Monday, March 31, 2008

How does it sound, gang!

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, a.P.A.t.T., Harry Merry.
Kilburn Luminaire. 19mar08.

Compared to what has gone before, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone a.k.a. the bear-like, be-jumpered Owen Ashworth, represents a comedown whichever way you look at it. These are the slow songs at the end of the night for you to grip on tight, whether to a memory of something that’s hit a dead-end or to an exciting new friend. For this tour Owen has a friend, Jenny Herbinson, so he’s not so lonesome he could cry, at least not tonight.

Before her appearance, he stands solo behind a cube of keys and consoles and he whispers and hairy-jowels his way through considered bedroom scuzz beats, the lo-fi buzz of the synths and a gentle twinkle through tunes like Ice Cream Truck. His vocal hints at heart-a-cracking, while the lyrics average out at gender neutral; “Frank Sinatra on the radio/but it might as well have been Li’l Kim/cos every single song still reminds you of him.”

When Jenny hops on, loose and refreshed, happily meeting a request for a tap-dance, matters take a turn for the upbeat, approaching Helen Love and Belle & Seb ‘Electronic Renaissance’ territory, albeit like a child poking a tramp with a stick.

Their performance is pretty twee and ginger, particularly in comparison to Liverpool six-piece a.P.A.t.T. who could only be more in your face if they happened to be using your left eyelid as a tent. A kind of unholy mangling of army discipline and screamin’ freenoise, they bring hot-desking to the stage, being as cavalier with their instruments as people might be with their partners at a suburban clusterfuck.

a.P.A.t.T. are a pop-prism of nightmare cycles, oscillating rust, cartoon croon, dronefunk, soulpoppinjazz, electroscat, drunkFrenchpop, gypsy mariachi-surf hoedown, nursery rhymlicks, bursts of Welsh mining community singing, clapsn’taps and operametal fairground warpola. “How does it sound, gang?” says one member half-way through, in a chirrup-come-growl, like a holiday camp activity leader that seems as likely to eat off your face as paint it.

It’s a good job Harry Merry doesn’t ask the same question as the honest answer would be a collective, “well, come to think of it, we’re really not sure” – not that you’re likely to get that in both spontaneity and harmony. Harry, from Rotterdam, appears through the curtain at the back-of-stage, as sure of foot as the Lurpak man on a hot pavement. With his Name Of The Rose/Emo Phillips/puffball hairdo and the circus-sailor smock, and his crashing into the brash avant-parlour pop of Appetite Satisfied Each Bite and the haphazard berk-prog of Jailbird, Keep Your Hands Off Miss Hilton, eyebrows raise all around, perplexed but agog.

For ‘Sharky Supermachine’, the synth-lines cycle, bubble and float, merging its time and action(s) into ever-decreasing random(esque) pockets, as the line “I’d rather be a monk”, a drum bwattertat-tat and a little camp swivel-and-point occur with mounting regularity. The general vocal pattern is set at ‘warped vinyl dufus’ and skirts ever closer to a child-like attention-seeking bellow through a Bell’s Palsied-like diagonal oral tilt.

It’s like watching the first communications of a Dutch boy price. Not a Stephen Poliakoff, crisp-golden-summers/tragedy-of-manners boy price, but simply the shoved-in-a-damp-shed, no-sleep-til-puberty kind. Harry Merry dares you not to peer at him incredulously; like a drill, his hooks lock in and twist.

Previously, in Vanity Project:
*a.P.A.t.T. interview. vp interviews
*a.P.A.t.T. – LP (Lowsley Sound/aPehAt). issue 15
*a.P.A.t.T. Liverpool Hev’n & Hell. 01apr05. issue 14
*a.P.A.t.T. Liverpool Barfly Loft. 25apr05. issue 14

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone @ MySpace
a.P.A.t.T. @ MySpace
Harry Merry @ MySpace


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Misery loves company


To describe The Accidental as a supergroup might be stretching things a tad, but the four members certainly have previous. Sam Genders' day job is in serial SWSL irritants Tunng; his fellow guitarist Stephen Cracknell was one of the founders of cult label Trunk Records; and Hannah Caughlin is the key voice of The Bicycle Thieves, part of the Fence Collective. Grinning singer-songwriter Liam Bailey, meanwhile, would be the Bez of the group (and it's hard to imagine a band less likely to have a Bez) were it not for the fact that he's actually useful for more than just "vibes", possessing as he does a gorgeously soulful voice.

