Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My get up and go just got up and went (to the venue round the corner)

Stag & Dagger. 21may09.

Baby Venom. Spitalfields Vibe Bar Live. 1920-1950.
Plugs. Spitalfields Vibe Bar. 1930-2000.
Speech Debelle. Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen. 2030-2100.
Dan Smith. Shoreditch Jaguar Shoes. 2100-2130.
Blue Bambinos. Hoxton Favela Chic. 2120-2150.
Navvy. Shoreditch Last Days Of Decadence. 2150-2220.
Flowers Of Sulphur. Hoxton Cocomo. 2200-2230.
Casio Kids. Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen. 2340-0020.
(advertised stage times shown)

It’s like a festival, only it benefits from being indoors in rooms, many of which wouldn’t make the venue shortlist for a cat-swinging grand prix. It’s like gigs, only loads in the same night to which you have a skeleton key; freedom of the city bestowed to those who like to cram like a panicking student when it comes to live music and checking out somethings new. Also, between bands, why stare at a roadies bum-crack whilst he fiddles with the drum-stack, when you can just pop out and head off down the road where another band in another venue can do away with the notion of having to have an elongated musical hiatus.

Of course, the Camden Crawl led the way in this respect, but Stag & Dagger acts as a slightly more left-field equivalent causing a mass barrelling around the EC1 and E1 postcodes between Old Street and Brick Lane. It is in the latter I begin after 7pm, in the upstairs room of the Vibe Bar. Hunched over a wooden table of beat-up synths, like two street card-sharps turning up the heat on their speed-‘Find-the-Lady’-off, are two thirds of Baby Venom (the third due at the drum set that sits behind the table), running late with their prep. Eventually one of them looks up and wonders “This is beyond soundcheck, yeah? This is playing? Are the doors open?”

They are, and the early bird smattering, lolling on sofas and perched on stools, are soon joined by a stream of ears as Baby Venom kick on with their lo-fi Kraut-pop. The stage set-up is much akin to Holy Fuck or Fuck Buttons, but this trio are much gentler souls, and not just for the lack of a vulgar exclamation in their name. That said, the drumming is certainly athletic but their electroid bent is more down-to-earth and calmly melodic yet still utterly captivating.

Downstairs to the Vibe’s main bar for Plugs’ last few numbers. They have described themselves as “psychedelic/concrete/progressive” and they could throw in a few more obliques and descriptors as well, as the three numbers I see are about as dissimilar as a bric-a-brac car boot display of a cheese ladder, a cable-knit tank-top with racing green trim and a photograph of a man waving from the seat of a ride-on lawnmower. Firstly they are sprightly alt.rock, then Mount Sims-esque bouncy electro then all nouveau post-punk angles. This blog, as is customary, applauds their lack of focus.

From one extreme of the Dagger campus to, nearly, the other as we leave Brick Lane to it for the evening, and thus eschewing the later highlights of Abe Vigoda at the Vibe, or Dananananakroyd at 93 Feet East. Still, having seen the latter before, it would seem out of keeping with spirit of the night to go and see any band one has already happened across, however exciting and interesting they’ve been. As such Micachu & The Shapes and An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump find their names etched off the matchday programme.

With tonight’s gambling rules drawn up, it is therefore to a hip-hop artist I am next drawn, having not seen much of it over the years, certainly not since Credit To The Nation seemed to support every white-boys-with-guitars alt.rock act around 1993/4. Credit playing with the Manics and Therapy? was eye-opening, but easy to reconcile when you consider the politics of all the acts in involved. For an “I’m not even going to try to warm to this” combo though, nothing topped the leather-clad rock n’ rollers vs. hair-clipped indie-types stand off when Rocket from the Crypt and Bis toured the country together in 1998, but I digress.

Speech Debelle [top pic] is the hip-hop act in question, but rather than being a post-Public Enemy politico, Speech is all about the personal, opening up a window to her world, possibly through an unlocked diary she keeps in the shoebox under her bed. Rather than crashing beats, Speech’s music is more soul-jazz in tempo, the words tallest man with the worlds longest fingers taking control of the double bass (if ever a man was built for an instrument) whilst drums are played gently and brushed. There’s a touch of Arrested Development about it, without the significant connection to the African diaspora. This is very South London, and has a down-to-earth, middle-classness stitched into the sleeves of it, much like early 90's #42-with-a-bullet one-non-hit-wonder Efua. Which is damning with faint praise, but there’s nothing to really quicken the pulse here.

Next, in the dilapidated basement bar of Jaguar Shoes, is a man [see above] playing quirky piano, voice and occasional noises pop. “Kill me now” is Dan Smith’s refrain as I walk through the door, but largely this is bittersweet stuff, in the Ben Folds or Jeremy Warmsley vein. For Alchemy he self-harmonises over a bubbling synth bass-line that gives him an enticing gothic electropop mask, whilst his final song contains a jaunty vaudevillian twitch.

Onto Favela Chic for Blue Bambinos [above] and again as I walk through the door the picture is striking, as a man in a Tom Waits’-esque hobo hat bows at a singing hand saw. This is a first impression that softens one up for the caustic post-garage hardcore rockabilly blues racket that they also deal in. Singer, and saw player, Justin Young makes an arresting front man, and not just because of the natty titfer, but for his rock moves whilst singing, which look a lot like Henry Rollins, if Hank were to unwrap the mic cord from his forearm and impersonate an orang-utan experiencing lower back and limb stiffness as a result of an ergonomically incorrect desk layout. They close by bringing out the saw again for a woozy blues instrumental. This is what Stag & Dagger is all about, falling into venues containing bands you have not even heard of, and leaving with thoughts of album purchase on your mind.

