Thursday, May 31, 2007


So while Ben rests between features I've stepped in for, at the moment, one week only with a new Art Of Noise idea, 5x5. That's five songs being reviewed by five contributors.

What's happened is the five songs have been ripped from the Myspaces of artists, almost all unsigned, who are gaining a lot of industry buzz at the moment and presented untagged, so none of them had any background to go on and this post is the first time they'll find out what they were listening to, to five volunteers for review to see what 'the people' really think of the bands the industry are after. The results have turned out, well, interestingly. Obviously, let us know what you think and if it works out well I'll put another set together in the near future.

The guinea pigs for 5x5 are Ben, Damo, Jonathan, Mike and Swiss Toni. The songs are:

1) The Ting Tings - Great DJ
Mancunian electro duo who booked a national support tour before they'd played a proper gig. "The White Stripes reversed with a synthesiser and massive bass drum" say the label.

Ben: It’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs with bleepy bits and a disco vibe! And a chorus that will run and run and run... Clearly this sort of thing will fit in well at a time at which Klaxons are worshipped as minor deities, and it’s certainly not bad, even if it does run out of steam a bit towards the end.
Damo: This starts sounding a little like the sort of thing the NME (have you seen the cover this week? Just wondering...) would term as new-rave before becoming something so worryingly nondescript that I can find nothing particularly to say about it. I’ll try. It sounds like The B-52s, sounding very bored indeed, singing over backing rhythm number 52 on a cheap Casio keyboard. "The strings - ee ee eeeee ee ee ee ee eeeee" - if I want gobbledegook passed off as entertainment I’ll dig out my old Black Grape records, thanks. Sounds a little like the couple of tracks I’ve heard by New Young Pony Club. Not a compliment.
Jonathan: I'm not surprised that this catchy, very 2007 tune has caused people's ears to prick up, but that's no guarantee it'll sound good in 12 months. It sounds like an attempt to marry the style of gregarious indie-funk which has been so successfully pioneered by the likes of CSS to the bombastic, semi-kitsch choruses of Gwen Stefani. It's boisterous and confident, and well executed, and actually features a pretty nice guitar line, albeit one which I'm not sure actually belongs to the song, which is so totally dominated by it's catchy chorus as to render the rest almost irrelevant. A deft remix of this would go down a storm in a club, or even on a passing radio, but something about it's construction irritates me somewhat. Perhaps it's an innapropriate criticism, but this sounds so of it's time that curiously, it feels almost nostalgic. Not bad, but nothing special.
Mike: It's a little bit CSS, it's a little bit New Young Pony Club - it's yer standard issue dance-punk, basically. I'm seeing studied 'anti-cool' cool, artfully dishevelled 'anti-fashion' fashion, plastic sunglasses, day-glo backdrops, and directional haircuts. What I'm not (yet) seeing is much evidence of creative thought outside of the usual template, but presumably it's early days, and this does its job efficiently enough. I like the chiming guitar lines during the chorus, the New York New Wave yelping, and the over-extended faux-dumb repetition of "the drums, the drums, the drums, the drums..."
Swiss Toni: I like the intro, but it's not terribly challenging or orginal sounding. Oooh, but those Casio blips suddenly mark this out as being a little bit different, and I wasn't expecting the prominent female vocal either (somehow made all the more prominent by the male vocal tracking underneath it). This is infectious: it's slightly spiky and awkward, but has a fantastic little hook that gives this great earworm potential. Mind you, I think that the whole "the drums, the drums, the drums..." thing is overdone. Less would be more, and perhaps this is about 60 seconds too long. It's good. Different but catchy and memorable. Would it be a big seller? No, it screams small but devoted indie audience to me. It's the Rescue Rooms, not Rock City for me.

2) The Teenagers - Sunset Beach
Originally from Paris, now in London, they're taking the style magazines by storm, as much for their remixes as their (it says here) Velvets-meets-Arab Strap lo-fi drone.

Ben: Whipcrack snare and ominous bassline supplemented by some moody guitar, and then it clicks into gear - and goes downhill very rapidly. "This fucking bitch deserves to die" - well, thanks for proving that casual misogyny isn’t the exclusive preserve of 50 Cent and pals. Probably ironic, though, eh? The spoken word bits (do I detect a Scandinavian accent?) are equally offensive, though simply by virtue of being rubbish. So, she stole your "fucking Jazzmaster"? Good.
Damo: Oooh, shoegazing is back, and this time it’s goth-tinged. At least that’s how it starts. Then someone who sounds like the evil cousin of Dieter Meier from Yello starts intoning. The refrain "this fucking bitch deserves to die" is repeated throughout. I realise that's a description of the track rather than a review of it but it possibly tells you as much as you need to know. The bass player wishes he/she was Peter Hook, and overall it’s the sound of one or more people trying far too hard to sound cleverer than they actually are.
Jonathan: This is more interesting than it initially seems, opening with a grinding bassline and guitar stabs which immediately mark this out out as a too-familiar post-Interpol, post-punk record, but it, in fairness, quickly throws you off the scent by leading straight into an odd, pretty chorus sung in a home counties drawl which recalls Ride's Mark Gardener. From there, it twists into a spoken word section which details a one night stand which ends with the theft of, erm, a Fender Jazzmaster. It's actually reasonably impressive, well recorded and distinctive. But lyrics like "this bitch deserves to die" make me want to turn it off straight away and so, on the second listen, I do. Oh well.
Mike: You could beat-mix into this quite easily from Track One, with which it shares a certain rhythmic similarity - at least for the relatively sparse first minute, before the meat of the track kicks in, and those all too familiar and somewhat tired sounding 'angular post-punk' stylings take over. Then, just as you're thinking that it’s really too soon for a Spring 2005 revival, you catch the lyrics "this fucking bitch deserves to die", casually mumbled rather than vituperatively snarled, and before you know it, you’re into a weird film noir monologue, delivered in what sounds like a London indie kid’s best approximation of Schwarzenegger-esque menace. The bass/drum breakdown needs more work, and the ending's a touch too abrupt and inconclusive, but this has its moments of interest.
Swiss Toni: Ah, A bass intro. You can't go wrong with a bass intro. So far so hackneyed, but not in an unpleasant way, and the low guitar notes here are starting to take this somewhere else. Before the singing starts, it's actually reminding me a bit of a less produced version of Editors. Oh God, but then the vocal starts. Instead of that rich, deep voice that Tom Smith of the Editors has, this is some awful mumbling. It's almost tuneless and it seems to be paying only the scantest of attention to the melody. But just as I'm growing bored of this when an accented voiceover turns up and holds my attention. Sadly, it's hard to understand and the bits that I can make out aren't at all interesting. I don't care enough to want to know what this guy is talking about. I'm losing the will to listen to more of this. It's amateurish. They clearly like this voiceover technique too because the bloody thing keeps coming back. Ooooh, swearing! Naughty boys. Bobbins. Although I do like the bass.

3) Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong - Lonely Buoy
Hopelessly named quintet in the midst of a big A&R scrum. The titular Joe also drums for the Pipettes and was Sophie's brother in the recent series of Peep Show.

Ben: Obviously it’s time to bow at the altar of Carl ‘n’ Pete. It’s the busy drums of the verse that sets this apart from the pack, but the chorus lets it down, at least until the scratchy guitar riff comes in. There’s a bubbly youthfulness about this that irritates slightly, but you can probably put that down to the curmudgeonly spirit of the listener.
Damo: The two words you hear most on this track are 'sweat' ("the sweat surrounds us all", apparently) and 'sparks'. Funny that - words you associate respectively with perspiration and inspiration, those words commonly used by reviewers when trying to elucidate whether a band is doing something genuinely interesting or just going through the motions. I think you can see where this is going. What we've got here is generic indie pop with no distinguishing features at all. Pay a visit to your nearest pub on a local bands night. One of them will sound great. Three of them will sound like this, and you’ll never hear or remember a note by them again, unless the reason you were there was that one of them is one of your mates is in the band and keeps pestering you to check their demo out on Myspace and wants your feedback. Listen - there’s a reason they keep 'forgetting' to check it out, and that’s because they didn’t forget at all. They heard it and don’t want to have to lie to you. They don’t want to have to say "that was interesting stuff" whilst the giveaway facial expression literally screams "that virtually redefined pointlessness and I’ll never get those few minutes of my life back". I didn’t think much of this one.
Jonathan: Hmm, let's start with the negative stuff. I'm so weary of hearing so many near-exact fascimiles of this early 80s thing! This song contains so many traces of Josef K, The Smiths and Joy Division that it's almost impossible to not conclude I've heard it before. But adding to this impression is the fact that it's actually a very pretty piece of pop, enlivened by some inventive drumming and a restless energy which means it shifts shape delicately on several occasions. Moving from yearning choruses to angular, jittery bits, it's very well performed and melodically interesting. But bands like this (whoever they are), doubtless handsome, talented teenagers, are coming late to a sound I tired of a couple of years ago. Whether the public have the energy for another band like this I'm not sure. A good song though, the best of the five.
Mike: "I need to watch the sparks made by the trains as they rattle on the deadbeat tracks" might be an unlikely choice of wording for a crowd-pleasing chant-along, but that would seem to be the intention here, and so one has to applaud its ambition. Fey yet muscular indie-pop, not a million miles removed from Los Campesinos!, with distinct signs of intelligence and personality. It twists and turns hither and thither, with hooky bits and riffy bits, and pleasing displays of intricate, focused musicianship. That drummer of theirs is definitely one to watch; he’s a showy bugger, of the John Maher/Clem Burke more-is-more school, and as such deserves our full encouragement.
Swiss Toni: Oh, this sounds like a classic indie intro: I can hear various classic US indie bands in that intro? The main guitar melody is wearing its Smiths influences on its sleeve, but sadly for the band, the guitarist is no Johnny Marr and the singer is certainly no Morrissey... no matter how much he wishes that he was. Oh God, perhaps I'm getting too old for this. I think that rather than being directly influenced by the Smiths, the singer is actually trying to be Pete Doherty doing Morrissey, and there's a definite Libertines edge to this too, and perhaps via the Libertines influence there's just the tiniest hint of The Clash about this too. I can see this singer wearing one of those stupid pork-pie trilbys that Docherty wears. I don't really like this particular song, and the band sound a bit rough on this recording, but I do think it's at least a little bit interesting and that perhaps this lot might even have some potential.

