Sunday, 22 March 2009

I Might Be Wrong #1 - Jade Goody and the media

“The planet itself is becoming it's own dustbin...” - Jean Baudrillard

Ostensibly this is a music blog, but I felt compelled to concrete my thoughts on today's news into words. I was genuinely saddened by the death of Jade Goody. The manner of her passing from cervical cancer, it's untimely nature and the fact that she left behind a young family were all deeply unsettling elements to the story.

What does the exposure given to this story say about Britain? It reinforces our mortality and fear of death, providing a reminder that we can be taken at any time, and this was surely one facet of the media's fascination with Goody's illness and this humanistic element will prolong the longevity of interest in it for the forthcoming weeks, months and maybe years. Who knows – the media's attention span is like that of a schizophrenic five year old, constantly wavering and uncertain. She was just a year older than myself, and died just seven months after being diagnosed with cancer while on Big Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, so it certainly connects with myself on this level. But beyond this lies a darker, more unsettling tone, that of our almost hysterical epistemological desire to know everything about the lives and inner workings of celebrity. And I don't mean a celebrity in the singular sense, but that of the construct, the artifice itself. Jade Goody's adult life was lived in front of TV camera crews and paparazzi, which for an unremarkable woman from Essex whose sole achievements were giving a public blowjob and making racist remarks, both on the 'normal' and 'celebrity' versions of reality TV show Big Brother, was a remarkable achievement in itself.

Contrast this thirst for knowledge on celebrity and it's nature with the gradual narrowing of the media's range and depth – 24 hour news coverage has weakened our response to news, with the rolling bulletins which aim to cover every angle instead providing a fractal and dissolute image of the news. We as a nation are becoming slowly more depoliticised – reality TV shows, and the depressing advent of the return of 70s style variety programmes such as Britain's Got Talent are becoming opiates for the masses. The level of critical inquest into anything is embarrassingly and intolerably low in most quarters, with vast swathes of the media seem content for the viewer to be dispassionate observers. News broadcasts become a cut and paste job of white teeth, hair, personality, Brit murdered abroad, human interest story – blurred and unfocused images that add up to a distorted and inconsequential whole. Truly symbolic and important events are sidetracked by commodification. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised – whatever the tourist board tells us Britain is a nation of service stations, transport cafés, dirty canals, and abandoned gasworks as much as it one of sun dappled waterways, cathedrals, castles and prehistoric ruins.

We don't innately need these 'stars', but have constructed them anyway. Jade Goody was constructed by the media, which made a star of her personality alone. From inauspiciuous beginnings (she was much hated after her first appearance on Big Brother) she somehow became a figurehead for England. But she went wrong, one of many white contestants who racially abused Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on the celebrity version of Big Brother. She had strayed from the script so the press completed a hatchet job on her and she became bigoted Jade from Essex again. Only when near to death does a different portrayal arrive, that of the loving mother and wife. This new portrayal was lovingly orchestrated by Max Clifford, a process that Goody wilfully participated in. Realising early on that she was “famous for nothing”, she utilised our seemingly insatiable appetite for insight into the lives of celebrities in order to sell the rights to her recent wedding to fiancé Jack Tweed in order to raise funds for her family after her death. So, in true post-structuralist terms, the media has been misled, waylaid, misrouted by an apparent desire for knowledge on celebrity and the depiction of reality that our quest for a perceived notion of reality becomes a fruitless quest for a paper tiger.

You get the media you deserve, they are there to provide an outlet for the populace. I'm not proposing a return to a didactic delivery of news, but proposing that newsgathering should continue to be wide and varied. Rather than telling us what to think (or not to think, as is the current vogue) we should be invited to think for ourselves. And I don't mean in an ITV News style "text in if you've got an opinion on the banking crisis" bollocks way. Jade Goody's legacy, such that it is, will be a greater acknowledgement of the threat of cancer to the young. But it could also provide a clarion call to the media, a chance to realise the puerility of it's output, and it's treatment of the reality 'stars' it creates.

