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.