4) Does It Offend You, Yeah? - Weird Science
I know good band names are running out, but really. The quasi-anonymous Reading duo follow where electro housesters Justice and MSTRKRFT have recently gone.

Ben: At night the machines come awake... Really rather marvellous electro hitched to a stomping 80s beat that has prime party-mode Daft Punk written all over it. For the video I’m picturing a 200ft tall silver robot striding through a city crushing buildings and people in its path.
Damo: Ah! I can deal with this one. There seems to be a bit of a revival of ‘fun’ electronica at the minute (see: Digitalism, Justice, Simian Mobile Disco) which sends some people running for the hills but chucks a great big smile on my face. I miss Bentley Rhythm Ace; sue me. This is the sort of thing I would dance like a loon to if drunk. It’s a shame I rarely get drunk anymore. I might have to just so I can make a fool of myself to this - it also brings to mind bits of Daft Punk’s Discovery, one of my favourite records of all time. Do we have to nominate a favourite out of the five? This is mine.
Jonathan: Ah, well, this is an agreeably squelchy and nostalgic piece of nostalgic Gallic house music, and yet, somehow, for all it's pleasing analogue noises and snatched samples, it somehow completely fails to deliver an interesting breakdown or diverting loop. That's not to say that it isn't in many ways the most fun song on offer here, but there's nothing groundbreaking and at the same time nothing displeasing, and it's tempting to be rude and suggest that, frankly, it's all a bit lazy and derivative. A waste of a good palette of sounds, and at the same time, a nice enough groove.
Mike: Hot new undiscovered Myspace act my arse - this is just Daft Punk trying to claw back lost ground after that bloody awful album from two years ago, isn't it? Or if it isn't, then maybe this is just The Continuation Of Daft Punk By Other Means, in which case, I applaud it for improving on the fatally tarnished original article. A chunky, propulsive, vocoder-driven robot-rock riff is cut up and interspersed with the usual array of squiddly, squelchy noises, with sufficient variations on the theme to sustain interest throughout. It does its job, and I'm not complaining.
Swiss Toni: Is this Daft Punk? Seriously? Or is it Lonely Town doing Daft Punk? You know, that guy who had that number one hit from his bedroom? (White Town - Ed.) I'm not sure that I can take this seriously. Was it written on one of those Casio synthesisers that has the buttons you press to get a drumbeat out? It's not really going anywhere... and the places it does go have already been extensively mined by other bands. I bet they'd put robots in the video to this, or - get this - perhaps the artists could dress up as robots themselves? You know, and throw a few jerky robot moves? How long is this? 5 minutes? What charm it has has disappeared after 2 minutes. No thanks. B-O-R-I-N-G.

5) Laura Marling - New Romantic
As we move from New Didos to New Lilys this 17 year old Reading native is getting a lot of attention between A-levels, as well as a guest spot on the recent Rakes album.

Ben: This has its own distinct character, but does it really have to be so hurried? You get the impression the lyrics are just tossed off and thrown together, such is the pace with which they're garbled. It would be a boring world if every female singer-songwriter took her cue from the best i.e. Chan Marshall, but surely the words could be invested with a little more than insouciance? The namechecking of Ryan Adams also really annoys me - perhaps irrationally, but so it goes.
Damo: And if we have to nominate the track we like the least out of the five, this is it. By a country mile. This sounds like Kate Nash, only acoustic. I am, however, guessing that it is not her. And it namechecks Ryan Adams. I largely distrust anyone who namechecks another act in their own music, because I think of when you visit someone you know and they try to impress you by putting on something that they’re not really into, but want you to think they are so that you’ll realise just how cool they are. This sounds like the sort of thing Jo Whiley would go mad for. In fact, it sounds like an attempt by Jamie T’s sister to cover P!nk. If the person behind this becomes successful, I will never turn my radio on again ever.
Jonathan: I don't know who the artist is, but I'm going to hazard a guess that it's someone who is very nearly half my age - it seems to fit squarely into the template established by the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Nash, and it that context it's perfectly valid, and probably heart-felt. But I find the Cockney vocal ticks and mannered pronounciation deeply irritating, and while the youthful UK vocabulary might be empowering for teenagers used to hearing American slang in pop music, it grates with me. I've not got this far in life without wincing with pain at the use of the phrase 'fit' to mean 'attractive' and I suspect it's too late for me to change. Anyway, as a piece of music, this is pretty folk pop which has one lovely chord change and melody, right where the singer croons "in this new romantic way". That aside, it's not my cup of tea, I'm afraid.
Mike: I could have done without the de rigueur post-Lily Allen/sub-Kate Nash middle-class-girl-goes-Mockney conversationalism, as it dulls the individuality of what sounds like a promising and talented singer, who would be better served by not trying to fit into the prevailing musical climate in such an already over-familiar, wearing way. That aside, the sparse acoustic arrangement, the double-tracked harmonies and the overall air of wry frailty serve the song well.
Swiss Toni: Ah, it's Sandi Thom. This is quite brave actually. Somehow when I think of a female singer-songwriter, I think of them as having beautiful, fragile voices. This one is (I think) London accented and a tiny bit rough around the edges. God help us, it also seems to have some interesting lyrics, with an amusing reference to Bryan Adams catching my attention immediately. The playing and performing here is actually OK. It's simple and stripped, with just the sound of the voice and a single guitar (with the tiniest hint of layered voices here and there). The melody is simple and slightly traditional sounding, but the singer's accent and the wordiness of the lyrics is drawing me in and making me want to listen. In a strange kind of way it's reminding me a bit of Jamie T... there's a hint of street poetry here, even. She sounds like she's got bags of character. If Joni Mitchell had grown up in Essex in the 1990s, then perhaps she might sound something like this. Having said all of that though, I wouldn't say that I liked this song particularly, but it has certainly interested me. Of all of these five songs, this is the only one that I actually want to listen to again to see if I can pick out the lyrics. I bet she'd hate to be compared to Lily Allen, this one. (And on second listen, this is actually starting to annoy me a bit. That voice grates as it is ever-so slightly mannered. Is the accent put on or is she just doing her best folk voice? Street poetry? I think that's probably a bit strong.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

the cribs - men's needs, women's needs

There's a bit of a contradiction at the heart of Wakefield's indie rock trio The Cribs. They've carefully cultivated a reputation as unfocused and scruffy dissenters against the fashion-led UK indie scene. They deride 'scenesters' wherever possible, record their records with scant regard for production quality, and play blistering live shows calculated to make the likes of Bloc Party look tame and weedy. Although their music is identifiably British, undeniably a product of these post-punk referencing times, their influences are different - a recent podcast they assembled for Drowned In Sound contained punk-poetry by UK riot grrl noiseniks Huggy Bear, idiosyncratic pop courtesy of Daniel Johnston and several slices of awesome alternative rock by Comet Gain, Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney.

On the other hand, after several years making raucous records at the edge of the indie scene, looking scornfully in, they've never broken through and have made the decision to recruit fan Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand) to produce, in their new 'Men's Needs, Women's Needs', a much cleaner and more listenable effort than their previous albums. 'Men's Needs', the first single, is noticeably slower than their live take. They've called in their dues at the NME, got a proper marketing budget and, clearly, now is the time to make a concerted effort to storm the top 40. Will it happen? The Young Knives didn't quite manage it. But all the same, The Cribs do have the songs, bouncing around between the disparate poles of the stated contradiction.

