Thursday, March 29, 2007

In The Dock: Glastonbury

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

By a serendipitous twist of fate (and recent alterations to the schedule), this week's subject is actually topical...

This week's subject: Glastonbury

The case for the prosecution (Martin)

Right. Sleeves rolled up, lucky statue of St Jude in position, here we go.

I love Glastonbury. Whether working or just turning up I've had some great times there. I've seen landmark gigs, discovered a love of weapons-grade scrumpy and Iranian cuisine, seen theatre and comedy, been educated and bonded with strangers through the joy of music in the sun and litter picking in the mud. I've made a friendship that has lasted for over a decade. I’ve never had the same experience twice and thoroughly enjoyed every minute I've spent at the Pilton Pop Festival, knowing that I'd heard good music in the company of like-minded people and contributed to charitable causes. Glastonbury is the best ever Duke of Edinburgh expedition with a soundtrack and hallucinogens.

And now it has to stop. Forever.

In 1970 Glastonbury was attended by some 1,500 hippies who paid a pound to see T Rex. Each one was given free milk. It was a truly unique experience, a claim the organisers still make today.

In 2007 it will be attended by over 100,000 people who will pay £145 for a ticket. Some will fly to stay at Windinglake Farm for about two grand. Others will spend the weekend in Camp Kerala for three times that price, or hire a tipi for £1,620. Most will queue for cash machines provided by high street banks and enjoy the services of a mobile phone provider. You want wireless internet with that? You got it. Prefer to stay at home and watch from your living room? Have it your way.

Glastonbury is not a unique experience. It's a victim of its own success, attracting competitors and corporate interest. It's big business, and big business will feed us more of the same for as long as we'll pay for it. It's been fortunate to have Michael Eavis at the helm, and the prosecution suggests that it should be laid to rest with him. I come to bury Glastonbury Festival and praise its founding spirit.

I'm not denying that hosting a large event doesn't cost money. It makes sound business sense to be funded by commercial interests but those interests are bringing the corporate world into Glastonbury. It's the thin end of the wedge.

Neither am I denying its contribution to charity but it has no lasting effect. It raises money and awareness (as does Children In Need, and I'm not about to defend that either) but what most people apply for the rest of the year is questionable. There's an obvious ethical contradiction in giving money to environmental charities while providing a car park the size of an airport. People think differently for a weekend and relatively few change their behaviour. They buy into an ideal for a few days.

Glastonbury cannot be defended on the grounds that it is unique. Pardon my pedantry but anything can be unique if you make it. You can see a band in a club or a different field whenever you like. There are all kinds of cultural experiences on our doorsteps if we take the time to find them. They're cheaper, don't involve as much travel and they're more significant in the context of everyday life than once a year in a field. Scores of smaller gatherings all over the country benefit from not being in the same overpopulated place at the same time. It's sad that people are prepared to pay £145 or more for a pre-defined "unique" experience when they could participate in smaller events (festivals, gigs, comedy clubs, theatre, local ethical / charitable / political associations, etc) for less money, and enhance them by contributing. The activities at Glastonbury could take place anywhere. If you want a yearly fix of them all in one place why not move them to somewhere more central and accessible? It's just a place. If you lose the location everything will happen somewhere else. If you focus on the location you limit the experience.

I'm prosecuting Glastonbury to encourage the promotion of its constituent elements on a more regular basis throughout the country. I love the festival but not the corporate encroachment and the laziness it encourages. It should be laid to rest at the same time as Eavis to prevent its further decline into just another corporate music festival. Glastonbury should be an inspiration to find and create experiences much like Eavis did in 1970. They're outside our front doors every day, not in a field in Somerset once a year.

The case for the defence (Swiss Toni)

Without wishing to do my opponent here a disservice, I can hear many of the arguments against Glastonbury already: it’s too expensive, too corporate; the fence has ruined it and it’s now attended more by lawyers than by hippies; it’s safe; it’s boring; it’s all over the TV and you’d be better off watching it from your own sofa.

I’m not going to bother denying them. Some of them are true. But they could *all* be bloody true and Glastonbury would still be better by miles than most of the other festivals. Have you been to another festival recently? Have you queued up for beer tokens? Have you eaten from the brown vans selling barely cooked burgers of dubious origin? Have you been swept out of the arena by surly stewards and found yourself back at your tent by 11pm and within 10 minutes of the headline act leaving the stage? I have, and I’m telling you that even a Glastonbury Festival that might not be as good as it used to be is still streets ahead of Reading or Leeds or V or Download or almost any other festival you might care to mention. Glastonbury do things differently to other festivals.

At Glastonbury the beer tents are organised by the Workers Beer Company. Yes, it’s now sponsored by Budweiser, but the workers give their time for free and the profits go to the trade unions, charities and some left-wing campaign groups. The stewards are not hired thugs from the local community centre, they are volunteers organised by Oxfam who receive a free ticket and free food in exchange for their work. In return, the festival makes a donation to the charity. Refuse on the site is not just burned or buried, it is carefully sorted and separated for recycling. In 2004, 300 tonnes of waste was recycled and 110 tonnes composted. The site is also becoming increasingly self-sufficient with its sewage processing. Long before it became fashionable, the carbon footprint of Glastonbury has always been relatively small and it’s getting smaller every year. Hell, they even use wooden cutlery at all of the many and varied food stalls. The festival makes a profit, sure, but a good chunk of that profit goes directly to various charities: in 2002 Greenpeace received £200,000 and Oxfam and WaterAid picked up £50,000 each. The total amount of money given to various charities out of the profits that year was £1m. It’s not just about the money though, as all of those charities are given a forum during the course of the festival where their message can be heard by a captive audience of over 100,000 people. The festival might be expensive, but at least you can guarantee that a good chunk of that money is going to be distributed to some really excellent causes.

