Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Wytchwood EP - Blacklands

Written in Berlin and recorded in a farmhouse on the wild North Yorkshire moors The Wytchwood EP combines a sense of perceived detachment, propagated by its post-rock influences, within a pastoral and more intimate folk tradition.
The brooding, post-rock introduction of opener “The Wytchwood” is hauntingly evocative mix of synths and strings before being consumed by the more traditional instrumentation of the verse and chorus. The glacial ambience of “Comes Sad Light of Dawn” is a distant cousin of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film” courtesy of the gently picked acoustic guitar and the synthesised choral vocal, yet the lyrics concentrate on the melancholic and all-consuming power of obsessive love rather than the stark dehumanising effect of technology on society. “When The War Began” is a simpler work, with Murphy’s double tracked vocal belying an approach to folk more in common with acts from the other side of the Atlantic. The gentle lullaby of “Listen to Me in Your Heart” closes the EP amongst low-key grandeur.
Blacklands revolves around Al Murphy, a musician and also a very successful commercial illustrator. But Blacklands is no vanity project. The autumnal hues of The Wytchwood EP are slowly intoxicating, gently enveloping the listener in its texture. Blacklands have many forbearers, most noticeably Tunng, Iron and Wine, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, yet they avoid being derivative and add to the always evolving, non-linear folk tradition by incorporating different elements and qualities within their work. There is a proliferation of acoustic troubadours currently vying for attention from the record buying public yet few acts handiwork will be as sophisticated and subtle as The Wytchwood EP.

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

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Ain't Nobody - Rufus & Chaka Khan

I love the idea of pop music, the mono no aware nature of the three minute single. Release one then move on to the next, production line style. While this can be a cynical and contemptible exercise, there is something beautiful in the transience. Nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect are the three central tenets of wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of the acceptance of transience. Songs are memetic documents however and live on as paradigms, serving to provide templates for future songs.
From amongst threads of memory lies “Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus & Chaka Khan. I fervently believe this song to be one of the most perfectly constructed pop songs recorded. From the opening synth bassline, to the lead line that comes in, to the phrasing of Khan’s vocal during the verse and the unadulterated bombast of the chorus. While it may have become a clarion call for drunken middle-aged ladies everywhere to forget their inhibitions and wail along to the chorus, it has artistry and power that has allowed it to transcend this savage image. There is something miraculous about the pop song’s ability to last; this song was written by keyboardist Hawk Wolinski and added as a bonus track on live album Stompin’ at the Savoy, but so very nearly became a part of Thriller due to Quincy Jones’ interest in the track. It could have become buried due to the argument over who should perform the song, left in the vaults for future compilers to release but the song prevailed and Wolinski gave the song to Khan rather than Michael Jackson.
It’s funny how you forget songs, how cultural baggage can obstruct enjoyment of the song, how various assumptions, concepts and values can impede a listener from truly recognising how great a song is. “Ain’t Nobody” is one of the best pop songs ever, and I don’t care who knows.