Tonight, accompanied by a violinist happy to lurk at the fringes of the stage, the quartet are playing only their fourth ever gig together. On occasion it shows, with things slipping slightly out of sync, but for the most part they're spellbinding, so much so that my dislike for Genders' other band is forgotten. Spying the mirrorball suspended from the ceiling, Caughlin jokes "This is our disco set", but don't be fooled - their stock-in-trade is folk so featherlight it makes Monkey Swallows The Universe sound like Motorhead, crafted out of simple melodies, percussive taps on the guitars and intimately interwoven vocals.

The opening pairing of 'The Closer I Am' and 'I Can Hear Your Voice' set the bar very high indeed, but there's still plenty to impress in what follows, especially the single 'Wolves', 'Illuminated Red' (available to download via their website) and closer 'Time And Space'. We've got their debut album There Were Wolves, due out on 14th April on Full Time Hobby, to look forward to, but in the meantime we should just be thankful to the Green Man Festival and Adem of Fridge that Cracknell, Genders and Caughlin met at all.

Nipping down the stairs and along the corridor to the toilet, I very nearly literally run into the evening's headliner, fresh from relieving himself. The toilet's empty and I watch the steam rising up out of the urinal trough from Malcolm Middleton's piss (or should I say "pish"), reflecting on the fact that it's the sort of thing he might write a song about.

A bit of an aside. Nearly seven years ago now, when they were touring their fantastic fourth album The Red Thread, he and I interviewed Arab Strap. It should have taken place before their set, but, true to form, the duo failed to return from the pub until they were due on the Rock City stage. The exchange - drunken, unpredictable, frequently awkward, dominated by Aidan Moffat who was playing with a doll throughout whom it eventually transpired was the "Christy" he was referring to as his girlfriend - turned out to be one of the most memorable of my short career in student journalism. On that occasion Middleton - the musical one - took a back seat, allowing Moffat the platform on which to perform. But since Arab Strap's demise in 2006 he's stepped out of the shadows and now, backed only by Jenny Reeve on fiddle and vocals and Stevie Jones on double bass, is very much the centre of attention, and obviously enjoying it, though perhaps more than he'd care to admit - he's got a reputation as an agoraphobe to uphold, after all.

The early portion of the set is heavy on material from last year's A Brighter Beat, as reinterpreted by the stripped-down line-up. The title track gets things underway, soon followed by 'Fuck It, I Love You' (a nice insight into romance Falkirk-style). Genius Christmas single and album opener 'We're All Going To Die' isn't far behind, but it's 'Blue Plastic Bags', from this year's predominantly acoustic follow-up Sleight Of Heart, that first gets the hairs standing up on the back of the neck.

"It's about getting drunk, or the confusion of modern living", Middleton says. "We'll judge you on how you choose to interpret it". Well, for me it's about the universal and desperate search for comfort and consolation: "The whole world's going home with blue plastic bags / Six bottles of Stella, Jacob's Creek and twenty fags / And you know there is no shame / 'Cos we're all doing the same". And that's the beauty of it - we might be lonely, we might feel isolated, we might be listening to "downbeat shite", but we're actually all lonely, isolated and listening to "downbeat shite" together. The stirring climax - "Sing along with the sad song / Sing along, sing along" - just underscores the point. This is a communal experience, and a perversely uplifting one.

Middleton's miserabilism manages to be neither po-faced nor cartoonish - instead, it's weighty but articulated with a wry and blacker-than-black humour that can't help but make you grin rather than grimace. "Tablets to breathe, tablets to sleep / Tablets just my favourite sweet", he sings in 'Loneliest Night Of My Life Came Calling', and elsewhere: "We drank to the good times, we drank to the bad / We drank to times we never had". Madonna's 'Stay' sounds marvellous given the Middleton treatment, and he can even get away with calling a new song 'Red Travelling Socks' and still invest it with emotional poignancy.