That said, my next port of call is for a band that sent me a demo in my Vanity Project-editing days, so I am aware of them already and know that I liked them. Why is a mystery created by the deficiencies of my memory, but what better way to refresh than downstairs at Last Days Of Decadence, where there is a display of fine china crockery in the wall. Navvy [pic below] aren’t really in keeping with all this, playing perky and poky berk-pop, all yelps, synths, plated-jelly bass-lines all moshing together like feral cats after the same mouse. Making more enthusiastic use of woodblock and cowbell than is perhaps healthy, Navvy have a Devo-esque brashness about their quirk.

I’m not sure if I can genuinely claim to having seen the next act. Flowers of Sulphur were half way through their set in the basement of Hoxton’s Cocomo bar and the best I could do was to perch on the top of the stairs, able only to see a synth-player’s arm, the guitarist's back and the drummer’s thigh. Still, the three instrumental numbers I hear are strong-armed and richly psychedelic and worth further investigation, possibly at a later date.

Time to try the luck elsewhere, but that certainly won’t be at Cargo where tonight’s top draws, Evan Dando and Cold War Kids, are in residence. Lack of interest partly, but also the queues for it are already snaking around Shoreditch. It’s similar back at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen but I am keen to see Casio Kids and thus one has to calm the gadding about to play a more patient waiting game. Not that it was entirely necessary. Once White Denim had finished their set the place emptied so I might have been able to fit in Maps or Thunderheist in the time I was queuing, but no matter as the Casio Kids [see below] were very much worth waiting for.

They often talk about Pulp’s defining moment being when they owned Glastonbury in 1995. It’s not quite that here, but a similar kind of euphoria, relatively speaking, greets the Casio Kids as they leave the stage after their forty minute set and you get the impression that a great many in the room have come without being already partisan, yet leave having become so. Casio Kids do upbeat electro, harmonise angelically and have the guitar, bass and drums to give it a pop-post-rock undercoat.

One song is dedicated to a member of the band who has something to celebrate; “he’s handed in his Masters today! How about it?” They’re like !!! without being in so much thrall to 70’s funk, and like Toto if they preferred electro-pop to soft rock. The room is aglow as they finish, and although the night goes on for another couple of hours, anything else would now be after the Lord Mayor’s Show somewhat and thus my de facto headliners provide the show-stopping performance in keeping with their position.

Stag & Dagger website (with MySpace links)


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Home

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

This week's topic: Home

'Home' - Erasure (Caskared)

I was given WHSmith vouchers for my 13th birthday. We went to Coventry for the day with my sister's godmother, duly went into WHSmith and I ran to the cassettes. It was the end of 1991 and I bought Chorus by Erasure. I have listened to it ever since.

Listening to this album, and I would listen to the whole thing time and time again, it throws me to and fro in time. Looking back I remember the first listen on my Walkman - the snazziest I could afford from Argos with 3-band graphic equaliser. I would walk across the fields with a couple of cassettes clattering in my pocket, a damp air encompassing me as I walked with no particular aim other than to clear my mind and get some physical distance from home, from the building full of stuff, my family and homework. I listened to it on the cliffs when we were abseiling. Clear sunny days, staring out across the hills and green, taking in the beauty and thinking about the future. Time stretches out before me, a stone's throw from the door.

This album, with its synth bleeps and pseudo science cover and spaceship videos, filled me with, or rather was the soundtrack for, my chronic teenage yearning. I never quite knew exactly what I was yearning for, just an unobtainable something. I wasn't patient, wanting to do everything the world had to offer, but was trapped at home yet adoring the freedom that being young could provide at the same time.

Finally I could escape home, but not before a year of the art school system forcing me into an extra year for foundation. Ices over and freezes life. Time will come, time will come, time will fall. I bided my time, every now and again walking on a dark evenings, the blips and harmonies layering and sounding every bit as fresh as they had when I was 13. Away, in the North East, then further away, putting seas between myself and the place that had penned me in and still now, now I'm 30, and the album is with me. I listen to it, and it takes me home. I'm back there, staring out over the fields, thinking about climbing the water tower, the radio masts, but it's imbued with thinking about the possible futures I'd dreamed of.

The life I'm living is one I had wanted, but there's a melancholy, a mourning for the lost potential. I could only follow one route - what about the others I'd hoped for? I ain't never turning back. Is my prime over? Should I go home? I can't go back there, to then, when I was stuck but with everything in front of me just waiting to happen. It's not that I'm not happy now, but the last song on the album... I ain't never going home. Home doesn't exist, everywhere is home but now nowhere, I live in transience, and this song, its outer space clicks and programmed harmonies, its melody a companion, this music is as permanent as I can find but still every second renews, it sits in physical form inside its cassette casing, and now digital, but only comes to life for the duration of playing, living in my memory after the final chord fades, just as my notion of home simultaneously manifests in my here-and-now for the temporary moment and place I am in, but ultimately passes further into memory, distant.

'Blaydon Races' - Geordie Ridley (Ben)

(No contribution from Paul this week, but I think it's safe to say this choice would speak for him too...)

Since leaving the North East twelve years ago, I've lived in the Yorkshire Dales, in Nottingham (five different places), in Birmingham, in Cardiff, in Abingdon, in Oxford and now back in Abingdon again. In an emotional if not a strictly geographical sense, each successive move has taken me further away from the place I still call "home".

While abscence hasn't necessarily made the heart grow fonder, the fondness certainly hasn't faded or waned. Driving up the A1 past the Angel of the North still quickens the pulse, and looking down the River Tyne at the bridges still brings a smile to the face. Even passing the MetroCentre (or "the Metty", as it was known in my youth) in between the two more remarkable landmarks has me reminiscing warmly of half-term days spent in the imaginatively named miniature theme park MetroLand and, more recently, of a riotously drunk trip to the ten pin bowling alley for a friend's stag do (no doubt the teetotal Skif recalls the afternoon with greater clarity than I do...).

