Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Zero Kanada

Paying three separate visits to Canada recently has allowed me to catch up and seek for myself reasons why that country’s music scene has improved so dramatically in the past decade or so. A few years ago, the lamentably slim pickings only served to confirm the prejudiced thinking of southerly neighbours: a well run, well adjusted country, but one without even a cuckoo clock to shout about.

Sure, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and, very occasionally, k. d. Lang formed a batch of reliable bass hitters (with Young an all time home run specialist) but their star had faded in the popular consciousness as Alanis Morissette, Bryan Adams, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Avril Lavigne and the Barenaked Ladies got the radio play. Even the Maple Leafers’ vaguely alternative offerings were nothing of the sort – Cowboy Junkies and Steppenwolf anyone?

And yet post 2000, the quantity of pathbreaking Canuck music has been dollar for dollar as large as any in the world. In the Kingdom of Indie, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, the Hidden Cameras, Wolf Parade and the New Pornographers have all been several cuts above the average, while Holy Fuck have reinvigorated the motorik beat of Krautrock, Rufus and Martha Wainwright have crooned, Fucked Up and Crystal Castles have screamed with intelligence and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have made a serious bid to be considered the band of the last decade, as well as keeping us guessing with the positioning of exclamation marks.

Why the improvement? This is no empirical study but my recent trips have revealed Canada to be…well…just a little frayed around the edges…and I’m not talking about traditional economic indicators like Inflation, Gross National Product and Employment – Canada still rides high by all these measures and has, superficially at least, ridden out the financial crisis rather well.

But the Alberta oil boom and the continued prosperity of its trio of megacities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – have masked a widening disparity when it comes to provincial development. My travels have taken me to the capital Ottawa as well as the easterly Maritime provinces and these areas have been savagely hampered by job losses, increased homelessness and nagging poverty. Ottawa seemed edgy in certain neighbourhoods after dark and it’s clear that wealth among the top echelons of Canadian society has failed to trickle down. Even the large conurbations have their problem areas – Vancouver’s East Hastings district (immortalized by Godspeed) rivals San Francisco’s Tenderloin district for grimness and the westerly reaches of Montreal’s main shopping street, Sainte Catherine evoke 1980s Liverpool.

This review of the Manchester band Delphic’s album on Pitchfork made some spot on conclusions about the damage economic prosperity can do to a music scene and I can only think the reverse is true in Canada. With regional and urban development carried out patchily, there is a growing pool of have-nots north of the Great Lakes and this may have helped innovation to flourish. If we’re lucky, Michael Bublé may disappear soon too.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Puppets, wimples and traaaaahsers

Quintron & Miss Pussycat, The Nuns, Private Trousers
Tufnell Park Dome. 22oct10.

Private Trousers work around all kinds of rinky-dink, clatter and smiley business in their opening few numbers, then all of a sudden it pulls back and reveals a further depth, one that suggests the macabre carnival, brooding like a clown plotting a murder. Then it’s back up again to knockabout end-of-the-pier wonky bobs and the kind of tunes you might found soundtracking the capers of a vaudeville tumbler.

Next up, The Nuns. Well, what else would you name an all female Monks tribute act? Mind you, where the act they are attributing to shaved large monk-style tonsures into their scalps, The Nuns show a little less commitment to the cause, with only four of the six turned out in wimples. That said, their commitment to the music is not in question, and is not a kitschfest either, being a by-and-large straightforward, and thus delightfully lively, homage (albeit with the bend on the gender).

Sister Lolo Of The Five Wounds’ vox are a lot drier than Gary Burger’s original careering style that sounded like a tyre revving smoke out of asphalt, but otherwise it’s all pretty faithful. The highlights of their half hour are a particularly vigorous Higgle-Dy Piggle-Dy and a terrific Oh, How To Do Now dedicated by banjo strummer (and former Curve and Echobelly guitarist Debbie Smith) to the recently passed Ari Up.

Embracing a Monks-like spirit in their music, Quintron & Miss Pussycat shows are, however, not just about tunes, as they also embrace puppetry. Well, I say embrace, it’s a crushing bear hug really as the first ten minutes of their set is a full-on seaside style show, Punch & Judy in the most Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sense. It’s the psychedelic end of twee, often thousand-yard-star creepy, and no half-assed effort either. There are tigers, elephants, car chases, spilled blood, beheadings, prison breakouts and ‘secret pizza’ while their large puppeteer’s booth eventually becomes the puppet itself. If tonight is to cuddle up to kitsch and novelty, this is the point we break out the pyjamas and start to spoon.