Ulysses - Franz Ferdinand

You can live or die by a maxim. When Franz Ferdinand burst onto the alternative music scene in 2003/04 declaring they wanted to make “music to make girls dance to” it seemed entirely apposite – cool, wry, irreverent, and arch. They appeared to have arrived perfectly formed, a continuation of Britain’s rich art school heritage, self-aware, culturally and historically conscious and steeped in the coolest of influences. Careers can be built on such foundations, yet Franz Ferdinand’s desire for critical approval and to be elevated to the canonical heights of their musical heroes’ means that by album number three they have to deliver something more than angular post-punk and a few pithy comments strung across a verse/chorus structure. This is particularly the case for Franz Ferdinand after a disappointingly inconsistent second album You Could Have It So Much Better which, though smattered with excellent singles and songs that hinted at a darker and more melancholic edge (such as “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” and “Walk Away”), was mired with songs that came across as unplanned and underdeveloped. There has also been a backlash against the indie explosion of 03/04, with many acts that made their name at the time being dropped by their label or experiencing poor sales return (see Razorlight). Franz Ferdinand are far too popular for this to happen, and will shift many units purely through curiosity, but after three and a half years away from the fray they still need to be seen as relevant.
Their third album Tonight has had a troubled gestation period that saw Franz Ferdinand holed up in Govan Town Hall, an ostentatious and grand former civic building, with three different sets of producers (Dan Carey finished the album after abortive sessions with Erol Alkan and Xenomania, the production team behind Girls Aloud). New single “Ulysses” starts with a languid drum and bass intro (further showcasing the fact that bassist Bob Hardy has improved beyond all recognition since their debut) belying their white funk influences, while Alex Kapranos urges us to “get high”.
The most noticeable aspect of the new material is the use of synthesisers. This isn’t exactly new to Franz Ferdinand; “Auf Achse” from their debut was heavily influenced by 80s synth-pop (Ultravox, OMD etc) while their second album also utilised them. The difference here is that they have been thrust centre stage, carrying the melody rather than supplementing it. And while the broadening of the sonic palette is welcome Tonight is not the Low-esque journey into synthesised soundscapes that was originally purported. A desire for continuity with their back catalogue so as not to alienate their fanbase and a crucial lack of experimentation hinder the album. While they may appreciate that culturally the guitar is being replaced in popular conscience this year by the synth, their efforts come across as ornamentation rather than melodic innovation.
“Ulysses” itself is a perfectly serviceable song, but it’s not as immediate as anything from their first or even second albums. By this time in their career they should be making bold artistic statements, not just music that will sound good in a club. The only song on the album that approaches their previous heights is “Lucid Dreams”, a seven minute long song that begins with a taut and funky riff before exploding into the chorus. It also possesses a synthesised coda where it seems all four members abandon their normal instruments as the song transforms into a Moroder style disco stomp. Unfortunately the rest of the album fails to meet the quality of this track.

Monday, 26 January 2009

My Girls - Animal Collective

This is the video for "My Girls" by Animal Collective from their latest album Post Merriweather Pavilion. It is a beautiful and joyous record, hazy and indistinct before becoming blisteringly intense. It is far from the homogenised mainstream that alternative music has collapsed into through a succession of marketing strategies, opportunism, rank conservatism and pure laziness. When I have had enough time to digest it and process meaningful thoughts regarding it I may post a review, but this is my favourite song from the new album. It matches "Fireworks" in terms of woozy, hypnotic beauty. There is an elusive quality to their best work, as the waves of sound blend with your own thoughts and you feel all cognition ebb away in a Pantheistic haze. That much of the lyrical content concerns itself with domesticity and personal values only reiterates the basic humanity that runs through much of the record, as they find joy in the most prosaic of subject matter.

"I don't mean to seem like I care about material things, like a social status, I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls..."

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Lullaby - Keith

The latest single from Manchester based band Keith sees them expanding on their eclectic debut Red Thread with a more focused approach and sound. While “Up in the Clouds”, the first single from second album Vice and Virtue, sounded like Kasabian covering “Elevation” by U2 their new release sees them venturing into the area of upbeat, intelligent pop inhabited by acts such as Guillemots. Taking a scattershot approach to genre and a non-elitist approach to influence it posits them with other acts that propagate this ‘new’ pop. The tight locked-in groove of the drums and elasticity of the bassline recall early post-punk pioneers A Certain Ratio before the descending piano melody that provides the song with its leitmotif intervenes. Guitarist Mark Nicholls adds splashes of colour, effortlessly counterpointing the melody before adding jazzy chords to the mix.
Brayston’s caterwauling vocal pronunciations inhabit the same style as the so-called ‘Brit’ school by way of Morrissey, although disappointingly they are not region specific. Producer Dan Carey, who has previously remixed CSS, Hot Chip and Franz Ferdinand, layers the track in shimmering electronica which lends an ethereal and aspirational aspect that Brayston’s keening vocals mirror and build on.
The whole edifice is consummate and well crafted but ultimately lacking in punch to really render itself in your cranium. The escapism of the lyrical content is too staid in the images drawn to capture the listener. But across the three minutes of the track there is much to commend sonically. With a keen ear for texture the band and producer Carey have constructed an interesting artefact that will lend itself well to remixers.