'Men's Needs' is probably the best example. A furiously catchy and belligerent pop song which will doubtless tear up every hip indie disco in the country, it nevertheless starts with a typically cutting put-down. "Have you noticed", Ryan jabs, "I've never been impressed by your friends from New York and London"? The angular, dead simple riff could easily come from a Franz record, and yet Ryan's brother, Ross, handling the chorus, conjures up an impressive rasp more reminiscent of Kurt Cobain than Alex Kapranos. And although the latter has certainly smartened up the Cribs' sound, it's still agreeably rough and ready.

The song's flip, 'Woman's Needs', better showcases the band's versatility. Boasting a fat Pixies-style bassline and squelching synthesisers, it's both gorgeous and wilfully difficult, boasting an offbeat, chanted chorus that could easily have been penned by mid-period Pavement. Their debt to that band is, unsurprisingly, all over the record - tell me that a band which calls a song 'Major's Titling Victory' is not made up of Malkmus nuts. But on 'Moving Pictures' it's Scott Kannberg's melodic Pavement input, complimented by reverberations of noise that recall Echo and The Bunnymen, that the band evoke.

'I'm a Realist' is one of the catchiest songs; the brothers trading lines over commercial Britpop licks. "I'm a realist. I'm a romantic", they sing, "I'm an indecisive piece of shit". Despite the tuneful production, however, there's something endearingly sloppy about the vocal delivery - the effect is that they're singing along, rather than delivering a careful vocal take. It's to Kapronos's credit that he didn't force a more professional effort out of them.

Not everything works - they pack the better songs in the front end of the album, and 'I've Tried Everything' aims for a subtety which their rumbustious style doesn't suit - they can harmonise well, but I'm not sure I want them to. Again though, a Malkmus-esque guitar line rescues proceedings as the song progresses. Talking of indie icons, for 'Be Safe' they pull off the not inconsiderable feat of getting Lee Ranaldo (Lee Ranaldo!) into the studio. He recites some passable poetry over their churning guitars. The sheer impressiveness of having a member of the Sonic Youth carries the song, but there's nothing actually remarkable there, disappointingly. It's unclear whether he plays some guitar as well as sings, but I can't hear him in the mix.

Er, guys, you got probably one of the best five or six guitarists in the world into your studio. Make him pick up a fucking guitar next time. All the same, there's a nice moment at the end where Ryan notes, "that [take] were alright. Wasn't my best one but who cares?". Ranaldo laughs approvingly, concluding "that's the spirit".

That they don't quite pull off a completely consistent record is, though, a minor complaint, and the overall feel is of a band not so much comfortable with their sound as utterly self-confident to the point of belligerence. But while their music is often raucous, they never feel less than inventive and they're certainly intelligent, recalling at times the dry Northern wit of Mark E. Smith, Jarvis Cocker or the more youthful Arctic Monkeys.

It's a pleasure to hear a band drawing on a different palate of sounds without feeling obliged to replicate them directly - 'Ancient History' is a marvellous hotch-potch of Dinosaur Jr and Pavement repackaged into the format of an English new wave pop song, tuneful and thunderous by turn. It's not original, but the Cribs are moving towards the mainstream without sacrificing their instincts, and it's good to hear.

They're still annoyed, prickly and riotous, but they're turning towards their potential audience (dismissed quickly in the first song as 'our bovine public') with a bunch of songs that might elevate them to the status of the big league. Hope so - they're about a million times more interesting than the likes of The Rakes, The View or The Fratellis.

Bearing up

Grizzly Bear/Rio en Medio/Her Name Is Calla, Leicester Sumo, 16th May

In its own little enclave next to a giant sports discount warehouse, I've managed to walk past the Sumo bar twice in the past before realising what it was. Inside is a bijou 200 capacity (apparently - I can see how 150 would get in but then you'd have no air) basement with decent sound and a seating area right in front of the mixing desk. There were clearly a lot of out of towners there for what has to be called a surprising booking given the size.

Locals Her Name Is Calla are reduced to a trio tonight, the electronic quarter apparently in Croatia, so we lose some but by no means all of the full effect of their Radiohead-meet-iLiKETRAiNS controlled brooding. Four songs in the set, the drums not entering less than three minutes into any of them, and much promise. Rio en Medio, the band name project of New Mexico-born, Brooklyn based Danielle Stech-Homsy, has associated with Devendra Banhart, Patrick Wolf and CocoRosie, and it shows. Switching between bass ukelele and a table covered in electronics of varying uses, Stech-Homsy carves out enchanted atmospherics over which she sings in a style not far removed from Joanna Newsom or Vashti Bunyan. The ghostly otherworldliness sets her apart, but technical problems mean her set never takes off, and indeed grinds to a halt when her backing CD starts sticking during a cover of, of all things, Stayin' Alive, followed by most of her equipment going down. She just about rescues the situation by singing the last two songs acapella. They're in Russian and Spanish, naturally.

Grizzly Bear's superb album of last year Yellow House had its basis in manipulated sounds, atmospherics and electronics, built on subtle sonic touches and juxtapositions allied to stripped back, very American indie harmonic songwriting. How will they transfer it to the live setting? Superbly, it turns out. Much of that is due to Chris Taylor, nominally their bass player and apparently still recovering from an electric shock during the soundcheck but spending the first three songs down on one knee operating an array of effects pedals, circuit boards, loops, processors and assorted gadgetry while playing flute, recorder and clarinet (normal and bass) into their attached mikes. Easier and Lullabye are, if not totally transformed, then certainly put into three dimensional magnitude as all four members - Taylor, guitarist Dan Rossen taking on most of the lead vocals, nominal leader Ed Droste (whose idea of banter is "we went to the Shires earlier") on guitar, autoharp and harmonies and Chris Bear behind the drums in the back corner - harmonise and play off each other. It's much less dusty and pastoral than the recorded work, more texturally claustrophobic. Knife is a triumph, like Animal Collective finally achieving their freak-Beach Boys aims, while Colorado was almost completely transformed from its slightly meandering album version into something properly coruscating.

And, erm, this is where I had to leave it. Even though the advertised door time was 8pm the venue didn't open until 9.15pm, and having ordered a taxi for 11.30pm this proved a problem. I kept them ten minutes and then found a proper fleet of cabs waiting, suggesting many had made the same calculation. So not the full set, but what an experience while it lasted.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

record shopping

It's ridiculous that my record collection still exists in two places, but unfortunately it's the case that the vast majority of my vinyl is still, years after moving out, at my parents' house. I'm there now and trying to work out what to bring home with me. So many records were bought over fifteen years ago and while the excessive amount of time I spent poring over the sleeves means I still remember how they look and feel, so often I forget what they actually sound like.

Just how good were The Jesus Lizard? Good enough to do a split single with Nirvana, so perhaps I should bring back one of their LPs. But then, I've got three albums by them, somehow, and a clutch of 7"s. Did I really love them, or something? Why so many? Why can't I remember which album was best, so I can just bring that one?

Did I just buy a ridiculous number of records by bands whose names I only dimly recognised from reading Melody Maker or Lime Lizard?

Yes, I did.

But I've got some great stuff to take home with me and it's a bit like record-shopping, only I get some new music and a momentary glimpse at a valued memory, all wrapped in one. Bargain.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Sounds of summer

Just bought my ticket to Supersonic, the left-field mini-ATP-type festival which takes place in Birmingham in July - should be a nice counterpoint to the populism and enormity of Glasto at the end of the previous month. It'll inevitably mean fraternising with the people Phill has labelled "the Custerati" - but at least I'll get the pleasure of witnessing sets by the likes of Mogwai, Om, Kling Klang, Sunn O))) and Kid 606, plus I'll be able to renew my acquaintance with Wolf Eyes. My bowels are already a-quiver at the prospect...

Much more sedate and serene is Summer Sundae, this year to be headlined by The Magic Numbers, The Divine Comedy and an acoustic Spiritualized performance. We had a fantastic time last year, but it's unlikely we'll end up there again this time around - and that's despite the lure of The Concretes, !!!, Malcolm Middleton, Gruff Rhys and (most of all) Low.

Gruff Rhys is also amongst those appearing at The Green Man Festival in Brecon. From humble beginnings, the festival founded by Jo and Danny of It's Jo & Danny has grown and grown and this year's line-up suggests it's moving gradually away from its folk-rock roots and branching out into different areas. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Battles, Bill Callahan, Fridge and Dead Meadow are among the reasons I'm itching to add it to the summer's itinerary.

End Of The Road in Dorset in September would wrap the summer up nicely, what with appearances from Archie Bronson Outfit, Josh Pearson, Howe Gelb, Midlake, Super Furry Animals and especially Yo La Tengo - but I suspect that finances will very probably dictate that I have to be satisfied with it all being capped by Sonic Youth performing Daydream Nation in its entirety on 1st September. Shouldn't complain, really...

So, how's your summer shaping up?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Quote of the day

"They were sueing me for having subliminal messages, backwards-tracking stuff. It takes me all my time to do it the RIGHT way. I mean, it wouldn't be a very good career move if everyone who bought my records killed themselves, would it?"

