Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Carla chameleon

Carla Bozulich @ The Spitz. 06jun07.

It’s a humid summer’s evening here in London, and certainly in the Spitz’s penthouse venue. Bobb Bruno’s first act is one of defiance in the face of the casual stickiness; pulling up the flap of his teddy-bear-eared hoodie. Later on, a brief solo sees him hammer the electronic drum-pads like a death metal veteran, clearly earning his sweaty spurs.

Bobb Bruno is Carla Bozulich’s flat-mate. Shahzad Ismaily is another of her old chums. Tonight she eschews her usual full-band approach in favour of a haphazardly-gathered trio, of which the afore-mentioned are the other two. As she tours Europe picking up colleagues old and new en-route, she reaches London on a tour that is centred around a long holiday visiting friends and recording in Italy. There is an album, 2006’s ‘Evangelista’, to promote, but that is merely an afterthought. Yours, and as it turned out mine, for a tenner.

Her entire re-recording of Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ may have picked her up a few country types tonight, while one couple in the crowd cheer with uncontained delight at her performance of a Geraldine Fibbers number (Bozulich was head Fibber), so one might question how they would take to her pushing at the dirgecore envelope in such noir-ish a fashion. Tonight is about sonic exploration, but there appears to be no let up in the adoration.

There is a roominess in the love, almost unconditional, that allows her voice to filter through the speaker of a Playschool microphone, into the pick-ups of her guitar and out again, and for no-one to bat an eyelid. It sounds like Mum & Dad (that being the band rather than an arbitrary set of parents), or like Doris Day vinyl being melted down for new Diamanda Galas LP’s. Perhaps it is as you might expect from someone who counts Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion members not only as friends, but as contributors to the dark machine that is ‘Evangelista’.

Of course, what sets Carla apart, is that incredible voice, capable of holding a low-note that growls and fizzes like burning meat; capable of drawling like a sun-pickled tramp; capable of capturing an emotion, shaking it, and throwing it mercilessly against a window. She echoes, at different points, Patti Smith at her most visceral and strong, PJ Harvey (if given to chewing the odd bit of straw), Kate Bush lost in a gospel-spasm and maybe Stevie Nicks collapsing into untameable manic depression.

The voice is powerful as an ox, but vulnerable as a stray kitten. A couple of examples. 1. She buffets Ismaily whilst he plays keys, pulling him off-kilter, which he runs with, and from this horseplay she unties a shamanistic vocal trance from way down in her glottis. 2. Earlier in the set she calls out “Can you feel…LIFE’S BLOOD!!!” as though frenzied, but yet whilst dancing like an internally distracted four year old.

Tonight is about many aspects: trapped hymns; murder drones caught in a cyclone (thrown in the spin through jagged, startling KLANGS and arresting country-croon yelps); creaking-door ghostics; base mechanics and, amidst it all, a haphazard pirouette around the mic-stand that unleashes Carla’s confrontationally bleak avant-soul.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Shot to the heart

Time was when you knew exactly what a new Low album would sound like: a beautifully and delicately crafted spiderweb of sound, exquisitely slow and - yes - very low.

Then, in 2003, came Trust. As if the chillingly insidious sense of threat cloaking songs like 'John Prine' and 'Candy Girl' wasn't enough of a shock to the system, incongruous lead single 'Canada' was a loud fuzzy quasi-pop gem.

Perhaps inevitably, 2005's The Great Destroyer left more Low fans feeling betrayed. Their approximation of a classic rock record replete with musical allusions to Neil Young, it signalled that their discovery of the distortion pedal and power chord on 'Canada' wasn't a one-off, while some of the tracks clustered towards its brilliant conclusion - 'When I Go Deaf', 'Death Of A Salesman', 'Walk Into The Sea' - were remarkable for the way they ultimately mutated into statements of heartbreaking positivity.

Suffice to say that the Duluth trio's latest offering Drums And Guns is different again.

As opening verses of opening songs on albums go, "All the soldiers / They're all gonna die / All the little babies / They're all gonna die" is striking in the extreme. In this way 'Pretty People' effectively sets the tone for the whole album - one which boasts such song titles as 'Your Poison', 'In Silence', 'Murderer' and 'Violent Past'. Sure, there is the odd brief moment of levity (such as the opening couplet of 'Hatchet': "You be my Charlie and I can be your George / Let's bury the hatchet like The Beatles and The Stones") - but they're few and far between.

It's hard not to attribute the bleakness of chief songwriter and lyricist Alan Sparhawk's vision to the mental breakdown he suffered during the course of the Great Destroyer tour, something which was cited by bassist Zak Sally as his principal reason for deciding to quit the band (Drums And Guns is the first with his replacement Matt Livingston).

But the new record isn't remarkable primarily for its bleakness and fatalism by contrast to the positivity of much of its predecessor; it's for the way in which Low have ventured into what is for them hitherto unexplored musical territory by embracing technology. The songs are short, deceptively simple and for the first time underpinned with electronic pulses and clicks as much as by Mimi Parker's metronomic Mo-Tucker-on-Mogadon drums. The parallels that have been drawn with Kid A, while a little exaggerated (Drums And Guns doesn't represent quite such a significant departure from The Great Destroyer as Kid A did from OK Computer), are nevertheless relevant and instructive.

