Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: E

Please excuse the intervening week's silence...

E is for …

… ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ (Damo)

So, this week I pinned myself into a stupid corner. Why? Because I invited readers of my blog to come up with suggestions for what I should do for E, promising to use one of them. I forgot one teensy crucial fact.

Nobody reads my blog.

In fact, that’s not strictly true. I got given two choices: Extreme and ‘Ebeneezer Goode’. Tempted as I was to write about the poodle-permed Queen / Aerosmith wannabes with their “insane” guitar solos and songs about holes in hearts, I have plumped for the other one. So (deep breath) …

The Shamen had a chequered history, starting as a psychedelic rock act, before losing two out of four members. Then one of the remaining two drowned. Many people would have given up, but not Colin Angus. He had club hits such as ‘Move Any Mountain’ (a staple of my student years) and then…

Naughty, naughty / Veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery naughty…

It was the end of the summer of 1992 and according to the papers, the biggest threat to society (apart from single mothers) was Ecstasy. With new rapper Mr C in tow, came this story of a cheeky chappy. Apparently “he’s refined, he’s sublime, he makes you feel fine, though very much maligned and misunderstood”. Seems like a decent chap, huh? Then the chorus…

Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode… he’s Ebeneezer Goode…

WAIT A MINUTE! Are they saying what we think they’re saying? IT’S AN OUTRAGE, I TELL YOU! And we all know what an outrage means in popular music – that’s right folks, the tabloids went mad. Oh, and it spent four weeks at number one. Oddly enough though, it was never actually released as a single in America… make of that what you will.

Of course, The Shamen denied that the fact they appeared to be singing “Es are good” in the chorus was anything more than pure coincidence, and anyone that said otherwise was a liar and a charlatan. Before, that is, finally admitting to it about five years later, to nobody’s great surprise.

Unfortunately for them, they discovered one of the golden rules of pop music: if you have a big hit with something so distinctive, your career will never be the same again. They continued making albums until 1998, but apart from a couple of compilations that was it and they never came close to matching the feat that was ‘Ebeneezer Goode’. Rumours that they intend to try and tap into the cultural zeitgeist again by releasing a comeback single called ‘Harry Potter Is Satan’ remain unfounded.

I’ll choose my own topics from now on, I think. Far safer.

… Echobelly (Paul)

Cards on the table time – I fancied the pants off Sonya Aurora Maden when I was 16. Sadly we never crossed paths, and in truth I’d probably have lost the capacity for conversation if we had.

However, whilst I casually fancied the lead singer, I really loved Echobelly’s album On. Released in 1995 and featuring classic singles (no hint of irony here, thank you very much) such as ‘Great Things’ and ‘King Of The Kerb’ it epitomises everything I loved about Britpop.

The album itself I fell upon, almost by chance, in a record store in Cambridge, whilst holidaying at my uncle’s, and it became my salvation as my sullen teenage self took every opportunity to hide behind my Walkman headphones rather than engage with my relatives.

Now I’ll accept that Britpop and indeed Echobelly weren’t everybody’s cup of tea [Got anyone in mind here, Paul?] , and that’s their prerogative, but to me it carries so many memories that I can’t help but smile whenever I hear any of the songs on that album.

The album itself is filled with energy and heartache in equal measure, and touched so many of my nerves at that time that it will always find a place in my CD collection (thanks to the wonder of Ebay I eventually got round to replacing my tape copy with a CD a couple of years ago).

Beyond the sparkly upbeat numbers at the beginning of the album, it is the slightly more melancholic ‘Dark Therapy’ which really gives the album its soul.

However, I always return to the song with which they will forever be associated:
I want to do great things, I don’t want to compromise, I want to know what love is, is it something I do to myself?

Rarely has a lyric so neatly described my feelings when first I heard it, and as a consequence will have a place in my heart forever.

… Eels with Strings, Park West, Chicago, Illinois, 22nd June 2005 (Alison)

I wasn’t very familiar with the work of The Eels before Ben introduced me to Daisies Of The Galaxy in spring this year. First listen and I fell in love with the album. In June I found myself sight-seeing solo in Chicago where, needing some new music for company, I picked up Blinking Lights And Other Revelations. Ghetto-blaster slung over my shoulder (or at least Walkman discretely tucked in rucksack), I set out to explore with what I discovered was a fantastic soundtrack. By chance, it turned out that The Eels were touring the album with their “Eels with Strings” show in Chicago that week.