Left alone on stage for the three song encore, Middleton ratchets up the self-loathing and self-deprecation a few notches with 'Total Belief' before the final song of the night, 'Devil And The Angel', takes it to a whole new level. Greeted with a chorus of 30- and 40-somethings hissing "Yes!" under their breath, the song tells the tale of being visited by a devil and an angel. The former knocks him down, the latter builds him up - and, on waking, guess which path he chooses? He may have gone for a slash before getting up on stage, but he evidently still has plenty of piss to take out of himself. But of course the irony is that to be able to sing self-abasing lines like "I'll never amount to anything / I'll never achieve anything / I'll never be good at anything / And my songs are shite" to a roomful of strangers actually takes an extraordinary amount of self-confidence.

It was pissing it down shortly before the gig, but by the time I step outside afterwards it's stopped. That about sums it up.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rhapsody in brass

Žiga i Bandisti, Kavaliri.
Zagreb Tvornica Kulture. 01mar08.

Zagreb’s Tvornica venue is a former ballroom, which should have been a clue; that Gogol Bordello are playing here in the next fortnight a red herring. In the end it is the grannies in the audience, sat round the curved terraced seating at the back of the venue that is the gives away that my gig of choice has been the rather more conservative option.

Not that it was for the want of trying to find something a little greasier; a little more alternative; more challenging. The first choice, an anti-landmines gig featuring five Zagreb bands, had been challenging alright, in terms of finding the venue if nothing else. The location of the Mochvara warehouse, which is apparently a magnet for alt.types, shall remain a mystery. So underground a show was it, I’m starting to think it may well have actually taken place beneath terra firma. Or that I really can’t read maps. Having wandered down a long desolate track by the Sava river, retracing the steps seemed a touch foolhardy, so the Tvornica back-up plan kicked in.

Still, I wanted to experience a little Croatian culture, and who am I to suggest that young local fellas with guitars have all the answers, when it could easily be a paunchy, middle-aged crooner backed by six-piece brass and a drum-set. We’ll discuss Žiga and his band later.

First up were Kavaliri. From their matching suits and apparent playing of popular ‘folk’ standards it appeared that their being here meant that, somewhere in Croatia, a wedding reception was missing its post-dins entertainment. The two fiddlers also took on the leadership and vocal duties, the strength of their harmonies powerful despite the language barrier.

To their left, was a chap hammering at a dulcimer, a further fiddler-come-guitarist and a double bassist. Their tunes veered from standard Eastern European folk to a country twang which not only inspired the crowd into a few yee-haws and ITV-studio-audience clap-alongs, but also to waltz around the dance-floor, making the most of the wide gaps between the groups crowded around the bar tables dotted around.

Kavaliri’s seventy-five minutes of effective warm-up meant that Žiga needed to be on form. After an initial fanfare from his mini colliery band, the star (Kurt Russell in face, Adam Faith in hair and suit) arrived to a great ovation and, to keep the mood flowing, his opening numbers were amongst his most jaunty; whipcrack polkas parped out as though by a military marching band collectively tripping and rolling down a hill – the adrenaline pumping but retaining their discipline.

Halfway through the set was a ‘This Is Your Life’ moment as the compère interrupted a tune to bound on stage and present Žiga with what appeared to be something equivalent to a gold disc. Genuinly touched though he was, this did appear to put Žiga off his stroke a bit and the rhythm of the show noticeably calmed. More was the pity as the later stuff, like his version of ‘O Sole Mio’ or the elongated ‘encore’ set – just him and a weatherbeaten guitarist who had been waiting patiently backstage – felt, when compared to his brisk and joyous beginnings, pretty pedestrian.


Quote of the day

"I regret that ... I should've picked 'Rings Around The World', which would've got more people into them. But they are the natural inheritors of the Beatles' crown."

Alan Johnson on his decision to pick 'Cityscape Skybaby' on 'Desert Island Discs' last year.

That the Health Secretary is a huge Super Furry Animals fan would have been enough of a revelation, were it not for the fact that today's Observer Music Monthly also carried the news that Scarlett Johansson is about to release the fruits of a collaboration with David Siket of TV On The Radio, an album of Tom Waits covers which features David Bowie on backing vocals. It's not April Fool's Day come early, is it?