But nothing gets me so misty-eyed as the sight of the home stadium of a certain football team, perched imperiously upon the hill. Newcastle has a cathedral, sure, but this is where the city really worships, where it truly looks to for inspiration and hope (though where it very often also learns harsh lessons).

Being a football fan is all about having a sense of belonging, community and identity. And, as keenly as that identity is felt at "home" (as it were), it comes to seem more important when "abroad". To pull on the shirt and support the team in foreign surroundings - whether encircled by plastic prawn-sandwich-eating Man Utd fans from the Home Counties or, arguably worse still, people who simply don't have any interest in the game at all (or are they actually just one and the same?) - is to make a connection with home. Catch the eye of another lone fan across a crowded bar - the TV commentary invariably drowned out by music and the inane chatter of gibbering imbeciles oblivious to how much what's unfolding might mean - and there's a nod of understanding signifying a deep bond that goes beyond outward differences, a nod that acknowledges a fellow exile.

Chants, too, unite and connect. 'Blaydon Races' was originally a folk song, but was appropriated as one of our best-loved chants. It's since been appropriated by the fans of other teams - rather ridiculously so, given that it's so purely Geordie it was even written and performed by a man called Geordie. The song evokes both specific familiar places and, through the dialect, a more general sense of home. For the rootless, nomadic traveller I feel I've been for the past twelve years, such things take on huge emotional significance.

In time, it's true, in my everyday parlance "home" may well come to refer to somewhere other than Newcastle. But that won't ever be HOME, not really. My footballing allegiances - and songs like 'Blaydon Races' - will underline that. Out of sight, perhaps, but never out of mind.

'Firesuite' - Doves (Pete)

I suppose for most the choice of song for this topic depends on your definition of home. For some it might mean where you grew up, for others where you live and for some where you feel you belong. Or perhaps it's where you feel homesick about when you're away.

Although I was born and grew up in London and returned here to live last year, if I were to move away tomorrow, I can't say I'd desperately miss the Smoke or England in general. I didn't in the decade when I didn't live there. Yet despite the fact that I haven't lived in Berlin since 2004, it's still unquestionably home for me. Frankly, it's bizarre, as I've barely only spent a tenth of my life there, but to paraphrase Kafka, "Berlin doesn't let go. This little mother has claws".

I've mentioned the place before (see A night out, Winter, A friend); I moved there for the first time in 2000 on placement for nine months, loved it, returned a year later and then once more in 2003 for my longest stint. Perhaps, because I went clubbing out there an awful lot, DJ'ed occasionally and listened to music on an almost constant basis, it's probably natural that I associate so many songs with the place (20 plus according to my playlist). And these are strong associations too, more so than the majority of those that remind me of (ex-)partners.

Some were practically foisted on me; I doubt that there was a bar in Mitte that didn't play the K & D Sessions in 2000, while the The Lost Riots and L'Ecole Du Micro D'Argent accompanied me on my long runs around the city while I trained for my first marathon.

I've had a theory for some time now that the best way to get the feel of a city is to see it at night, be it through the buzz and neon lights of Tokyo, the quiet grandeur of Prague's old town, kicking-out time in Pompey or driving through London's streets at midnight. Berlin is no different; in my eyes it has a relaxed yet edgy vibe in the early hours.

Although I'd had the first album by Doves for a week or so by then, it wasn't really until I was travelling back late one midweek evening from visiting friends in Spandau in the far west that I really "got" it. 'Firesuite' in particular stuck out as the practically empty S-Bahn travelled overground through the heart of the city. I played it whilst travelling past the Olympic Stadium, hit the repeat button as the train went through past the flats in Charlottenburg and again as it passed the lit-up dome of the Reichstag. In fact, it stayed on repeat until I got back to my flat. After that it seemed a perfect choice to soundtrack my journeys on nights out, or more to the point, my journeys back home.

'Graceland' - Paul Simon (Skif)

My old man isn’t really a music enthusiast. He occasionally expresses interest in something, but mainly it’ll be sixties compilations, mainstream classical music or country that get put on. Despite this he certainly knew what he didn’t like when I was a teenager at home. Given I was a Kerrang! reader at the time, you can imagine there was little to excite his interest in my record collection.

I remember having MTV on one day and Rollins Band’s 'Liar' came on. I was a massive Rollins fan back then, and thus the phrase, overflowing with hoity thumbs-behind-braces pomposity, "this has no musical merit whatsoever" has stayed with me ever since. As such I dug my own heels in and refused to countenance that country and western music had any either. My phrase for years was "I like all music. Except country". The implication of this, I realise now, was that racist Oi-punk, homophobic ragga and the misogynistic, violence-glorifying end of rap were all perfectly acceptable to the teenage me. Which they weren’t, nor are they now.

However, country now is more than acceptable to my ears; I have come to love it, albeit more at the Laura Cantrell and Handsome Family end of the spectrum, rather than my folks’ more Grand Old Opry trad favourites such as Crystal Gayle and Patsy Cline. That said we have an LP in common. Johnny Cash’s Live At San Quentin used to sit in bulky white plastic-cased tape form in my old man’s car. Now, as a CD, it’s between Cardiacs and Cat Power (well, and several other Cash discs) on my shelves.

What makes my obstinacy in the face of country’s homespun charms all the more ironic is that the first song I apparently really loved as an ikkle lad was 'Bimbo' by Jim Reeves, a man who certainly didn’t need his head lubricating, nor "reasonable force" exerted, to get him into a Stetson. Instead of these country options, though, I’m going to go with something else where there was consensus, even back then. "I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee" (P. Simon).