Muppet death metal

Okay okay, this is a cheap post - but there was something about the way this Muppets episode was synced up to Mutant Christ that made me laugh uproariously. And John McCririck is playing the bass guitar. Awesome.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Sea Within A Sea - The Horrors

The Horrors ditch the thin Farfisa organ driven, artifice heavy pastiche of late 60s psychedelia for an altogether different beast; elements of beat era psyche remain, but drenched in a lush, gauzy synth dreamscape that is conjoined with the minimalism of post-punk pioneers such as Pere Ubu.

Clocking in at around 8 minutes, it is taken from their upcoming sophomore effort Primary Colours that was produced by Geoff Barrows of Portishead. In the arpeggiated, motorik synths that dominate the latter half of the song, and it's indistinct and obscured vocals you can hear the influence of Portishead's latest album Third. You can also hear the musical progression of the band, and in particular the side project of Spider Webb and Tom Furse. Music is about hidden associations and forging new identities - it is at once malleable and capable of being completely controlled while also being an untamed force - so this new direction shouldn't come as a surprise. It will be interesting to see if they can pull this off live.

"Sea Within A Sea" is a great song that has excellent portents for their second record. Their debut felt too contrived, all surface and no depth, whereas this new sound is arcane and devious. It is the sound of a band that has grown up and is coming to terms with their abilities. The video, directed by former Jesus & Mary Chain bassist Douglas Hart, is equally cool.

Go to, as the band have allowed it be downloaded for free. All you need to do is sign up to their mailing list and they'll send you a free mp3. Simples.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Mystery EP - BLK JKS

BLK JKS were formed in 2000 by guitarist Mpumi Mcata and vocalist Linda Buthelezi, childhood friends who had grown up in the tough locale of Spruitview in Johannesburg's East Rand. After adding Tshebang Ramoba on drums and Molefi Makananise on bass (seasoned musicians from the townships of Soweto) they set about creating a slow moving word of mouth buzz, bridging racial and social divides, and eventually catching the attention of an on tour Diplo which in turn led them to being signed by Secretly Canadian and recording the Mystery EP with Secret Machines' Brendan Curtis at the Electric Lady studios in New York. All this after a misadventure with an album recorded at South Africa Broadcasting Company (After Robots) that is still abandoned in the vaults.

Attempting to describe their sound is like attempting to elucidate a mind map; schizophrenic, messy and ultimately futile. You can draw a line through Bitches Brew, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix (in particular the energy and dynamics of the Band of Gypsys), Lee 'Scratch' Perry's output at the Ark, Zulu blues, jazz fusion, mbaqanga right up to Deloused in the Comatorium, perhaps the closest contemporary record in terms of the scope of its sound and influences.

Despite the amalgamation of genres and sound design BLK JKS' sound doesn't come across as a compromise, not does it seem like a calculated attempt to meld traditional African rhythms and sounds to a standardised alternative blueprint. Instead the nebulous, psychedelic sound they create effortlessly traverses the restrictions of genre and ethnicity in much the same way as Abe Vigoda do with their 'tropical' punk until it becomes unclassifiable, a different sound altogether.

The scattershot drums and dread heavy bass of “Lakeside” gradually subside into joyous chants, whistles and harmonies, while the BLK JKS love of the possibilities of the jam is apparent in the opening moments of “Mystery”. The track's polyrhythms and percussive drive, based around an initially cyclic guitar figure, are entrancing. “Summertime” is the most dub influenced song on the album; Mcata's guitar sounds though it has been processed through a thousand Echoplexes, creating a cavernous wall of sound before Buthelezi's harmonious vocals and Ramoba changing pace on the rimshots pulls the song back from the edge. The murky ambience of the song belies the lyrics' fixation on the darker side of summer, where the sun is the bringer of cancer and birds are fanged creatures. There are so many ideas in these first three songs as the band constantly change direction, refusing to indulge the grammar of 'rock' music. This is evidenced in the song encompassing hi-life and kwaai kwaito beats as Buthelezi implores in Zulu for the taxi driver taking him through JoBurg to let him out and escape the heat. EP closer “It's In Everything You'll See” employs no drums, just layer upon layer of guitar and ambient atmospheric noise, and while structurally it is less complex it is no less arresting for that.