Not convinced by the ethical argument? What about the fact that Glastonbury has to be one of the only festivals where you could spend a happy three days without once setting foot in front of one of the main stages. Lost Vagueness alone could probably keep you mesmerised for the whole weekend, never mind the plethora of other smaller stages and tents. In fact, my festival highlights almost always come from something I have stumbled across and not from a band at all. My favourite ever Glastonbury moment is deciding to give the Stereophonics a miss and running instead into a ballerina performing whilst suspended underneath a hot air balloon.

You think the fence has ruined it? Did you go to the festival before they put the fence up? My first Glastonbury was in 1993 and although I had an amazing, eye-opening time, there is simply no denying that the festival was crowded with people and that I was offered hard drugs every time I walked between the two main stages. I’m not naïve enough to think that there the site is now free of hard drugs, but the festival has felt an awful lot safer since 2002 and there are still plenty of scallies trying to sell you a warm can of Stella and you can still be assured of the availability in the Green Fields of a hash truffle that will blow your head off.

Glastonbury might have changed over the years, but it’s still the best weekend of the year by miles. 2006 was empty without it and I can’t wait for June.

Good luck on Sunday everyone. I hope to see you there.

* * * * *

Thanks to Martin and Swiss Toni for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Good Friday to make up your mind...

Ill communication


What initially strikes me as being a potentially terrible venue for the latest F.A.G Club event turns out to be an inspired choice. It may be the function room above a chain restaurant, but it's dimly lit, equipped with its own bar and an ideal size, meaning tonight's gig is intimate without being uncomfortably cheek-to-jowl crowded.

For Lily Green, this is at least the fifth different Cardiff venue she's played since making her debut here in October - that tally is about to rise again, with her involvement in an improvisational performance at Chapter this coming Sunday. Tonight sees the exiled New Zealander play what seems a darker set than before. She eschews singing about ladybirds in favour of performing a strikingly sinister cover of Lamb's 'Cotton Wool' (the promise to wrap a lover up in the white fluffy stuff seeming more like a threat) and concluding with two of the claustrophobically intense electronic tracks from her recent self-titled full-length release. Surely Cardiff can claim her as one of its own now?

Sadly, Music For One aka Canadian-born guitarist Sherry Ostapovitch is just passing through, having already been claimed by one of SWSL's former operations centres, Nottingham. Hard to believe that it's been five years since I saw her supporting Fly Pan Am in the Social. The fact that she's also played with fellow Canadians Do Make Say Think gives some indication as to the unashamedly experimental bent of her music. That said, she steers clear of post-rock convention, preferring to cover legends Elizabeth Cotten and Skip James and to charm us with her own instrumental sketches in avant-garde blues.

If (thankfully) neither Lily nor Sherry fit the stereotype of the female singer-songwriter, then Brooklyn's Elizabeth Sharp certainly doesn't. Having tired of drumming for New Radiant Storm King (yes, really) in the 90s, Sharp decided she was better off going it alone. As Ill Ease, she's a one-woman tour de force and quite possibly the most remarkable thing I've witnessed in the flesh in the past week - which, given that includes gigs by Howling Bells and The Fall (reports to come - promise!) plus a ludicrously high-scoring football match, is saying something. Just as well she warns us we're in for a rock set, then.

Ill Ease songs are typically about things like strategies for dealing with having two parties to attend on the same night ('The Two Party System', from latest LP All Systems A-Go-Go) and wanting to jump your babysitter's bones ('Me & My Babysitter'), and begin life as crudely effective guitar riffs sampled and then looped while Sharp attacks her kit with such vigour that the bass drum continually seeks to escape her foot by shuffling across the floor. I find myself compelled to stand up. "This is a love song", she says of the particularly raucous set-closer, before adding "You know it's a love song when you have to say it's a love song". 'My Heart Will Go On' it ain't - but it's a fine way to round off the evening.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Black magic

Q. When is a disappointment not a disappointment?

A. When it's The Arcade Fire's new record.

Let's examine the two reasons why Neon Bible initially left me less than satisfied:

1. The album's climactic track 'No Cars Go' is not actually new at all. In fact, it's been around for a while, and appears here in re-recorded form.

2. It's not Funeral.

And here are the two reasons why I've since got over my disappointment:

1. The Neon Bible version of 'No Cars Go', while not unfamiliar, undoubtedly benefits from having been re-recorded, invested with post-Funeral depth and richness. Put simply, it's a better song.

2. Neon Bible never was going to be another Funeral. Out of fairness to the band who emerged from obscurity to take the UK by storm with that superlative record two years ago, the question we should really be asking is whether or not Neon Bible would have been hailed a triumph if Funeral had never happened and wasn't casting its formidable shadow over the follow-up and the music world as a whole. The answer, most definitely, is yes.

Earlier in the week I mentioned Paul Morley's cover feature about The Arcade Fire for Observer Music Monthly - well, now I've actually got round to reading it. Here's Morley's attempt to capture what they sound like: "a group who imagined what The Band would be like if Ian McCulloch was their singer and Kurt Weill their producer, who could dream up a rhapsodic Roy Orbison / Pixies / Fairport Convention / Springsteen / My Bloody Valentine / Temptation / Simple Minds / Kronos Quartet hybrid, and quietly contemplate a loud, 19th century Joy Division singing urgent, churning sea shanties about silent suns, the mysteries of memory and the agonies of desire".

Well, that goes some way to conveying how all-encompassing their sound is. But for me they've always been much easier to understand. In the article Morley refers to "the kind of lightly experimental, obscure Canadian bands [The] Arcade Fire once hoped to support and collaborate with" without naming names, while Richard Reed Parry claims that "Canadian-ness", associated with insecurity, has acted on and eroded Win Butler's typically American certainty, and Butler himself enthuses about the fertility of the arts scene in Montreal when he first arrived in early 2001.