When I say 'Graceland' by Paul Simon, I really mean the album as a whole, as any song from it means I happily recall flicking through my parents’ box of 12” platters, with its Slim Whitman hits, the kids' Christmas songs albums they’d bought me as a toddler and the, ahem, James Last records. However, for the sake of argument, let’s use the title track if only for the fact it has one of the greatest opening lines in popular music. I love the figurative and quirky use of language, and if you can manage both in the first dig, then I doff my cap. For example, Elbow’s "I’ve been working on a cocktail, called Grounds for Divorce" has recently joined Graceland’s golden hello - "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar" - amongst my all-time gateway favourites.

Some might view the heavy use of African musicians as all a bit Peter Gabriel-like world-music-worthy, but the combination of the African musicians and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s vocal harmonies with Simon’s folk-troubadour vision is thrilling and much more than just a worthy experiment, musically or politically. Also, the proper pop-rock singles on the record are great too; 'The Boy In The Bubble' is another lyrical masterpiece to behold, and even 'You Can Call Me Al' is brashly brilliant, even if the Chevy Chase lip-synch video does make it feel more dated a tune than it actually is.

It’s only just struck me that I’ve never gone and got my own copy of the record, even more reason for it to remind me of home then I guess, cos that’s where it is.

Next time I’m visiting, I shall have to remember to steal it.

'If I Fell' - The Beatles (Ian)

I’m being a bit disingenuous here, but I’d feel a bit odd crediting it as 'If I Fell' by William Mathers. My dad is where I got the beginnings of what is so far a lifelong obsession with music, and one of my very first memories is of him, doing the dishes or driving the car or putting us to bed, and crooning a ludicrous, comedic version of what I wouldn’t realize for years was a Beatles song. He sang it a bit like Elmer Fudd, and sometimes he would stretch out the "true" in "would you promise to be true" into "twuuuue-ue-ue-ue" and sometimes he would shove in the "if you would only love me like you used to do" bit from 'You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling'.

My parents divorced when we were quite young, and although it was maybe the world’s most amicable divorce and although all parties concerned are happier now than they would be otherwise, there was still a mild tinge of sadness running implicit through most of my childhood. As an adult I’ve talked a bit with my parents about what happened to them when I was too young to understand, and although 'If I Fell' was always gently goofy instead of sad I do wonder a little, now, what Dad was thinking when he sang it to us. But, of course, I also remember vividly his larger-than-life rendition of 'The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill', so maybe there wasn’t any subtext; maybe he was just having a Beatles phase.

'If I Fell' is in that weird class of things that were important to my childhood that I forgot about – not rejected, not set aside, but outright forgot about their existence – in adolescence and through my early 20s and that has now come back (see also: 'Apeman' by The Kinks, the Windsor farmer’s market, the little goat statue my paternal grandparents owned that I nearly broke). I regard these things with ineffable fondness now; I’m not sure where they went when I was growing into the person I am now, but I am profoundly grateful that they’re back again.

And even now, all I really knew of 'If I Fell' are those first couple of lines, the only ones dad sung to us. In fact, listening to the proper song today, I’m really not that impressed by it. The narrative is confusing, although if you work with the awkward phrasing you see it’s not a song about falling for someone and being afraid they aren’t falling back (which is what always struck me as a kid) but instead a guy going "Look, baby, she hurt me; we can only be together if you promise me you’re serious and boy is she going to be pissed once we’re going out". It’s kind of a jerky song, honestly. But if you were to play it for me I probably wouldn’t notice. As soon as I hear "If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true / And help me understand" I’m off, humming my dad’s version to myself and thinking about our old living room.

A year or two ago, back when I only sort of remembered my history with this song and didn’t know what it was, I woke up with my dad’s version in my head and I wandered around for a few days humming it to myself. Luckily, I happened to go grocery shopping during this time, and there it was: unmistakably the Beatles, undoubtedly the same song (although not precisely the same – Dad reharmonized it, of all things, and sang the first verse in the same dreamy style that Lennon only adopts with the second verse). And I stopped in my tracks in the dairy section and I thought about the houses we used to live in, and I thought about visiting Kincardine again that summer. I used to get frustrated that there was nothing to do when I went home, but now I get that doing nothing, just being there, is kind of the point.

* * * * *

And so the curtain comes down on another regular feature on The Art Of Noise. Thanks to Caskared, Pete, Skif and Ian for their contributions this week, and to everyone who's contributed during the course of the feature.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Voices high

Lexie Mountain Boys.
Hackney St. Augustine’s Tower. 04may09.

There should be more site-specific gigs. It’s a concept more associated with theatre, such as Shakespeare being performed in the ruined cloisters of an Abbey, the National Theatre of Scotland performing the astounding Black Watch in drill halls or Tim Crouch’s England, which leads its audiences through art galleries, engaging with the works on display

So, for an alternative music show, this was genuinely something quite different. One would expect nothing less from London promoters Upset The Rhythm whose shows I heartily recommend if you desire seeing something a touch more challenging. This usually only applies to the actual music but for this show context was, well, half.

St Augustine’s Tower is the oldest building in Hackney, with its clock mechanism dating to about 1580. It was apparently wound manually for 400 years. The tower is narrow and on four levels: the entrance, the pendulum case, the clock room and the bell room. Access is via a tight and steep spiral stone staircase. This show was limited to just over 30 due to the space constrictions, so there was certainly a feeling of exclusivity and anticipation.

The Lexie Mountain Boys are five young women from Baltimore performing a cappella, but with foot stomps, handclaps and manipulation of their clothes as percussion. The Boys are renowned for their outlandish costumes and their get-up for this show was garlanded in such a way as to shickle like crackly wind-chimes or a distant toddler’s tambourine when they moved significantly.

