Sunday, 21 December 2008

RIP Davey Graham 1940 - 2008

This guy could play, but never made any money from music. Life is not fair.

The Cult of Reformation

So, Blur have reformed and joined the ranks of all those other museum pieces that will be gracing vast corporate arenas and the great parks of this sceptred isle. When their reformation was announced their web forum received 60 hits per second and the 45,000 tickets for their initial show in Hyde Park next summer sold out in two minutes. An additional date has been added due to its success.
Blur went on an indefinite hiatus after touring their seventh record Think Tank (guitarist Graham Coxon had left the band halfway through recording to continue with his nascent solo career, branding singer Damon Albarn an “egomaniac”). Since then Albarn has acceded to his wanderlust and been involved with the Gorillaz project, the Monkey: Journey to the West stage show, the Africa Express revue, Amadou and Mariam’s album and The Good, The Bad and The Queen group (whose eponymous album I believe to be one of the finest this decade). Coxon has continued his solo career with mixed success, bassist Alex James is a farmer and writes a column for The Guardian on his exploits while drummer Dave Rowntree is a prospective politician.
The problem with reformations is that the majority of music fans will have a frozen image in their mind, a snapshot of an artist suspended in time. So when they have drained the aspic from themselves, how do we react to the reformed band? There is huge demand to see ‘classic’ bands in a live setting, and in the very recent past there has been a rash of bands that have reformed. Our collective cultural nostalgia means the bands are effectively fetishised. My own image of Blur is that of a young band on the brink of releasing Parklife, arguably their career high and the album that entrenched them in popular cultural memory (via the Britpop ‘war’ with Oasis).
The history of rock is an illusion; its historicism presents such a narrow viewpoint, surrounded by mirages, becoming a double aspect rather than a singular truth. Blur will always remain thus in popular consciousness: estuary twang,” Woohoo!”, Blur vs Oasis, cocaine addiction, the Mogwai t-shirt. In all probability they won’t be able to escape this image, and will have this imprint of a collective cultural memory superimposed upon them for ever more.
Blur’s reformation is mainly due to a deal struck with the American promoter Live Nation, who have extensively transformed the landscape of the music industry. Realising that the real money was to be made in the live arenas from ticketing and merchandise, they sign artists but not in the traditional sense. They sign the artist as their promoter rather than as the owner of the copyright of the material. It suggests that Blur have reformed for money rather than for their art. The power of promoters such as Live Nation, the demand to see classic artists or even the whole of a classic album, and the flexing of the spending power of the music fan (even in these constrained times) means that this trend for reformation will continue unabated.
What is depressing is that it smacks desperately of corporatism. There may well be unfinished business for Albarn and Coxon, but the people that buy the tickets will be going to see Phil Daniels mug his way through “Parklife” and not to hear new material from Albarn and co. Do we wish to be infantilised by the cult of reformation? The success of recent reformations and the Don’t Look Back series of performances suggest we do. Alongside big acts such as The Police, Take That, The Spice Girls countless alternative acts have reformed, from My Bloody Valentine to Dinosaur Jr. It seems that money and a receptive audience can melt even the staunchest of grudges, the largest of “over my dead body” rifts. Even perennially optimistic English pop-punkers A are rumoured to have reformed. I mean, what is so bad with the current crop of bands that has allowed this bunch of American punk aping no hopers to lumber (or pogo) back into view is beyond me. Music should be about genesis, evolution, forward movement – yet this cult of reformation will only lead to stasis and inertia.
I genuinely hope that Blur’s new material extends beyond the inevitable specially recorded new songs that will be bundled on the end of a repackaged greatest hits collection, to a full length album that showcases the best of their talents. Only time will tell.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart EP - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

Musical history is littered with anomalous musical pairings. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan always appeared one such pairing – she the ethereal siren who featured in Scottish folksters Belle and Sebastian and he the world weary troubadour of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age repute. Traditionally the male is the dominant party, the aggressor, while the female plays the part of his muse but this traditional delineation is inverted by their partnership; in many of their narratives Lanegan plays a tormented soul, tortured and led on by Campbell in a psychological war of the sexes. The songs are written primarily by Campbell, with Lanegan’s baritone taking lead vocal. With such a pairing it is hard to escape an air of contrivance, yet the juxtaposition between them has always been arresting. The tracks on their latest release Keep Me in Mind Sweetheart were recorded at the same time as their latest album Sunday at Devil Dirt, but this EP reveals itself to be more a companion piece than craven cash in.
Opener and title track “Keep Me in Mind Sweetheart” is the only song to be taken from this year’s earlier long player and it is an affecting acoustic lullaby sung by a lachrymose Lanegan. The easy melodicism of “Fight Fire with Fire” employs barroom piano and brushed drums beneath Lanegan’s Waits’ like croon, while the lyrics deal with the differences between two lovers. He opens by proclaiming “Wild is the night that keeps me from you” but goes on to say “When I see grey, I know you see black, I dig the Stones you dig Sheer Heart Attack”. Campbell’s delicate vocals wash over Lanegan’s leathery tones, intertwining and caressing them. The lamentation of “Rambling Rose” showcases their fascination with Americana and the West, the rolling backdrop propelling the song down a dusty Lost Highway. There are undercurrents of unresolved tension between the two singers, and this interplay between them remains one of their key potencies. Closing song “Hang On” features Campbell alone, and shorn of Lanegan’s mournful baritone the track feels aimless while instrumental “Violin Tango” is neither long enough nor developed enough musically to fully engage the listener.
Lacking the darker themes of their Mercury nominated debut or the seedy motel feel of their sophomore album, this EP suffers from a somewhat staid approach to the rootsy passages. Their evocation of a lovelorn past comes across as artifice, and at times on this EP they feel constricted and strangely joyless. The intimacy of their arrangements and the combinations of their vocals mark out their best songs, but these highpoints are not as evident on this release.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Godspeed - Jenny Lewis

Basking in analogue warmth, “Godspeed” is the second single taken from Jenny Lewis’ sophomore album Acid Tongue. Lucinda Williams, Patsy Cline et al were obvious frames of reference for this retro-styled piano ballad which proffers counsel to a female mired in a dangerous relationship.
“Godspeed” is an elegantly poised torch song blending various alt country influences with the more mainstream FM sound of their forbearers. The album was recorded using analogue technology rather than modern digital applications, and the effect is stunning. The space afforded to each instrument and vocal brings to mind Phil Spector’s best productions. The fact that the chord progression of the chorus and walking bass lines echo a late era Beatles arrangement does little to discourage this sentiment.
There will be a temptation for many to simply dismiss Lewis’ new sound as adult contemporary, yet her vocal performance and the impeccably judged nature of this track demand attention. True, it is not as idiosyncratic and is steeped in tradition rather than presenting a blueprint for future pop as anything on Rabbit Fur Coat or Rilo Kiley’s latest work. Shorn of the ethereal backing harmonies of the Watson Twins the song could also be perceived as lacking in dynamic but the songwriting is of the highest order and pulls it through.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Godspeed by Jenny Lewis on the site, please click on the article title.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Say Aha - Santogold

Santogold (née Santi White) is a music industry insider, so it is no surprise that her musical output be so polished and consummate. It would be unfair to describe her oeuvre as ‘pop’; Santogold has a contemporary aspect on music, bestriding various genres and approaches. What she is trying to achieve is an eradication of genre, of classification. Her music challenges the notion that you cannot find art in the stultifying confines of a genre, particularly one as traditional and conservative as ‘pop’.
Latest single “Say Aha” is a bass heavy, groove oriented dancehall meets pop number, ornamented with ska style 2 Tone keyboards. It has a sound vaguely reminiscent of No Doubt or Gwen Stefani’s solo work, but the production captures the space and echo of Ark style dub. They certainly share many of the same reference points (new wave icons mixed with 80s sirens such as Grace Jones) and Santogold’s raucous vibrato vocal line strikes a similar chord.
Keenly aware that repetition is the key to any successful pop song, “Say Aha” sticks to the form. Santogold’s songs are brimming with ideas, but “Say Aha” is lacking in the invention that characterises her other works. The overall impression is strangely clinical, as if the song is a mere essay in the formula.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Say Aha by Santogold on the site, please click on the article title.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Electric Arguments - The Fireman