For me, the fact that the band's birthplace was Montreal is key. They've taken the righteous indignation, the DIY ethic, the humanist spirit, the apocalyptic mindset, the left-wing politics and the frequently painful and frictional relationship between hope and despair of Montreal luminaries like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and burst out of the leftfield ghetto in spectacular fashion. They've had the guts to take the fight to the mainstream, rather than keep themselves at an ascetic distance. They've decided to shout their passion, their dissent loud and clear centre-stage, rather than from the wings. What's more, as The New Yorker's Sacha Frere-Jones has commented, "[The] Arcade Fire speaks to several generations at once". Pop isn't a dirty word.

All this is exemplified by Neon Bible. The name - that of the novel the teenage John Kennedy Toole wrote prior to 'A Confederacy Of Dunces' - is perfect for the record that it is: an unashamedly grandiose exploration of (and search for) belief, hope, spirituality and meaning in a fallen world wracked by war, characterised by meanness of spirit and glossed over cheaply and superficially (see the brilliant 'Intervention' and 'Windowsill' for particular evidence).

Of course, gazing up at the Big Themes runs the risk of stumbling into the pothole of hopeless pretention (and in the same issue of OMM as Morley's article Ben Thompson refers disparagingly to their "empty, monolithic bigness" while suggesting that Kings Of Leon's latest offering Because Of The Times is superior despite essentially being an exercise in karaoke - hmm...) - but The Arcade Fire never do. Neon Bible is ambitious and grand in scope but never less than accessible, thrilling first and foremost on the level of music.

Album of the year? Just maybe. It is only March, after all...

In The Dock: Overly productive / low quality control pop groups - the verdict

In favour of Jonathan S's case for the prosecution: 6 (Wan, Ian, Lord Bargain, drmigs, JonnyB, James)

In favour of Damo's case for the defence: 4 (Pete A, Nick The Snick, Alison, Ben)

Abstentions: 2 (Caskared, Swiss Toni)

A narrow victory for the prosecution, then. Damo, you're sentenced to being cryogenically frozen so you can be subjected to the Guns 'N' Roses album when it finally appears in the year 2172.

Thanks to Jonathan S and Damo for their contributions.

Coming towards the end of the week: Martin details his reasons for disliking Glastonbury while Swiss Toni provides the defensive riposte.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teaching an old dog new tricks


They say you learn something new every day.

Well, the first thing I learn tonight is that Tired Irie are - for a support band at first largely ignored by the swelling and chattersome Tuesday night crowd (par-for-the-course treatment for out-of-towners) - really very good indeed. Regulation stripey jumpers and tight jeans perhaps, but when the songs are as good as 'For Those Who Swung Hips' - punk-funk stretched out and taken on a tour of the more leftfield end of the Dischord spectrum - then their cliched sartorial stylings hardly matter. A breakthrough must surely be near at hand - and, what with the likes of DARTZ! also on the up, may I be the first to suggest that the Q And Not U revival starts here?

The next thing I learn is, sadly, that Attack + Defend are perhaps not quite as good as they seemed when I first saw them, at the marathon Twisted By Design compilation launch gig. A mish-mash of styles is often indicative of maverick minds at work, and you certainly couldn't accuse of Attack + Defend of being catholic in their tastes. There's a joyous carelessness in the way they fling together electro, funk and a whole lot more (I can still hear The Beatles and The Coral at their most foot-stomping in there, for a start) - no wonder, then, that The Go! Team took them on tour. But, as much as I admire their pursuit of originality, ultimately the lack of coherence begins to frustrate - and it doesn't help that I'm disappointed by the omission of 'Lucky Dawg', This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us' opening track.

The last thing I learn is what all the fuss is about. Having played Clwb in support of The Noisettes just a fortnight ago, Foals are back to preach to - and, in the case of some of the young ladies bopping away enthusiastically down the front, moisten the undergarments of - the converted. It's after a couple of songs and frontman Yannis declaring "We got up at five thirty and I'm so tired I can't feel my face" (by which time I'm already myself a convert) that I suddenly realise that Foals are what is known to the NME-devouring massive as "new rave". Well, congratulations grandad - you're now officially down with The Kids...

In truth, of course, the music Foals make hasn't got a great deal to do with rave. It's just indie music you can dance to - all sprightly drums, agitated funk guitar and taut, slinky basslines. Recent single 'Two Steps Twice' is a definite highlight, as is the instrumental song they claim is brand new and unfinished and 'Mathletics' which closes the set. It's about squares, apparently - it's not just DARTZ! who are making geometry cool, not least because Foals list amongst their friends fellow Brighton-based outfit Maths Class. (Has there been an NME feature on maths being the new rock 'n' roll? If not, it can only be a matter of time...)

With Yannis insisting that we are like "peacock feathers", it's nice to be able to be pleasant back. No doubt it's a well-worn sentiment on SWSL, but I'll repeat it anyway: if The Kids can be into music this clever and complex (though it's also seriously grin-inducing), then the future is in good hands.


Turns out I'm not the only person to review the gig. There are also reports on Drowned In Sound and Miwsig, a Welsh online cultural magazine / blog which I hadn't come across before but which I'll certainly be revisiting.

Spot the hypocrit

I like Paul Morley n'all, but let's just take a closer look at his recent thoughts.

Observer Music Monthly, February 2007: Morley claims that bloggers are chiefly responsible for the overrating and subsequent excessive heightening of expectations surrounding certain albums and bands.

Observer Music Monthly, March 2007: The cover picture is captioned "Could The Arcade Fire be the best band in the world? By Paul Morley"...