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

Sunday, 4 January 2009

2008: Rant and Celebration

2008 has been a strange year for alternative music. It has fragmented and dispersed. Many genres and sub-genres have been reanimated this year, such as electro, IDM, shoegaze, techno (of the minimal variety) and various other slumbering leviathans. Of course, the majority of these ‘genres’ are simply all encompassing labels half-heartedly and lazily applied to new acts, in particular if a new act references a previous canonical act. There is a huge difference between being influenced by someone and ripping them off. The problem I have with revivalists is that they lack any sense of context; Rubbish Band 2008 may dress like The Specials or Madness circa 1981, but their songs lack any sense of social or political comment leaving them as empty ciphers, an attenuation of the original genre.
World music has also enjoyed a renaissance this year, being dragged from the domains of the wholefood cafe into the popular sphere. This is mainly due to the use of Afrobeat polyrhythms by Foals and the numerous name checks for Peter Gabriel by Vampire Weekend et al.
Many of the bands that arrived in the first wave of the indie explosion in 2003-04 have either disappeared or produced disappointing follow ups. The whole industry is beset by short-termism; acts are marketed and promoted heavily on the back of one or two singles. The hype and pressure is immense, and invariably the resulting album is dissatisfying. Bands are pushed into the studio with little real experience, little songcraft. Fashion and hype have distended the alternative music community, but this perversely has its upsides. A real sense of DIY has slowly crept through over the last few years, inspired no doubt by the success of The Smell and other US meta-venues, and this can be attributed to the dissatisfaction and alienation many feel from the appropriation of alternative music.

2008 has also been the year in which the technological advances of recent years have allowed artists to step out of their bedrooms and release their records. There is a huge proliferation of ‘bedroom’ artists out there at the moment – whether they be electro acts, acoustic performers, singer/songwriters, DJs – that have been unleashed in the last 12 months. One thing that has also been noticeable is that there are various artists who are reclaiming the label of ‘indie’ – that is independently released music, with little or no involvement or interference from major labels. Of course, the music industry is a corporate beast, and beset on all sides it resorts to dirty tricks to ensnare its audience and make us part with our filthy money. Thus the knuckle-scraping monotony of ‘landfill’ indie, coffee table indie, mortgage indie that is peddled to a receptive audience who listen to the songs in indie discos and hairdressers. Most of these acts are ELEMENTAL, interreferential and more interested in ticking boxes and appealing to a set demographic – asymmetric fringes, skinny jeans, leather jackets, jangly guitars, closed hi-hats – than providing any depth or intensity. I call it record collection music; bands cannibalise various ‘canonical’ acts so that the end result comes out as paint by numbers effort. Music has a grammar and a teleological design, and this can be shamefacedly ransacked and appropriated. Example: About eight seconds into “Obstacle 1” by Interpol a chiming lead guitar line enters above the minor key riff. This lead ‘style’ has been purloined by many bands, but none so obviously as by the Pigeon Detectives. In almost every of their songs this lead guitar ‘style’ is utilised. But hopefully things are changing. What is also apparent from the last 12 months is that the audience themselves are evolving and maturing – those fans that would once have been happy with a Killers album in their Christmas stocking would have been requesting M83, or Deerhunter, or Cut Copy or Crystal Castles, or Welcome to Mali by Amadou and Mariam, or a minimal techno mixtape.

We as humans have an innate desire to catalogue, and alternative music fans have a greater desire than most it seems to immerse themselves in ephemera. End of year lists are subjective and slanted, frankly rank and full of absurdities. I tried to avoid compiling my own. But there were many things last year that have rocked my boat. Here’s a small subjective list, in no particular order.