Paul McCartney describes his side project with producer Youth “The Fireman” as electronica and that it promotes “pure musical possibilities”. The Fireman exists as an avatar for McCartney to explore looser song structures and less traditional instrumentation, and their first two albums (Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest released in 1993 and Rushes from 1998) were explorations of instrumental post-ambient soundscapes. This is abandoned on new release Electric Arguments, which opts for the pop structures and sensibilities of McCartney’s 2007 solo album Memory Almost Full.
Electric Arguments takes its title from a line in an Allen Ginsberg poem, and McCartney admitted that he utilised a William Burroughs’ style cut approach to the lyrics. The idea that this will be a lo-fi experimental release is forsaken by the opening bars of opener “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight”. McCartney was persuaded by Youth to add his distinctive vocal to the album. On this Zeppelin-esque blues stomp, McCartney truly hollers over the top. You only have to listen to “Lady Madonna” to know that he once had an impressive pair of lungs, but like many of his peers they have sadly diminished.
Where the album excels is in its more low-key moments, where McCartney’s vocal is sublimated into the mix. “Two Magpies” is a hushed acoustic number, reminiscent of “Heart of the Country” from Ram. “Travelling Light” is a pretty folk number, with McCartney’s vocal low in the mix amongst the commingled acoustic guitars, brushed drums, flutes and strings before showing the extent of his range in the chorus. It showcases just how consummate a songwriter McCartney is, and how a good producer can bring out the best in him. “Light From Your Lighthouse” takes a stomping country tune and adds a soaring gospel vocal melody. Elsewhere “Sing The Changes” has Youth’s trademark ‘Big Sound’ all over it, from the cavernous vocals to the reverb laden guitars, while “Sun Is Shining” is the most Beatles like cut on the album. There are few better at this type of transcendental, sky scraping pop than McCartney. Considering the upheaval he was going through, it is a surprise that the album is not a maudlin affair. While certainly there is a melancholy, keening air to some songs (such as the cry to fill his life with passion on “Lifelong Passion”) there is always a chance of redemption.
Along with the opener there are a few low points – “Highway” never escapes sounding like some session muso workout, “Universal Here, Everlasting Now” ruins two minutes of well observed aural texture with a drum beat and guitar sound from 1985, while the pan pipes that herald “Is This Love?” were an unnecessary addition on an otherwise well crafted song.
Recently McCartney has displayed a worryingly revisionistic view of his ‘legacy’ – witness the Lennon/McCartney, McCartney/Lennon authorship fiasco. The current notion proposed by McCartney himself that he is a pioneer of electronic music in Britain is yet another example of him purporting to be the experimental Beatle. His place in the canon of great 20th century songwriters and as a cultural icon is already assured, but this latest claim for the experimental high ground is both unnecessary and irrelevant. The public perception of McCartney – bowl-cut hairdo, Frog Chorus, two thumbs up – is so entrenched it is surely too late to be changed. John Lennon called him the best PR man in the business, and that belief still rings true. Electric Arguments is not the deconstructive album it professes to be, merely a continuation of McCartney’s recent dalliances with a looser version of pop. Despite the odd weak moment, it shows there are still few finer purveyors of the genre.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Electric Arguments by The Fireman on the site, please click on the article title.

Rest In Peace Oliver Postgate 1925 - 2008

IBJSM loves Bagpuss, and so should you. It mixed whimsy and anarchy perfectly. As a tribute please click on the article title to watch the video to "There, There (The Bony King of Nowhere)", the Bagpuss referencing single from Radiohead's 2003 album Hail to the Thief.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The conservative impulse of modern indie; or, kill the NME

Any institution that makes money from music, or is a by product of this commercial process, cannot lay claim to protecting artistic integrity. The NME treats music as a commodity, and has replaced critique with sales promotion. Their conservative impulses towards new music and how to ‘break’ and ‘source’ artists mean they can lay no intellectual claim over the preservation of music as an artistic conceit. It has also led to a unified, bland genre of music.

The following three case studies are to illustrate this point.

Case Study 1 – New Rave
Now that it is over, it is clear that the creation of new rave owed as much to the vagaries of contemporaneous music journalism than to musical invention. It was a movement with no soul, no historical context, and no core. It arrived fully packaged and commoditised. At its heart lay no music label, band or promoter that it grouped around. A disparate group of bands were amassed under the banner, with little direct linkage between them. Instead there was an emphasis on stylistic tendencies, as if it was an excuse to sell clothes rather than records. This mainly came about due to the preponderance of the music press and also its union with the fashion industry. Note NME’s links to the Arcadia group, amongst others.

Case Study 2 – The Brats
In the late 90s the NME launched the Brats as a subversive riposte to the mainstream Brit Awards. Their original oppositional stance has receded into conformity and languor. Considering they are owned by IPC Media, a large conglomerate with a huge multinational marketing reach, this transition is not unexpected.

Case Study 3 – The Pigeon Detectives
The most tuneless, godawful band I think I have ever heard. And they owe all of their success to the patronage of the NME. A hopeless bricolage of every half decent act that has been popular in the NME over the last 5 years. This homogenised rubbish is symptomatic of everything that is currently wrong with British alternative music, and that the NME have helped to create. There is frankly a multitude of excellent music currently being made in the UK that is soundly ignored because it wouldn't appeal to a certain demographic.

It’s no surprise then that the NME has been superseded by community based websites such as Drowned in Sound and Pitchfork. While they revel in their hipster status, they do promote a good model for a modern music publication (whether online or print) combining high level criticism with community based musings.

The NME has become an irrelevance. User derived content, free mp3 files on band's websites and the proliferation of community websites have lessened its influence. The parameters of its musical base are so narrow that they are constrictive. The editorial remit appears to be to give as much saturated coverage to certain favoured artists who will sell the magazine. The inability to review new artists without referencing a canonical (in their eyes) artist is akin to product placement. The record industry is notoriously a closed shop, and it frankly smacks of nepotism. Whilst this is sound business sense, in the long term they are alienating a core section of their readership.

The question that must be posed by all of those disillusioned by the publication’s fall from grace is whether too much is expected. In its current guise I would say that is the case. There is a place in the mainstream for an oppositional voice, one that places music criticism within its contextual environment and can appraise without subsiding into clichéd, postmodern, ironic malaise. But the NME have come to represent the mainstream, and big business. Their conservative impulses and failure to evolve with their readership means it will eventually fall on its own sword. The vapidity of it's journalism makes it a question of when and not if.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