On initially walking into Park West I was a bit worried; the “historic” 1920s theatre was set out with booth seating and decorated with candles throughout, no hint of dancing space. My friend and I had tickets for one of the balconies which auspiciously had its own dedicated bar despite only holding around 30 people.

The gig opens with a slideshow ‘Rock Hard Times’ which introduces the band (“29 transient members. One deeply troubled permanent member”) and presents clips of inane interview questions addressed to Eels frontman E, which he handles with dry wit and sarcasm. I expect journalists label him as awkward, but he comes across as funny and refreshingly bullshit-free.

The band arrives on stage to ‘Pure Imagination’ (from ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’) and the tone for the evening is set. There is a very pretty and quirky-looking string quartet, Big Al and Chet. Finally E slowly meanders onto the stage bent over a walking stick (reminiscent of Wonka), dressed in an old grey suit, with thick black-rimmed glasses and a beard. The majority of the set is from Blinking Lights… which means it’s beautiful and moving but sombre and occasionally dark. Interspersed, there are a few more up-tempo songs where the quartet throw down their violins and violas in favour of percussions. Throughout, E is surrounded by a cloud of smoke from his fat cigar and he charms the audience with much banter.

The sounds are generated by 20 or more instruments; guitars, an upright piano, a slide, a double bass, a mandolin, but the majority of which I can’t name (notably, drums are entirely replaced by a rubbish-bin lid and an old suitcase). The band members continuously switch between each, it’s like watching grown-ups enjoying the Willy Wonka experience with instruments replacing sugary treats. Most notable are Chet’s turns on the saw, which he manages to make the most astonishing and captivating sounds with.

This was a gig for grown-ups, sitting, drinking, by candlelight. Despite my initial misgivings about the set-up, I loved it and can declare Eels with Strings my favourite gig of 2005. And the exciting thing is it seems that there are a multitude of alternative guises for The Eels and hopefully a diversity of live shows still to experience.

… Elastica (Swiss Toni)

For all that Oasis and Blur were undoubtedly the main players, no band sums up the whole Britpop phenomenon for me better than Elastica. In spite of the fact that the band had a string of hit singles and their debut album charted at #1, they will always be best remembered for the fact that their lead singer, Justine Frischmann, was Damon Albarn’s girlfriend. They were Britpop’s golden couple. Probe a little deeper than that and it just got better: she was Albarn’s girlfriend now, but before that she had been a member of Suede and dating Brett Anderson. With those credentials, how could they fail?

Elastica also summed up Britpop by being deeply and unapologetically derivative, although unlike most of their peers, at least they were stealing from bands other than The Beatles and The Kinks: the chorus of ‘Line Up’ is more than a little reminiscent of ‘I Am The Fly’ by Wire, the intro to ‘Connection’ is lifted from ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ by Wire, and ‘Waking Up’ sounds disturbingly close to ‘No More Heroes’ by the Stranglers. When confronted with this, Frischmann tended to shrug and suggest that all music was recycled, but both Wire and The Stranglers eventually received royalties for their “inspiration”.

It seems a little hard to believe now, but for a brief period of 1994, before the release of Parklife, Elastica were actually bigger than Blur, and even enjoyed a modicum of success in the USA. But the second album never materialised, Frischmann and Albarn broke up and the momentum slowly disappeared amidst rumours of perfectionism and heroin addiction. The band didn’t formally break up until 2001, but they had long been finished.

Listen to the album now though, and you will find that actually it has aged remarkably well, and certainly stands up to scrutiny better than Blur’s The Great Escape or the dreadfully self-indulgent Be Here Now by Oasis. Yes, it’s derivative, but the music has definite energy and verve, and in Frischmann’s sneering vocals, they had something that really set them apart from the pack.

They looked great too.

… The Electric Soft Parade (Pete)

AKA why do promising young bands bugger it up?

Back in late 2001, my mate (and fellow muso) Andy introduced me to Brighton band (and British Sea Power pals) The* Electric Soft Parade. Their debut album Holes In The Wall had with a fresh sound, full of youthful vigour and guitars to match, but was well-balanced with moments of simple poignancy; ‘It’s Wasting Me Away', and in particular its outro, were excellent examples of this. They were never going to sell out arenas, but they looked having a productive few years.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to see them at the London Astoria in May 2002 at a long-waited gig on what was their first decent-sized tour, the brothers White had lapsed into onstage petulance. After a couple of petty tantrums before an unnecessarily long and tedious jam session, I walked out of a live performance for the first (and up till now last) time.