Friday, March 16, 2007

In The Dock: Overly productive / low quality control pop groups

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Overly productive / low quality control pop groups

The case for the prosecution (Jonathan S)

There are lots of motivations for wanting to be a musician; fame, notoriety, influence, hedonism, money. Even - occasionally - love of pop music. Noel Gallagher wrote decent songs when he worked on a building site, probably because he wanted it so badly. It's odd that in the years that followed, songwriting seemed to stop being such a pleasure and became a chore, and his talent disappeared. But for most of us, people who don't spend our time writing songs, but who certainly do spend our time slogging away in demeaning and demanding jobs, vying for parental approval yet cursing every wasted minute, the dream of being a musician has more to do with freedom - no more day jobs, no more scrabbling for half an hour to do something creative. The parties and the indulgences would be fine, but it's the idea of space that bewitches.

Of course, it isn't really like that, as plenty of pop stars (Joss Stone being the most recent example) will tell us. For Graham Coxon, tired of Blur, the worst of it was the relentless daily routine, not recording so much as touring and promotional stuff; getting locked down into industry schedules; write, record, promote, tour, write, record, promote, tour. He wanted freedom too, so when Blur began recording Think Tank, he just stayed away. He was more interested in freedom, and began pursuing it by stepping out of the industry cycle and recording and releasing his own records. Where Blur managed six albums in twelve years, he quickly released his first four albums in five, and has added two more subsequently. He toured when he wanted to, he recorded when he wanted to, and he released records when he wanted to. Perfect.

Except of course that no-one bought the records until album number five, when he realised something I could have told him, if he'd have asked. Overly productive, low quality-control bands may make for great Best Of compilations, but they try your damn patience, too. His first four albums contain plenty of ace tunes, amongst a ton of throwaway stuff, but half of them even are under-recorded and half-assed. 2004's Happiness In Magazines was a revelation, because for the first time since Coxon worked with Blur, he was taking care to produce a set of smart, cohesive pop songs.

iPods and the advent of MP3 technology have arguably devalued the concept of the album, as opposed to the pop song, making it less important that the new Primal Scream album, say, has a few real stinkers on it. Just download 'Country Girl' and 'Little Death'. But this principle will really only work so long as Primal Scream buck the trend (as they assuredly will) and make a better effort next time. For bands without their sheer force of character, the problem is more pronounced. Everyone knows that Peter Doherty can write a decent pop song, but why did the Babyshambles album contain so many half-drawn duds? Because his quality control impulse wasn't high enough. Why have none of the Wu-Tang Clan, with the genius example of Ghostface Killah, made a decent record since GZA's Liquid Swords back in 1995? Because their quality control is poor. There are some stunning songs in there, but not one consistently brilliant record. It's certainly better than having nothing at all, but it makes you want to grab them and shake them 'til they raise the bar.

Some bands hover on the precipice, and the importance of quality control is more evident. XTC released some of the best records of the late 70s and 80s (Black Sea, Skylarking and English Settlement are gobsmacking) but never broke through. If you want to know why, listen to 'Mummer' or 'The Black Express'. There's not a better lyricist anywhere in the world than Andy Partridge, but why is he rarely acknowledged as such? Because he couldn't resist writing the odd song about his "pink thing" either. Since XTC's late 90s second wind, Partridge has been digging through the crates for songs he never used, and has released eight albums since 2002. Think how much more diluted the back catalogue of one of Britain's finest bands might have been!

There are, obviously, shambling, half-coherent records I love. But just as is there is nothing better than a beautifully packaged record, so there is nothing better than an artistic vision meticulously drawn. Slow down and take care, young Mr.Doherty, you can do better. And you should so some things, thinking about it, less.

The case for the defence (Damo)

OK – first up, when I said I’d defend this one, I said I’d defend overly productive groups, not ones with low quality control. Clearly there’s no defending the latter trait. But the title remains the same I see... how to progress? Simple, my job here is to show that "overly productive" doesn’t necessarily mean "low quality control"... and equally that underproductive bands don’t necessarily produce classics simply because they take their time.

First up, how often does this happen - and how frustrating is it - when your new favourite band becomes everyone’s favourite band? Not out of any kind of elitism, but because the constant demands of touring are put upon them by their record companies, as well as the album being "milked" for an endless stream of singles. The result? You got the first couple of albums in two years, but now you’ve got to wait three years (or more) each time because every time the band expresses the will to get back in the studio, the record company says "You’re neglecting Australia". It happens. And at that level, touring’s where the money is, so the bands might be happily compliant anyway. The obvious examples are the "big ones" - your U2s and Coldplays, but for those of you with more "indie" tastes it’s no different. How often do you get a new Flaming Lips album these days? When do you reckon the third Arcade Fire album will come out?

Basically, waiting three years for another 45 minutes of material from a band you like is patience-trying at best. That’s why we should appreciate the acts that manage to buck the album-tour-single-tour-single-tour-single-tour-tour-festival circuit-tour trend - and do it well. Good examples? I’d start by suggesting Sufjan Stevens, Guided By Voices (RIP) and Ryan Adams (OK – there’s some low quality control there, but you still get decent new material far more frequently than with your average artist if your selective powers are good). And of course the dear old Fall. As with the point in the previous paragraph, this isn’t about whether you like those particular artists; there are more and that doubtless includes ones that you like. It’s the principle we’re dealing with here.

And why shouldn’t artists work hard to earn their respect (and money)? Plenty of acts given lots of "creative space" manage to come back with something massively self-indulgent. Sometimes it’s good to feel more than to think. The graveyard of dodgy records is littered with artists who were allowed to lose their focus... or worse, were forced to chuck something out quickly so that they could get back out on tour again.

Reading that, I would imagine that some of you might be baulking at my suggestion that we should place constraints and (heaven forbid) time limits on artists. At the risk of being controversial, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind. Not always, but definitely sometimes. Ask Kevin Shields.

Or Axl Rose.

* * * * *

Thanks to Jonathan and Damo for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Quote of the day

"I saw Adem the other day. From what I'd been told he was Michael Chapman meets Patrik Fitzgerald. He turned out to be more Johnny Ball meets Paul McKenna. I might not have felt so deflated if I'd not been expecting a minor fucked-folk genius. Millions of words had told me Bloc Party were The Clash and The Cure, whereas they were The Lurkers and Busted."