The look of these outfits can best be described as being part Arabian Nights’ courtesan, part disco-ball bag lady and part Birdman of Bognor entrant. It all added to their slightly unhinged act, made all the more bizarre for them initially singing at us in the entrance hall through an open barrier on the staircase halfway up the wall of the room. They then proceeded to lead us up to each room in turn, performing a further piece in each space, eventually peaking, appropriately, on the roof. North East London’s skyline has never been viewed in such bizarre circumstances I’d warrant.

Perhaps it was the fact that, being an early evening (18:30 – 19:30) in May, light was stilling filtering in through the windows, or perhaps it was the awkwardness of having to arrange ourselves into tight spaces whilst the act was in progress; but the actual performance didn’t really live up to the eminence of the surroundings. There was no aura surrounding the Lexie Mountain Boys as performers, no enigma to give their shtick a spellbinding weight.

The human voice as instrument is a wonderful thing. I have witnessed Tuuvan throat singers and African gospel choirs and been wowed, moved and humbled by the experience. By comparison the Lexie Mountain Boys semi-improvised cycles felt a little underwhelming, their breaking into fits of giggles might have been cute, but it also eroded the potential power of their performance (which is significant). If you asked me whether this was an artistic happening, or just some arsing about, I’d have to suggest the latter, however reluctantly.

Which was a great pity as it was all set up to be astonishing.

Lexie Mountain Boys @ MySpace
St Augustine Tower


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Sadness

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

This week's topic: Sadness

'Interlude' - Morrissey & Siouxsie (Skif)

It’s got such a peaceful gust this song, like the orchestral parts are being recorded somewhere like rural Provence, in a dell’s sunken cleft, whilst the two vocalists wander amongst the wildflowers further up the bank. It’s a terrific vocal combo too, with Morrissey’s mournful reel played against Siouxsie Sioux’s virtually emotionless grit. Apparently they didn’t really get on that well when recording this but, thankfully, it has no effect on the subtle romantic drama of the piece.

All that said, the best bit of it is when Moz and Siouxs pack up their vox and allow a two-minute coda to meander like a glinting stream; a stream viewed through a number of pubescent oaks occasionally caught in a tickling draught.

You might be picking up from my effusing that I rather like this piece. I’ve had rather a lot of on and off with Morrissey over the years. 1994’s Vauxhall and I remains his masterpiece for me, and I’m much fonder of its heftier follow-up Southpaw Grammar (1995) than most seem to be. Yet I never got round to buying 1997’s Maladjusted, nor 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors despite buying the in-between effort You Are The Quarry (2004). I’m rather fond of his latest single 'I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris' so I guess I’m back on board in 2009. However give me the option of one Morrissey solo song to take to a desert island with me and it’d be his duet version of 'Interlude'.

This seems particularly appropriate as I imagine I’d be quite despondent if I found myself on a desert island with nothing but a couple of records and a coconut for company, and 'Interlude' has, however much I like it, become synonymous with my woe, albeit hitherto my romantic woe, specifically. Whenever I’ve been dumped or felt rejected, it is this tune I’ve stuck in my ears on a long loop, sometimes for an hour or more of ceiling-staring and heavy-sighing.

I should probably clarify that I’ve not been dumped that much; I’ve not been out with enough women for that. However none of the couplings of which I’ve been half have ended through any decision-making on my part. Well, I finished my long, long first relationship on several capricious and arrogant occasions, mostly because I felt my potentially gad-about university days were passing me by in a blur of masochistic monogamy, but that was never the actual end of it. It was always just a break. Until that proper point of no return, of course, which rather knocked me for six.

All the dramatic farewells, got-nowheres and awkward situations that followed were celebrated the same way, by digging out the Moz records, and considering a return to writing dreadfully earnest poetry. I was a teenage cliché. Sadly I was a teenage cliché up to about the age of 25.

However, by the time of my last dumping, I’d become a little more used to it, and was able to recover a little quicker but, even so, that first night alone again had its 'Interlude'. Much as I enjoy it, I hope I never have to hear it ever again, not more than once in a row anyway.

'London, Can You Wait?' - Gene (drmigs)

I was brought up to take things on the chin, and walk away; or to turn the other cheek. A laudable ambition, but it does leave you with baggage. Emotional baggage. And if you've no one to talk to, it kind of bottles up. I dealt with it physically by playing ridiculous amounts of sport. However, that never wholly cleared the mind.
Inevitably, thoughts and insecurities were dwelt upon.

These days I have one of these wonderful things called a wife, onto whom I can unburden my cerebral frustrations and insecurities. However, back in the day I didn't have a wife. Sometimes I had a girlfriend, sometimes I didn't, and therein lay the problem. How to deal with the heady combination of late-teen/early-twenties insecurities, social inarticulacy, the baffling opening salvos of early courtship and the pain of splitting up.

I didn't woo by being a knight in shining armour, the alpha male, and I didn't break up with arguments. I wooed by falling into conversation at parties, and I broke up with reason. Feel free to call me passionless, but that wouldn't be fair. I had passion, but I either didn't have the confidence to communicate it, or I felt it disrespectful to resolve something with an emotional outburst. I saved that for an implosion later. I saved that for when I'd go to my room and listen to To See The Lights by Gene. For want of a better metaphor, I saved it for the album that I emotionally self-harmed to.

Flat on my back, on the bed, I'd put the CD in the stereo, and press play. Fourteen seconds into the first track 'Be My Light, Be My Guide' a subtle down-shift in tempo sets the mood, and so the ritual began. I immersed myself in all that was racing through my mind. Dissecting those many occasions when the circumstances had been right, the person had been right, but I couldn't say what I wanted to say. I'd frozen, caught between cowardice and respect, and I'd notched up a little more emotional baggage.