Andy's seen them about six or seven times by now, probably because the second album was equally as good, if not better and he kept his faith. The songs were less obvious and showed signs of a willingness to try out new ideas, with the mellow and thoughtful 'Bruxellisation' my favourite, followed by the second part (or untitled song) at the end of the title track.

Nevertheless, despite several opportunities, since the Astoria farce, I've left Andy to risk seeing them live. According to him, out of these six or seven times, they've only put in a memorable performance once, hence his very brief flirtation with the idea of running them down as they crossed the car park of the Truck festival two years ago.

Their new material sounds pretty ropey, so unless things change very much, they will continue downhill. And this it left me wondering why so many bands simply fall by the wayside after so much initial promise?

*I've never been sure whether they are The Electric Soft Parade or simply the Electric Soft Parade. Perhaps someone could clear this up for me, because at times it seems the band haven't been sure either.

… electroclash (Jonathan)

What is it about electroclash - the much-maligned music scene which pre-dated the punk-funk phenonemon as the hipster preoccupation in late 2003 - that makes it simultaneously such uninspiring headphone music and yet at the same time the absolute best music for dancing to?

It's impossible to dance to indie, near-impossible to dance to drum and bass, impossible to dance to hip hop without making humiliating hand-gestures, and impossible to dance to techno without gurning.

Yet friends who routinely demur from any dancing activity seem somehow transformed by the sound of, say, Tiga's 'Pleasure From The Bass' or the unbelievable DFA mix of Le Tigre's 'Deceptacon' into unhinhibited disco divas, grinning manically and throwing shapes (powered, it should be noted, by little more than a couple of bottles of Becks from behind the bar). There's something addictively exhibitionistic about the sound.

I think it's the fact that electroclash, for all its best attempts (and despite the fact that LCD's 'Losing My Edge' and the subsequent punk-funk movement managing to take much of the same sound and filter out its uncooler elements) it never managed to be anything approaching fashionable. It's impossible to look cool while dancing to a song which sounds even the tiniest bit like Duran Duran, no matter how ace 'Planet Earth' still sounds. It's impossible to pretend cool while dancing to a song by a band who LOOK like Duran Duran. Much less Fischerspooner.

Yet at the same time electroclash manages to cram in a bunch of really credible influences too, so you can hear elements of Detroit techno, Krautrock, Suicide, punk rock, microhouse and garage. At the same time, you can play records like Rachel Stevens' 'Some Girls' or Britney's 'I’m A Slave 4 U' without interrupting the mix. Ditto Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love', PiL's 'Careering', The Clash's 'This Is Radio Clash' or The Postal Service's 'Nothing Better'.

It provides a welcome opportunity to try to be cool without any accompanying fear of failing - we can dance, laugh, throw shapes, howl along to the appalling lyrics, practice our icy Germanic post-industrial detachment thing, - do whatever we like and if anyone laughs we can just claim that we're listening to daft party music.

My local electroclash night is Detournament. Find out what yours is and cast aside cool.

… Emmylou Harris – The Ballad Of Sally Rose (Del)

There are few terms in the English language as regretfully misunderstood as "country music". Hideous visions of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and that bar in ‘The Blues Brothers’ have tainted a fine tradition of songwriting and wonderful records. For, like all great music, country has its basis in pure misery, strife, hardship and a bit more misery.

I discovered Emmylou's music on a BBC4 documentary about her eventful life and career. I was instantly taken by her, and was hooked by 'Woman Walk The Line', the hit from this LP. The Ballad Of Sally Rose was the first album where Emmylou had a hand in co-writing all the songs. It's a concept album of sorts, telling the story of a young, half native American girl who gets taken under the wing of a singer, and finds success, until her mentor dies and she sets up a radio station playing songs in his honour. It's a semi-autobiographical story, that relates to her own experiences playing with Gram Parsons from The Byrds before his death, but of course, she's never confirmed it explicitly.

The songs are just beautiful. Emmylou has a quite unique voice (you might have heard her backing up the equally sublime Bright Eyes on his recent work). For 1985, the production is just the right side of overblown, and now manages to sound timeless. Proof of what country music is capable of. It's heartbreaking and exciting, fun and mournful.