Paul Morley writing in Observer Music Monthly about the tendency of reviewers to slaver over and lavish excessive praise on each and every new thing almost indiscriminately.

Naturally enough, it's us bloggers who are on the receiving end of the brunt of Morley's criticism: "It must be because there is so much blog-illuminated new music of such definite competence, so many attractive new fusions, hybrids and agile, academic rewirings, and so many enthusiasts writing about this new music, needing to demonstrate that they are the first to find it, and make a claim for its magnificent, idiosyncratic freshness. Now that everything is scored, and the results collated on websites as if this is helpful, as if this is sport, and there are so many competitive, boastful sound-spotters desperate for us to know exactly what they think as soon as they think it, there is, to put it mildly, a tendency for albums to be over-rated".

Thankfully, he does at least also have the good grace to acknowledge that "proud, pedantic newspaper rock critics" like himself can be just as guilty of churning out puffed-up hyperbole that bears little resemblance to the music itself.

Somewhere, not so long ago, I touched on this issue, but unfortunately can't find the relevant post to link to. Anyway, to recap, I have an irritating tendency to want to post reviews of - or at least reactions to - albums too hastily, which means that I am often either too effusive in my praise or too lukewarm in my appreciation of a record which may well prove to be a significant grower. Unlike gigs, theatrical performances and exhibitions, you can take records home physically and live with them for a while - they don't demand or deserve an "in-the-moment" response.

Morley's solution is to propose that the critic undergoes a cooling-off period. All fine and well, yes - but it's judging the timescale that I find most difficult. Even after thinking I was ready to offer some considered thoughts on Mogwai's Mr Beast last year, for instance, I still came to regard my review as unduly harsh. It's a puzzler alright...

So, how many times have you bought an album, listened to it and prematurely dismissed it - before gradually succumbing to its charms until you find yourself evangelising about it to anyone who'll listen, and plenty who won't?

(Thanks to Pete for the link. Most recently he's been left disappointed by the new Explosions In The Sky album All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone - can't say the same myself, even if it probably doesn't quite match up to the majestic The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.)

Clap your hands say yeah

Doctor doctor, the new LCD Soundsystem album (and particularly the really bloody marvellous 'All My Friends') is making me want to clap my hands in time to every beat I hear. I know of someone else currently suffering from a similarly Pavlovian response to Sound Of Silver - but can this really be normal? After all, I'm still not convinced that overall it's as good as their debut.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

For all the (sea) cows


Solomon Kane clearly worship at the altar of Tommy Iommi, piling Sabbath riff upon Sabbath riff upon Sabbath riff to construct teetering towers of riffage that get tonight's Lesson No.1 gig off to a flying start. Featuring (I believe) a member of Swansea sludge trio Taint, they forge weighty and brutally direct instrumental metal, with occasional forays into more experimental territory where they briefly rub shoulders with Noxagt before returning to safer ground.

Trying to make sense of Infants, by contrast, is like trying to draw a join-the-dots picture if you're numerically dyslexic and can't hold a pen. The multinational London-based foursome have been compared to Brainiac and Lightning Bolt by those in the know - but as I'm not, I'll just describe them as "challenging" and (appropriately enough) "as unfocused and illogical as a toddler's temper tantrum". As all around chaotic noise-rock songs unmake and remake themselves, and her bandmates craft music by dicking around with circuit boards, all-important Japanese member Mamiko bashes at a keytar and shrieks. A lot. Unlikely to be appearing in a support slot to Keane anytime soon, then.

Having witnessed their so-so debut gig a three weeks ago, I was interested to see whether Space In The 50s would be any better second time out (for them as well as for me).

Sadly, there's not really any epiphany to report. The trio, formed from the ashes of The Martini Henry Rifles, are sometimes too fast and furious for their own good, once again occasionally out of sync, while the set barely lasts longer than twenty minutes - but Fudge's rumbling bass is an irresistable force of nature and there's a good run of songs towards the end of the set, including 'Vietnambla' and 'Modern Day Sailors', both of which are memorable in the same way that a vicious going-over by a bunch of bikers on crystal meth in an alleyway is memorable once (or, rather, if) you ever wake up from it...

The names bands choose are often as much telltale clues as to what they sound like as their clothes and haircuts. And every now and again a band comes along possessing a name so inch-perfect that you struggle to imagine them being called anything else. Manatees are just such a band.

Whilst being very, very heavy indeed, their music also often has a peculiar soothing calmness about it. Tonight's second song in particular - earbleeding and ambient in equal measure - is like Sigur Ros in antique lead diving suits, floundering around and sinking slowly to the ocean floor as the oxygen runs out. In this respect, it's not surprising to find that they're quoted in this interview for Drowned In Sound as declaring that they "like the way [Swans] can create the most horrible noise ever on one record and the most beautiful on the next". Theirs is a potent and fascinating combination of power and grace.

The set may be short, but then we're running late and it's a school night - and, in any case, much longer and I'd have not only thought it a good idea to get "I love metal" tattooed on my eyeballs but actually gone through with it too.

Manatees, then: the best thing out of Carlisle since the A69 to Newcastle.

Friday, March 09, 2007

In The Dock: Nirvana - the verdict

In favour of Pete G's case for the prosecution: 2 (Damo, Lord Bargain)

In favour of my case for the defence: 11 (Pete A, Caskared, Paul A, Mark, Paul W, Wan, Nick The Snick, Alison, Betty, Martin, Dead Kenny)

I was a lot less confident than Pete that it'd be a clear majority in favour of Nirvana's innocence, fearing they'd go the same way as The Beatles and Bob Dylan - but in fact their status as sacred cows has been cemented.

Thanks to Pete for his contribution.