4:13 Dream - The Cure

Across the breadth of thirteen albums The Cure have created a sensory world, full of dense rhythms, melodic lines supplied by six strings basses, agitated vocals, lush orchestration and baroque touches such as woodwind and timpani. They have always had a masterly control over song dynamics. Each song is drenched in chiaroscuro. This aesthetic makes them instantly recognisable and is in firm evidence on new album 4:13 Dream. The usual thematic concepts are also perceptible. Robert Smith’s lyrics are imbued with existential tropes as he examines the binaries that make us human – life/death, reality/fiction, and fidelity/infidelity.
This is important because if you are to treat The Cure as a genre in themselves there are certain conventions that they cannot break and are not allowed to by their faithful following. 4:13 Dream, and indeed any Cure album from Disintegration onwards, suffers in comparison to past works. This is due to the reverence in which they are held and our own nostalgic memories of them. Memory is composed of both personal and collective memories that are not seperable, so our own personal response to The Cure's music is coloured by their ritualised coverage in the music press.
The Cure’s follow up to 2004’s eponymous release has had a lengthy and apparently torturous gestation, as Robert Smith edited the track listing from an initial thirty three track double album to a more palatable thirteen track single disc. The original press releases for the album slated it as moody and brooding, akin to Disintegration. Opener “Underneath The Stars” certainly has the same ambience, opening with crystalline glissandos before a post-rock wall of noise descends, threatening to consume all, including Robert Smith’s reverb laden, barely there, withdrawn vocals. The feeling of translucency, of lack, is very appealing and credit must be given to producer Keith Uddin for creating this aural environ. “The Only One” is vibrant and upbeat, with Smith’s familiar yelping vocal line eschewing the joys of what his beloved does to him (becoming more and more salacious as it develops from verse to verse) while “The Reasons Why” uses a chorus laden six string bass riff and Porl Thompson’s choppy guitar motif to underpin the song. “The Perfect Boy” is a standard Cure pop ballad, but is saved from becoming twee by Smith’s cries of “I don’t want to be innocent”. “This. Here and Now. With You” takes a minimal, post-punk approach to a similar song structure but uses synthetic texture and chiming guitars to create an impassioned entreaty. Of the two closing songs “The Scream” creates an eerie soundscape, with scattershot drums and synths building up the tension as Smith declaims “I can’t wait to break apart this dream” while “It’s Over” features an almost prog-punk twin guitar attack.
But for every good song on the album there appears to a damp squib to hold its hand. The brevity of “Freakshow” and “Sirensong” hardly endears them to the listener, coming across as half good melodies that couldn’t be fashioned into a full song. “Switch” would have worked well if the wah-laden guitar had been edited, because the piano melody that counters the guitar works well. A missed opportunity. “The Real Snow White” is frankly risible while “The Hungry Ghost” is certainly pretty, but so doused in compression and studio devices that it struggles to raise its head above the mire.
Like a fly trapped in amber The Cure struggle against the weight of expectations and the power of their own back catalogue. 4:13 Dream finds them in stasis, caught between looking back and looking forward while showcasing only their reductive impulses. While not amongst their best offerings however the album does augment their lengthy back catalogue without embarrassment.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of 4:13 Dream by The Cure on the site, please click on the article title.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Human - The Killers

The Killers deal in universals in a mawkish attempt to connect to everyone. If you continually speak in universals without attempting to to fully interact with them then you cannot fully appreciate them. The words in themselves become meaningless, a mantra without depth or context. Universals in themselves explain nothing, but must be explicated and disseminated in order to provide meaning.
By abandoning the story based songs of their previous albums and dealing purely in universals and attempting to appeal to the Everyman they only succeed in alienating those who were drawn in initially by songs such as the 'Murder Trilogy' ("Midnight Show", "Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine" and "Leave The Bourbon On The Shelf") or "Mr Brightside".
In terms of the actual tune itself, it is passable synth pop that references so many 80s artists it would be laborious to list them. It sounds dangerously like a retread of "Read My Mind" from Sam's Town, which was a lovely Springsteen meets Erasure impression. Perhaps coming from Las Vegas explains the ersatz nature of the Killers' art. Semantics aside, "Human" is a less than edifying experience.

Monday, 17 November 2008

We Can Breathe In Space, They Just Don't Want Us To Escape - Enter Shikari

Enter Shikari are an odd proposition, blending post-hardcore with exultant trance-like synths. Imagine Dave Pearce remixing Vision of Disorder. On paper it sounds incongruous, but repeated listens deliver comprehension. The sweaty atmosphere of a hardcore show and a club in Ayia Napa aren't too dissimilar.
The song structure of their comeback single “We Can Breathe In Space…” is generic post-hardcore, replete with breakdowns, time signature changes, and harmonised vocals. The song works well when the band keep it simple. The chorus is catchy, with a nimble guitar figure that snakes it’s way into your subconscious. However the transition from verse to chorus is a time signature change too far and sounds slipshod. In common with many of their new rave peers (or those other disparate bands who were branded new rave by a slavering music press and the ingratiates in the industry desperate to sign them) the emphasis on stylistic tendencies looms – the grunted backing vocals, the first breakdown with sampled dialogue, the euphoric synths – and this detracts from the song as a whole.
You get the feeling that until Enter Shikari learn to rein in the more excessive side of each of their conflicting styles, their songs will always sound ungainly and cumbersome. Too often their songs sound like a list of elements that have been crossed off a list. "We Can Breathe In Space..." hasn't broadened their sonic palette, but there are elements in the mix that bode well for their upcoming sophomore album.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of We Can Breathe In Space, They Just Don't Want Us To Escape by Enter Shikari on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Monster Song - Psapp

Beloved of advertising executives and television producers, London-based duo Psapp return with new single “Monster Song”. Credited with inventing the toytronica genre (elements of synthetic music combined with on toy instruments), they have enjoyed immense success in America. US licensing deals aside, “The Monster Song” is more organic than previous releases and certainly more sophisticated a production than many would give them credit for. More conventional instruments replace the rubber bands, chickens and household objects of old, albeit that alongside the guitars and strings lie the oud and Bontempi organs. They all combine to compliment the gentle layers of Galia Durant’s elfin vocal. While pretty enough, the song is prosaic in structure, ambition and scope. What saves the song from falling into a morass of twee recollection is the subdued and introspective coda.
When listening to Psapp it is hard not to imagine two children locked in their childhood music room. Their songs are reclamations of childhood, which explains their appeal. Psapp exist somewhere on the edge of our subconscious, with their songs of monsters, rockets and animals played on a mixture of toy, electronic and traditional instrumentation. Ultimately though the song, like the band, remain an inoffensive curio, capable of moments of extreme splendour and delicacy but also equally of saccharine insipidity.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Monster Song by Psapp on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Beg, Steal or Borrow #2

Deerhunter - Microcastle (2008)
Loveless - My Bloody Valentine (1991)
Honey Ride Me A Goat/Lakes - Split EP (2008)
Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984)
Slint - Spiderland (1991)

Get 'em.

Seaspray/22 Dreams - Paul Weller

Being classed as a venerable music institution means that our perceptions of an artist could be framed, especially when their best material is always whispered to be 25 years behind them. For Paul Weller, obtaining a lifetime achievement award from NME just short of his 50th birthday, it must have seemed an apposite time to rest on laurels well earned.
Weller released his best solo record for over a decade this year with the song cycle 22 Dreams. “Seaspray/22 Dreams”, the second double A-side released from it, showcases Weller’s talents and influences perfectly. “Seaspray” is very reminiscent of Wild Wood‘s bucolic, English psychedelic folk. Mandolin, lush woodwind and horns blend with acoustic guitars and Weller’s careworn vocal line to create a Faces meets Nick Drake style ballad.
“22 Dreams” is a tangled mesh of beat style guitars, and demonstrates Weller’s assertion that “catching the feeling” was the most important element on this record. Whereas the rockier numbers on previous albums sounded synthetic this track is much more authentic, with the grunted backing vocals and Motown horns reaching a blaring crescendo while Weller muses on saving his soul. Lyrically both songs exist as transcendental fugues, embracing oneness with nature and the power of the subconscious.
Much like Oasis on their new album, Weller appears to be fixated on late 60s/early 70s rock. He blends the mod guitar thrash of The Who to the more pastoral elements of Traffic and the vibe, groove and drone of early Krautrock artists like Can. But there’s much more to these songs, hidden layers of aural texture that wash away memories of a decade’s underachievements. Sang with an air of tender resignation they reassert Weller’s position as one of England’s pre-eminent songwriters.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Seaspray/22 Dreams by Paul Weller on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Next Year In Zion - Herman Düne

