terrorvision's liggers left, and on his way out planted his security pass firmly on my chest.

I promptly sauntered past the secuirty guard, with my new found ligger status, and helped myself to their booze. All night long, I drank their Red Stripe, and also passed cans to my mates on the other side of the fence. Trying to look vaguely interested whilst the band chatted to girls and record types wasn't for me, but drinking their booze for free - that's what made the (early part) of the evening memorable. The latter stages of the evening? No clue!

… They Might Be Giants (drmigs)

"Why is the world in love again? / Why are we marching hand in hand? / Why are the ocean levels rising up? / It's a brand new record for 1990 / They Might Be Giants’ brand new album Flood".

There was a time before a girl called Rachel that all I wanted in music was for it to be bouncy, obvious and fun. As you already know my teenage years weren't devoted to music. Typically it just served as a backdrop - provided by the untouchable cool kids – which we mortals generally just arsed about to. And the fact that many of my friends were born to left wing parents who ate museli meant that Flood by They Might Be Giants was one of the albums in particular that just won't leave my memory.

Flood is full of happy, chirpy, moralistic anthems that are presented with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Which at that time in my naïve teenage years was all that I wanted. Their major hit ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ climbed to #6 in the UK, and very much represents what TMBG are (and were) about: kooky alternative rock. But Flood itself was not just a vehicle for a hit single or two. It is littered with proper album songs (ie songs that would be out of place anywhere else), ‘Particle Man’ and ‘Dead’ are two of the better examples. And these were cleverly counterbalanced by more typically structured songs like ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’, and ‘Your Racist Friend’. For all their kookiness, They Might Be Giants clearly knew what they were doing.

To be honest, after Flood I'd pretty much put TMBG on the back burner as age, and the urge for a little more emotional content in my music, caught up with me. It was only a brief email exchange with Dave Gorman last year that put them back on my radar and got me to drag Flood from the dusty recesses of my music archive. But I'm glad that little exchange happened, as on reflection, they're quite good in their own special way.

Looking at their website they are clearly still up to their same old tricks. Their new playful cartoons clearly complement and enhance their craft. No, I know they're not big, and they're not necessarily clever, but credit where credit's due. They Might Be Giants add a freshness and individuality to their little corner of the music industry that is creative and different. And long may they do so. Even if they're not your bag, diversity serves everyone in the end.

… Throwing Muses (Steve)

Throwing Muses have to be one of the great forgotten bands of our time. The lacerating twin guitars of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly; Leslie Langston's intricately melodic bass playing; the military drumming of Dave Narcizo; all used to depict the streams-of-consciousness of a 19-year-old housewife, in songs that would just as soon as stroke your face as bite it off.

At times they could seem incredibly claustrophobic and intense, but I always found them exhilarating to listen to - as the cliché goes, anything can happen and it usually does. The earlier recordings, like the ‘Chains Changed EP’ (1987 - re-released on In A Doghouse in 1998) and The Fat Skier mini-LP, mix the art-punk-funk of bands like The Slits with the acid-fried visions of Americana from Meat Puppets II.

When I was in my final year of school (GCSEs!) I always had to have a C-90 cassette in my possession that had Pixies' Surfer Rosa on one side and Throwing Muses' House Tornado on the other. Couldn't leave home without it! House Tornado from 1988 is still one of my top ten albums and the title really sums it up; as Kristin Hersh said herself: "The idea of the savage housewife is intensely appealing".

Throwing Muses always suffered from the idea that, whereas (for example) Captain Beefheart can be described as a MAD GENIUS, Kristin Hersh got tarred, like so many other challenging female artists, with the KOOKY brush. Even worse, when it was revealed that Kristin Hersh had suffered with “bipolarity" or manic depression from an early age, many critics effectively said "Oh well, that's why her songs were so WEIRD - she wasn't in control", something that Hersh refuted in the sleevenotes to In A Doghouse: “It has been suggested that I was insane during the Muses’ early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers. Listening now, I wonder if I was all there, but maybe that was the point. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers have been known to go elsewhere at times, too”.

Throwing Muses released their final album in 2003. Kristin Hersh continues to make the good stuff both on her own and with her new band 50 Foot Wave, recently giving away a great EP from their website which I urge you to investigate. She seems resigned to existing somewhere outside the mainstream of alternative music (if that makes any sense!). This is a real shame, as I can’t think of many more original and consistently challenging artists at work today.