There is a suspension in their music, that creates discord and irregularity. Melodic lines submerge themselves in the mix before emerging later in the song, twisted beyond recognition. Syncopated rhythms and varied time signatures are used to great effect, and like the Band of Gypsys they utilise the jam. But they don't find themselves waylaid down blind alleys; every note, every nuance, every stroke seems like an extension of the band and is completely vital to the whole.

They use linguistics as a tool of escaping the limitations of melody; by flitting between English and varied African dialects (Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Pedi) it allows them to expand their phonetic range. The combination of the metre of Buthelezi's vocals and the free association of his lyrics create a fragmentary, allusive and poetic dynamic to the vocal performance.

Hype and positioning are key elements in promoting/breaking new acts, so how to promote a black South African rock act? BLK JKS react against the slow commodification of African music by in turn appropriating the white alternative sphere. Their rejection of the strategies of segregation which genre and classification place on artists links to a growing pan-African consciousness in the 21st century and a rejection of conservative South Africa's divisions along social, political, economic and racial grounds. By appropriating 'white' music they are reclaiming “the music of the enemy”,and this adoption can be read as a political statement. But in adopting 'white' music they also play with it's conventions, refusing to stick to the script and adhere to the traditional musicology of alternative music. A refusal to compromise cost them the release of lost album After Robots in South Africa, but by sticking to their principles they have found a new audience. This flagrant disregard is as telling as any grand statement or grandstanding from their lead singer. You don't need to nail your colours to the mast or be explicit to make a lucid, articulate political statement.

Mystery is a soulful, invigorating and cerebral release that interrogates the varied intersections between race, politics and music in the Rainbow Nation. But more importantly amidst a tangled web of influences they have created a coherent and timely EP that speaks to us all.

This article featured on To read the music review of Mystery by BLK JKS on the site please click on the article title.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Jarvis Cocker

Ex-Pulp vocalist, champion of DIY ethics, festival curator, arse flasher and all round good egg Jarvis Cocker is releasing his second album Further Complications in May. And it has been produced by Steve Albini. Perhaps an incongruous pairing, but then again Cocker did put on Sunn O ))) at the Meltdown festival in 2007.

Cocker's debut solo record Jarvis was a quiet joy, shot through with his trademark caustic wit. Few lyricists can get to the heart of a situation quite as pointedly as him.

Fat Children

Last night I had a little altercation
They wobbled menacingly, under the yellow streetlights it became a situation
Well they wanted my brand new phone with all the pictures of the kids and the wife
A struggle ensued, and then fat children took my life

Fat children took my life...

"Fat Children" was a definite highlight, while the Walker Brothers inspired "From A to I" (a distant cousin of Blur's "To The End") and "Baby's Coming Back To Me" showcased Richard Hawley's skills on the guitar.

I also really like the Lodger inspired sleeve and Jarvis' beard.

Further Complications is released on May 18th 2009.

Saturday, 14 March 2009


I have been listening to Clouddead a lot lately, and this inspired me to explore more of Why?'s output. This song, from Elephant Eyelash, is brilliant.

Their latest album Alopeica is a more restrained affair, showcasing their genre-bending to excellent effect alongside the abstract imagery of Yoni Wolf's lyrics, which are as dark and caustic as ever. Sex and death loom large. I cannot recommend this enough.

Summer Palace - Sunny Day Sets Fire

Sometimes you know what a record will sound like before you even hear it, and from the very first bars of opener “Wilderness” the multinational multi-instrumentalists that make up the lineup of Sunny Day Sets Fire don't disappoint. They trade in a euphoric rush of upbeat, psychedelic pop which should see them feature heavily on many a summer themed mixtape this year.