The fifth studio album from French duo Herman Düne was recorded in the legendary Exile on Main Street studios in Southern France, where the Rolling Stones decamped in 1971 to avoid paying taxes and finish the album of the same name. Herman Düne recorded the album on the same EMI desk borrowed from Abbey Road that the Stones recorded a large section of their roots influenced classic. Certainly Herman Düne draw upon the same canvas of influences; rock and roll, clues, country and soul.
Musically the album features the jazz inflected guitars, female backing vocals (with June Carter Cash as the archetype rather than the 60s girl group harmonies of the 1-2-3 Apple Tree EP), bourbon soaked horns and clipped drum beats from earlier recordings, replete with beautifully phrased solos and slide guitar that add texture and refinement to the proceedings. You have to wonder why the album was released in September, as its ambience is custom-made for a summer’s evening.
One thing that is immediately noticeable is singer David-Ivar Herman Düne’s delivery. While still a naive, yearning vocal style, tinged with regret, he appears to have grown in stature. David-Ivar’s vocals are less redolent of adolescence. Another improvement is the production. While fellow anti-folk artist Jeffery Lewis’ albums sound as though they were recorded in a bedroom with one guitar and a suitcase for drums, Next Year in Zion showcases a growing sophistication that distances them from their peers. What has always shined through on their tracks is their humanity, but on songs such as “When the Sun Rose up This Morning” or “On a Saturday” this is married to the sheen of the production.
There is one detrimental aspect to this emergent erudition. Previously they were a trio, until guitarist André Düne left after the recording sessions for previous album Giant, not even staying to tour the record. The songs on Next Year in Zion are perfectly crafted, but they do lack the musical complexity of the songs he would contribute to the band. A minor gripe, but it is clear that as a band Herman Düne are a very different proposition to the anti-folk band they started out as nearly a decade ago.
Instead Next Year in Zion belongs to a cultural and musical tradition that can be traced from Delta Blues, to Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. However Herman Düne filter these traditional influences through Jonathan Richman-esque wry, observational lyrical preoccupations and Daniel Johnston’s grasp of melody. Thus a song such as “My Baby Is Afraid of Sharks” takes a traditional song structure, yet inverts our perceptions with the lyrical content.
John Peel was an ardent admirer of Herman Düne’s, and he is normally a good barometer for a band’s qualities. They recorded six sessions for Peel, including one at Peel Acres (a rare honour), while “Drug Dealer in the Park” featured in his Festive 50 countdown from 2000. Previously they have occasionally failed to live up to their billing, yet Next Year in Zion is a well produced gem of an album, focused and coherent, that firmly places them in the canon next to their idols. It is hard to find a weak track amongst the dozen here; the only slight complaint would be aforementioned uniformity between the songs but when they’re this charming, idiosyncratic and well crafted it appears curmudgeonly to carp. Next Year in Zion is avant-pop music for those who think Sticky Fingers, The Modern Lovers and Brighten the Corners are amongst the greatest albums ever produced.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Next Year In Zion by Herman Dune on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Beg, Steal or Borrow #1

The basic premise of this segment is to publicise important new releases that I believe everyone should listen to, no matter how, then to counterpoint those with albums that may have influenced them in some way. Here goes.

Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (2008)
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
TV on the Radio – Dear Science (2008)
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Airplane Over The Sea (1998)
Bon Iver – For Emma Forever Ago (2007)
Beirut – The Flying Club Cup (2007)
Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
Saul Williams – Amethyst Rock Star (2001)
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)

Happy listening.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Drugs - The Music

When The Music released their debut album in 2001 they were a hotly tipped new act, drooled over by the music press for their mix of baggy vibes and bluesy riffing. At the time rock and dance music were considered mutually exclusive, yet fast forward seven years and the two are combined in ever increasing ways. Music fashion being the cyclical beast it is could The Music be considered relevant? It seems unlikely that they will grace the cover of NME at this stage in their career, having been usurped by younger, unsullied acts.
Since their debut they have released a stodgy sophomore effort (2004's Welcome to the North) and singer Robert Harvey has undergone rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction. Harvey’s experience and his battle to escape these dependencies inform much of the new album Strength in Numbers’ lyrical output.
The Music have updated their sound in the intervening years. There is a welcome subtlety on the third single from Strength in Numbers, “Drugs”. Gone are the Zeppelin-lite, bluesy riffs of earlier releases. Sonically, the single is more refined and textured than the output on the first two albums. “Drugs” is awash with synthetic texture, much like The Verve’s recent single “Love Is Noise”. Harvey sings in a lower register on the verses, creating a sense of intimacy and vulnerability, before opening up for the anthemic choruses. Combining an emotional starkness with a stadium-ready chorus is nothing new, but it works.
The pantheon of rock music is littered with those thrown by the wayside. Credit The Music for escaping the darker aspects of fatalism and enthrallment to substances and producing a solid third album. “Drugs” is a laudable effort, but you get the feeling that it won’t convert any new fans.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Drugs by The Music on the site, please click on the article title.

The Geeks Were Right - The Faint

Omaha five piece The Faint return after a four year absence with new single “The Geeks Were Right”, taken from parent album Fasciinatiion. The song begins with angular guitars, before building in a fat synth bassline and vocodered vocals. It certainly ticks all the boxes of a guaranteed floor filler at your local indie disco, but it is let down by poor attention to structure and some genuinely lumpen musical segues featuring hilariously inappropriate arpeggiated synths.
Todd Fink claims the lyrics were inspired by Futurism; certainly lyrically The Faint has always shown the future as present past. The phrase “The geeks were right” in itself appears to be a separatist claim of the underdog, fighting the corner of those with “thin white legs” and initially the lyrics appear to be celebratory, revelling in the conquest of the “eggheads”, but further inspection reveals that they are striking a warning note, decrying the need to “Watch what the humans ruin with machines”. Like the music backing these nebulous sentiments, it promises much but says little. Instead of celebrating the future that they have seen, they hark back to a time pre-machine while Futurism espouses the triumph of technology over nature.
When first they arrived in our consciousness in the late 90s they heralded a new musical genre, electroclash. Unfortunately for The Faint upon returning they’ve found that there are new, more relevant bands occupying their place. They have become a parody of themselves, lacking energy and new ideas. Their second album Danse Macabre promised much, but having returned to the fray in 2008 it appears they have little to add to their own canon let alone the genre they work in.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of The Geeks Were Right by The Faint on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Oblige - I Concur

Latest release from the Leeds based four piece was recorded by Tom Woodhead of ¡Forward Russia! This is an interesting place to start; Woodhead is a much feted and sought after producer, yet the production here is flat and uninspired, failing to lift the songs beyond the humdrum.
“Oblige” begins with a jangly, minor key guitar refrain. Keyboards fill out the sound, harmonised vocals sweep in and out of the mix. Despite their best efforts, they can’t divert you from a feeling of torpor. The song strains for a crescendo, but it is not attained. Part of the problem is the flatness of the vocals; they are delivered in a perfunctory fashion, but do not have that sense of urgency or immediacy that marks out a great vocal line.
B-side “Captors” better demonstrates their grasp of song dynamics. The song is in constant flux, building, receding before it reconstructs once more. The track lurches forward propulsively, driven by the rhythm section while the angular guitars interweave.
The single and its B-side are less grandiose than their earlier efforts, with guitars heavier and far more prominent. The ambient aural swirls of “Lucky Jack” and “Build Around Me” are replaced with turgid guitar work. The straightforward approach suits them not. “Captors” hints at a level of sophistication and musicality that they are obviously capable of but don’t meet on this release.
In an attempt to meld the sweeping grandeur of Interpol with the downtrodden, hometown melodrama of The National, I Concur wear their influences compulsively on their sleeve. At this moment in their progression there exists a gap between their own perceptions of the music and the actual musical output, but as they themselves intone, “Have patience...”

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Oblige by I Concur on the site, please click on the article title.