Ozzy Osbourne talking about 'Suicide Solution' in Sunday's Observer Music Monthly.

Just a shame he had to go and spoil it by vehemently denying he is "turning into one of those fuckers, green people you know, going around Hyde Park, saying 'Stop the war'". The article wasn't actually much cop - not least because Barbara Ellen seems determined to portray him as misunderstood, as really being a deep thinker. What's wrong with just accepting he's an entertaining idiot?

Much better was the feature commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, packed with short interviews with the main players from the Haight Ashbury scene in San Francisco. Better still Nik Cohn's extraordinary article in praise of Cambodian rock and of the talented musicians who perished under Pol Pot's rule. You can hear what he's talking about if you go to Khmer Rocks or this fansite for singer Ros Sereysothea.

Also worth mentioning that among the tracks Record Doctor Paul Mardles prescribed to the Patient, ex Arsenal striker and rubbish pundit Ian Wright, was Slint's 'Good Morning Captain' - and he loved it: "That's how it should be, letting yourself go, to the extent that he's fucking screaming". Bizarre.

Listening post

While I set up a trial run of the aforementioned new feature for posting next week (thanks to everyone that replied to my emailed request, by the way - if you've not had a response your mail came too late but you're on file if I do this again), allow me some self-indulgence with a little bit of advertising for my own project.

Last November Songs To Learn And Sing invited a selection of people to write about the song they think everyone should hear, participants including many an Art Of Noise 'name' as well as two members of Los Campesinos!, Jeremy Warmsley, Emmy The Great, Go! Team/Pipettes/Foals producer Gareth Parton, Plan B/Phonogram scribe Kieron Gillen and a phalanx of bloggers and 'other'.

It proved so popular that we're giving it a second go for the first twenty days of June with a new set of writers. As expected it's running a little short, so if you're interested get in touch through Sweeping The Nation's sidebar contact details.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

scout niblett in brighton

In support of her lovely new EP, which itself trails a full Albini-produced album shortly to follow, the wonderful Scout Niblett showed up in Brighton to play a set at the Komedia this week. Having really enjoyed the show I went and spoke to her afterwards and complained that I always mean to see her live, and then find that the show has sold out, or I become suddenly lazy, or something happens to prevent me doing so. So while her recordings have occupied much of my time I was never able, 'til now, to see her live.

The first thing I notice is the way she plays guitar; attention is obviously heightened because for much of the set it's the only sound you hear, intricate guitar lines echoing out around the dark space between verses, but it's almost immediately clear that her playing is tremendous. She's incredibly intuitous, knowing exactly when to emphasise a note and when to merely suggest it, and the moments where she rocks out are blissfully loud and tremendously satisfying. I'm constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain's way with a melody, but Scout picks out unpredictable guitar riffs recklessly, introducing moments of crunching drums at peak moments.

New single 'Dinosaur Egg' is a treat - the simplest of guitar lines and Scout's sweet vocals marking out the track as musically delightful, but the key here is the lyrics, written by David Shrigley. "Dinosaur egg / oh, dinosaur egg / when will you hatch?", Scout asks, "I've got a million people coming on Friday / and they expect to see a dinosaur / not an egg". Towards the end she adds on some lyrics I've not heard in previous renditions, eliciting a round of laughter from the room - I can't remember exactly what she sang, but it was something about the fact that she'd much rather be a "ball of light" than a human. Or rather, she'd like to be "a ball of light... but still have sex".

After a few brilliant songs on the guitar she puts down her first instrument and expels the drummer from his seat, taking over for a brilliant run through of 'Pom Poms', noting that "everybody needs someone to spell out their name in a little song". Shuffling through tempos and stopping and starting, she manages to conjure something illusive and remarkable from the most basic of ingredients. Switching into 'Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death' she pounds the drums and screams "we're all going to die". By the sixteenth repetition I spot some people looking around the room rather nervously.

But despite the weird, bluesy guitar lines and screamed vocals, much of the set is profoundly pretty and Scout herself is smiling and informal, chatting between songs and occasionally forgetting lyrics. At one point she takes a breather and asks us where the term 'sweating cobs' comes from. The audience looks back, bemused. "Don't you say that down South, then?", she asks, in her broad Nottingham accent, "I say it all the time". She lives in Portland, Oregon these days, so I wonder what they make of that phrase over there.

Finishing up a set which I never for a moment wanted to end, Scout played a bruising, bluesy take on 'Just Do It', which is also on the new EP, and headed out to the bar, where I grabbed a couple of moments to jabber my enthusiasm in her ear. I bought a poster which she kindly signed, although I kind of wish I'd bought a record instead.

But after forty minutes of her unpredictable, peculiar, beautiful music dancing inside my head, I wasn't really thinking straight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Something pretty damn great

As someone who increasingly avoids both radio and the music press (the excellent Plan B aside), I've gradually felt myself drifting away from the here and now, insulated from what is most current.

A case in point: last year I honestly didn't feel I'd been exposed to enough singles to justify compiling a Top 20. Come this December, it's looking as though things will be much the same - at a pub quiz last night, not only did I not know what the current #1 is, I struggled to name more than one single released this year (the single in question being Mika's ubiquitous 'Grace Kelly').

Another case in point: I only heard LCD Soundsystem on record for the first time last year, my first exposure to James Murphy's mob coming - oh the sweetest of ironies - through 'Losing My Edge', the single which first announced their genius and set the internet a-buzz on its release three years previously. I learnt my lesson, though; having finally acquired and thrilled along to their debut album, I was a little quicker off the mark for the follow-up, picking it up on the day of release.

Despite soon growing to love their self-titled debut, I found it rather difficult to assess - not least because most of my favourite tracks aren't actually on the album at all; the likes of 'Beat Connection', 'Tired', 'Yr City's A Sucker', 'Yeah' (both the Crass and Pretentious versions) and, most notably of all, 'Losing My Edge' were instead consigned to the bonus disc which accompanied the album proper. What made the whole package so special was the way (as the tapestry of tongue-in-cheek references in 'Losing My Edge' suggests) that it drew on so many different genres and bands, synthesising them into something unique, all held together by utterly irresistible basslines. Listening to it, I began to feel that I finally understood the appeal of dance music - to the beauty of repetition, insincerity and the pure moment.

Sound Of Silver retains much of the identity LCD Soundsystem carved out for themselves, but at the same time sees them beginning to show the world a new face. Sure, there are still the accessible chant-along party-starters (wryly self-deprecating lead single 'North American Scum' is the album's 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House') and the dance anthems (see particularly 'Us V Them', which, with its mantra of "Us and them, over and over again", seems to doff its cap in the direction of Brit upstarts Hot Chip while comprehensively reminding them who the daddy is).

With "new rave" the latest coinage to spill from the pages of the NME, the time is ripe for them to flourish in a climate they helped to create in the first place. But whereas the fawned-over new rave pack are, underneath it all, simply indie kids who once popped a pill and danced all night, and who (in Murphy's own phrase) are suffering from "nostalgia for the unremembered 80s", LCD Soundsystem are approaching things from the opposite direction, far more deeply immersed in club culture and setting out to create dance music with analogue instruments rather than simply to daub standard indie disco fare with the neon contents of a glowstick in the hope that it'll fool people. If that's harsh on the likes of Klaxons and Foals, then so be it; fair play to them, they're decent bands - but LCD Soundsystem are in a different league altogether.

What distinguishes Sound Of Silver from its predecessor is the fact that it gives tantalising glimpses of a depth and humanity beneath the veneer of self-defensive sarcasm, hedonism and hipster posturing without it feeling like some kind of compromise. Key in this regard are the record's two undoubted high points. 'Someone Great' is a patiently and splendidly constructed electro ballad, while its immediate neighbour 'All My Friends' is even better - imagine a Killers song (if the Killers were actually any good) stretched out into a wide-eyed euphoric anthem set to a motorik drum pulse and a couple of piano keys hammered incessantly for the best part of eight minutes. Both songs exhibit heart and soul, and both surpass anything that has gone before, and are more than enough to ensure that, at this early stage, Sound Of Silver is in the running for the SWSL Album Of The Year.

Of course, LCD Soundsystem aren't likely to start taking themselves too seriously anytime soon - witness the horrible lyrics of the title track, and the bloated, coked-up, self-consciously melodramatic yet strangely effective pastiche of a 70s rock ballad 'New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down' which brings the album to a close - but the revelation of substance beneath the glitterball facade is certainly an intriguing new development.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In The Dock: Encores - verdict

In favour of Alison's case for the prosecution: 3 (James, Swiss Toni, Phill)

In favour of Damo's case for the defence: 8 (Pete, Ian, Ben, Caskared, Nick The Snick, Paul, Planet Me, Wan)

Thus encores are found not guilty, and by a convincing majority too. Predictable certainly, but much loved too it seems.