The first three songs of the album would pass by in a blur of self-analysis, and then 'Haunted By You' and 'I Can't Decide If She Really Loves Me' would test out the intensity of my introspection. If this was just another day, and another step on the road of growing up, then I could walk away. However, if it was a biggy, then these two tracks would lead me down the maudlin path. I'd miss 'To See The Lights' in self pity, wallow in 'I Can't Help Myself', and 'A Car That Sped' would prepare me for the darkness that I'd go into during 'For the Dead'.

By the time I'd got to 'For the Dead', it's fair to say I'd be feeling pretty low and hollow. Inevitably, I couldn't stop myself from reliving those dark thoughts, the darkest thoughts of all. When I was younger, I missed a couple of years of school with a chronic illness. Day upon day lying there, waiting to get better while life went on around me. And for a while, day upon day wondering if it would be better to not wait any more. To put an end to the pain. I came to a position where I could face the pain of confronting my mortality, damn it, I'd hurt every day for as long as I could remember, but I couldn't inflict the pain on others. I couldn't take the selfish route when there were so many people selflessly looking after me, loving me. So I just lay there, hypothesising the best way to confront mortality.

I reconciled that the only way to do it efficiently was to get a third person to do it; you might bottle it and botch it on your own. But what would that do to the third party? I found out later in life when I met a lovely chap whom I shall call Bob. He was great, he was enthusiastic and open in opinion, but seemed to have no emotional depth. However, he cracked in a conversation around a campfire that was too heavy on nihilistic philosophical ruminations. He simply splurted out "You've never killed someone!" and broke down. It turns out he'd run through a door at school in his early teens. In a tragic twist of fate, the door knocked over another pupil, and the blow to the head killed them. Bob clearly dealt with this pain by not visiting it, and so only interacted with others superficially. All these things went round my head during 'For The Dead', and the following track 'Sleep Well Tonight'.

'How Much For Love' would drag me back to the subject in question: my need to love and be loved, and the difficulties I was going through to satisfy this need. And then it would come, the track that floored me. 'London, Can You Wait?', the radio session. There is no messing about at the start of this song, just the guitar, a simple melody and the chilling vocals. I'd hear "My kith and kin...", and then lose the next few lyrics of the song, just lost in my mental fog, and the comforting balance of the song. Whisked away by the melody, I'd feel cold and still. And then I'd be caught by "How long can you wait / How long / I was having the time of my life..."; and I'd suddenly feel helpless. Finally, I'd just lie and reflect, confused and still, to "I'm lost again / I'm lost again / I am lost again / Oh I'm lost again / I'm lost again / I am lost again". As the song tied itself up without any fuss, just a simple conclusion of the melody, I'd turn the CD off and just lie there numb. And lie there until I fell asleep, or I or someone else decided it was time to get a grip.

It's been odd listening to this album again, I haven't listened to it for years. It's strange to remind myself of those feelings again, without having anything to invest in the songs. I can retrospectively feel the sadness, but at the same time they only feel as though they were distant emotions; I have someone to love now, and someone who loves me. I don't need or want this anymore. I don't know if I'll listen to the album again for a good while either - it's been cathartic to go back to it, but also a little odd.

'How I Made My Millions' - Radiohead (Ian)

An old Radiohead B-side, this is a home demo Thom Yorke brought to the band that they just released as-is. It’s Thom at the piano, and it is unutterably sad. Beginning with "I was stronger / I was better" and ending with the repeated refrain "Let it fall", it is mostly just the beautifully simple and cyclical piano refrain. Thom murmurs, he almost wails, he slips and he slurs and he’s a little bit drunk.

Because the saddest thing about this gorgeous little tune, a song that’s already plenty sad (and yet not depressing – more bittersweet), is that faintly in the background you can hear Thom’s partner putting the shopping away (or doing the dishes, I’ve heard both theories – something domestic in any case). I don’t imagine for a second that the song was recorded in a moment of domestic strife, it doesn’t sound like that. But the idea that something so bereft and so aching can be created a room away from someone going about the most mundane of tasks – there’s something beautiful about that, yes, but also something very melancholy. And yet, at the same time, it’s fundamental to why we love sad songs, why we need them:

"Talking to a friend a while ago, he expressed surprise when I said that I found, in sad music, not tears and catharsis, but an odd sort of strength, or even cheer. 'But listen to Miles Davis playing Concierto de Aranjuez', he said; 'how can you not feel the bleakness, the absolute despair in that record?' But what stops it
short of being absolute despair is precisely the fact that it is a record. It’s not simply the bleak fact of despair, but a representation of despair; hence proof that something can be done with sadness. This kind of sublimation is not a theodicy, at least not in the traditional sense. The brute fact of suffering is not justified by the brute fact of redemption, rather, redemption, or the closest we can get to it, comes through the fact that suffering can be interpreted, that the fact that we suffer never determines what we then do with that suffering.
(from Voyou Désœuvré)

'Death Of A Salesman' - Low (Ben)

With Ian and I both contributing this week, it was pretty much inevitable that Low would get a mention. After all, their back catalogue weighs far heavier with sadness than most.

Take 'Laser Beam' from Things We Lost In The Fire, for instance - at once impossibly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad. Or 'Pretty People', which kicked off their last album Drums And Guns with sinister wheezing drones and the cheery message "All the soldiers / They're all gonna die / And all the little babies / They're all gonna die".

But, for this incorrigible nostalgic (if I haven't already described myself as such in a previous installment of this feature, then I'd be very surprised) there's only really one track that I could have picked: 'Death Of A Salesman'.

The song appears on The Great Destroyer, the album sandwiched between Things We Lost In The Fire and Drums And Guns which is uncharacteristic in being both loud and, in places, almost (almost, but not quite) strident. 'Death Of A Salesman' is rather different, though: just Alan Sparhawk, an acoustic guitar and a short, brilliant lament for lost youth.