The return of Portishead
If I’m completely honest, I had forgotten about Portishead. I own their two studio albums Dummy and Portishead and the subsequent live album Roseland NYC Live, but hadn’t listened to them in a long time. If it hadn’t been for Third they would forever be linked in popular consciousness to trip-hop, 90s dinner parties and This Life. But it turns out they had been busy pursuing solo careers and other projects before reconvening to write for this album, rejecting whole swathes of material, agonising over the final content before re-emerging with this behemoth of a record. There is a theme of separation, of dislocation that runs through the entire record that living in a city as rich in cultural history and the history of segregation as Bristol (racial/social/economic) can only exacerbate. Yet they haven’t escaped the cultural formations of human community, and their return is welcome. There are many crucial cuts on Third, from the tribal drums of opener “Silence” to the familiar chiaroscuro of “Hunter” and “Plastic”. Yet this isn’t Dummy 2 as much as Beth Gibbons voice provides a dialogue and continuation with their past, and this is proved irrefutably by two outstanding tracks, both of which convey a sense of mechanised humanity. “Machine Gun” sounds like New Order with all the heart and soul ripped out, the euphoric hope of redemption stilted, ossified, and is relentless in its brutal disarticulation. But it is “The Rip” that is the central song on this album, with its portents of junctures, breaks, death (RIP), and ruin. It is as pastoral folk bleeds seamlessly into motorik synths, as Gibbons’ vocal is elongated across the divide that I knew this would be my favourite moment of 2008. In fact it was so good Radiohead covered it.

Eraser - No Age
I was turned on to No Age by a friend (who knows his music) while we were chatting about Liars, who No Age were supporting at the time. I duly bought Weirdo Rippers, which I thought was good, and awaited their debut proper expectantly. There is something heroic about a two piece band, and this is particularly true of No Age. Every song sounds massive, tumultuous but they juxtapose this with passages of noise and harmonious melodies. “Eraser” is the most perfect song on Nouns, the opening choppy guitar bars delaying gratification before exploding into the verse. The progression in production values and songwriting is noticeable, and Dean Spunt does more than just shout over the top of the songs. Underneath the spiralling walls of noise laid down by guitarist Randy Randall lays an acoustic guitar, gently picking out a counter-melody. They are punk rock, but so much more. They are the closest a band has got to the credence laid down by Hüsker Dü and Mission of Burma, that you can create a right racket while underpinning it with the sweetest of melodies. No Age is deconstructive, reductive yet slowly rebuild on each track. The whole effect is exultant, psyche-hardcore. A real triumph and a rare instance of a band living up to their hype.

Not many people know about this band yet (I only do as I am a Kentish lad, and they have been involved with Unlabel, a fine record label based in Royal Tunbridge Wells). During 2008 they have endured line up changes and began recording a debut album. You can find a split EP with fellow Men of Kent Honey Ride Me a Goat on Unlabel’s site here. I’m going to try and avoid the usual slew of hyperbolic verbiage, but they are a very good band, combining the minimalism of post punk with the more expansive sounds of US hardcore. Key track on the split is “Van Ritters”. Starting off with a discordant chord ringing out, the spoken word refrain is inscrutable, de-centred. Guitars are taut, brittle, heavy but without heavy use of distortion. Lakes throw stark relief upon the alabaster face of flaccid uncertainty of this woebegone decade. Their fractal, dissolute mini-narratives are perfectly suited for this age, combining grit and subtlety. Their songs aren’t purely a list of elements or influences; in a postmodern age where the very notion of authenticity is constantly brought into question they attempt to escape questions of categorisation. By refusing to compartmentalise their art they escape formula. Expect big things in 2009.