Obvious reference points are Apples in Stereo or The Flaming Lips, but frontman Mauro Remiddi's vocals evoke the same wide eyed innocence of Syd Barrett which coupled with a slew of Beatles-esque chord structures and Beach Boy harmonies combine to construct a pervasive evocation of late 60s psychedelia which is nicely measured without becoming revivalist.

Much of Summer Palace is awash with romantic, wistful melodies but where it works best and is at its strongest is the brooding melancholia of “Mandarins”, the surf rock twang of “End of the Road” or the whimsy of “Wilderness”. “Adrenaline” and “Brainless” aim for instant gratification, but both result in a cloying pastiche of The Magic Numbers.

Unfortunately the album as a whole is too one paced, with only the reverb soaked “Siamese” stripping back the songs to reveal that there is more beyond the layered guitars, keyboards, glockenspiel and vocal harmonies that envelop and threaten to consume each song. Their over-ambition means the majority of songs end with spiralling codas, which eventually becomes a self-effacing affair when every song on the album possesses one.

There are a plethora of acts currently attempting to reinvest pop music with a sense of worth and relevance, but this release lacks the cohesion and hooks of a classic pop album. Summer Palace has its strengths and merits, but after nigh on one hours listening time of such resolutely chipper music it is an album that leaves you desperately searching for the shade.

This article was originally produced for If you would like to read the music review of Summer Palace by Sunny Day Sets Fire on the site then please click on the article title.

Tell Me It's Not Over - Starsailor

Starsailor prospered in the post-Britpop years, with their debut album Love Is Here capitalising on ground laid by the Verve, Doves, Elbow and Travis by selling more than 1 million copies. Pre-conceived wisdom has these years penned as a wasteland, brought to furious life by two enervating and hedonistic early releases from either side of the Atlantic; Is This It by the Strokes and Up The Bracket by the Libertines. While this revisionist appraisal imposes a false genealogy on modern music history, it has to be said that during the period from the end of Britpop (generally considered to be 1997) to those Rough Trade releases in 2001/02 alternative music had become increasingly genre bound, and Starsailor’s music adheres strictly to generic conventions.

Starsailor have always suffered from poor timing. As alternative kids everywhere were getting off to increasingly esoteric and danceable forms of post punk, new wave and mutant disco in indie clubs they released the lumpen “Four to the Floor”. Designed to be their very own “I Am The Resurrection”, it sounds bloated in comparison to the groove heavy Stone Roses song. While a band’s merits should not be assessed on how culturally relevant they are, their audience has more than likely moved on during the interim and it is hard to see how their new release will recapture them.

Their sound is at it was in 2001, preserved in aspic. Minor key piano chords announce the song, at once strident and cowed, while the lack of any sort of tempo change, riff or syncopation and the bland instrumentation hardly inspires. The song is emotionally overwrought while strangely lacking in emotional clarity. The song’s narrator finds his partner in bed with another, providing the track with its narrative thrust, but the situation is too clichéd and contrived to convince the listener of its emotive depth. The simple arrangement and limited sonic palette of the song is there to showcase frontman James Walsh’ vocals, which is possessing of its usual quavering baritone. It will surely soundtrack the departure of Premiership managers on Sky Sports News and the end of pubescent relationships on Hollyoaks.

They have always struggled in comparison to those other sons of Wigan the Verve. While the basic elements are the same James Walsh lacks Richard Ashcroft’s shamanistic flair for narrative and vocal phrasing. Starsailor are firmly set within the boundaries of genre, content to exist within their constrictions. While the Verve channel a sense of mystic and epic fervour, Starsailor are limited to the structural demarcations created by themselves. What is strange is that they have lost the atmosphere they created on early tracks such as “Love Is Here”, replacing it with a prosaic and heavy-handed approach to subject matter and timbre.