… Tin Drum – Japan (James)

Once I was young, once I was smart…

Japan were one of the bands that I have brought with me from my mid-teens; I can still listen to any one of their LPs now and be fully satisfied. If I was forced to identify a favourite, I would have to say it was Tin Drum. This is perhaps an odd choice in some respects, since it is perhaps not their easiest LP to listen to – both Quiet Life and Gentlemen Prefer Polaroids are more user-friendly.

Tin Drum is the point where all the parts come together for me, though. Each musical part seems apt and perfectly measured. Nothing overstays its welcome, nothing is left lacking. The whole, the complete sound, is textured and well balanced. It is hard to imagine a better LP.

David Sylvian is now recognised as a genius, and his solo career has given ample grounds for saying so, but here he has finally found his metier – a lyrical sparseness, just the right amount of allusion. His vocal performance is honed now, restrained and yet just expressive enough to give life to the lyrics.

Mick Karn’s bass playing to me is second to none on this LP, and I would happily put him in any top ten list on the strength of it. (I don’t care if some of his solo stuff has bordered on the unlistenable – this makes up for it all.) His fretless playing still sounds revolutionary to me, as though he is starting out with some hitherto unknown instrument. I can think of no other player of the instrument who plays with such disregard to the rules. Every song on the LP is made immeasurably stronger by the breadth of his style – but none more than ‘Sons Of Pioneers’. Listening to it now, I still have next to no idea what he is doing.

Richard Barbieri’s Fairlight is working overtime on this LP, with guitars being largely sidelined. The range of sounds and textures on show here is impressive to say the least. Sure, most of them are busy emulating traditional oriental instruments, but that isn’t the point. Each sound is chosen with precision and used appropriately – listen closely, and you’ll notice that some are used so sparsely that they become another part of the percussive background. Sometimes, they provide a slow sweep of sound, providing a background that all of the other sounds can hang upon.

Finally, Steve Jansen’s drums. I wonder if, given the three musicians he was working with, he couldn’t have gotten away with a 4:4 beat and no-one would have noticed. No, Jansen is never looking for the easy way; rhythms seem to be chosen carefully, and – as with the rest of the band – the textures of the sounds are key.

Japan were a pop band, and it is probably true to say that even this LP retains a pop sensibility – even if a rather strange one. However, it is also probably true to say that the band was on the threshold of moving beyond pop as a form and into something far more thoughtful and far more serious. There is a thirst and a passion for something more, and I think that the band – or Sylvian, at least – was just beginning to understand what it was. Tin Drum is the most experimental pop LP that I can think of since perhaps Revolver. It is a shame that, unlike The Beatles’ first masterpiece, it was not taken up as a gauntlet by others. It is an even bigger shame that, instead, Japan were forgotten and left to rot on dodgy 80s compilations.

… Tin Pan Alley (Jez)

Let’s take a wander into the music industry’s time tunnel. There are the ‘Popstars’ folks committing professional suicide by showing everyone the machinations of the industry. Another step and we see Pete Waterman and his mates inside the minds of “the kids” at the Hit Factory’s mixing desk. Now we see Berry Gordy hating everything that comes out of his music factory except for the money his Motown label generates. Back a bit, Tin Pan Alley, let’s get off here. Hold on to your hats…

Popular music is one of the primary cultural effects of urbanisation. Due to the industrial revolution people needed entertainment after long shifts at work. Entertainment in pubs would attract customers until entrepreneurs started building music halls that charged an entry fee. Music had entered into an economic relationship. There was now a competitive marketplace between the halls; they needed new songs to fend off the opposition so they employed songwriters. There was now a living to be made out of music.

Some acts could travel almost worldwide to perform their twenty minute sets creating fierce competition to sell songs to both performers and the public. This process began circa 1880 and has changed very little to this day. Sheet music was the only method of recreating the popular songs. Radio was held up for political reasons until 1922, the army wanted to keep it for themselves and the fear of Communism kept it away from the masses (what propaganda would be broadcast?). After the American Civil War over 25,000 new pianos were sold a year and by 1887 over 500,000 kids were studying the piano.

Areas were created for publishers and songwriters. In England it was Denmark Street, in the USA it was Tin Pan Alley. Rumour suggests it was named because in the summer there was no air conditioning so with the windows open the cacophonous noise of songwriters on pianos sounded like tin pans being created in a factory. A music factory no less.

So little seems to have changed, almost no need for that time tunnel really.