Wendy - Attic Lights

Beach Boys influenced orchestral pop meets Graham Coxon-esque guitar work on Attic Lights’ latest release “Wendy”.
Whilst “Wendy” is a well honed pop song with an infectious melody, it is hard to escape the sensation that we have heard the song before. It is certainly fun, good knockabout stuff, but the musical stylings adapted by the Glasgow band are a well ploughed furrow. Recent acts such as The Rumble Strips, The Thrills and even The Feeling have produced similarly wistful pop music. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Supernaturals album, or any other Britpop band of the era. The Britpop stylings are perhaps explained by the presence of Teenage Fanclub’s drummer Francis Macdonald in the producer’s chair, whose own band also had a canny way with a melody and a 60s West Coast style harmony.
While this vein of songwriting tradition may affirm the melody’s timeless quality, this is a double-edged sword. With such precedence for this arch and wry take on the pop song, the song itself has to transcend its particular genre. But whereas a band like Ben Folds Five would deconstruct the pop song, strip to its bare elements and still stimulate you with their grasp of songcraft and wordplay, “Wendy” is a charming song with little depth.
The overall impression of “Wendy” is of an accomplished, proficient pop song with a melody designed to burrow slowly and insidiously into your cranium. The close harmonies are a highlight, as is the aforementioned guitar work from Jamie Huston and the strings scored by Bjorn Ytlling of Peter, Bjorn and John. But beneath the polished surface lies a band that is still a work in progress.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Wendy by Attic Lights on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Headmaster Ritual - Radiohead

Radiohead cover "The Headmaster Ritual" by The Smiths, which opened their seminal album Meat is Murder. Please click on the article title to watch, as it's great.

Work - Blue Orchids

“Work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work...” goes the exultant cry.
Blue Orchids were formed by Martin Bramah and Una Baines, both former members of The Fall, in late 1979. They were famously named by John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and survivor of the sixties, who imagined them as 'a bunch of haemophiliacs raised by Alsatian dogs on a council tip'. Bramah and Baines, the axis around which the band rotated, were joined by Rick Goldstraw on bass and Ian Rogers on drums and spent much of the following year working on material.
At a time when Bruce Springsteen was celebrating the blue collar worker in America and thus affirming (according to Marxist idioms) man’s eternal right and desire to ‘work’, the Blue Orchids were painting a very different picture. Instead of revelling in tales of working life they paint a picture of a dislocated society. We are all “golden salmon, swimming against the tide of life”. On their debut single “The Flood” they had sang about the overwhelming sensation hallucinogens had on the system, but on their second 7 inch they were addressing the quandaries facing the nation.
While Britain had 3 million unemployed, Martin Bramah invoked the power of work. Not long beforehand the winter of discontent had seen 1 million trade union members laid off. Employment was an emotive issue. The song is a spiritual cousin of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, an indictment of the failure of government to provide for its populace. Both released in early 1981, they highlight the desolation going on in the inner cities of the United Kingdom, be it Coventry or Manchester.
Musically Blue Orchids took the chilled out, drug influenced West Coast sound of bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors and filtered them through the grim, sodium lit, urban decay of late 1970s inner city Manchester. The band’s music invokes a kind of spiritual wanderlust, sensual and boundless, but rooted endlessly and irrevocably in Manchester. However they are less furious than Joy Division, less raucous than The Fall. Their songs are labyrinthine, a myriad of guitar lines and keyboards interlacing above a steady backbeat. On their debut album The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) this psychedelic tradition is evident, yet on “Work” the soundscape is darker, spiteful, denser, colder, and has much more in common with the East Coast pioneers the Velvet Underground. Their link with the Velvets is well known; they worked as backing band for Nico, the Belgian chanteuse who appeared with the Velvets in the late 60s. There are many who feel that becoming her backing band, and the hard drugs it opened them up to, ended the band as a creative force for many years. Being a band for which recreational drug use was par for the course, the absence of work was seen as liberating.
“Work” is a far darker piece of music than appeared on their debut album released just three months later. Bramah traces out discordant patterns on his guitar, constantly picking out a lead motif that is constantly evolving, fluid, not fixed. Una Baines organ soars above, freewheeling above the tight mesh of the rhythm guitars. The whole sound is tense, stretched taut over the structure. Bramah’s voice stretches too, cracking as it strains to reach the notes. Skittish, dub style drums clatter and thrash in the background. They had taken the sound of psychedelia and inverted it, infusing it with a barely restrained fury, redolent of Germanic acts such as Can, Neu! and Faust.
The song ends on a celebratory note, guitars ringing out as Baines’ organ soars. The celebration of not going to ‘work’, the celebration of individuality, the celebration of liberating oneself from society, the celebration of drugs, the celebration of dissidence and the celebration of the soul that endures. “Work” is one of the few pieces they recorded that hint at a greater social awareness; the majority of their canon is insular, introspective in which the personal becomes political.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

An interim post

It's basically just sex music is sick of bands who think by using a particular band as a reference point they can justify their awful music.