That's the last In The Dock for the foreseeable future. The feature may be revived at some point further on down the line, but for the time being I think both it and I need a little break! A big thanks to all those who have contributed either by writing prosecution or defence cases or by stopping by each week to register their verdicts.

What now, then? Well, if you're keen on participatory features here on The Art Of Noise, Simon may well have something up his sleeve for you - watch this space...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Knives' draw

The Young Knives/Goodbooks/27Brigade, Loughborough University, 10th May

The Young Knives in Loughborough. This was never going to be missable, was it? The University Student Union is much like any other SU venue in that there's comfy seating at the back which the locals know to colonise and the main floor part has clearly not been designed with music performance in mind, but the sound is excellent and with a raised area behind the mixing desk nobody has a properly obstructed view. The only out of place oddity is the smoke machine overhead that gets turned on at irregular intervals.

Local heroes 27Brigade describe themselves second hand as "Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things dancing with the Kings of Leon and BRMC", so you can already see which ballpark they're placing themselves in. And that's the parameters where they stay for the duration of their set of undistinguished Baratisms where you can tell right from the start how the set will be made up. They're one of those bands who are frustrating even as an opener, in that they've got energy to burn and there's nothing openly offensive about them but at the same time you keep waiting for a spark that'll mark them out that never flickers in the way that similarly indebted fellow locals the Voom Blooms did for a couple of singles last year.

Announced as support the day before the gig after Larrikin Love's demise caused the cancellation of the Transgressive Roadshow they were signed up to, it's a good time to catch up with Goodbooks now they're a couple of major label singles down with their debut album recorded. In contrast to their Leicester Charlotte gig in front of twenty people in December as reviewed on here, they're keyed up by playing to a sold out, up for it crowd, some of whom who might have actually vaguely heard of them. Starting with what to me at the third time of seeing them is a new song they're more energetic than before, Max Cooke fair dancing around his mike to his band's precise electronically enhanced post-punk, seemingly undeterred when his guitar malfunctions during second song and offbeat anthem to come Alice. Not that they're short of offbeat anthems, as evidenced once again by surely single in waiting Passchendaele, "which no-one can spell and Annie Mac can't say", before Walk With Me, elevated to mid-set, gets the front finally moving. The new wave of post-new wave may finally be steadily evaporating but it looks more and more a shame that it might well take any chance of crossover success down before they've had a chance to prove that their clattering, electro-influenced angularities place them a cut above much better selling bands in the same ballpark. Indeed, if there is a flaw, it's that closer Turn It Back, which in its free download form cuts off at precisely the right time, ie the wrong time by most standards, has had a verse and proper bridge added which doesn't serve to improve it at all.

Being twelve miles from Ashby de la Zouch, Loughborough is as good a homecoming event as The Young Knives are likely to receive - indeed, Henry Dartnall's main recollection of the place is that he and the House Of Lords saw Three Colours Red there ten years previously, really pushing the boat out by stating a frankly unnecessary "we're better" in mitigation. Sartorially, while they still don't resemble any NME front cover star of the last twenty years the tweed of legend seems to now be off the radar, all three clad in matching white shirts and crimson ties suspiciously like the branded neckwear on sale at the back (alongside T-shirts declaring 'I AM THE PRINCE OF WALES' - I can't say I wasn't tempted). Sonically, having only seen them at festivals before with the inevitable open air sonic compromises it's striking how much effort the Dartnalls and drummer Oliver Askew put in, ripping into the jerky stop-start opener Part Timer in a full-throttle fashion that might not have shamed Chris McCormack himself. This is apparently their last proper UK gig to promote last year's excellent debut album Voices Of Animals And Men and it shows in the tightness of the trading of harmony vocals and in Henry's subtly bludgeoning riffs, Mystic Energy both joyfully twisting and full-on riffola in the chorus, against House's complementary bass runs.

The other element that is magnified in this situation is how capable they are of making chantalong call and response out of fairly unlikely lyrics, not least House's sterling lead vocal on The Decision. It's that love of the arcane lyrical structure allied to bitter feelings just under the surface rather than any direct post-punk affiliation that really earns them a comparative place alongside fellow quintessential English bands such as XTC and Wire. Three new songs, from a second album Henry assures us will be "really bad, as all second albums are", keep the formula working - Holiday will need further listens but Terra Firma, which appears to take a Kinksian swipe at class sarcasm through urgent guitar stabs, and Fit 4 U, which belies its unpromising title to take inspiration from the Jam's All Mod Cons and features their next great shoutalong bridge.

Of course, as much as all this is good to hear, it's the moment when House Of Lords informs us that "the next song is about this town" (Henry: "we'd thought about leaving it off, playing six encores and still not playing it") that's really drawn everyone here, and as such everyone at the front sings along to every word of Loughborough Suicide, meaning the trio can coast home, not that physically they're doing anything of the sort, with Coastguard and Weekends And Bleak Days before an encore sees a surprising and pleasing outing for acoustic but in no way delicate B-side Worcestershire Madman (think Blur at their most Syd Barrett-esque) before the chants of "you were screaming at your mum and I was punching your dad" are rewarded with She's Attracted To, Henry going positively screamo by the end of the celebrated repeated line. A successful homecoming, then, and one that underlines why this of all bands stands out from the crowd by dint of really not being like everyone else.

Monday, May 14, 2007

In The Dock: Encores

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

This week's subject (particularly appropriate given that this is the last installment of In The Dock, at least for the foreseeable future): Encores

The case for the prosecution (Alison)

The first gig I ever attended was The Charlatans (I was 14!) at Edinburgh’s Playhouse. I had connected with the album and was living through some major teenage drama with the help of whiney singing and angsty lyrics, not to mention the fact that Tim Burgess was the first man I ever "loved". The gig was amazing, we all sang along word-perfect and clapped, cheered and whooped in the appropriate places. After about 50 minutes Tim thanked us and sloped off stage with the rest of the band, to the rapturous applause of the audience. As the joy died down, I checked on my mates and picked up my coat, ready to head for home. But, the lights stayed low and a spontaneous foot stomping took hold and spread throughout the frenzied crowd like an act of united adoration. There were cries for more from the large majority who were not going anywhere. And low and behold, it actually worked, Tim and his not-so-merry men returned to the stage, and to the delight of the ready-to-piss-their-pants fans. Something special had happened, I’d witnessed a one-off. We showed them love and they thanked us. Or so I thought.

I’m going to dismiss one of the possible explanations for an encore straight-off – that it gives the band a break. It just doesn’t hold any weight. If someone needs a break, let them take a break and don’t dress it up as the end of the show. The 1-2 min standard off-stage time for an encore is nowhere near long enough to serve any practical purpose. In fact, make it long enough for us too so we can get another round in without missing anything. And put it in the middle of the set; coming at the end it buggers up the show’s momentum, half the audience grabbing the opportunity to fetch their jacket from the cloakroom.

Regarded in the most positive light, encores could be seen as an impromptu thank you paid to an enthusiastic and engaged audience. But in the years since that Charlatans gig, I can count on a three-fingered hand how many bands have failed to come back on after the "end" of the show. There’s nothing surprising about an encore, the majority of bands leaving their biggest hit or their trade-mark cover for the spotlight of the encore. You’re more likely to hear the people around you discussing what the encore songs will be, rather than whether the band might come back on. Encores aren’t extra songs for free, they even appear on set lists and an internet search mid-tour will tell you what to expect. They don’t even turn the lights on! Frankly, the idea that the encore is a surprise is patronising.

Importantly, those gigs I’ve seen without an encore are by no means the worst gigs I’ve been to. I’ve seen crap bands go down like a lead balloon and yet still they reappear on-cue to perform another set of unappreciated songs. The predictability of encores might go some way to explain the phenomenon of the apathetic audience, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you are the only person in the room trying to convey that the set you’ve just witnessed was ace. If the encore is just a tool for manipulating your audience into begging for more and massaging the ego, then it serves bands right that the listeners (who’ve already paid for the privilege) are sticking the fingers up.

So should we accept that encores are just a tradition now, the trademark of a live show? If so, I reckon they’re tired and clichéd and need to go. If bands want to give the fans a treat, let it at least be something original. The ridiculous practise of the multiple encore is not the answer, the fact that you need to do it more than once to prove you really mean it just demonstrates that the encore itself is anything but a response to the audience’s actions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to gigs where the band’s reappearance on stage has felt like the highlight of my life. Don’t see your task as jury to vote in defence of the encores you’ve seen. Rather, vote for the prosecution because you think it’s too naff to go on, it’s a practise that can never regain credibility. I hope the next band to leave me foot-stomping, screaming and begging for more will do me a favour and deny me; ultimately they’d be leaving me happier.

The case for the defence (Damo)

"Hey! The Waterboys are leaving the stage! And they haven’t played 'The Whole Of The Moon'! I paid £20 for this! Oh hang on, here they come, do you think they just forgot and then realised?"