Rather less unexpected was Andy Capper's interview with Spiritualized's Jason Pierce in which he talks about his near-death experience. Their new album, the superbly titled Songs In A&E, is described as being at least in part "elevator music made for funeral homes". Another one for the shopping list, then.

Best of all, though, was the extract from poet Simon Armitage's new book, which carries the self-explanatory title 'Gig: The Life And Times Of A Rock Star Fantasist'. Sample quote: "I've also mouthed off many times about a band I once played in called the Fabrics, with Terry Towelling on drums, Poly Ester doing backing vocals, Ray On playing bass and me - singer-songwriter Bri Nylon - howling into the microphone and strangling a Fender Strat. But there was no such band. I made the whole thing up." I imagine Armitage would get on quite well with Ian Rankin...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Let there be drummers!

Dalston Barden’s Boudoir. 07mar08.

Drummer and vocalist Ian Vanek is yelping “no, no lets do that again” and not for the first time. Anxious repetition like this may well be due to a constant pursuit of perfection or possibly indicative of an artist so in thrall to three or four of his own songs, he’s going to keep playing them until we appreciate them correctly, GODDAMMIT!

In this case it’s mainly down to the fact that the jostling amongst the audience means the communal activity of tipping over the lip of the stage into the drum set placed near the front is occurring with increasing regularity. Having to remain so alert to the prospect of his instrument peeling apart, like a flower freshly in bloom, is putting Vanek off his stroke somewhat.

That’s on the one hand though, the hand that causes him to fretfully request that “you guys need to stay away from the drums, I’m a much better drummer than you are.” However the other hand loves it. This hand is the one down the other end of the arm that has an amphetamine-chewing, skater-angel stationed on its allied shoulder, as opposed to the hoity, officious devil sat upright on the other, both whispering their instructions into either ear.

On this other more rebellious, less uniform hand, Vanek is screaming, along with colleague Matt Reilly, “let’s rip this place to shreds”, and trying to ease the congestion in front of the stage by inviting the entire audience to join them on it. It is this hand which operates 95% of Vanek’s thinking, but causes the problem of the stage-collected audience crashing at skins and cymbals with their sweaty hands like they’re auditioning for a part in ‘Stomp’.

Feeling guilty about letting the bureaucratic, fussy 5% reveal itself, Vanek later apologises and repents “I’m sorry guys, you can all hit the drums now, go nuts.” At this point the line between act and audience becomes so blurred it’s like viewing the show through a translucent shower curtain, and is indicative of the chaos that makes evenings like this such a success.

After all, Japanther categorise themselves as a dance band and, on that score, mission accomplished early into proceedings. Vanek’s drums and Reilly’s bass are the sole instruments save for synth lines and samples coming from a tape which jerks in and out of operation, adding to the general hubbub, which is ideal really as the spirit here is sweaty rock n’ roll, Stooge-punk and cogent, singalonga noisecore. The songs themselves, thanks to the tapes, give the live rhythm a buzz-pop sheen that, like the phone-reciever mics into which their harmonies are sung, doesn’t detract from the intensity of their performance.

They say rock n’roll is the devil’s music, but clearly that depends how you wish to categorise the respective modus operandi of the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’. Some might suggest it’s the other way around but, as far as I’m concerned tonight, the relaxed angel beat the uptight devil, thanks to the support of an audience upf’rit from the get-go, and a band willing to let anything happen. Well, most of the time.

Japanther website
Japanther MySpace


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sins in the flesh

Envy And Other Sins/Johnny Foreigner/Kyte, Leicester Firebug, 1st March 2008

With Glastonbury rumour season in full swing and the mid-ranking festivals ekeing out their first announcements, to coincide with the release this week of the first bands on the bill of this August's Summer Sundae festival - Supergrass, The Coral, Simian Mobile Disco, Roisin Murphy, Lightspeed Champion and Jeffrey Lewis to name a few - the organisers put on A Taste Of Summer Sundae, a small gig after the fashion of last August's warm-up party featuring four bands set to play the new music Rising stage (well, three, with electroFoals-ish Tired Irie unfortunately pulling out due to the singer losing his voice), a way equally of raising interest in the lower reaches of the festival and boosting an often overlooked local live scene.