Monday, 18 August 2008

In Rainbows - Radiohead

After the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003 and the accompanying EP Com Lag (2+2=5), Radiohead were released from their contractual obligations with Parlophone and its parent company EMI, ending their long association which stretched back to their debut Pablo Honey. Upon leaving the company Thom Yorke described the traditional record industry as a “decaying business model”, a notion supported by EMI’s purchase by venture capitalists Terra Firma. They are not the only artist to speak out against them; Blur criticised them in the song “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” long before the equity firm bought them out, while more recently Lily Allen has blamed the redundancies enforced by the new owners for the delay in releasing her sophomore album. Against this milieu they decided their seventh studio album would initially be available as a download only, and the price would be determined by the buyer. Ten days before it was released digitally they announced on their blog on official page Dead Air Space that it would be called In Rainbows, a curiously childlike and wondrous title. Obviously this brought a lot of media attention. According to recent analysis of the digital downloads by music rights holders, and despite the fact that theoretically it was available for free, the album was still heavily pirated online. The album was released physically in December 2007 by XL recordings for those who still hankered after a tangible object. A deluxe disc was available for £40, aimed at the vast number of Radiohead completists who owned all the Japanese imports. In the early rush of press releases and commotion surrounding the album’s public entrance, there were various utterances attributed to the band espousing the belief that this was their Revolver, their definitive collection. It certainly feels concise in comparison to Hail to the Thief, which had at least two too many songs on it.
The primary themes of the album are ones of alienation, paranoia, of temporal and emotional dislocation. Each song on the album is an encapsulated narrative, a self-enclosed world into which you are cast adrift. Ten perfectly formed songs comprise the album, while the discbox houses a second CD of bonus material. Because of the songs structure I find it best to approach each song individually in order to come to some form of comprehension of the whole.
A processed drum rhythm announces the record on “15 Step”, with Yorke declaiming “How come I end up where I started”. So far, so post-OK Computer Radiohead. Skittering rhythm - check, paranoid vocals – check etcetera. However on 23 seconds Phil Selway’s hypnotic acoustic drumbeat kicks in, all tight snare and clipped hi-hat, mirroring the processed drumbeat, building on it, enveloping it. On 43 seconds, the first guitar line of the album commences. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar phrase is a complete revelation; the warmth of the tone, the subtle nuances and the intricacies of his playing are breathtaking. Those more used to his bombastic playing on earlier records will be surprised. Greenwood junior has always been Radiohead’s secret weapon, from the moment he joined his elder brother’s band. His ability to take a song and completely unhinge it, taking it into new and exciting avenues has never been in question. That is why this phrase, so simple and yet so rich and perfect in execution, is such a joy. Around the two and a half minute mark the song breaks down, the processed beat rejoins along with found sounds, sampled children’s speech and Yorke’s schizoid vocals. Then the rhythm section propels the track forward with Colin Greenwood’s effortlessly funky bass line and Selway’s drum beat. The whole song is so well cadenced, with the various layers interwoven perfectly.
“Bodysnatchers” is another surprise. Hail to the Thief was hailed by many because it was perceived as a return to Radiohead’s earlier musical ventures. Essentially this comes down to them ‘plugging in’; Britain’s musical press is rockcentric and ultimately fears electronic music, both aurally and ideologically. Since OK Computer there has been a noticeable aversion to guitars in Radiohead’s music, although it has to be pointed out that both Kid A and Amnesiac feature many tracks that contain guitars, but that are just utilised in different ways. They are textured, layered rather than providing the focal point for the song. Hail to the Thief opened with “2+2=5”, which itself begun symbolically with the sound of a guitar being plugged in. “Bodysnatchers” is the heaviest, most frantic on the album and is probably the most frenetic since “Electioneering” on OK Computer. It starts with a fuzztone driven, dropped D riff. Once the whole band kicks in it sounds not unlike a dirty revved up version of White Album era Beatles, ending with half a minute of furious riffing and Jonny Greenwood emitting frenzied, strangled notes from his Telecaster. To put it bluntly, it rocks.
“Nude” began life in 1997, and has gone through various permutations before finding itself on In Rainbows in its new guise. It is a wonderful example of a songwriter, dedicated to his craft, refusing to let a good melody or idea go. It begins in a swirl of strings and descending vocal lines, with Phil Selway’s rimshot snare and a glimmering glissando guitar joining before Colin Greenwood’s dub influenced bass line begins. The track is heart rendering, aching, and yearning. The clean guitar refrain resembles nothing more than cracked Philly soul. Yorke’s voice soars and freewheels above the mix. However the boy meets girl scenario of classic soul is replaced with cautionary tales of not getting any big ideas. On 3 minutes 14 seconds the multi-tracked vocals reach for the heights. Strings, full of tension, strive to match Yorke all the way. The eternal paradox surrounding Radiohead is that how can something so well crafted and beautiful sound so close to collapse.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is the song in which all the ideas that Radiohead possess about their sound is distilled to the most success. Selway counts them in with four taps of his sticks, before starting a perfunctory solid drum beat. Ed O’Brien’s guitar motif of four minor key finger picked arpeggios is mirrored by Jonny Greenwood. It’s not the same refrain however; it intertwines with it, creates a new space, a fresh narrative for the song. Colin Greenwood’s bass is solid root note fundamentals, underpinning the guitar work.
“In the deepest ocean, the bottom of the sea.....”
The song builds and builds, it is claustrophobic, as though it has been submerged. Yorke’s vocals sound as if they have been recorded at the bottom of the ocean, yet the second (and third) guitars and Ed O’Brien’s backing vox intersect with them opening new vistas of imagination. It feels so organic, as if it hasn’t been written by five people but trapped in a net. As the song advances it yearns for a crescendo. One of Radiohead’s key traits is their control of song structure and the creation of tension within the construct. Unlike many of their contemporaries they are able to deliver the pay off. Just after the three minute mark Yorke declares “I get eaten by the world, and weird fishes” and the guitars are replaced by Greenwood’s intricate playing on the ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument). The electronic music swells into a new section on 3 minutes 41 seconds with disturbing white noise, electric glissandos that glisten beautifully, fade and decay while the first guitar refrain repeats.
“All I Need” begins with Phil Selway’s syncopated, clipped drum rhythm and a wash of synthesis, before a 5 string bass line introduces the main melody of the song. Radiohead’s devouring of all things electronic (particularly 20th century composers such as Reich, Glass, Messaien, Stockhausen and the output of Warp records) is evident on this track. The ambience is pure Boards of Canada, and is genuinely disarming in its beauty and frailty. This song highlights the feeling that has been growing and becoming more palpable on each track; the sense of a beating human heart lying beneath the sentiments. They had previously been criticised for their apparent reluctance to create a dialogue with their audience, preferring to use obtuse wordplay to convey complex emotions and politics. Universal themes and heartfelt emotions are perceptible, rather than the fragmented lyricism that normally characterises Yorke’s writing. The song is elegiac, but due to its sentiments becomes the album’s pulse, its touchstone. Yorke proclaims that he is “an animal that just wants to share your life”. Found sounds, sampled fragments contribute to the fractured soundscape which is lightened by plaintive glockenspiel. On 2 minutes 46 seconds minor key piano chords enter, cymbals crash and the vocals soar and undulate before returning. “All I Need” presents the album’s bruised face, a tarnished and blemished heart, a soul that wants to be loved. A soul that cannot change.
On first listen “Faust Arp” appears to be the weakest song in the collection. It begins with a B minor chord and is structured around this key. Its lyrics are nonsensical, yet further listening deepens and enriches the experience. Gently bowed strings and Yorke’s downbeat delivery conspire to drag you further in. While the song’s meaning is unfathomable, again it is the quality of the songcraft that stops this being a mere throwaway track. It is bucolic, pastoral and has more than a hint of Nick Drake about it. This resemblance is particularly enhanced by the version on “Scotch Mist” (the webcast they made at their Oxfordshire studio on New Year’s Eve 2007), where Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood play the song on a hillside in the country. By the last draw of bow on cello it has ensnared you but such is the track’s brevity by the time it has worked its charm it has gone, clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 9 seconds.
“Reckoner” opens with strident drums, with heavy use of the crash cymbal. After 10 seconds the main guitar phrase begins, three simply picked chords. Thom Yorke’s vocal on this song is tremulous, soaring, gospel like. Much like on “Nude” and “All I Need” it transports the listener to a different plane away from the complications of our everyday, humdrum existence. It ends with a rousing string coda, backed with aspirational jazz inflected guitar chords.
“House of Cards” begins with the couplet “I don’t wanna be your friend/I just wanna be your lover”, intoned over a serene guitar line. There is a lot to surprise on this album, and that is high on the list. The couplet could have come from any one of a number of pop songs, so its use in a Radiohead song is strange. In the past it could have been perceived as being subversive, using the lexicon of pop to comment and create discourse on the subject, yet on this album it truly feels sincere. The vocal register that Yorke uses is deeper, richer with less of the caterwauling to be found on Radiohead’s edgier material. It has soul. This newfound candid nature could be perplexing to diehard fans but I find it refreshing. Yorke’s vocals are swathed in reverb, while Greenwood uses an Ebow on his guitar to create an ethereal, haunting effect over the song. The accompanying music video, filmed using a geometric mapping visualisation technique to capture three dimensional close ups of Thom Yorke singing and multiple lasers to create remarkable cityscapes, is truly groundbreaking as it used no conventional film equipment in its production. Seven albums in and it appears that there is no comfort zone for them, they consistently utilise technology to push the envelope in terms of the band’s presentation.
If “All I Need” is the album’s love song, then “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is the albums seduction song. It begins with an acoustic guitar picking out a chord pattern in an open D tuning, gradually descending. The song is a caustic tale depicting a one night stand as a nightmarish conceit. The guitars interlace while backing vocals swoop and soar over the top. On the Scotch Mist version Jonny Greenwood uses the ondes martenot to harmonise with the vocals, but this unfortunately is not included on the album version. The song drives inexorably onward to its logical conclusion, and after the redemptive spirit shown on earlier songs the mistrust and ache exhibited is something of an intrusion.
“Videotape”, funereal and distant, closes the album. The lyrical theme concerns a person at the “pearly gates” of heaven reviewing their life captured on home movies, debating their worth and what they have achieved. It is a beautiful piece of music, and the album version is augmented with glitch-style percussive beats and flicks. Despite its austere nature it is an incredibly moving song, based around a simple piano theme. It showcases long time producer Nigel Godrich’s effortless skill in melding together layers of acoustic and synthetic sound.
In Rainbows is a beautiful album that allows it to transcend discussion of the ethics concerned in its release. The experimental sections are firmly wound into the melodies of more traditional song structures. It does appear to be an epithet of everything they have ever wished to create, the logical conclusion of their previous records. The combination of post-rock, electronic bricolage, patterns, pop, dub, jazz, synths, strings, acoustic instruments, frenzy, restraint, dreams, beauty, frailty, pain, anguish, schisms, fragments, paranoia, rock and roll, hope and fear is well measured and delivered in exemplary fashion. By this stage in their career Radiohead are so consummate in the studio I would back them to deliver at the very least an interesting record; but this is so much more. It is perfect on every level, and they can only get better from here on in.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Modern Life Is Rubbish - Blur