L.E.S. Artistes – Santogold
However much you may question her motives (and it is true that artifice does loom large on her eponymous debut) “L.E.S. Artistes” is an unquestionable triumph, cold and remote in its refined majesty. Maybe it’s the image of Santi White bestride a horse in the video that lends this song its aloofness, but as White disseminates the idea of creativity and authenticity it is impossible not to be cowed. The title recognises the derogatory term of ‘artiste’ – traditionally the idiom used in the film/entertainment industry to describe the talent, and implying the sense of procurement and ownership the industry has over the artistes. The song propagates the eternal struggle against objectification, being pigeonholed and attempting to remain creative under this pressure.
Minimal techno
2008 was the year in which the influence of minimalism in music (and in music criticism) began to be realised. Foals name checking Steve Reich at the start of the year, as has every other pseudo-intellectual music publication (print or web) since. Skeletalism vs Massification. Structural repetition. There’s something liberating in losing yourself in a particular layer or groove, in the fabric of a song. Check out Robert Hood, Audiojack, Perc, and Kompakt. Listen on the internet, go to a club and get involved.
Radio Heart – The Futureheads
I have a lot of love for The Futureheads’ debut album; its jerky, angular rhythms and tightly layered vocals (performed by all four members) were concise, brittle, and perfectly formed. Fifteen tracks came in at around 35 minutes. XTC, Gang of Four, Wire and many other post-punk bands were frames of reference, but The Futureheads made the sound their own due to their region specificity (they were Mackems and proud of it) and the aforementioned vocals; the a cappella “Danger of the Water” sounded more like the The Flying Pickets than Devo. After the rush of their debut their follow up News and Tributes was savaged by many journalists simply for being different. It is a strong album, dowsed in a wistful melancholia that showcased their pop sensibilities. But it is clear listening to their third album This Is Not The World that their sound has changed. The minor key guitar lines and erratic cadences of before have been replaced with choppy, major key power chords. This isn’t always a bad thing, as “Radio Heart” testifies. A glorious song that manages to be both strident and introspective simultaneously, that apparently they just threw together in twenty minutes during recording sessions with producer Youth.

Street Horrrsing – Fuck Buttons
As was perhaps intended Fuck Buttons first came to my attention (like Holy Shit and Fucked Up) through the absurdity of their name. Checking them out on Youtube (research tool of the gods) I found a camera phone video for “Bright Tomorrow” and was instantly entranced. I then saw part of their set when they supported Battles at the Astoria in May. Equal parts My Bloody Valentine, drone, electro and ambience they are another act who distil everything I think and believe about music at the moment. Reflective and then coruscating they construct beautiful ambient passages and then defile them with overdriven keys and atonal dissonant noise. Gossamer strands of twinkling keyboards are clawed back from their cerebral peaks by more earthbound synths. Produced by Mogwai’s John Cummings and Tim Cedar from Part Chimp, the duo have created a subterranean delight. Yes they have embraced by the cool set, but don't hold it against them.

My Bloody Valentine
Truth be told, MBV reunited in 2007, yet it is in 2008 that their reformation began to be fully noticed and appreciated. For years they had appeared as a spectre, the band that almost made it, the Banquo’s ghost of the alternative scene and the creation myths that surrounded the genesis of 1991’s classic set Loveless are legendary. Yet last year their cultural importance began to be felt once again – they were referenced constantly by the music press, and any band that bore even the faintest resemblance to the hallmarks of MBV (waves of distorted guitars, gently nuanced vocals sublimated within the mix, unfocused dreamstate passages, ambiguity) were instantly branded as their natural successors. Thus the dreaded ‘nu-gaze’ term was born, but as usual this was a misnomer. 2008 was a good year for reformations, reissues, re-releases and has provided a healthy jab in the arm for the music industry; in terms of both CD and ticket sales (see my earlier piece on this cult). What has also happened is that there has been a revival in interest of other bands that either echoed or simply appropriate MBV’s core elements. Some are good, such as Ride (a mooted reunion is apparently blocked by a clause in Andy Bell’s contract with Oasis), but others such as Slowdive were simply Johnny-come-lately bands riding on the tailcoats of their more illustrious predecessors. None could touch the almost imperial majesty of Loveless though, and for this reason 2008 could be said to be MBV’s year.