Coming soon (hopefully): Jonathan S and Damo go head-to-head over (it says here) "overly productive / low quality control pop groups".

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A super all night uber rocking disco party

Brakes/Absentee/Bobby Cook, 3rd March 2007, Leicester Charlotte

Bobby Cook comes with something of a push behind him. Arriving here after touring with Larrikin Love on the back of heavy first single play from Colin Murray and a 6 Music playlisting, he's clearly someone we need to get to know. Unfortunately, due to a late takeaway and heavy rugby union traffic, I arrive just in time for his last song. The immediate impression is Liam Frost with a hint of Bunnymen bombast and Arcade Fire structures, but time will tell better.

The Charlotte is by most accounts a bugger of a room to properly sound engineer for, and Dan Michaelson of Absentee's semi-croon must be a particular nightmare to work properly into the mix at the best of times. His voice still has the capability, on this evidence, to properly surprise people who didn't come across last year's tremendous album Schmotime, being a lugubrious, world-weary spirit sodden baritone somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner. It seems tailor-made for their Americana-influenced while peculiarly English misanthropic indiepop-scented alt-country, with hints of Pavement and Wilco particularly prevalent. They may look like debonair London scene barflys, but on the evidence of typically small scale melodramatic set highlights There's A Body In A Car Somewhere, the wistful then charging Treacle and You Try Sober, the wry duet with melodica-touting keyboardist Melinda Bronstein, you cross them at your peril. No sign of standout We Should Never Have Children, despite a request Michaelson bats back with "what, us?", but with a couple of new songs continuing carving out their sound in a more forceful vein before closer Something To Bang's declaration that "I'm tired of being a man" amid lo-fi melodicism it barely matters when they have this much to offer. And since you ask, the vocals were all over the place for the first couple of songs but always audible, so well done to their sound man.

"Fuckin' Leicester, great to be back in this shithole!" And hello to you too, Eamon. This is the third time I've seen Brakes in nine months, but then they're a band that inspire this sort of quasi-devotion in their followers. The last thing most expected after the inspired rag-tag of country-punk that was 2005's Give Blood was a follow-up album, let alone one that was more focused but still just as great in the shape of last year's The Beatific Visions, and even though both were recorded live it's still on stage that it really comes together. This focus must be at least partly due to the nature of the beast, Eamon Hamilton having left British Sea Power last year and Marc Beatty's other band The Tenderfoot having pretty much been in hibernation for a couple of years, although Alex and Tom White have found time to record the upcoming first full-length Electric Soft Parade album in four and a half years. What comes across is the sheer joy the four get from playing this not quite ramshackle but certainly not glossed up skewed rock'n'roll with extra ranting together and the investment people are willing to put into them in terms of unvarnished enjoyment. Brakes put in plenty, and the audience give it back in spades.

In total a set lasting about an hour crams in 23 songs, 25 if you count Cheney, Cheney (reprise) and Cheney (half speed version), kicking off with Hi How Are You ("won't you shut the fuck up, I'm just trying to watch the band") and borrowing liberally from both albums, which on CD don't even add up to an hour. Hamilton puts his all into these compacted splurges of thought about gig talkers, civil liberties, war, peace, love, loss and whatever the hell he was doing to form the narrative of NY Pie, while you're unlikely to find many more active guitarists than Tom White, spinning, thrusting and jumping around his small area of stage. It's testament to their energy and confidence that things hardly let up throughout a series of technical problems, firstly when Beatty manages to disconnect his bass during the intro to NY Pie, then when Hamilton has to use a spare mike after finding that while we can hear him none of the band can through their monitors, followed by Tom breaking a string, followed by Eamon breaking a string. During those two emergency replacement stoppages the other attempts to fill time with jokes, and you could travel up and down the country stopping at every primary school along the way and you won't find the 'Mexican fireman's sons' joke told worse than Eamon does during the first pause. The energy and clash of styles, shifting seamlessly from the plaintive Nashvillian If I Should Die Tonight to All Night Disco Party, which gets a huge reaction, chiefly recalls the Violent Femmes - and Hamilton does share some vocal quirks with Gordon Gano - or Camper Van Beethoven, the latter something of a giveaway as they cover both We Saw Jerry's Daughter and Shut Us Down. The latter is part of a five song encore which comes after the set proper finished with, of course, the five second Comma Comma Comma Full Stop, starting with No Return, the heartrendingly gorgeous Beatific Visions last track which sees Alex on guitar. Closing with a solo vocal version of Johnny Cash's Jackson and another thirty second pure rock scramble, Huevos Rancheros, this most unpindownable of bands departs having completely won over their audience. There really is no other UK band of note doing what they do at the moment, if only because there is no other band in the UK that will a) have a minute long anti-war song called Porcupine Or Pineapple? or b) introduce it by having their guitarist hurl an actual pineapple nearly as far as the sound booth.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In The Dock: Nirvana

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Nirvana

The case for the prosecution (Pete G)

Let's get one thing out of the way first of all. Nevermind is a good record. At the time, it seemed like a refreshing antidote to the crap bland pop and hair-rock that dominated the late '80s. I've listened to it dozens of times, but don't admittedly own a copy (although bizarrely I do have a copy of From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah); I'm fairly familiar with In Utero, Bleach and so on. So I'm not completely anti-Nirvana. However, that's really as far as it goes. So many people rave on about how Nirvana changed their lives and Kurt is their hero. I simply can't see what all the fuss is about. A band best known for one song and a drug addict singer who took his own life. Hmmm.

A few years ago, Nevermind was voted the most overrated album of all time by BBC 6 Music listeners. I wouldn't necessarily call it the most overrated album, but it's certainly overrated. Influential perhaps, but not original. The Pixies were doing the quiet / loud thing long before and even Cobain himself said that he was surprised that people didn't realise that Nevermind was a fairly obvious rip-off of The Pixies, a much more inventive band in my (biased) opinion.