In the mid 90s there were no dedicated twenty four hour ‘indie’ television channels. The most you could expect was the indie chart rundown fortnightly on ITV’s Chart Show on Saturday mornings, or the occasional Super Furry Animals or Supernaturals video. Whilst certainly not a barren spell for music, the coverage was poor. Pre-internet meant scouring teletext (nominally Channel 4’s Planet Sound) for demo and gig reviews, and forums. To keep in touch with underground music from other locales in the UK meant sending 50p and a stamp addressed envelope to obscure villages in Derbyshire, or £2.50 for a badly recorded four track demo. That sometimes came with a badge. The prevalence of ‘indie’ as a fashion, as a sound, as a preset construct means it is easy to forget about these leaner times. It is also easy to romanticise them.
Against this backdrop Blur released Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. It is usually credited with starting the Britpop movement, and while this can be debated the album’s influence cannot. Its highest chart placing was 15, and was critically well received on release but didn’t shift enough units to be considered a success by EMI, the parent company of Blur’s record label Food. The British sound which it expounded traced a direct line through The Kinks, The Who, The Jam, ska, skinhead, and shoegazer. It was Village Green Appreciation Society for the early 1990s. Using these antecedents as reference points allowed them to distance themselves from the baggy movement which their debut Leisure had been lumped in with, while also dissociating them with grunge. Although they would later adapt an American sound on Blur and 13, at this stage in their development (and particularly after a torturous American tour) they wished to put as much open water between them and the sound from across the Atlantic.
The ideas of Britishness, both as a notion and as a construct, are central to the album. It informs debate about the album and its merits, and why it is still an important recording today. One of the promo photos for the album’s release showed them in a mixture of mod and skinhead gear, with a pitbull and the phrase “British Image 1” on a brick wall behind. The best place to find members of Britpop bands was hanging out in some greasy spoon or pie and mash shop in London’s East End (until the dawn of New Labour when membership of the Groucho club became de rigueur). While this can be argued to be an affectation, the ethos that fortified it is more problematical to scrutinise.
What this album rails against is a general malaise that affected the nation at the time; the dissipation of traditional Britishness. The decay of modern culture (ie 20th century modernism) is posited against the milieu of globalised popular ethos. 19th century industrialisation had woven itself into the texture of inner city life in Britain, yet by the 1990s the idea of community had dissolved. The traditional British image has receded. Britishness is something that can be learnt; indeed has to, if you are applying for citizenship. National identity isn’t concrete, it is malleable and fluid. The album provokes debate on the construct of national identity, if it is still relevant, and examines the signifiers of nationalism itself.
The inhabitants of Blur’s songs are insulated. They feel uncomfortable in working class communities; the traditional post-compulsory education route was via heavy industry not the social mobility offered by higher education. Thus Damon Albarn writes about middle managers, such as Colin Zeal, and the pressure on Julian as he pushes trolleys in the car park. This Is Middle England. The banal and mundane are not taboo subjects. They are embraced, allowing them to adopt a microcosmic viewpoint which embodies this sense of frustration with the 1990s. For further elucidation on their thoughts of the decade, listen to “1992” from 13. It says it all.
Blur are modernists in the truest sense of the phrase – their music is a reaction against the rise of mass culture, which is perceived as formulaic and a superficial novelty. The lyrics are full of references to advertising, billboards. It was a time when advertising wasn’t so pervasive, so the novelty of American style marketing hadn’t yet worn off. “Advert” begins with the phrase “Food processors are great!” The Andy Warhol phrase “Buying is much more American than thinking” lurks underneath. Globalisation has shrunk the world, has shrunk time. According to Paul Virilio, “We live in a time of intensely tiny units of time. The real world and our image of the world no longer coincide”.
This album marks the initiation of Damon Albarn’s obsession with London. As usual it is the frontier lands in the suburbs that take precedence, fitting for a boy from Leytonstone. Along with other correspondents from London working in the latter half of the 20th century, he finds solace in these areas. They stimulate and engender thought in a way that the tourist filled centre could not. Thus the protagonists live in Emperor’s Gate and plan trips to Primrose Hill; they travel into the centre on the underground, they live in fragments of history. They drink sugary tea in hovels and buy trainers (with air cushioned soles) from Portobello Road market. They inhabit the places between places, that can’t be mapped, that are ever shifting.
The spectre of vaudeville raises its head on “Intermission” and “Commercial Break”. This link to music hall was something The Who had explored on Tommy, so it wasn’t new for a British band to explore this area of cultural tradition, but it’s embracing on the album is important in entrenching the idea of Britishness that permeates.
The problem with Modern Life Is Rubbish’s version of Britishness; it is Anglocentric, particularly biased to the south, and it is easy to see how a group of five beer swilling Mancunians armed with songs that married the bombast of the late era Beatles to the urgency of the Clash could challenge their place for Britpop primacy. Retrospectively Blur’s songs seem twee in comparison, but they possess an ironic, post-modern heart truly in keeping with many of their art-punk heroes and predecessors. “Sunday, Sunday” (a distant cousin both thematically and structurally to “Just Who Is The Five A-Clock Hero?” by The Jam) is the most ‘British’ song on the album. Colour supplements, TV guide, Sunday roast, Songs of Praise, war heroes, Mother’s Pride; all traditional ‘British’ imagery referenced in the opening verse. Yet the CD booklet introduces the song as “Legislated nostalgia: to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess”. This is coupled with the cover artwork; at a time when the rail network was being touted for privatisation, the image of a steam locomotive was an uncomfortable reminder of bygone days. The idea of the traditional British Sunday is shown as collective cultural amnesia, a fallacy, a construct. Britishness as national identity is erroneous. Blur were aware enough in their adoption of the signifiers that they were utilising were on the way out, yet they enabled them to comment on our national character and deepen the discourse surrounding it.
There is a real dichotomy in their songwriting body, and this is particularly evident on Modern Life is Rubbish (as well as its companion piece, Parklife). Bombastic songs, such as the singles “Sunday, Sunday”, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow” sit alongside more reflective moments such as “Blue Jeans”, “Miss America” and the beautiful album closer “Resigned”. A precursor to “This Is a Low”, its restrained tremolo laden guitar and melodica interweave before culminating in one of Blur’s classic outros. Much like the closing section of “Beetlebum”, every last fragment of emotion is wrought from a few simple chords. Beautiful. Graham Coxon’s guitar work is immense throughout, layering the songs with shimmering motifs over major and minor chord structures.
Despite its flaws this is still an important album. It is more than just a forerunner for Parklife, and in terms of its social impact and importance I believe it has a greater resonance. There is prescience in the title which allows it to transcend the generational gap. 15 years later the twentysomethings that Blur would have appealed to still experience the aspiration deficit. In 1993 Britain was in the grip of recession and an unpopular government that had begun to outstay its welcome was steadily sinking the ship. But in 1993 you couldn’t watch identikit indie bands 24 hours a day. Oh, for simpler times.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Ten New Messages - The Rakes