I knew a guy when I was at university. He related a story to a number of us about going to see The Sisters of Mercy. He said that they left the stage and everyone was applauding for an encore, while he looked at them and thought, "You idiots, you know they’re going to come back and do 'Vision Thing'"… He didn’t applaud, he just stood there tutting. He related this story to us with some pride.

He was also one of the most humourless people it was ever my misfortune to meet.

What’s to love about encores? Let’s see:

1. Some bands use it as a chance to do something a bit different – to play something in a more "stripped-down" format, to chuck in a couple of covers, to bring on members of the support act etc.

2. A good band knows to pace a set by playing a relatively disciplined set, and then to visibly relax in the encore. That sounds very (very) dull on paper – but so does any art when you dissect it. "Disciplined", incidentally, shouldn’t mean "close your eyes and you might as well be listening to the record at home" but rather "this band have made an effort to rehearse so that they can put on a decent spectacle for their paying fans". Then if there’s a few bum notes in the encore that’s not the end of the world… If they’ve done their job then the fans should be mentally (and possibly physically) a little worn out by then, and ready for a little light relief.

3. Sometimes it’s an excuse for the band to play a request if people shout it loud enough. Which is not something you want to see every band doing, but it does suit certain ones very well.

Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes.

4. Some bands use encores as an excuse to leave the big hit(s) until last and then come out to tumultuous applause and play it / them.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Points 1-3 may sometimes be valid but for the bulk of this argument they’re a distraction. When I go out to a gig, I want to be entertained. Life’s too short to be cool for the sake of being cool. There’s really not a scientific explanation for this at all and as I touched upon previously, you can take the magic out of anything by over-analysing it. I just really enjoy going to a gig by a band I like, watching them (hopefully) play a decent set then troop off, and applauding like a loon for them to return and play some more. And from the many gigs I’ve gone to, I feel reasonably safe in the assumption that I am far from alone.

It’s a tradition that crosses all genres from pop to rock to dance and so forth, and from leftfield to mainstream. And yes, not all traditions are a good thing. But look at the faces around you next time you’re amidst people applauding for an encore, and try telling me that this particular one isn’t.

That’s all from me; hopefully I’ll see you soon. Thank you and goodnight.


Oh, you want more? Thanks, you’re too kind… I’d just like to conclude by saying that human beings are a mass of contradictions. One example: most people find comfort in routine, yet also like surprises. I think that is precisely the reason the vast majority of people seem to enjoy encores: you know you’re probably going to get one, but you don’t necessarily know what it will contain (Big Hit notwithstanding). Unless, that is, you’re inclined to stand at the front and spend more of the show staring at the setlist than the band. In which case, I used to know a guy at university that would probably like to meet you.

* * * * *

Thanks to Alison 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 Sunday to make up your mind...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In The Dock: Paul Weller - verdict

(A quick note: I've allowed all the votes cast to be counted towards the final verdict, as the original piece was posted a day later than planned.)

In favour of Del's case for the prosecution: 13 (Damo, Ian, Swiss Toni, Pete A, James, Stevious, Ben, Nick The Snick, Lord Bargain, Simon, Planet Me, Wan, Alison)

In favour of Pete's case for the defence: 1 (Happy Butterfly)

So, so close to being unanimous (though I'm still not entirely sure that the one vote for the defence hasn't been wrongly attributed). All the same, unfortunately for Pete, Del's comprehensive demolition job has done the trick and for his myriad crimes Paul Weller is quite rightly sentenced to a death most grisly.

Thanks again to Del and Pete.

Coming tomorrow, in what may or may not be the last ever In The Dock: Alison and Damo tackle the subject of encores, appropriately enough.

Evil Eyes


Tonight, an ordinaryish Thursday evening in April, will go down as something of a milestone in my gigging career for the simple reason that for the very first time I've decided to bring along a pair of earplugs - fluorescent yellow ones, all ready to advertise the fact that age and common-sense concerns about tinnitus are catching up with me. But then it's not actually your usual gig. No, everyone on tonight's bill, put together as a joint effort by Forecast and Lesson No.1, is out to give us a right good aural maiming.

First up is Trawsfynydd Lo-Fi Liberation Front aka Steffan Cravos, formerly of pioneering left-wing Welsh-language rap outfit Tystion (who, I've discovered, counted a recent colleague among their number for a short period). Together with tonight's special guest, who turns out to be none other than Martin Carr (Boo Radleys / Bravecaptain), Cravos manipulates his laptop into generating a melee of noise with odd moments of clarity when it becomes clear that the pair really are nodding their heads in time with beats that were submerged. Alien to me, according to the Lesson No.1 site it's "noisy breakcore / digital hardcore" (I'll take Noel's word for it) - it's certainly a very long way from 'Wake Up Boo'.

More laptop action follows in the form of Somatic Responses. Unlike Trawsfynydd Lo-Fi Liberation Front - one man assisted by another for tonight's gig - Somatic Responses are normally a duo, brothers John and Paul Healy, but tonight are slimmed down to just one (don't ask me which of the two is present, though). To these ears - once again very much untrained - pounding gabba acid is the order of the day, or industrial put through the grinder by a cackling Aphex Twin - dance music for psychos, basically. But, good though it is, towards the end we're getting a bit restless, starting to hanker for more in the way of a visual spectacle.

So it is that the next act - initially, at least - comes as something of a relief. With Consumer Electronics aka Philip Best of veteran underground noise / industrial earsplitters Whitehouse, a laptop is also an integral part of the performance - but mainly just to blast out an unholy noise. All eyes are on Best, a large bald man who, for the duration of the two songs he performs, chooses not to sit behind his instrument but instead to prowl around the stage area, at first unbuttoning his shirt and rubbing his nipples, later alternately bellowing "COME ON COME CLEAN" and licking the laminated pages of a book featuring images of a shaven-headed Britney Spears, and at one point tugging his penis through his trousers rather too vigorously for comfort. Richard Herring has marvelled that live artistic performance allows you to get away with doing and saying things that in any other context would get you arrested; suffice to say that Best not only understands but positively relishes that fact. Members of Los Campesinos! look on, and I'm left to wonder whether a radical new direction will be in the offing.

And yet it's the headliners who lay the most serious claim to being the most extreme band I've ever seen. Hailing from Michigan and, like Somatic Responses, playing their debut show on Welsh soil, Wolf Eyes are so loud they make me feel like my eyesight is going funny. At one point lead "singer" Nate Young, whose ravings remain resolutely unintelligible despite his insistence on using two mics at all times, appears to be checking the volume level is sufficiently high by waving his hand into the blast of air emanating from one of the amps. They are a very hairy health and safety nightmare, and proud of it.

All this I was prepared for. What I wasn't expecting of them - championed, like so many others, by that esteemed arbiter of good taste Thurston Moore - was "real" (semi-)conventional instruments. I had them down as purveyors of psychotic power electronics, but Mike Connelly has an electric guitar and John Olson, who completes the trio, plays some kind of strange homemade one-string bass which looks ridiculous but which creates a rumble so fearsome I'm concerned my internal organs may be about to fall out. With song titles including 'Stabbed In The Face', 'Urine Burn', 'Leper War', 'Black Vomit' and 'Noise Not Music' (the latter actually a cover of a track by No Fucker), Wolf Eyes are at the cartoonish not-taking-themselves-too-seriously end of the noise spectrum: imagine Napalm Death if they were really quite hacked off and hell-bent on using computers and electronic gadgetry to illustrate just how much.

But do I actually enjoy them? Well, I survive them, which I suppose is part of it. As a concerted onslaught without any respite, some of the initial impact is lost the longer they play, and, rather like much conceptual art, I'm left feeling they're perhaps better in theory than in practice - but I'm nevertheless glad to have witnessed them terrorise the Welsh capital and still be alive to tell the tale.

And in case you're wondering, the earplugs went unused. I refuse to accept I'm old yet...


A not-especially-coherent round-up of recent things to have caught my eye:

Former NME deputy editor Alex Needham picks up on the recent Radio 6 quest to name and shame the worst lyrics ever committed to record. Needham's post (on the Guardian music blog) and the enormous comments thread which follows are well worth a read if you fancy a good laugh, particularly at self-proclaimed genius Johnny Borrell's expense - "And I met a girl / She asked me her name / I told her what it was", anyone?

Good news for Glasto goers (he says, with a smug grin...): not only are we going to have the pleasure of Spiritualized being amongst those playing on a brand new stage called The Park, but we'll also be supplied with free toilet roll. And did I mention that The Arcade Fire are playing?

But for every hit there's a miss, and unlike me Mike's been fortunate enough to catch Low on their recent tour. Like Kenny, he's also seen Maria McKee lately, and interviewed her to boot.