It begins: "So I took my guitar / And I threw down some chords / And some words I could sing / Without shame". "Threw down" and "without shame" are key phrases: there's no self-consciousness, no awkwardness about this music-making - just openness and, behind that, sincerity and belief.

But our hero's composition meets with blank incomprehension, as others try to impress upon him the shamefulness and futility of engaging in creative pursuits: "And I soon had a song / I played it around / For some friends / But they all said the same / They said 'Music's for fools / You should go back to school / The future is prisons and math'". Sparhawk has the ears of anyone who's ever suffered the indignity of having their ambitions frustrated or ridiculed.

The character in the song then describes his own capitulation and weary acceptance of his "friends"' logic: "So I did what they said / Now my children are fed / Cause they pay me to do what I'm asked". The compromising and sacrificing of ideals in the face of grim reality, he implies, is inevitable - and the 31-year-old me nods along in silent agreement.

Anger is the result - an anger which cannot be entirely repressed or sublimated, glimpsed in the sneering hiss of "asked" but described as erupting in symbolic violence: "I forgot all my songs / The words now are wrong / And I burned my guitar in a rage".

But then - in much the same way that the final couplet of a sonnet often radically qualifies, undercuts or counteracts the preceding 12 lines - the closing lines strike an unexpectedly comforting chord which jars against the depressing note sounded by the rest of the lyrics: "But the fire came to rest / In your white velvet breast / So somehow I just know that it's safe". We may lose our own innocence, forced by necessity to abandon youthful hopes and dreams which we are then only able to look back on wistfully - but there's some consolation that such innocence, such hopes and dreams, live on in others.

Of course, there's an irony in Sparhawk singing about having burned his guitar while playing guitar that might lead you to suspect the song's just a clever whimsy. But it's too poignant for that, not least because barely a few months after I saw Low perform at the Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall in February 2005 - a gig at which 'Death Of A Salesman' was the luminous highlight - Sparhawk suffered a nervous breakdown. With the benefit of hindsight, the song's lyrics do read like the thoughts of a man whose self-identity and self-belief were precariously brittle. Thankfully he recovered and went back to throwing down chords and words - thus keeping the fire alive.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, drmigs and Ian for their contributions this week.

The final subject (for this run of Memories Can't Wait, at least) is home, in a fortnight's time.

"He's the cat looking out across the dancefloor..."

Tim Ten Yen.
London Borderline. 02may09.

“When people look back on my career, this will be the song they will analyse the most” says Timothy Tennis Yennis (as tonight’s headliner Jim Bob, ex- of Carter USM, is later to call him). “It has layers of meaning upon layers of meaning. Upon more layers of meaning”, he continues before breaking into a song titled The Bear And The Fox, a song about a bear, and later a fox who lives in some mountains near the bear. The bear, incidentally, “doesn’t care”. I don’t mind telling you, I love it.

Skiffle democratised music, then punk did it again, then the increasing ease of access to relatively sophisticated technology did it once more. Tim Ten Yen has something in common with all of these eras but yet ‘belongs’ to none of them. This will now be addressed.

1) TTY has the ‘ooh-you-could-take-him-home-to-meet-your-mother’ element of skiffle

I’ll grant you, you’ll have to check any cynicism about your person into rehab before clapping eyes on TTY’s joyful caper. Take the constituent parts on paper and it doesn’t sound like a particularly convincing whole. Tim Ten Yen, on tonight’s evidence, is an unobtrusively bearded indie cabaret shambles in an ill-fitting, mismatched two piece suit and a shirt only half tucked in. Yet this is no dribbling, Tony Clifton, so-awful-it’s-good mock-pop; there is no irony or knowing subtext here (aside from the remark about the layers of meaning, of course), and ordinarily he is much more suavely attired. TTY is a smooth genuine-pop operator, and a little whimsical with it.

This is to be encouraged. So much so, I want to grab Tim Ten Yen by the collar of his suit jacket and dangle him in front of Simon Cowell’s frightened fizzog and shout “Oi high trousers, this is what a talented pop eccentric looks like, right. Proper pop too, not the slurry you act as a tributary river from, polluting the sea that is the world’s ears. Got it?”

2) TTY brazenly breaks conventions, which is punk, right?

The ‘convention’ I have in mind being what live gigs in proper venues should traditionally consist of. TTY’s show would sit just as well, if not better, as part of a radio station PA in a shopping centre, although it is hard to pinpoint which audience would be the more confused. Particularly when he offers up ‘The Sinister Cat’, his entirely synthetic feline companion, for petting by the front row, during its signature tune Something Sinister. Certainly, you wouldn’t get this kind of thing watching Cannibal Corpse at the Camden Underworld.

3) TTY utilises new technology as a matter of necessity

There is no backing band, and there are no instruments apart from the small well-worn keyboard that he prods at for the opening two numbers. Aside from that he is accompanied only by an iPodded backing track and fills the stage with his own moves: rusty robotics, school drama interpretative gesturing and athletic high-kicking which leaves him virtually breathless between songs. Yet for all the high energy and sweat lost into the lining of his suit, his leathery croon remains unaffected.

So, I can understand whilst more earnest types might not be able to stomach this kind of thing but I never feel un-entertained by Tim Ten Yen. I’ve seen him about five times now in the last two years and the set has remained stubbornly unchanged in that time. Yet, I would feel almost bereft if he failed to open his set with the wonderful Move With The Wild Palms, raising his left arm to silently beckon audiences to follow his lead which I’ve rarely seen an audience fail to do, even if they’ve never seen him before. I’d miss him running on the spot during Runaround Getaround or forgetting how to pronounce Sea Anemone when announcing its immediately forthcoming appearance. So let’s hope the new stuff when it comes, filters in gradually.