As a long-time Low fan at least, the results of this experiment are initially hard to love, but over time it becomes apparent that they're actually a resounding success. On tracks like 'Always Fade' and 'Breaker' (perhaps the standout), the synthetic elements are incorporated in such a way that they don't dilute or compromise the band's essential qualities but rather complement them, hinting tantalisingly at new avenues down which the band could travel - should they choose to do so, of course.

If we're talking the running standings for my album of the year, this is right up there.


Too Many Words, Too Many Words - Ian's Low blog

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Aussie rules

Who better to write an appreciation of the richness, beauty and power of Nick Cave's lyrics than Will Self, confessedly an admirer of Cave's novel 'And The Ass Saw The Angel' and like him someone who has immersed himself in a "toxic imbroglio"?

Self recognises the peculiarly Australian quality to his poetic voice (something of which I was reminded when watching 'The Proposition' for a second time at the weekend), but doesn't simply laud him for his tales of brutal violence and Old Testament morality: "If Cave were to be typified as a lyricist of blood, guts and angst, it would be a grave mistake. He stands as one of the great writers on love of our era. Each Cave love song is at once perfumed with yearning, and already stinks of the putrefying loss to come. For Cave, consummation is always exactly that". (Incidentally, Cave actually said much the same himself when he was the subject of 'The South Bank Show': "For me, the great love song has within it an ache".

It's also good to note that Self isn't guilty - as many people are - of depicting Cave purely as some kind of po-faced preacher of the apocalypse; he draws attention to the wickedly satirical and absurdist elements of Cave's lyrics, elements which have become increasingly pronounced in recent years. Self points to 'God Is In The House', claiming it "demonstrates his ability to ironise, then re-ironise, and then re-ironise again, engendering a dizzying vortex as received values are sucked down the pointed plughole", but he could equally have gestured towards 'Hallelujah' from the same record, or the storming single 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World' from his last offering, 2005's double album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus, for evidence of Cave having a sense of humour.

No mention, though, of the extraordinary opening lines to 'Into Your Arms', the opener and lead single from The Boatman's Call - so, just to put matters right: "I don't believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do / But if I did I would kneel down and ask him / Not to intervene when it came to you".

(Thanks to Pete for the link.)

Silence (and noise) is golden


As regular readers may well have gathered by now, I'm firmly of the belief that exciting things are afoot in Cardiff at the moment - and I'm not talking about the ongoing development of the new St David's 2 shopping centre. Naturally, the vibrant nature of the city's music scene is primarily attributable to the bands who call it home. But the importance of the supporting infrastructure shouldn't never be underestimated.

Cardiff currently offers everything needed to create an extraordinarily fertile environment in which a scene can thrive: publications like Buzz, Kruger and student mag Quench which are quick to champion local talent; DJs such as Huw Stevens and Adam Walton who do likewise at every opportunity; a record shop that acts as a focal point for aspiring bands and musicians; a plethora of venues of varying sizes upon whose stages bands can graduate (my gigging companion tonight, visiting from Portsmouth, is both rueful and envious on this point); and a number of passionate individuals intent on promoting anything and everything they like at considerable personal cost and risk in terms of both time and finances (Lesson No. 1, Forecast, Twisted By Design, Peppermint Patti and FAG Club to name but a few).

But one promoter stands apart - someone who has been one of the lynchpins in the south Wales music scene since before some of the current crop were even born. Paul Clarke promotes Meltdown, which commemorated its twentieth year with a triumphant celebratory gig at the Point last November. The ethos behind Meltdown gigs is that pretty much anything goes, as long as it gets the seal of approval from Paul and his dedicated committee. Rock, folk, punk, indie and more co-exist on the same eclectic bills, while young often butt up against old; Meltdown isn't just about preserving the past in aspic but about giving a platform to new and exciting talent - just ask the likes of The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, Threatmantics, The Hot Puppies, The Physicists, Lily Green and Drunk Granny, all of whom have been thankful to Clarke and co for a leg-up in recent years, and some of whom have since become Meltdown regulars.

In this sense, then tonight's line-up is entirely typical.

We begin with Guto Dafis, one half of folk duo Toreth but this evening performing solo. Dafis often sings in his native Welsh, but the four songs he plays to the accompaniment of his melodeon are all in English, the words all the more striking for being accented. The first three are covers - including one particularly bleak lament which continually circles around images of death and burial, alluding at one point to Aberfan - but it's the fourth, one of Dafis' own compositions, that makes the greatest impact, an ostensibly congratulatory ode to the happiness of an ex-lover which turns out to be laced with irony and bitterness. That Dafis performs before only a handful of people is a desperate shame.

By the time it's the turn of the youngsters to take over, the room has begun to fill up. Silence At Sea are fronted by Laura Janes and Gareth Jones, both of whom are also key to sprawling indiepop collective Little My and involved in Hornby Pylons. I've been looking forward to seeing them - and not just because my comments on their contribution to the Twisted By Design compilation, 'Between Her Fingers', has been used on the flyer! - and they certainly don't disappoint.