Microcastle/Weird Era Cont – Deerhunter
Every now and again an album will come along that will possess you, an album that you cannot stop listening to, cannot stop thinking about. Microcastle was that album for me in 2008. It is a distillation of everything I like about music. At some point I will post a full review of the album, but for me it was the best guitar record released last year.

I Will Possess Your Heart – Death Cab For Cutie
I have never really been a fan of this act, but as soon as I heard this song I was bewitched. The tumbling piano chords, rolling bass and echo laden guitar of the four minute intro captivated me; maybe it’s the bravado of releasing an eight and a half minute song as an opening single for their sixth album Narrow Stairs, but it’s a spectacular rebranding.

Receivers – Parts & Labor
More expansive than previous outings, their third features a new guitarist who adds extra layers of textural tension, heightening the drama on each track. A very good album.

Skeleton – Abe Vigoda
Coming from the same LA scene as No Age, HEALTH, Mika Miko et al has proved a blessing and a curse for Abe Vigoda. Sometimes being associated with a scene can detract from the reception a band obtains, but it also provides a necessary leg up. Their second album is less abrasive than their debut, and contains lush ‘tropical’ (to use their term) punk. The whole sound is so organic and tactile and is a major development in their career.

Real Magick
Thames Estuary ‘scenesters’ These New Puritans began 2008 in a flurry of activity. Their debut album Beat Pyramid was released in January, held over from 2007. There is a plurality of sounds and influences in their music, codes, numerology and cryptograms that need to be deciphered. The very name Beat Pyramid implies a geometric precision to the (macro) music. Consider the precise beats and samples of “Swords of Truth”, and how this washes into the ethereal “Doppelgänger”. The album starts and closes with the same piece of music in a cyclical fashion, so the album could be looped forever, drifting slowly to infinity. This idea of repetition is perhaps derived from The Fall. Listen to Jack Barnett’s colloquial regionalism, the way they attempt to create their own lexicology, and then listen to Hex Enduction Hour. Images of the uncanny and images of banality are prevalent in both. “Elvis” is a reductionist pop song, perfect in every way and showcases TNP’s ability to write a gorgeous chorus (check “Numerology AKA Numbers” for further proof). Their scattershot approach and the collage like effect of the album don’t always strike the target but they are genuinely one of the most interesting British bands around.

David Andrew Sitek – Praise Be!
Responsible for producing two of the best albums of the year (Foals debut Antidotes and his own band TV on the Radio’s Dear Science) as well as the surprisingly good Anywhere I Lay My Head by Scarlett Johansson, Sitek became the most sought after producer this year. He worked on Telepathe’s debut Dance Mother (released 26th January 2009) and I think his intelligent use of space and dynamic will work well on their dub heavy sound. The Foals album is good, I think the band have a lot of potential although I wouldn’t consider their music to be as leftfield as many in the music press as there are definite rockist elements to their songs. But Sitek has covered the cracks in this record with a glossy sheen, and the use of horns in both records is particularly effective.

There have been so many good releases this year that I haven’t been able to touch on – Oxford Collapse proving there is life in the post-hardcore dog yet, This Town Needs Guns and their other Big Scary Monster brethren, Visiter by Dodos, Beck’s eerie and apocalyptic return Modern Guilt with Danger Mouse behind the desk, the insanity of Pulled Apart By Horses, Kong, Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park providing solace for those waiting for the next Grizzly Bear album, the baroque Americana of Fleet Foxes, Shearwater, The Raveonettes continued reimagining of Spector/Jesus & The Mary Chain, the Animal Collective EP, M83’s nostalgic look at growing up in the 80s, Cut Copy, Wolf Parade, Crystal Castles 8 bit robot love songs, Jaguar Love, David Byrne & Brian Eno’s wonderful return, and Little Boots and Lykke Li showing that even if Björk or Goldfrapp make a bad album there is more than enough synthesised female-fronted pop around to suffice – to prove that all things considered 2008 has been a good year for alternative music. Beyond the shallow hype and calculating marketing there is a lot out there, not all of it London-centric as there are vibrant scenes emerging all over the country. Embrace and enjoy.