It wouldn't be a music round-up if I didn't mention Los Campesinos!, so... Their new single and signature song 'You! Me! Dancing!' is due to be released on Wichita on 4th June, and you can watch the video on their MySpace site. They'll be playing a celebratory gig at the Point in Cardiff that night (their first in their hometown since November, I think I'm right in saying) and, being the lovely people they are, they've invited Cardiff Friends of the Earth along to use the occasion to promote the Big Ask climate change campaign. Looks like a busy summer ahead for the septet, too, with appearances at the Razzmatazz festival in Barcelona and Lollapalooza confirmed and more festival dates likely to be added. Watch this space, as they say...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Finally, an Ubu solution

Pere Ubu.
Islington Bar Academy. 06may07.

This has taken me far too long, you know. For years, I’ve subsisted on a dusty old copy of the ‘Terminal Tower’ A’s and B’s collection alone. Added ‘Song Of The Bailing Man’ recently though, which I love even more. Yet, I have kept Pere Ubu at arms length.

Every bit as revolutionary as the Fall, and just as vital to the rebuilding of alternative music in the post-punk years, but while Mark E. Smith’s aura had me continually adding records to a collection that has never been what you’d call completist within back catalogues, I have always been able to wait on the Ubu. Always next week, next month, next year.

An undoubted fascination, but their records have not been gathered up quite so eagerly, not like the last seepings of petrol from a blockade-starved pump. More like your first cigarette after a pride-filled, but slightly edgy, smoke-free decade. Somehow there’s something a little nerve-racking about diving whole-heartedly into it. For that matter, even edging gingerly toward it. And it is an ‘it’, what Pere Ubu unleash. It wriggles caustically, it shatters and cycles, it has been known to drone, but mostly spasms jaggedly. It is an ‘it’ that kind of makes you wary, though, of handing over £20 for a live outing. It is though contained within a fairly small room. More adequate to appreciate it’s power, but who knows what effect that might have? As a result, I am once against hesitant to hand over the top (well, only) layer of my hard-earned fold.

Père Ubu himself, the one from Alfred Jarry’s plays, may hold the key. The avaricious, cowardly, murderous King. You’d be careful before aligning yourself too close to that, and singer David Thomas, whose voice makes the band’s music so dramatically arresting, is physically reminiscent, which is the point, I guess. The only image I have in my head of Thomas is of a big chap, on a stool, face contorted under a hat. Think it was a picture from a David Thomas & Two Pale Boys concert in Southampton over a decade ago, but that is what I think of, and in tandem with the sometimes unsettling nature of the voice, perhaps its is easier to understand why I might keep to a safe distance. This is a suspect device that harnesses more than just imagined power.

So it is a surprise, and then no surprise, that the Pere Ubu of today rock harder and straighter than expectation, but then that paints too easy a picture. Besides Ubu are a very different outfit than that which started out in 1975. Like The Fall, it is the singer that provides the only physical constant, this group having morphed back out of the Two Pale Boys with both Keith Moliné and Andy Diagram now in the unit, bending guitar lines and blasting trumpet-through-electronics respectively. Next to Diagram, the keys are manipulated by Dids, deputizing for Robert Wheeler on this European tour, while Michele Temple thrusts with bass as Malcolm Young does with rhythm guitar. Drummer Steven Mehlman is the fall guy, the focus for the majority of Thomas’s teasing and tantrums.

I have talked about Mark E. Smith. Alt.rock’s curmudgeon. In which case, David Thomas is alt.rock’s grumplestiltskin. From the moment he arrives on the stage through the crowd, a bald, bearded behemoth, wrestling with his Macintosh for a hip-flask and cigarettes that the coat appears unwilling to relinquish, he delivers pithy put-downs to eager audience members, admonishes his band for not bringing out his ‘surveying chair’ and screams (thankfully off-mic) at a flint lighter that refuses to stay put on the lip of his lyric-sheet stand.

This may well be a movie of his life in production, and that may well be Mike McShane up there, playing him with a camp huff. Certainly there is a ready, and dry, wit within the stage chatter. Some examples…

“Ah, I’ve bust the mic, not even Captain Beefheart can blow the mic after one song, not even in the song either, but in the between song patter.”

“I’ve told these guys, there’s a $50 fine for ‘sustaining’. I like a sharp finish. Also, guys, it’s $100 for playing it like the record.”

“This is another ghost town song, like the last song, same as the next five or six songs. All about ghost towns. Only with different lyrics, different titles, different guitar, different bass, different drums. Keyboards, well, [looks witheringly at Dids] I don’t know.”

However, while the spoken word provides gentle, sometimes ticklish, slaps, it is the singing voice, still powerful yet still incongruous coming out of that frame, that lands the knockout blow. It honks and squawks; squeals and trembles; treacle is gargled; the larynx tightened and punched; it is ragtime; it is action painting!; it is a twist of Dali’s moustache; and it is a melting of vinyl (directly down the throat). Pere Ubu’s music is brilliant anyway, but Thomas’ voice makes it unique, the expert hands around and over the mic tugging out all of its mammoth potential.

Writing in 1985 about ‘Terminal Tower', Paul Mather suggested that “Pere Ubu will be looked back on as the most important group to have come out of America in the last decade and a half. Either that or they will be entirely forgotten...” A enthusiastic crowd, possibly a couple of hundred strong, 21 years after those words first hit page, suggests that their allure remains and that that which can inspire fear, can also capture devotion.


Monday, May 07, 2007

In The Dock: Paul Weller

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

This week's subject: Paul Weller

The case for the prosecution (Del)

Angry, politically engaged and ambitiously intelligent. Challenging the future; popular, relevant and radical.

Dull, lifeless and uninspiring. Obsessed with the past, and hence unoriginal and conservative.

Paul Weller is both. And the question that we need to ask isn't so much "how?" as "when?" From 1977 to 1981, The Jam released a parade of sharp singles that summed up the mood of the nation as much as anything by the Sex Pistols or The Clash. But whereas Lydon and Strummer took turns away from the limelight, into relative obscurity, it was Weller that went on to directly inspire the next generation of musicians. And this, my friends, is where the trouble starts.

Mod. Mod mod mod. "All mod is a con" wrote a Vox reviewer many moons ago. Oh yes. Mod. Or, to be more accurate, the Mod Revival of the late 70s. Uh-oh. Yes. Revival. Revival is never a good word. Revival almost always means recreating something exciting and spontaneous in a contrived manner than isn't nearly as exciting. It's conservative by definition, wanting to keep things as they once were. It's cannibalistic, the same, always the same. Authenticity and tradition are praised, change and originality are frowned upon. Initially, The Jam cleverly exploited Mod as a way in, something to pin their message to. A means to an end. And as such they were devastatingly effective.

But the trouble is, once the message fades, all that is left is the style over the content. The law of diminishing returns kicks in as the same old ground is trodden. The revival turns to nostalgia, and the anger dissipates to a longing for a golden age, which never really existed (not even between 1960 and 1969. Honestly.). And the next generation hold it up as gospel. And so here we are. Mod as a con. A fake world constructed from 'Quadrophenia' quotes and Who record sleeves. It didn't exist, and it's bullshit, and Paul Weller has not only lived off it for the past two decades, but been deified as its highest being: The Modfather.

Enough is enough.

Let us start with the sins. We can perhaps forgive the many blatant rip-offs that litter The Jam's repertoire ('Start' steals from The Beatles' 'Taxman', 'A Town Called Malice' bears a striking resemblance to The Supremes' 'You Can't Hurry Love'). But this is hardly what you'd expect of the musical genius that some would lead us to believe he is.

It's easy to mock The Style Council. And fun, too. But credit where it's due, Weller disbanded a hugely popular group to take a risk. Sadly the risk failed, as The Style Council were just a soul revival group without a point. They added nothing. Follow with embarrassing acid house covers and fade to obscurity.

Until of course, the next Mod Revival kicks in (although most people just call it Britpop). Ironically, it's my fave band Blur that opened the door, rocking the Mod look and iconography for Modern Life Is Rubbish. But, like The Jam beforehand, behind the retro stylings was The Message. Sadly, Weller had long since voted Tory and left the politics behind. So it was the content-lite Oasis who really brought him back to the party.

And so we had 'The Changingman'. Which is actually an absolutely ace tune. The riff is mesmerising and utterly original. At least it was when the Electric Light Orchestra first played it on '10538 Overture'. In 1973. But the kids don't know that, do they? Another artful con.

Weller was the godhead of possibly the dullest musical genre in history: Dadrock. All style circa 1967, no originality whatsoever. So out went the social commentary, and in came the nostalgia kick. Populism without the awkward politics. Kula Shaker. Smaller. Shack. Ocean. Colour. Scene. Please kill me now.

Now, whilst you can argue that while many influential artists simply cannot be blamed for the crimes committed in their name, long after their creative peak, Weller was practically orchestrating the whole scene. Ocean Colour Scene were his backing band. Oasis became duller with every second they spent in his company. Many other awful bands gained column inches simply through his endorsement. The angry outsider was now the cosy uncle delighted to see the kids bringing his dream of a 60s wonderland to life in authentic faded sepia. Every bit of excitement sacrificed for authenticity and insipid monochrome.