Tim Ten Yen then - one man travelling pop maverick. Have Bontempi, iPod and toy cat, will tour; to the delight and bafflement of ‘live music’ fans everywhere.

Tim Ten Yen website
Tim Ten Yen @ MySpace
Questionnaire interview for Vanity Project


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Cutting it (some rug)

Dalston Barden’s Boudoir. 29apr09.

Suited and booted and with a wicked grin, Ted Milton blows kisses to the soundman when requesting a little more of himself in the monitor. On the stage, there’s plenty of him (in the ‘visually arresting’ sense), done up like a 30’s stonemason putting on his Sunday best to take his wife down the workies for a basket meal, and frugging like a cocktail-lubricated mafia don at his grand-daughter’s wedding.

Blurt have been doing the rounds now for thirty years, poet and puppeteer Ted experiencing an epiphany on the largely self-taught alto-sax in the late-70’s and forming the group with his brother Jake and Pete Creese. Ted is the only one of the original trio left, now playing with drummer Dave Aylward and guitarist Steve Eagles. There have been times when Ted has not had the energy to Blurt, or even to touch the saxophone at all, but here at 66 years of age, he appears full of pizzazz, energy and a part hidden theatricality you might expect from a puppet-master once known as Mr Pugh’s Velvet Glove Show.

It’s all in the voices, see, and Ted has several. The Don-Van-Vliet-holding-the-‘bat’-of-Bat-Chain-Puller-over-three bars kinda bark, the John-Lydon-going-off-road-with-his-higher-pitched-tones holler and a startled cabaret croon.

His lyrics also betray that poetry back-ground, being figurative, abstract and possibly cut-up. Behind all this, the alt.rock/post-disco guitar and drums provide the tacked-down carpet, over which Ted can tip his magic box of vox and sax. If this is jazz, it is post-punk jazz, scholarly rather than screaming, yet skronky all the same.

At one point, he starts to scat a little before stopping, eyes wide. “What’s the next bit?” he says like he’s woken just prior to the end of dream that was promising to reveal a lifetime’s supply of winning horses and lottery numbers. Someone shouts out “biscuit” and he’s quickly determining if they mean those of the disco variety and if there’s any to be had.

This is reportedly the ‘last, last tour’ but Ted seems to be enjoying the experience far too much to leave it all behind, again. Particularly when the audience response to songs and for encores is as wildly enthused as I’ve seen from a smaller crowd. What we lack in bodies, we make up for in good-will and enthusiasm. I am coming to Blurt for the first time here, aside from a recently picked up single (Cut It, played tonight), but while this feels like a family party, it is of a sort into which one can easily assimilate.

Ted Milton website
Blurt @ MySpace


Sunday, May 03, 2009


Micachu & The Shapes.
London Institute of Contemporary Arts. 28apr09.

Precocious, you might call her, judging by her prodigious talent, but there appears to be no hubris with it whatsoever, not if her between song thank-yous are anything to go by, sounding like a shy four year old after being bought a Sherbet Dib-Dab by one of their friend’s nans. As it is she’s 21 but has already DJ and MC’d on the grime scene, been commissioned to compose a piece for the London Philharmonic and wowed the alt/indie scene with her debut LP Jewellery.

Her voice may not be the strongest in terms of projection, but it is beguiling and morphs in keeping with the changing outlook of the music. Within Mica’s vocal chords there is the parson’s daughter singing She Moved Through The Fair a little too loudly out in the porch; a V’s-flicking little rat catcher reading poetry with epiphanic eagerness or a punk dustman with lofty aspirations.

With so much of the itchy-foots about Micachu’s music, you might not think a 3-piece live band could pull it off, but Raisa Khan on electronics and Marc Pell on drums more than meet the challenges of what are often fairly complex arrangements. At times it’s like Jackson Pollock squirting the paint bottles over the canvas with a stuck-out tongue that is both cheeky and indicative of eager concentration.

Through the crash cycles of Wrong, the stumbling coconut shy rhythm of Just In Case and the convulsive Lips, which is given a heavier-weight distortion live, the band provide an intensity and delicateness all at once; sparsity and density in equal measure. In addition, Golden Phone, chirpy at the best of times, gains a bit of a Pearly Queen vibe, all knees up, before playing out as Fantomas avant-metal clank. New one ‘Long Life’ has psychedelia and dada in its flailing, warping sleeves, and free-jazz in the midriff.

As per the album, Ship tonight features a guesting MC Man Like Me [see above], whilst all three Shapes bwatter at snare drums, Mica doing so whilst still playing her self-modified guitar. Tweaking instruments and adding non-instruments (such as a vacuum cleaner) is certainly part of Micachu’s grand vision which encompasses not only the sound, but how it is made. You imagine, somewhere, Scott Walker is looking up from pummelling a pig carcass and offering a wry smile.

To me, more than anything I’ve heard from a new band in some time, Micachu & The Shapes have the awkward spirit and ambition of Beefheart, the ambition of Lick My Decals Off, Baby Beefheart certainly, whilst not coming near the Captain’s actual sound. After all this stuff has nothing of the desert plains about it, this music could only really have come from the clusterfuck streets of east London.

This is not to say that it’s all good good good good good. It’s just four of those, the praise not being without reservation. Once or twice, particularly on those announced as new songs, the material feels a little rushed and unfinished, but in a band brimming with ideas, a little attention deficit is perhaps unsurprising.

Also one wonders if this music, at least Jewellery as an album, could date quite easily and quickly, despite being more of its place than it is of its time. However, Mica seems the type to try and keep ahead of the game and so, I guess, one should worry more about albums future, than albums past. Certainly, you can’t see Mica on any 2009 nostalgia tours, twenty years hence.

Micachu @ MySpace