… ‘The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes’ – The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band (Ben)

Before those rude upstarts The Arcade Fire were catapulted to fame, the Montreal band over whom critics drowned in their own drool was Godspeed You Black Emperor (there’s an exclamation mark in there somewhere, but it’s migrated over time, so take your pick about where to put it).

Their 1998 debut LP f#a#∞ was a revelation, while they honed their art on the stunning EP Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada and then hit an astonishing peak with 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, an album which had four “movements” and a kind of map rather than a tracklisting. Their last outing, Yanqui UXO, saw them verging on adherence to a formula which, though self-fashioned, nevertheless jarred with their experimental bent. The Canadian nontet’s expansive chamber rock has become synonymous with the term “post-rock”, and has been taken as a blueprint by countless bands.

To call A Silver Mt Zion a Godspeed! side-project would now seem rather strange, given that they’ve turned out four albums and an EP in five years. The first, (deep breath) He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corners Of Our Rooms, was a series of sparse, minimalist meditations, but it was Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards the following year that they really their indelible mark.

The conspirators had grown in number from three to six (hence the altered name), and the stature, scope and potency of the songs was correspondingly enlarged. There are more vocals than on Godspeed! records, but otherwise much is familiar: rousing orchestral anthems characterised by a pattern of build-up, climax and release. As the title of stirring opener ‘Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats Of Fire Are Falling From The Sky!’ suggests, apocalyptic rhetoric abounds, but so too does a greater sense of political engagement. The cardboard slipcase contains a fold-out sheet with a dense block of breathless, poetic and impassioned prose about abandoned buildings, bulldozers, satellites, sedition and the state of the Western world entitled “On The Failure Of One Small Community In Achieving Its Own Ill-Defined Dreams And / Or Goals”.

But if this all sounds joyless, burdened down by the weight of its own seriousness, think again – for the songs are tremendous, from the playful gurgling baby sampled at the beginning of ‘This Gentle Hearts Like Shot Bird’s Fallen’ (taxi for Ms Truss!) to the screeching violins of ‘Take These Hands And Throw Them In The River’, a song in which beauty and violence are fused so closely as to become almost indistinguishable.

The undoubted high point of the record, however, comes at the end. Following on from the noisy feedback-heavy coda of ‘C’mon Come On (Loose An Endless Longing)’, ‘The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes’ opens with just chiming guitar and voice: “Sisters and brothers [that address again] / We have surely lost our way / In strip malls full of cancer / And a pathetic rain”. But that’s the present, and Efrim has a vision of a brighter future; “We will find a way”, he sings, gently yet firmly insistent.

By now, the bass has joined in, its staccato beat inconspicuously providing a foundation for the melody. And then the strings appear, and the declaration: “There is beauty in this land / But I don’t often see it / There is beauty in this land / But I don’t often feel it”. And then suddenly, magnificently, the song spirals upwards to an extraordinary peak that never fails to give me goosebumps, Efrim repeating the self-reproachful phrase “Musicians are cowards” in a cracked and straining voice that, although not “classically” powerful, could not be more suited to the occasion.

The pitch of intensity decreases almost as dramatically as it has risen, and as you gradually recover your senses you hear Efrim – accompanied by a solitary plucked violin and that chiming guitar – urging, impelling you into action: “C’mon friends / To the barricades again”. The song gradually fades away into the night, and the album with it, Efrim once again mouthing the words “We will find our way”.

In the inlay to Lift Yr Skinny Fists…, Godspeed! refer to the songs as “more awkward pirouettes in the general direction of hope + joy”. ‘The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes’ is a pirouette of greater beauty than any of them, more human and less foreboding, awkward to the point of perfection in its juxtaposition of fatalism and optimism, apocalypse and idealism, joy and despair. As such, it realises musically and lyrically the two key images on the album slipcase: one man giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another (the potential of death and life encapsulated) and a small bird in a grey sky carrying a sign which reads, simply, “Please believe”.

In fact, ‘The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes’ doesn’t quite mark the end of the album. After twelve seconds of silence, a girl’s voice singing: “When we finally cross the barricades with the angels on our side / When we finally deny all the popular lies / When we finally let doubt and worry die / [and then spoken] How will it feel?”. A Silver Mt Zion might not know, but they want to find out.

* * * * *

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

(Incidentally, I’ve slipped Jez’s piece on his beloved Stereolab into last week’s piece – a slap on the wrist for my misplacing it.)