One of the main problems with the post-2004 indie explosion is its decided lack of substance. The mix and match musical stylings of most of the genres progenitors are without suitable context or conceptual framework, thus leaving it open to accusations of vacuousness. While The View sing about wearing the same pair of jeans for four days in a row, which may have resonance for a large section of its fanbase, you have to ask yourself: WHERE ARE THE ISSUES? Which bands are railing against the injustices of the world, the social inequities? Many assign themselves with charities and fundraising events, which has to be applauded (although the cynic within us sees it as a purely self-serving exercise), yet which artist explores these issues within their music? Time and again we are told that our generation is the least politically aware, the most apathetic, yet no artist seems prepared to voice their concerns. If they do they are met with derision. It seems that we don’t want a statesman.
One of rock criticisms’ key aspects is its revisionistic tendency. Whilst seen in some quarters as a pitfall, others revel in its fluidity. This malleable characteristic means that popular opinion of an album is never fixed. It often transpires albums that are now much lauded and considered part of the musical canon weren’t well received when initially released. It is also often the case that albums released to (the hated term) “critical acclaim” are now vilified. The Rakes, whose debut Capture/Release was one of the keynote releases in the first wave of indie darlings and was well received on its release in 2005, are one such band. The last three years have been less kind, and the singles apart, it now leaves behind the impression of a band that weren’t yet ready for the studio. Having formed only a year beforehand this was hardly surprising.
This is why Ten New Messages is a welcome step forward, both sonically and thematically. Whilst still capturing the sensation of being a twentysomething living and working in the capital, the album has a heart and social conscience absent from their debut. True, the jerky rhythms of their debut were ready made for the indie disco, and in Alan Donohue they had a frontman who was an intriguing mix of Ian Curtis and David Brent. As with many bands that ploughed a similar musical furrow (identikit post-punk/art disco. Key influences: Wire, Joy Division, XTC, the Postcard bands, Buzzcocks/Magazine, The Strokes) it all felt too clearly demarcated – they wrote songs that ticked all the right boxes but were purely perfunctory. “22 Grand Job” and “Work, Work, Work (Pub. Club, Sleep)” were polite deferences to the cycle of working and drinking in the city that, whilst capturing the emptiness of this traditional working environment, lacked a wider appreciation of social issues.
Opener “The World Was A Mess But His Hair Was Perfect” is a less than veiled indictment of this scene and their dissatisfaction with it, though this is slightly tempered with the knowledge that it was originally conceived as a backing track for a Christian Dior fashion show. There is a melancholy air that shrouds the album, making it a more sombre affair than their debut. Perhaps it is a question of timing, because Donohue’s lyrics are particularly affected by the spectre of 7/7. The three bombs that detonated within 50 seconds of each other affected more than just the 52 victims and their loved ones. The lack of public inquiry affected public confidence; the economic impact was huge but more important to Donohue is the media response to the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, as in 9/11, there was an outbreak of racist discourse in certain sections of the media that they obviously felt uncomfortable with, examined on “Suspicious Eyes”. The track uses many voices, a clever narrative device that allows them to investigate the racial tension that overshadows life in London these days from multiple perspectives. Laura Marling joins Phil Morais and Raxstar, plucked from MySpace obscurity, to provide backing vocals. On “When Tom Cruise Cries” they detail the anxiety of searching for a loved one in the immediate aftershock of the bombings. Since 9/11 this scene has entered the cultural lexicon, informed by images of faces on billboards, flowers on sidewalks, a cloud of dust billowing down a street, tear stained faces appealing for information, for anything, as the local newshound attempts to keep it together.
Where the album fails is where it leaves this narrative cycle; leadoff single “We Danced Together” is, as the title suggests, a knockabout song primarily designed to fill the dancefloor at your local indie night. It’s as if they’ve adopted Franz Ferdinand’s maxim of “music to make girls dance” and taken it too far – spiky guitars and disco drums combine on nearly every track, with little to break the uniformity. Admittedly they do try and disrupt this (Lethal Bizzle guesting on the reissue of “22 Grand Job”), but depressingly the songs feel more and more like artifice. The Rakes' endeavours to wrestle with various issues on this album is welcome, but as of yet they lack the songwriting craft to supplement Donohue’s lyrical preoccupations.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The main problem that a ‘supergroup’ will face is to make music that exceeds the sum of its parts. Supergroups tend to go down one of two routes: the first is that they become a star vehicle, ruled by the cult of personality and a complete lack of restraint in terms of musical excess. The second is to adopt a reductionist strategy and attempt to sublimate themselves (and more importantly their egos) within the body of work. Both paths are fraught with danger, and while both are well trod they seldom end in success.
The Good, The Bad and the Queen fall somewhere between these two stools. In presenting themselves as a raffish East End Last Gang In Town they attempt to establish credence for the notion of themselves as a musical entity entirely separate from their predecessors. Indeed the band themselves claim to have no name and that they are together to perform music, pure and simple, shunning the traditional band mentality. Yet when you take a roll call of the incumbents’ previous musical projects (Blur, The Clash, Gorillaz, Mali Music, The Verve, Fela Kuti and Afrobeat), the sense of musical history and legacy becomes hard to ignore and each member’s past pervades the album. This personal history led Albarn and Simonon to choose venues for their debut tour that they have an affinity with. This idea of a specific place, both isolation and association with, is a key theme on the album. The album itself takes on the form of a loose concept album, united by its core themes, in which Albarn takes on the role of a psychogeographical explorer, corresponding relentlessly from the emotional hinterland that their music occupies. Albarn has often used London to map complex emotions, and this latest work is no different. He uses the topography of the city to create a narrative of unease, of malaise, of despondency in the gasworks, canals, empty places and unseen histories of the city that is genuinely disarming. The drift of memory is a constant presence, from the Victorian painting by Thomas Shotter Boys of the Mint burning inside the walls of the Tower on the cover, to the attempts by the writer to document his escape from his past.
Which brings us to the music. Like an old LP the album is split between two distinct sides. The first six songs are the more dynamic on a purely surface level, whilst the second side is less upbeat. The first side is denser, the whole mix pervaded with a sense of dread which jars with Albarn’s vaudevillian sensibilities. It is a trait that has been evident in almost every project that he has been involved in as a major song writing partner, from Leisure to Demon Days. This finds its voice principally on opener “History Song” and “80s Life”, the former building on a sparse yet exciting guitar line to create an organic music hall meets dub structure, while the latter possesses wonderful doo wop vocals, swooping harmonies and excellent muted arpeggios from guitarist Simon Tong. Tong’s playing throughout is understated, perfectly restrained and phrased. Rhythm section Simonon and Allen create a rocksteady foundation, with Allen taking a backseat on the majority of the second side, augmenting the sound with flicks and sparse beats. The synth line in “Northern Whale” is perhaps the most danceable melody I heard in all of 2007, while “Kingdom of Doom”, with its promise of ravens flying overhead, continues to create the environment of dread. “Drink all day, coz the country is at war”, Albarn intones. Considering the context in which it is made, it is an admirable sentiment.
The standout track on the album is “Herculean”, the band’s first single release. The layered vocals, processed sounds, synths, Tong’s measured minor key guitar motif and the scattershot drums offer the most fractured, somnambulant and eerie soundscape the album has to offer. It is also the track that best exemplifies producer Danger Mouse’s alchemic skills at the desk – from such simple stock a track of wonder is created. “Behind the Sun” is the most Gorillaz-esque song on the album, an effortlessly bucolic song that points to the remainder of the album in its final moments with a wonderful string refrain George Martin would have been proud to put his name to.
What is evident when comparing The Good, The Bad & The Queen to the early Blur albums is that Albarn has stripped the music back to its barest. This is witnessed in both the sparse lyrics, with oblique references replacing the vignettes of life in England that dominated in his early writing. The sonic palette is also reduced, and while this has led to criticism in certain areas I strongly believe that the tonal consistency adds coherency to the whole album. Whilst unmistakeably a bleak record it contains elements of light and beauty. It is an album that looks back to its references yet is resolutely grounded in the here and now, with all the preoccupations of this flaccid, turbulent century. Welcome to the dread zone.

Monday, 3 March 2008

A vague preamble

I like music. A lot. Sometimes it will be all I think of for days on end. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new record. It can be enervating, offer a retreat, inspire and provide catharsis. Perhaps it is finding myself in the wilderness of my mid-twenties that lends such romanticism to that great escapist art, music journalism. Music journalism is by its very nature self defeating. It is an attempt to construct something concrete out of the cerebral, to convey a sense of that most subjective of devices, musical taste, to the reader. Mostly it fails, but it is with these same lofty ambitions that I started this blog.
The blog is in essence an attempt to create something lasting. The basic premise of this one is simple: one, sometimes two, reviews of an album or track will appear each week. Hopefully one will be a new release and the other a classic album. That’s not to say that I will be reviewing Led Zeppelin IV or Thriller each week because there are far more reviews than necessary of those albums. Rather it will be albums I believe need revisiting, demand re-evaluation. It is not a desire to be deliberately esoteric or to obfuscate, purely a call to look beyond the canonical works and view those left in the margins. Some will be old and neglected, others works that slipped through the cracks first time round. Again this comes back to the central problem when critiquing music – it is my taste that will determine what to write, and my intention to convince you of the music’s inherent graces or flaws. Here’s to discovery.