Dull, lifeless and uninspiring. Obsessed with the past, and hence unoriginal and conservative.

Guilty guilty guilty guilty.

The case for the defence (Pete)

Defending Paul Weller seems a strange thing to do. Only in that he hasn't, in my mind, been the culprit behind any major musical crimes. Some might say he's been responsible for the odd "boring" album (oh no); Heavy Soul wasn't a corker by any standards. And yes, providing encouragement to Ocean Colour Scene is a debatable highlight, but the topics of Britpop and Birmingham’s musical legacy have already been covered in previous cases so I'll ignore that argument.

Seriously though, the man is a legend. You might not like him, or his music, but he does deserve just a little bit of begrudging admiration. He's the frickin' Modfather after all!

I'll start with The Jam. As part of this trio, he came up with some of the finest songs around, that still manage to sound relatively timeless, ‘Going Underground’, ‘Eton Rifles’, ‘Start’ or the classic Motown style of ‘A Town Called Malice’ anyone? For the latter alone, I can’t see why the man should be In The Dock.

Nevertheless, unlike a lot of bands who keep stumbling along without a change in musical direction for too long, Weller was bright enough to realise that The Jam had run its natural course and moved on. Admittedly, this was to The Style Council, but even they are only possible ironic perpetrators of fashion crimes at most (white jeans!). So perhaps, the songs now at times seem a little self-indulgent with a little too much soul-pop noodling going on for my liking, but it was the 80s, what do you expect? In any case, most bands would love give their eye teeth to come up with a song as good as 'Shout To The Top'.

Thankfully, he got the white jeans period out of his system, had a break and moved onto his well-documented solo material in time to accompany the emergence of Britpop with his so-called “DadRock” phase. I’ve always thought that a pretty unjust label. He’s been inventive enough so far in his life; so what if he found a niche (at the age of 40) and remained in it? In any case, 2002’s ‘It's Written In The Stars’ showed a willingness not to rely solely on his trusty Rickenbacker to bang out a good song.

Fair play to him also for not selling out like so many other artists by repeatedly refusing to take part in a reunion of The Jam, no matter how financially rewarding it might be.

One final thing; apparently, at a recent gig at the Royal Albert Hall Weller he saw a picture of Sting's performance at the same venue from 2000 and decided to "deliver his own style of music criticism". According to the NME, Weller "marched straight up to it [the photo], coughed-up as much phlegm as he could muster and planted it plum in the middle of The Police frontman's head... as he walked away, remarking, 'fucking twat'". So if you’re still ambivalent about Weller, but can’t stand Sting, then follow the old adage of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and vote for the defence.

* * * * *

Thanks to Del and Pete 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...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In The Dock: Easy listening - verdict

In favour of my case for the prosecution: 3 (Ian, Martin, Stevious)

In favour of Swiss Toni's case for the defence: 5 (James, Damo, Nick The Snick, JonnyB, Wan)

So, easy listening is found not guilty. Just don't make me listen to it...

Thanks again to Swiss Toni.

Coming soon: Del and Pete debate the guilt or otherwise of the Modfather, Paul Weller.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Smog clears

Bill Callahan/Felix, Leicester Y Theatre, 1st May

It must be said the promotion for this gig left something to be desired. Indeed, I only found out about it on passing the Y Theatre window to see if they had a poster up for a later event at the venue three days before. In the event a quick headcount revealed forty people in attendance for a rare Midlands visit - rare UK visit, come to think - by one of America's most influential alternative singer-songwriters. We should have swapped addresses and agreed to meet up every year.

Felix are chiefly the not unphotogenic Lucinda Chua behind keyboards and a guitarist called Chris whose provides Cocteau Twins/Mercury Rev at their drowsiest-type atmospherics armed with a brigade of effects pedals. At least that's the plan, Chua having to watch intently while playing at times as the guitar is affected by pretty much everything malfunctioning at some point during the half hour. When it all coalesces something quietly impressive happens, as Chua's Regina Spektor-style evolving runs on the keys meld with the fragile atmospherics and her soft vocal style - she has a large notebook open next to her which she never seems to refer to, curiously - spilling semi-cryptic observations and feelings - not for nothing is their opener called Death To Everyone But Us - in a style that brings to mind Martha Wainwright, Cat Power and the antifolk likes of Emmy The Great. Something quietly impressive, barring technical problems, unfolds, which were I a proper journalist I'd describe as 'half-awake spooked wonderings' or somesuch. Also, final song What I Learned From TV's heart-on-sleeve run through of regrets drops into the middle the wish to "hear that guy's voice off Trans World Sport", surely the long overdue first Bruce Hammal reference in popular song.

"Nice place you got here. Is the balcony open?" Bill Callahan seems to be making himself at home already, having divested himself of footwear, although surely he could have worked out that there was little need for the balcony to be opened with these few people here. Which, again, is a shame - after seventeen years and eleven albums of introspective, blackly humorous, often bleak storytelling in his trademark deadpan, lugubrious baritone (and at least two relationships female alternative figureheads, currently being by Joanna Newsom's side after a previous collaboration with Chan 'Cat Power' Marshall) over a sonic palette that grew from ultra lo-fi to sprawling alt-folk-country under the bandname Smog he's grown an small but significant gang of admirers from afar. His new album Woke On A Whaleheart may have come out under his own name and be his most melodically approachable to date but the self-built lyrical personality remains shrouded in enigma. Most of that album gets an outing here, Callahan fronting a four piece band, notably including Jonathan Meiburg of dark folk fellow travellers Shearwater (and the last remaining great American intelligent college indie outfit band not to make the UK breakthrough, Okkervil River) on piano, as the subtle depths of the record get drawn out - a special mention in this regard to violinist Elizabeth Warren, who more than matches her recorded contribution to the string-driven tracks - and stripped back to their deceptively simple arrangements and Callahan's freeform lyrical prose, notably with an interesting leaning towards bodies of water. Must be a metaphor.

For such a stoic, deadpan singer, and one who it must be said is weathering the years well, Callahan does occasionally break into a curious set of movements, including running on the spot, Elvis shimmies and a curious knees forward and chest forward rock god pose. He's enjoying himself, and partly consequently so are we. The songs and arrangements flow freely but well drilled enough, Callahan occasionally turning back to guide his band to carry on or slow down with nods of the head, always drawing the listener in. One sequence, starting with the new album's Night and continuing through a slightly reworked Cold Blooded Old Times (probably his most famous song, having been a Mark Radcliffe Radio 1 afternoon favourite and in the High Fidelity soundtrack) and the sprawling, emotionally charged Say Valley Maker and Rock Bottom Riser from previous record A River Ain't Too Much To Love, coalesces to take the breath away. As almost hoedown closer A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man draws out to a conclusion, you can't help but feel for those who weren't here to witness a master low-key craftsman go about his business at the confident top of his game.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Talk from Frank

Frank Turner/Blah Blah Blah, Leicester Charlotte, 28th April

The support for this tour was supposed to be rising Medway Scene name Kid Harpoon but he found something better to do, which was disappointing because a) he's an interesting singer-songwriter we'd been keeping an eye on and b) it meant Blah Blah Blah were on in his place. "Jazz punk newer wave skiffle pop" says one write-up of the trio. Skiffle might be close enough, we suppose - it's very music hall, but music hall in the way people used to accuse Blur of being. And is there some byelaw of the Greater London new music scene that states 'observational' lyrics can only be delivered in an accent that would actually bring the Bow bells crashing down? They have a song called Death To Indie Disco, which is ironic given it sounds like the sort of reductive thing even the most obvious indie DJs would consider too beyond the obviousness pale.

A confession. Back when Frank Turner was singer with post-hardcore standard bearers Million Dead, I would use Charlie And The Propaganda Myth Machine from their 2003 debut album A Song To Ruin on message boards whenever the topic of awkward lyrics came up. It was all done in the most knowing sense, of course, as given they were celebrated by few at the time it's a song that makes sense in the context of the structure of the song and the band's own angry politicised approach, outside which, like many a lyric, it seems, well, odd. In his solo guise there's precious little sign of "a GMTV gomulka", whatever one of those is; while still easily wound up by the state of the nation his acoustic-based writing touches a number of bases, confident and honest, self-deprecating as much as critiquing others and drily funny, even making a touching song out of the perennial trap of writing about being on the road away from loved ones. Billy Bragg's name is occasionally mentioned as a quick comparison, which isn't strictly accurate but bears much consideration, not least that they share a warm, chatty but always committed stage presence, completely at ease whether with three backing musicians or on his own, alternating between the two through the set, and like Bragg his punkier background in comparison to most singer-songwriters means he has the ability to really let go vocally when required. There may only be a good seventy people here but at least a third are singing along to everything bar the two new songs, one so new he hadn't got a title for it. You can see where such a following springs from - Turner is not only as good a solo singer as you'll find among the class of 2007, but surely very few are anywhere near as good live.