Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Brood on the Tracks

Indietracks Indiepop Festival, Midland Railway Centre, Butterley, Derbyshire, 29th July 2007

"There's a new music that's taking over our country and it's called indie", according to Big Brother alleged racist Emily Parr. Which level of 'indie' she's thinking of has so far escaped our exacting research, but given she seems proud to have people thinking she looks like Peaches Geldof I think we can guess.

But, if not taking over, then indie, in its initial traditional sense, is certainly coming back into fashion. Whether due to the heightened sense of nostalgia in the current UK guitar scene, buoyed in this case by Rough Trade's Indiepop 1 compilation and the twenty year anniversary last year of C86, or the emergence of playful danceable bands who get decent deals and album sales, or just as a reaction to the sanitised form of the genre peddled to Virgin Radio listeners, there's a growing wave of culty and up and coming acts who sound like they would have had Peel Festive 50 charters and fitted into the twee/C86-esque scene, albeit like a particularly jagged jigsaw puzzle piece in a lot of cases. The likes of London club How Does It Feel To Be Loved? and national DJ nights have heightened the sense of a community reborn, and in April Stuart Mackay put on a three band event at his occasional employers at the Midland Railway Centre near Ripley, which sold out three months in advance. Buoyed by that success, these two days of Indietracks came into being, and a small but committed number - about 350, supposedly, but every second person seemed to be in a band - caught an actual steam train (or a vintage diesel engine for the uncommitted - not including me, I should add) at Butterley to go five minutes down the track to the museum site at Swanwick, where bands were playing either in a tram shed or the small church. I was unable to make the Saturday, headlined by actual Sarah Records outfit The Orchids and also featuring Bearsuit, ex-Strawberry Switchblader Rose McDowall, The Bobby McGees, Cats On Fire and Strange Idols, which at least meant there was more room on the train.

So for us, A Smile And A Ribbon start the day. I took take one look at the Swedish outfit, featuring up front two girls in floral print dresses, a singer with a tambourine and melodica and a keyboard player who also has a glockenspiel to hand - by no means the last of the weekend - playing very Talulah Gosh-esque sugary melodies on a small stage next to which has been erected a bouncy castle, and couldn't help but remind myself that I have friends I couldn't bring myself to tell where I was spending the day. Still, it works to set the tone. Some fellow Scandinavians provided the first standout of the day over in the church - which I should stress for the record was an actual church, with pews, altar, Bible bookcase and pulpit all still in place. Robert Church & The Holy Community play drone-inspired lo-fi that bears a resemblance to The Radio Dept, Ultra Vivid Scene and a few things I can't quite place which add up to a low key melodic spectral wonder.

With A Smile And A Ribbon starting a good twelve minutes late, and still being bedevilled by feedback and inaudible vocals, I assumed I could hang around with Church and co for a bit longer as Friends Of The Bride would surely start a little late. No, of course they didn't. FOTB were one of the bands I most wanted to see and they didn't let anyone down, their wittily sophisticated mod-soul not getting half enough people watching and even fewer dancing, more fool them. Bobby Grindrod, into his summer wardrobe, backs up his Metro-approved status as the London toilet circuit's snappiest dressed man in the way he somehow makes indie-crooning sound effortless, the well drilled band underlining that this is nothing so much as Rat Pack fuzzpop, and deserved to be on every radio this 'summer'.

In such company The Indelicates' bloody-mindedness (they call themselves a "despicable folk-rock cabaret with a mission to end all music") sticks out a mile, even more so when they play opener Fun Is For The Feeble Minded with such bluntness it sounds like they're rewriting it for Matt Willis. First impressions luckily deceive, though, as their hotwiring of Luke Haines' pop culture spite and Dresden Dolls-esque Kurt Weill-meets-Steve Albini efficiency regains as sure a footing as it ever will, playing up the neat contrast between Julia's piano and girlish vocals and Simon's malevolent presence. A variable mix means it never quite hits the promised heights and the applause at the end is the briefest of the day, but such a cult concern are never going to please everyone.

If Leeds' The Chiara L's won't please everyone, it's because they're in thrall to bands that by the look of singer Chiara Lucchini were around long before she was born, the scratchy, ubermelodic with a sour core female-fronted likes of the Shop Assistants and The Popguns. At the same time their unashamedly poppy lo-fi dancefloor appeal wouldn't sound out of place being put on by Calvin Johnson in a basement in Olympia, Washington in the early 90s. Given time to grow they could produce some quite special stuff. The School, a seven piece featuring what seems to be most of the Cardiff wing of the tweepop underground, attract the day's first properly sizeable shed crowd and from the three songs I had time to see could well be at the forefront of the movement before we know where we are, as while there's already plenty of bands producing irresistable mini-anthems that recall the golden age of girl groups in the Camera Obscura/Lucky Soul lineage, these are audibly in the process of gaining accomplishment, and a recent signing to Camera Obscura home Elefant won't do them any harm.