Striving to depict inner turmoil and anguish they inspire nothing but entropy. While the song is consummately performed, no surprise given that they met at a Music College, the song becomes white noise, an undignified mess of minor chords, misplaced sentiments, hyperbole and hand wringing that leaves you feeling sensory deprivation. Eventually it washes over you, instantly forgettable yet leaving a searing and unmistakeable pain; a fleeting, backwards glimpse at a musical past you thought long consigned to ruin.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Tell Me It's Not Over by Starsailor on the site please click on the article title.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

On Writing

The first and hardest obstacle to overcome when writing about music is the sense of deja vu. Even though the thoughts originate from inside your own head you can't escape the sense that you have heard them somewhere before. It seems that today radical or revolutionary thought has been all but obliterated by an overreaching perception of comfort and safety. Because of this it becomes increasingly hard to extend the limit of human endeavour or thought because of that self same cognisance of deja vu. By accepting that you are travelling down a path well trodden you can begin to explore its nuances and more esoteric sights.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Time of the Assassins - Nickel Eye

Since the Strokes went on hiatus in 2006 Albert Hammond Jr has released two solo albums, Julian Casablancas has collaborated with Pharrell Williams and Santogold on a song for Converse (“My Drive Thru”) and Fab Moretti has worked on side project Little Joy (which sporadically featured Nick Valensi). Bassist Nikolai Fraiture follows a furrow well ploughed by his bandmates in releasing his début solo record, under the groan-inducing moniker Nickel Eye.

There are many noticeable things about the album, chief of which is the fact that Fraiture does not play bass. Instead he covers vocal and guitar duties, with British band South brought in as backing band to add flesh to the bones of his songs. There are also a raft of guest appearances, including Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Regina Spektor, but this does not detract from the overall ebb and flow of the album with each guest keen to sublimate themselves within their role and cede to Fraiture.

The tight, locked in groove and sinuous guitar line of “Intro” may support the notion of this being a low end heavy workout from a moonlighting bassist but the rest of the album is more pastoral. “You and Everyone Else” combines a strident Violent Femmes-esque guitar line with a winsome and breezy melody, while “Back From Exile” bears more than a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan's “Hurricane”. “Fountain Avenue” carries this idea of evocation even further, with Fraiture's vocals echoing the karaoke version of Shane MacGowan that Julian Casablancas delivered on “15 Minutes” from the Strokes' third album First Impressions of Earth. “Dying Star” increases the tempo and is the song that bears the closest resemblance to the Strokes, aided by Zinner's tremolo picking over the clangorous garage chords.

Sonically much of Time of the Assassins sounds like a raft of acoustic troubadours (Dylan, Cohen, Young, Kristofferson) filtered through 80s post-punk (REM, Mission of Burma, Meat Puppets, Violent Femmes, various elements of the 4AD and Sub Pop catalogue, The Pogues). In that we find comfort and nostalgia, playing on our sense of collective cultural memory. and a curious sense of languor and yearning urgency. This sense of inward reflection is resonated through songs such as “Providence, RI” and its myriad of lost highways, wilderness and waterways.

Yet this is what stops the album short of making it's own mark. In merely evoking recollections it adds nothing new to the already burgeoning genres and sub-genres from which it draws its influences.

Time of the Assassins is much like the old shoe box of poems and memories that apparently inspired Fraiture to write much of the material on here, with hidden surprises secreted amongst the things long since consigned to the vagaries of remembrance. The album is awash with a sense of nostalgia that is attractive, as Fraiture constructs a temporal and spatial dimension, pining for a lost country and time that can only be visited by memory. Fittingly for an album so obsessed with the past it closes with a version of Leonard Cohen's “Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye”. Homage is a precarious technique in music, occasionally covering a lack of originality, and this is the one area that Time of the Assassins fails on, but overall Fraiture has delivered an album rich in emotional honesty.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Time of the Assassins by Nickel Eye on the site please click on the article title.