With one of the two local bands pulling out, Kyte are the representatives of a scene that is having one of its periodical slight raises in profile, with the Displacements and The Screening signed up for the post-Fratellis kids at one end and at the other the post-postrock 'sonic cathedral' likes of Her Name Is Calla, who supported iLiKETRAiNS towards the end of last year, and that band's next tour support, this youthsome five-piece who earned an 8/10 from the NME for their recent mini-album. They've had a single remixed by Maps, but where James Chapman comes on as reconfigured shoegaze Kyte, who we saw back at the end of 2006 third on a Charlotte bill utilising post-rock guitar delay to its fullest, are developing into their own skins. While not a slow-moving band, they start off near Slowdive and take in the landscapes of Jeniferever and Mew at their most stratospheric, maybe even the glacial textures of Sigur Ros. There's not much in the way of quiet-loud dynamics, though, just an atmospheric reach that wouldn't seem out of place the next time an natural world programming editor is looking for a coruscating background to a particularly breathtaking vista. If it makes this impression in a city centre bar at half eight on a Saturday night, given time and space to build further on their ideas they could develop into something epic.

Which, in an entirely different sense, already describes Johnny Foreigner. Held up by singer/guitarist Alexei's amp breaking down they may be, but within seconds of starting they've staked their claim to be the most exciting and energetic new band in Britain. There's a huge amount of underground interest surrounding the Digbeth trio following their mini-album of last October Arcs Across The City, and with every good reason. That record, inspired by the wilder end of post-punk, the early 90s US underground variously inhabited by Pavement, Q And Not U and Guided By Voices and the single-mindedness of a Sonic Youth yet retaining an invention and lightness of touch outside any idea of selling to Jo Whiley listeners that didn't make them seem out of place recent touring partners of Los Campesinos!, was good enough, but it's live where everything coalesces and explodes into a black hole of serrated edge ADD dance-punk. The opening one-two, as on that record, of Champagne Girls I Have Known and The End And Everything After, showcases their strengths, Alexei declamatory of vocal and ferocious of guitar whether indulging in die-cut, sixpence turning hyperactive stop-start riffage or (just about) more controlled unpretty patterns, while bassist Kelly is Kim Deal-imperious even when the pair are trading sung-screamed vocals and crossthreaded lines. Behind them drummer Junior somehow both pins the whole thing down and drives it on at warp speed, unless he's playing keyboard or setting off a loop. When not admitting they're attempting the "comedy rock band" banter stylings of the Young Knives, who they're about to spend what might well be a long month on tour with, three tracks from that album get played along with three new songs from forthcoming debut proper Waited Up Til It Was Light, which promise much the same grand scheme of iForward Russia! meeting the Dismemberment Plan uptown to wreak havoc on lesser water treaders, plus an assured cover of Pavement's Grounded apparently because "we don't have many slower songs". As closer Yr All Just Jealous weaves from melancholic mid-section to to colossal almost literal breakdown via a quote from dEUS' Hotel Lounge, it's apparent Johnny Foreigner have not only blown away everyone else on the bill but probably also whoever was playing at the Charlotte 300 yards or so away.

Which is a problem if you're in fellow Birmingham emigres Envy And Other Sins and you're headlining to an already sceptical clientele who only know of you from your major label earning victory in T4's Mobile Act Unsigned. In truth, they were far from the worst band in that beleaguring show's final stages and have been around for a lot longer than that standing would imply, their name being bandied about as ones to watch a couple of years ago thanks to support tours with Mew and British Sea Power. They were eccentrics then - Dickensian dress code, claims to have invented a new sport - and while there's still facial hair, waistcoats and cravats to go and a lampshade by the PA any audial incongruities have been smoothed out. Which is not to say they're terrible - they're kind of a Hoosiers gone right, with a similar ELO influence undeniable but also channelling a strain of British songwriting through the Kinks and Parklife to a more agreeably melodic end. While not as actively offensive as cause and effect might have led the casual observer to expect, though, they stood no chance on the night after what had gone before.