Emma Daman has found a large bell, and she's going to summon all within earshot to follow her, Pied Piper of jagged Cardiff-based fightpop-like, to the pews, for it's on the small stage that the band she drums for, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, have found themselves. If nothing else, their presence is even more out of kilter with its surrounding than the Indelicates', although as regular readers will know that doesn't make their Pixies/Wire/Kaito-esque screes any less great. If the songs from last year's album slightly suffer from the mix's barely audible lead vocals, the good news from the new songs, which make up roughly half the set, is that they're even less potentially commercial, involving more sharing out of vocals and fractured single note riffing. Adam Taylor crowns the set by becoming, as far as I know, the only person all weekend to ascend into the pulpit while playing.

The last thing you might have expected to see at such an event, though, is surely a solitary middle-aged man with a keyboard playing wistfully poetic personal homages. This is stephenhero, the current guise of Patrick Fitzgerald, known to a select audience as former singer with music press feted shoegazing peripheries Kitchens Of Distinction, playing his first gig in five years, and while disconcertingly at odds with expectations his direct nature wins a surprisingly small audience over. Indietracks parity is soon restored with The Parallelograms - befringed female singer with glasses and glockenspiel, stand-up drummer wearing a Superman T-shirt, Hello Kitty guitar, very shambolic ninety second saccharine. At least it gets people dancing for the first time today. I'd love to stop longer, but I have a train to catch.

One of the unique features made possible by the location is a number of acoustic half hour or so sets in the actual steam train, and Pocketbooks, possibly our finest new purveyors of fizzy, fuzzy post-C86 and headliners of the original event, were determined to make an event of their go. So it was that what seemed like half the festival crammed into the cargo compartment as the band handed out lyric booklets and shakers for a set comprising two of their own songs plus Ticket To Ride, Belle & Sebastian's My Wandering Days Are Over, Be My Baby, Happy Hour and, when they realised the train hadn't arrived back at Swanwick yet, an improvised take on Jonathan Richman's Ice Cream Man. You don't really review happenings like this; you let them wash over you, soaking in the joy of the moment.

Back on terra firma, Das Wanderlust are now a three-piece after founder members Laura (keyboards, yelping, onstage water misjudgement) and Andy (guitar, inevitable glockenspiel, British Rail tie) found a drummer, but their ADD hyperpop hasn't been compromised in any way, their electric cabaret of left turns and time change madness making them sound ever more like a Fisher Price Deerhoof or Helen Love in a fairground centrifuge. I don't know whether I love or hate it, which might well be the point.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine anyone but the most churlish turning against MJ Hibbett & The Validators. A Leicester local legend who Steve Lamacq has been trying for a few years now to turn into the national treasure he deserves to be, Hibbett's nearest comparison is Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit, upbeat and unshowy musically (the Validators contain ex-members of Prolapse and White Town, the latter's Jyoti Mishra hanging around the site for part of the day) but mostly about the whipsmart lyrics, somewhere akin to HMHB's satirical pop culture references and life lived not as nightclubbers or in stylistic ennui but as, well, normal life. Very much so when he does Do The Indie Kid, a song which, alongside the lyric "I read a web discussion about LINUX on PCs/And spent the next five hundred years asleep", contains as Hibbett points out, two things: containing instructions for an actual dance move, which quite a few people attempt to replicate, and "the music of the future", noted in the official lyrics as 'AVANT JAZZ FREAKOUT' and at the end of which someone shouts "it's Das Wanderlust!" A much welcomed mein host, to whom nobody feels embarrassed about joining in on the requested crowd participation of "Oi! Hibbett!", he gets the day's first encore, Hey Hey 16k, the early home computing tribute that was an Internet viral hit before the term had been invented.

While the comedown for The Electric Pop Group would be inevitable, these yet more Swedes' take on Field Mice-meets-Teenage Fanclub sunshine melodies and lyrics of heartbreak with a drum machine failed to really ignite, so it was back off to the church to watch the twins who lead Wake The President bicker about, well, virtually everything and be highly uncomplimentary of the singer from Strange Idols after one of them had tried to chat her up the previous evening. Away from such internal entertainment the Glaswegians definitely have something, influenced by the Scottish indiepop inevitables of Orange Juice, Malcolm Middleton and Belle & Sebastian (their first two singles came out on Electric Honey, original home of Tigermilk) and also with hints of Felt, early Go-Betweens and the resurgent Australian indiecore scene. Again, a low vocal at times threatens to derail the deceptively sunny climes but there's enough to suggest a band to keep an eye on, almost literally so when Erik Sandberg (only of Swedish parentage this time) gets everyone to stand up to make it "a proper fucking festival" before the band launch into half of Psycho Killer.