There's something magical about the album, with nods to country's great heritage in the form of an instrumental medley of 'Ring Of Fire', 'Wildwood Flower' and 'Six Days on the Road’. Nashville royalty such as Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt contribute note-perfect harmonies. But more than all that, there's something majestic and monumental about any album that starts with a deadbeat dad, but still introduces its lead character with such grace:

Her mama picked him up in south Minnesota / He promised her the world but they never got that far / For was last seen in that '59 DeSota / When Sally was born in the black hills of Dakota / She was washed in the blood of the dying Sioux nation / Raised with a proud but a wandering heart / And she knew her roots were in the old reservation / But she had stars in her eyes and greater expectations”.

The need to escape your own circumstances, whilst feeling an intense loyalty to your heritage. Finding freedom, and then relieving grief, through the power of music. It's just a fantastic album, and one of few that has me blubbing like a baby almost every time I listen to it. Tammy Wynette will always be the First Lady of Country, but Emmylou Harris is its most wayward and bewitching princess.

… emo (Ben)

When was the last time you go into a completely new scene?

For me, it was around five years ago, and the catalyst was the At The Drive-In track ‘Cosmonaut’ appearing on a CD that came free with Kerrang!. One breathtaking appearance at the Leeds Festival and one quite stupendously good LP later, and I was smitten. That prompted me to revisit Fugazi, whom I’d liked but never quite loved, and then suddenly I became aware of a whole musical sub-genre I’d never known existed.

An exclusively American phenomenon, “emo” – short for “emotional hardcore” – was, in essence, punk music with feelings, a refuge for those considered (or who considered themselves) too nerdy, sensitive or intelligent for the frat boy mall punk of Blink 182, Sum 41 and a still immature Green Day. Weezer can probably be credited with kicking it all off in earnest, heroes to legions of bands on labels like Jade Tree and Deep Elm which had become synonymous with the emo ethos and sound – though the harder-edged outfits on the Revelation label would most likely sooner point to Minor Threat and Sick Of It All as their inspiration.

And so it was that before long, and together with my fellow adventurer into the unknown He Who Cannot Be Named, I was gobbling up anything and everything by bands like Bluetip and The Promise Ring.

But it didn’t and couldn’t last.

What initially appeared an attractive “alternative” subculture soon came to seem narrowly codified, a remarkably conservative stylistic and aesthetic strait-jacket. Being in an emo band meant sounding like every other band on the periodic Deep Elm samplers. More depressingly, it also meant being white and male. Being an emo fan, meanwhile, meant wearing thick-rimmed black-framed glasses and taking a rucksack to gigs.

Emo still exists, of course, but I’ve been writing about it in the past tense because it’s over for me. Increasing mainstream visibility, Rivers Cuomo cosying up to The Bloodhound Gang on Weezer’s 2001 comeback The Green Album and Blink 182 ditching the “hooray for boobies” schtick for emo chic haven’t done the scene any favours, though.

In truth, my “gateway drugs” never had much to do with it, anyway. Fugazi were always too idiosyncratic and inventive to fit in, while post-hardcore firebrands At The Drive-In despised the scene, their decision to work with nu-metal production guru Ross Robinson on Relationship Of Command creating a quite deliberate distance. Since then, of course, Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s ambitions (some might say pretensions) – which couldn’t be accommodated within emo – have been given full expression in The Mars Volta.

As is so often the case, the most interesting bands were on the margins pushing outwards, and the Desoto label was home to three of the best: Burning Airlines, who could claim the overused adjective “angular” as their own; Juno, whose second LP A Future Lived In Past Tense is a prog-punk masterpiece; and The Dismemberment Plan, purveyors of some of the cleverest postmodern indie you’ll ever hear. All three are now defunct, but the records remain. Seek and ye shall find.

… St Etienne (drmigs - your audacious rule-bending is excused just this once…)

In the last four weeks of writing these pieces, I've ended up thinking about exactly what it is that I like in a song. And I've come to the conclusion that melody and narrative lyrics are high on the list of things that float my musical boat. No surprise then that I'm a fan of St Etienne.

I've been aware of St Etienne for many years, but it was not until I heard Finisterre playing at a party that I really paid them any special attention. They'd previously got as far as the “Oh! That's a nice track” filter in my brain, but never as far as the “Oh! That's a nice track, I'd better chase down one of their albums” filter. (NB I'm a brain scientist, and I can tell you that these filters really do exist. Mmm … )

The stand out thing about Finisterre, and St Etienne albums in general, is that they are indeed albums. These are actually albums that start somewhere, have a middle, and then an end. There's none of this “Bung 10 catchy songs together and flog it for £13.99” nonsense. No, St Etienne albums work as musical exploration of a theme, with their genre of choice according to iTunes being alternative, or dance, or electronic. You see they've had a varied and arguably influential history.

Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley started out St Etienne as two music journos unsatisfied with the music scene, and set about pioneering indie pop. When they settled on the mellow girlish vocals of Sarah Cracknell, seven albums (to date) followed. As musical fads have come and gone, St Eteinne continue to evolve. However, their songs have maintained a constant theme on the subject of urban London, and the tales to be told within. The descriptive lyrical construct of their songs is deftly swept along with their many and varied forms of chirpy / poppy composition. All of which adds up to a sound that's very attractive to geeks. Step forward moi …

From the most recent album Tales From Turnpike Lane - which is distinctly more down-tempo than the sprightly Finisterre - 'Milk Bottle Symphony' and 'Teenage Winter' are fine examples of what St Etienne are about. Curious tales that are littered with vivid nuances, designed to provoke your imagination during the pop-laced melodies. Take for example the opening lyrics of 'Teenage Winter':

"Amy checks the shopping list / Pedal bin, washing-up rack, Sandtex / And she goes to the bakers to buy a loaf / Ah! She keeps forgetting it's changed into the Tropicanan tanning salon."

Now tell me you don't want a bit of that …

… The Eurythmics (Jez)

Unlike Carol Thatcher, who didn’t do extremes, I am human. I do extremes like a child on a freshly-oiled swing. For me, as inseparable as a horse and carriage there is love and hate. Forget the thin line separating the two. And boy, I HATE The Eurythmics. But it isn’t just them, for they are a metaphor for everything I hate about pop music. They represent everyone of the Live Aid generation who became the Untouchables of pop. Urging us to give as they shoved so much cocaine up their noses that they could have wiped out poverty in a single sniff rather than their septums and another grand. I’m only a waif of a man, but I’ll fight anyone to the death who disagrees with me on this.

Pop is about either a flash of inspiration just to disappear within an instant or about constant reinvention and exploration. It isn’t about one trick ponies constantly peddling the same old bollocks like a broken dishwasher regurgitating rancid leftovers time and time again. Actually, both of these idiots had a “trick”: she wore a suit and he wore sunglasses indoors. As for her, I bet someone’s actually written an academic dirge about her blurring the boundaries of sexuality with her clever sartorial sense (don’t tell the ghost of Marlene Dietrich), and for him, well, anyone who looked the feral beast in the eyes would immediately turn to stone.

During the eighties she married a different German bloke every week and whined about not being able to find love, and he had something I seem to remember as Paradise Syndrome. This involved his life being so perfect that it made him depressed. Hold on! How about the untold misery that he has caused millions of people in his pursuit of the perfect life? If they hadn’t released ‘Love Is A Fucking Stranger’ on us yet again the bastard would’ve annexed Poland. I know which of these options I find preferable.

All is not lost though. Just as an army of monkeys was called in to fight the King of Lanka I will train the primates to join me and fight this noble cause (although this time they’ll be dressed as members of The Arcade Fire), to storm the mansions of the musically evil and finish them off as they feast at the banqueting table on the bones of starving African children. It’s them or us, and me and my monkey warriors are prepared to die for this one. You’re either with or against us…

* * * * *

Don't worry Jez - I'm with you! (Phew! Maybe next time out he'll have remembered to take his medication...). Thanks to Damo, Paul, Alison, Swiss Toni, Del, drmigs and Jez for their contributions this week.

A little break now over the festive period (it's planned this time), but have no fear - the feature will be back early in the New Year.


Blogger Jonathan said...

I could never see the appeal of ESP particularly, even though I've met them a couple of times and am in a band with their original bassist. They seem to have lost their momentum a bit. But then the White bros are also in The Brakes, who are much much better and look like being more successful, so I guess that that is their priority now.

The Brakes are reliable live, too, whereas ESP never were. Although they still like buggering about on stage. Tom spent most of the last Brakes gig I went to trying to disrupt the songs by playing the riff to Layla over and over again...

1:39 pm  
Blogger Del said...

Glad someone else did Elastica, as they were a Britpop fave of mine, mainly as they didn't really fit into Britpop, but Echobelly? For shame, I say, for shame!

2:38 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Del: You were there that shameful night (I'm talking about Paul and Lisa's August barbecue) when Echobelly's On was played in its entirety. Horrible, wasn't it? And I agree with you about Elastica, by the way...

4:33 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

I can't believe I did 'Elastica' and not 'Earworm'!



12:51 pm  

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