Like so many other so-called influential bands, they opened the doors to hordes of copycats. Ok, so this is a criticism aimed at pretty much every so-called "influential" group at the start of a new movement (see Britpop a few weeks ago), but unfortunately, in Nirvana's case this meant the likes of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden; dull bands with particularly little merit. And if that wasn't enough, several years you had plenty of nu-metal bands claiming Nirvana (and their angst-ridden music) as an influence... well I could just finish off here.

However, I will continue. I suppose the whole "grunge" movement never really appealed to me anyway. Music which meant more to white middle American people than it did to me growing up in South London accompanied by a pretty depressing attitude to life which Kurt felt compelled to constantly share with everyone else. I'll admit I'm with Damon Albarn who once said about Nirvana, "What have these blokes got to say for themselves? 'I'm fucked up'. Fantastic."

As for Kurt Cobain, well he's become an icon in death and this has since had a huge effect on the band's legacy, much like Jim Morrison's death did on The Doors (now there's an overrated band). Nowadays, every major white rock music critic worth their salt has Nevermind in his or her Top 10 albums of all time, but would that be the case if Kurt hadn't picked up that shotgun?

Even while he was alive, Cobain's heroin usage was of more interest to most than his music, something that annoys me (much like the fuss surrounding Pete Doherty). For those supporters out there who say that Kurt along with his bandmates might have tapped into the zeitgeist, all I can say is so what? So did the Spice Girls (or rather Simon Fuller did). Is that reason to worship either over a decade on? Not in my eyes.

In addition, I'm always fairly suspicious of a band or artist who release B-sides, bootlegs, outtakes, retrospectives, demos, etc long after they've ceased to exist. Ok, so it's great for the completeists out there, but releasing the guy's diaries long after he's dead?... well that just smacks of extreme money-grabbing, not something a band should be proud of.

One more thing: without Nirvana, there would be no Courtney Love and thousands of trees wouldn't have been needlessly wasted on the (music) press printing articles about her. For that alone, surely they have to be sent down.

The case for the defence (Ben)

A few weeks ago, I tried to prosecute Britpop, with a spectacular lack of success. As I confessed then, my instinctive antipathy towards Oasis, Blur et al was at least partly a consequence of my love for Nirvana.

I was 13 when I first heard Nevermind, round at a friend’s house, no doubt sandwiched between albums by Motley Crue and Iron Maiden. As clichéd as it might sound, it was an epiphany. Nothing was the same again.

For a start, it seemed no longer possible for music to be a neatly compartmentalised part of my life, something in which I could take a passing interest from time to time. Nevermind marked the beginnings of a serious obsession which to this day monopolises my time and energies.

And with this obsession came the discovery (and burden) of taste: all music is not equal. Adopting a scorched earth policy with regard to my record collection, I literally consigned everything except the newly-procured cassette copy of Nevermind to the dustbin. Ripped it up and started again. It’s not routinely referred to as a seminal album for nothing.

Lots of people have their own Nirvana, but what was it about Nevermind that made me react like that? It was raw and unfussy. It was free from posturing and pretension. It was a visceral expression of naked emotion. Something in the music and lyrics struck a chord with me, something which gripped and engaged the listener in a completely natural, uncalculated way. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was genuinely anthemic: “Here we are now / Entertain us”. For me and millions of others, this was our punk rock.

Inevitably, those possessing delicate “refined” music sensibilities unfairly characterised – or, rather, caricatured – Nirvana as crude, abrasive and brutish. But the legendary unplugged performance for MTV illuminated the effectiveness and simple beauty of their songs, as well as showcasing their talent for taking those of others and making them convincingly their own. Revisit their remarkable take on Ledbetter’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ and I defy you not to get a shiver up your spine.

As appreciative beneficiaries of the patronage of “godfathers of grunge” Sonic Youth, Nirvana were themselves enthusiastic champions of other bands, seizing the opportunity to promote The Meat Puppets through the unplugged performance and ‘80s Scottish indiepopsters The Vaselines through the covers of ‘Son Of A Gun’ and ‘Molly’s Lips’ which appeared on Incesticide. As the lists in his journals testify, Kurt Cobain was first and foremost a music fan.

He was also a source of inspiration. Siouxsie & The Banshees bassist Steve Severin once said: “It has been said that everyone who listened to The Velvet Underground started a band ... I know I did”. The same is pretty much true of Nirvana. They made you want to pick up a guitar and play. They made you realise that music didn’t have to be difficult or sophisticated, that it didn’t have to be precision-perfect and professionally polished. That it was accessible, doable. In this respect, they had an extraordinarily liberating impact, re-teaching the lessons that punk had taught but which had been all but forgotten.

From this distance, thirteen years after Cobain committed suicide, assessments of Nirvana’s legacy are likely to be jaundiced unjustly by things beyond their control. As Michael Azerrad puts it in ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’, throughout the ‘80s in the US “alternative rock” had bubbled away “beneath the radar of the corporate behemoths” until Nirvana took it overground. In so doing, they essentially killed it off and paved the way for the likes of Silverchair and Bush – but not without giving retrospective exposure to a whole host of thoroughly deserving bands. They were an ear-opener, a gateway drug.

Nirvana also often stand accused of alerting record company execs to the profitability of angst. It’s now pre-processed, manufactured, cynically calculated to induce teenagers to part with their pocket money. But is it really fair to hold them personally responsible for emo? And did Cobain really play at being the “tortured genius”? I think not. He was a genuinely troubled young man who found himself thrust unwillingly into the limelight. Unlike the likes of Robbie Williams, he never wanted and hankered after the fame that ultimately caused him to take his own life.

And if all that isn’t enough to convince you of their innocence, then just reflect on the fact that they gave the world the drum intro to ‘Scentless Apprentice’...