By contrast, there's something uninvolving about the robot mutant pop of Peel-approved Dutch duo Persil. Their use of samplers and loops and mix of analogue keyboard and fuzztoned guitar should excite more than it does, and Martine's dancing, coupled with that of the people she invites onstage, suggests she's enjoying it but it ultimately comes across as flat and uninvolving, much as it did when I saw them at Truck last year. Similarly, church headliners Wintergreen's junior electronic pop never really gets off the ground.

Which just left an icon of the new indie movement to headline. Darren Hayman, quite aside from being something of a workaholic, earned his place in the hearts of many over the course of four Hefner albums, wryly charting the ways of the human heart to a sound that started as if recorded in a bedroom, progressed to fit the ideas and ideals and went electronic for a bit at the end, the strong lyricism and melodic nature remaining intact throughout. With new backing band The Secondary Modern he ran through a set that featured plenty of what he's been doing under his own steam for the last couple of years, loosely derived from indie-folk while proving his way with a phrase that alternately notes, cajoles and torments. He's not too proud to acknowledge that while he still regularly puts out his own releases, noting at one stage that he's released two singles in the last three months and neither of them are in the set, it's Hefner we're really here for, giving an airing to Good Fruit, the song with which he can legitimately call himself a top 50 pop star, and a closing "disco section" of Hello Kitten and Pull Yourself Together, and right at the death Indietracks has a moshpit. Well, nearly at the end, as Hayman comes back for The Hymn For The Alcohol, still a gorgeous thing, and The Hymn For The Cigarettes, which he promises he'll forget the words to at some stage and indeed does.

So, what of Indietracks? As well as being a uniquely staged event and proof that in music some things will never die because there's too much love and gratitude towards them and inspiration to be taken from those who have walked that way before, it struck me that it was a noticeably friendly festival, perhaps due to its clientele and bijou nature more than anything, but the atmosphere was fully welcoming and a pleasure to experience. Stuart, to whom Hayman presented him with a signed programme "to remind him of the wankers who lost him so much money", has already announced a festive event at the same venue inevitably entitled Christmas Twee and is planning a second weekend in 2008. And more power to his elbow, because even with the slightly disappointing take-up this is one low-key event that has fostered a lot of goodwill already.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Mercury Music Prize 2007 nominees: some questions

1. Is there really such a dearth of good new British music that Favourite Worst Nightmare can be among the contenders?
2. Wouldn't it be ace if Bat For Lashes won?
3. The Young Knives' Voices Of Animals And Men - not quite consistent enough, or worth an outside bet?
4. Klaxons? KLAXONS?!
5. The View?! You're 'avin a laugh, aintcha?!

As for Maps, reading that his music "has been compared to My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualised" is enough for me to want a taste...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Police force

Joan As Police Woman, Leicester Y Theatre, 30th May

Well, this is all very recherche. An audience more than twice as big as that for when Bill Callahan popped by the same venue four weeks earlier - that's what comes of putting some posters up, see - are seated around tables with proper cloths and candles, as if it were a high class choral recital. Which, given the milieu Joan As Police Woman works in, might well be the case in a way.

Joan Wasser has a background, see. A one-time member of nearly crossover Boston outfit The Dambuilders, she was Jeff Buckley's partner when he drowned and went on to play violin for Lou Reed, who lent her to Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright, who she still works alongside, and Elton John, who recommended her to the Scissor Sisters when they needed a string arranger for Ta-Dah. It's in her Joan As Police Woman state, usually a three piece but alone for this tour, that she gets to transpose her grandiose methods to indie melodramatic structures.

Helpfully, she's also a highly engaging banterer. With this being the last night of her tour, enabling her to marvel with knowledge of the changeable nature of cold weather and at having been to "this exciting new place called Newbury", as well as a couple of diversions at the detail that a clown performance was scheduled for the theatre the next day, musing on the idea of men in clown costumes riding the New York subway and what they must have been thinking about their life at that point. The flipside of such touring is that her voice seemed to be mildly suffering, the captivating, spectacular peaks and sussed troughs exhibited when I saw her at Summer Sundae last year not always reached, but still breathing life into songs that seem on record, if not flat, then certainly lacking some production nous. She's not afraid to change the songs from her album Real Life either, a more upbeat Eternal Flame and bluesy Christobel ("British people think this song is about Chris De Burgh") played as she switches from baby grand piano to guitar with ease, and apologising for changing the namecheck during the title track in case anyone had wanted the song for themselves. There's a couple of highly promising new songs too, one, To America, intended as a duet with Rufus and in lieu of his presence her attempting to take on his vocal style. The ovation at the end is well deserved for someone who after all through maverick talent befits the impromptu elegance of the setting.

Monday, July 09, 2007

SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary

A belated mention, given that the festival is now a distant memory as well as a cider-hazed one, but the SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary is here...