Still, this is all part of Quintron/Pussycat experience, and after something for the child within us, Quintron walks out suited and booted, slides onto his stool, brings down his palm on the button to start up his own patented Drum Buddy drum machine, stabs repeatedly at his hi-hat pedal with his left foot and lets loose his hands across the keys of his Hammond/Rhodes combo organ like two puppies chasing each other up and down stairs.

Next to him, the maraca-wielding Miss Pussycat hops about like a toddler trying to stamp conkers into wet turf, contributing sharp vocals against and around Quintron’s unbuttoned-shirt rock n’ roll howl. Theirs is a music for garage dance parties, for nightclubs not afraid to set the mirrorball rapidly spinning and, in future, for a youth schooled on episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba.


Quintron & Miss Pussycat @ MySpace
The Nuns @ MySpace
Private Trousers @ MySpace


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Brothers beyond

As some of the ensuing comments pointedly suggest, it's not exactly a revelation that the music industry hungrily gobbles up and spits out boybands, but this article on the fall from gravy train to graveyard is still worth a read - not least for the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mike Stock of Stock Aitken and Waterman, advising financial prudence at the same time as living on the creamed-off profits.

All tomorrow's (tea) parties

The Guardian's Alexis Petridis may have tried defending her and the Independent's Luke Lewis may have pointed out that right-leaning rockers aren't all that unusual (Johnny Ramone and Ian Curtis being prime examples) - but I'm afraid there's still something profoundly bizarre and wrong about former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker coming out as a member of the populist Tea Party movement in the US.

So Obama's healthcare reforms constitute the nation "being led towards socialism", do they, Moe? It's one thing mistrusting hippies - it's quite another to throw your hat in with that mob of self-centred, delusional xenophobes...

Classified information

Worth a read should you come across any on your travels: The Field Guide To North American Hipsters, Vol I.

Anyone who wants to call me an indie fan (in this pejorative sense) can get stuffed - I didn't like the Shins UNTIL Garden State. So there.

(Thanks to Brian for the link.)

Great apes

On the subject of Britpop (see below), has anyone else noticed that Damon Albarn and Gorillaz have been recruited to endorse the Times' website? I wonder if Albarn's got confused and thought he was working with Murdoc rather than for Murdoch?

Incidentally, the fact that the Times has now reintroduced the opening offer suggests that its paywall gamble isn't paying off...

Quotes of the day

"Britpop secret: Jarvis Cocker’s first break into the music industry was when he appeared as one of the Wombles on TOTP in the late 1970s."

"Britpop secret: Ian Brown has a parrot which he has taught not to say anything. He doesn't like jib from animals."

"Although I pay minimum wage for Richard's services, I am forced to pay the going rate for Codling. Works out about £1.80 per kilo."

"Brett Anderson" dishes up the backstage gossip for his Twitter followers.

(Thanks to Swiss Toni for the link.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nawty nawty

Crystal Castles
Camden Roundhouse. 15oct10.

If some of the heat created by HEALTH’s tribal, brutal yet oddly ethereal sound and turbulent performance style has dissipated by the time Crystal Castles hit the stage half an hour later, it returns double quick with an en masse surge forward and a swell of bodies eager to wax hectic. It was a bit like this the first time I witnessed the group, at this past July’s Latitude Festival where the bright young things down the front revelled in their frankly mischievous main stage billing between the far more sedate charms of The Maccabees and Belle & Sebastian.

To borrow the phrase John Peel once used to the describe the atmosphere at an early Fall gig (and which often still applies), that Latitude set ‘crackled with malevolence’. Partly this was in terms of the pubescent members of the audience getting a little rowdy and letting off some steam. One young fella was seen walking out of the main throng clutching the remaining half of his glasses to his left eye like a makeshift monocle to find his way out. It was like the watching an indie-fest version of Saving Private Ryan's opening salvo.