Wearing an animal suit minus headgear and playing an acoustic guitar with the words "Cat Power" emblazoned on it like a mark of allegiance, Gareth gives the band its pulse while Laura's crystal-clear vocals are its soul, accompanied by occasional contributions on xylophone and violin from the supporting cast. To someone already familiar with Little My's ramshackle approach to composition, what's most immediately striking about songs like 'Memorise Everything' and closer 'Dead Cowboy Town' is the beautiful neatness and simplicity of their construction, pop in the same way that Camera Obscura are. But don't go thinking it's all sweetness and light - they're not above a little spite and malevolence, as attested by the short and disarmingly pretty song about hoping a girl dies...

This is my first encounter with Pagan Wanderer Lu, an adopted son of Cardiff originally hailing from Bolton who is both a prolific recording artist and something of a Meltdown favourite. So gawd bless 'im for marking the occasion by debuting his new band The Volunteers, who amongst their polo-shirt-and-namebadged number feature - would you believe it? - Laura Janes on vocals. In truth, the transformation of what is essentially a bedroom project into a full live band isn't entirely successful, and the cause is hardly helped by the rising volume of chatter and our seating position towards the back, but there's enough in the way of wry indie/electropop (Hefner would be a reasonable comparison) to merit further investigation.

Shortly afterwards Guto Dafis is back on stage, this time as accompaniment to Rhondda legends Watermelons, who can proudly claim to have played the very first Meltdown event in 1986. Their bluesy roots rock turns out to be a bit too trad for my tastes, but at least they prove themselves to be capable musicians with a sense of humour - at the start we're advised "Have a nice Christmas" and at the end "If you didn't have a nice Christmas, have a nice Easter"...

In the present company Gindrinker are - as is now only to be expected - a thoroughly enjoyable bit of rough, very definitely the yang to Silence At Sea's yin. Tonight a visibly refreshed DC, his hair seemingly out of control, takes particular relish in describing the events of 'Ian The Dog Murderer' and is keen to show those clustered around the stage Graf's new effects pedal, which resembles a stapler. A clutch of new songs get an airing, with 'Tax Exiles' amongst those squeezed out of the set, but there's still room for the "hits" ie 'Hey! Greengrocer' and 'God Of Darts' and the familiar sense of having been violated by the time the drum machine is switched off. Gindrinker, then: far from being Fray Bentos pies of men.

I have to confess that by the time headliners Naughty appear, I'm feeling the effects of my numerous trips bar-wards, and am unable to get the slightly disturbing image of DC's gurning face screaming "WORK IT OUT!" out of my mind - which means the rabble-rousing sleazy pub-punk veterans are all a bit of a blur. Not, I do recall, really my cup of earl grey - but then that's what Meltdown's all about: something for everyone.

Here's to the next twenty years.


Mei Lewis' photos of the gig

Monday, June 04, 2007

...I generally prefer a zip, meself

Fuck Buttons. Brixton Windmill. 02jun07.

A table purloined politely, cleared of drinks, flyers and stray lighters, and placed not on stage, but in front of. Four legs good on this dancefloor; a half-nod to kindred spirits Lightning Bolt and their corner-of-the-room billet. The size of the table at first seems a bit much for a duo. In fact it is utterly necessary, soon cluttered with suitcases full of equipment; various sized keyboards dotted amongst the lap-tops and mixing consoles like de-mobbed Russian dolls screwing with the conventional curvature of the ascent of man.

In fact, the thickness of the table’s wood is a decent metaphor for the impenetrable span of Fuck Buttons’ caustic lustre. It is the sound of men who may well have experienced some pretty tough love; their pieces like a torn-out-journal-entry-from-weeks-of-tortuous-capture reappropriated as postcard: “All around us is white noise and gunfire. Nothing but white noise and gunfire, following day following night. The radiator shackles allow exercise to a ten-foot radius. Wish you were here!”

Tonight they relive their cuff-lock holiday, not through slideshow, but sonic re-creation, with gathering punters symbolically acting as the wall which they seek to break down. Andrew Hung jumps into the wall whilst unleashing his feral screams; a visceral bellow that he lives, wide-eyed and unhinged, challenging the front-row, toe-to-toe/nose-to-nose, while Ben Power sporadically unfurls his arms from his keyboard-wrangling hunch to clatter at a single drum.

Opening piece ‘Sweet Love For Planet Earth’ combines brooding menace with an ambient twinkle, and while their set might seem to be merely sheet noise as endurance test, there are layers to their work. However, the gleeful glint in their four eyes suggests that for all their malfunction-as-function artistry, they feed mostly from their fractious, challenging bent. If this music can be described as ‘moving’, it is only in the sense that the vibrations of a floor trying to cope with their corrosive, tumultuous drones will invariably cause their audiences to involuntarily judder a few inches backward.

By the end of their forty minutes, their audience-as-wall is half broken down, shorn of its outer-layers. Whilst Fuck Buttons clearly crave and deserve respect, I do wonder whether an un-cleared room does feel a little, to them, like defeat.

Fuck Buttons @ MySpace