* * * * *

Thanks to Pete. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Singing like a star

Kristin Hersh/The McCarricks, 2nd March 2007, Leicester Y Theatre

Many a band has been described as providing soundtracks to imaginary films; the McCarricks go one better by making, or at least commissioning, the films to fit their soundtracks. The woozy, mildly disturbing nature of the footage of cityscapes, contortionists, early cartoons and surrealist imagery used in the back projections match the furious, dramatic sawing, plucking and weaving melodies of the duo, violinist Kimberlee and cellist Martin (formerly of Therapy? and arranger for This Mortal Coil, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Marc Almond), over the accompanying beats and disembodied instrument drop-ins. Dark, compelling stuff.

The McCarricks are in fact doing a double shift as they're also in Kristin Hersh's band, and even though this is billed as her solo tour her 50 Foot Wave bandmates Bernard Georges (also Muses alumni) and Rob Ahlers are coming along too. David Narcizo actually plays drums on her latest album, but presumably billing a solo tour as cover for a Throwing Muses reunion would have been a step too far. Personally, much of Hersh's back catalogue is a black hole to me - I know a bit of the Throwing Muses' oeuvre but haven't really kept track of most of the solo or 50 Foot Wave material before this year's Learn To Sing Like A Star. It's understandably that album that provides the bulk of the night's setlist, and where the album suffers somewhat from glossed up production and mixing, in its raw state the arrangements of the new songs crystallise as a set of delicately powerful songs, its huge sound retained without compromising on the semi-cryptically personal nature of the lyrics, and in this intimate atmosphere, Hersh remarking on how quiet it is immediately before kicking into the set, her voice really stands out, rough-hewn, fragile but gaining through inner strength.

Even so, after the strong opening of Wild Vanilla it takes nearly half the set for things to take off - no real fault of Hersh's or her flexible, tight band, more that the inherent spark and crackle feels somewhat like the lid hasn't been taken off it. It only really gets going when Hersh swaps electric guitar for acoustic and proceeds to play even louder and fiercer with a forceful run through Your Dirty Answer, wherein her earthy tones develop a Wicked Witch Of The West evil cackle, and from there on in everything surges and sparkles, especially on album standouts In Shock and Winter. Hersh has seemingly accepted her role as one of America's most intriguing indie cult concerns, mostly by the look of the audience for those whose later stages of education were soundtracked by discovering The Real Ramona or University, and her banter remains relaxed, appealing and self-deprecating. After an hour that has thoroughly eviscerated the emotions ranging from delicate self-prognosis to full on rockouts she returns for an encore of Gazebo Tree, which she precedes by explaining that it was inspired by her regular discussions with old ladies on buses, accompanied by just the strings before the full band pull out a charged but controlled version of the Muses' White Bikini Sand. Hersh remains an electrifying performer at her best, and while the college rock circuit fame promised in the Muses' breakthrough days never really came to pass it's not such a bad thing if we still get to experience her playing to her own rules of musical engagement in these sort of surroundings.

Friday, March 02, 2007

In The Dock: Music being played too loudly from car stereos - the verdict

In favour of Alison's case for the prosecution: 5 (Mark, Caskared, Swiss Toni, Pete A, Anon)

In favour of Ian's case for the defence: 4 (Dead Kenny, drmigs, Wan, Ben)

Abstentions: 1 (Damo)

After charging into a 4-0 lead, the prosecution case limps over the finish line in first - thanks only to a very late vote from Anon aka my better half. Consider yourself very lucky, Alison!

Thanks to Alison and Ian for their contributions.

Coming soon: Pete G has Nirvana up against the wall, while I supply the body armour.

If you go down to Spillers today...

... or rather Tuesday just gone, you're sure of a big surprise. For there, performing some of his recent solo material for the pleasure of the assembled throng, was Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys.

I may have been stood outside peering in through the open door (it was ticket-only) but it was definitely him - he made the point of standing up and holding aloft his guitar for our benefit.

If I'd finished work earlier and managed to snaffle one of the gold-dust tickets, I may well have had the pleasure of witnessing the Gindrinker live experience, for they were scheduled to play in support. Quite what passers-by and the builders and demolition men working on the St David's 2 site might have made of the likes of 'Hey! Greengrocer' is anyone's guess.

In-store appearances - anything the Big Boys can do, Spillers can do better. Just another reason why one of this city's most venerable institutions needs to be protected from possible extinction.

What's that smell?

Is it the smell of desperation? Over to you, Brian Harvey: "I know some people have been slagging Eurovision off but any audience is an audience for me". Funny that - I don't imagine you would have appreciated an audience cheering and whooping away when you contrived to run yourself over, Brian...

Harvey will be competing against former Atomic Kitten Liz McClarnon, "former" Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins (I knew Frankie Poulain had left, but have they actually split?), Big Brovaz and Scooch - oh, and some no-hoper called Cyndi - for the chance to represent the UK at this year's Eurovision Song Contest. And to think you defended it, Mike...

Math rock

Thanks to Kenny for the tip-off that semi-legendary Nottingham outfit Six. By Seven are back together. Chris Olley, Chris Davis, James Flower and Sam Hempton, who have featured in a whole host of different projects over recent years (Spotlight Kid, Twelve, Fuck Me USA, Earth The Californian Love Dream), have "buried their differences" and are currently working on new material. No mention of original bassist James Douglas, though - a bit curious, given the importance of the bass to their early sound.

The question is: will it all add up? Things have never been quite the same since Hempton walked out around the time that their second LP The Closer You Get, so it'll be interesting to see if they can pick up where they left off then - intense and angry, while retaining some of the brooding poise of their debut The Things We Make. If they can, then no-one - least of all me - will be complaining about the fact that they seem to be the band that just wouldn't die.

On an unrelated music note, my review of shoegazers Air Formation's latest album Daylight Storms is now up on the Vanity Project site.