In addition to this, I was hit in the face during that set, not by an empty pint glass or a misplaced shoe, as one might reasonably expect, but by a clear pencil case containing a ruler and Pritt Stick amongst other things. Clearly this was the kids throwing off the trappings of youth; those trappings apparently being metaphored by WH Smith’s ‘Back to School’ stationery promotion. We won’t even get into the fighting that went on. Especially as it was vocalist Alice Glass who was responsible for the punches thrown.

That festival appearance gave them something to confront though, if nothing else then an army of pushchair wielding parents retreating to the back of the arena to boo in relative comfort, and Crystal Castles clearly revel in that situation. Tonight, though, they are most certainly on home turf, with no immediate ‘pricks’ to kick against, so we’re left with Alice’s flouting of the smoking ban as a symbol of defiance.

If anything this desire to be seen as ‘propa nawty’ is the one grating aspect about them, their being too much of an appeal to the vain rebellion of their teenage demographic. The bottle of whisky she staggered around with at Latitude still having a large supermarket security tag on it would be a further example.

Yet there is no denying the energy that comes from Ethan Khan’s barbed electronics, and certainly Christopher Chartrand’s drumming helps to flesh it out beyond the machines for the live presentation. Alice herself stalks the stage like a Spectator cartoonist’s approximation of a heroin enthusiast; not so much ‘death warmed up’ as ‘death repeatedly dipped into a toaster that’s not plugged into the wall’.

Alice’s presence within Crystal Castles as a live act is much more as rabble-rouser than as vocalist which is perhaps just as well as, if we’re honest, she’s not much of a singer really, apart from perhaps on ‘Celestica’, what one might term their concession to balladry. Mind you, barreling about screaming is just the ticket on pieces such as ‘Alice Practice’ and the startling, brilliant ‘Baptism’.

Alice repeatedly leaves the stage to be amongst her people, striding at points across a sea of hands and shoulders, distributing Jack Daniels straight from the bottle to eager, thirsty mouths, like a kind of boozy Jesus.

There is no denying that Crystal Castles know their audience. Equally their audience knows this band has more than enough fuel in the tank for evenings in their company to explode.

Monday, October 04, 2010

If you're looking for devotion

The xx.

New York United Palace Theater. 2oct10.

Ever since their emergence on the scene in 2009, The xx have been doing their darndest to dissociate themselves from the indie landfill. Early notices were more apt to liken them to Aaliyah or TLC than Pigeon Detectives or the Killers, their R n B credentials were talked up at every turn and their alma mater Elliott School has been portrayed as a South London voice for "the streets" rather than a partner to the Old Vic Theatre and the setting for the Christmas Pageant in Love Actually.

The venue for their latest New York venue seems to have been equally carefully chosen. Spurning the hipster alternatives of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, the band were booked in at the United Palace Theatre on 175th Street and Broadway, way up in the Uptown neighbourhood of Washington Heights which, despite being namechecked in Vampire Weekend's ditty A-Punk, is a place to get your hair braided, tuck into a dish of Dominican fried pork or purchase a knock off New York Yankees baseball cap; not to enjoy a Stumptown coffee whilst flicking through pages of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. The venue itself is so ornate it hurts - a temple in every respect and a riot of Moorish trimmings.

Mindful of those watching journalists, the band's cover versions were also impeccable - and the only occasions where the band strayed from the straight and narrow of their wondrous first album. Robin S is a gospel powerpopper it's OK to like and her Show Me Love was reinterpreted with wit and flair. Similarly, Womack and Womack's Teardrops proved itself to be aptly suited to the band's low key format, even if one still cannot get away from the Young Marble Giants comparisons; and the audience, encouragingly young in this era where one despairs of Generation Y, seemingly being comprised of the folks poked fun of in the website Stuff White People Like (I am one of these, I should add.)

As for the music, it was as haunting and echoey as one could hope for and occasional mini-wig outs, most notably at the beginning and the very end, hinted at future enlargement of The xx's sound. Despite the excellence of the cover versions, the paucity of new material was disappointing and Baria Qureshi's departure from the ensemble is still noticeable, primarily in the absence of rhythm guitar and keyboards to flesh out the band's sound: sparse to begin with, now positively emaciated. Vocally, Romy Madley Croft's voice was stunning and more effective on the night than Oliver Sim's rasp.

So, all in all, a triumph gracefully acknowledged by an unassuming band. I am still struggling to get used to $7 for half a pint of lager though.