Thursday, 30 April 2009

Expecting To Fly - The Bluetones

Britpop began as an oppositional stance against the prevailing 'American' cultural trends that dominated much of music in the early 90s. By focusing on Britishness and identifiably British reference points, bands were able to distance themselves from these 'American' cultural phenomena. Yet the whole scene quickly became a byword for affectations, nostalgia and cretinous opportunism by a certain section of London-centric dilettante socialites. The idea of 'Britishness' was a fa├žade, a cleverly constructed artifice, that slowly revealed itself as a suburbanite fantasy of England.

Britpop was also arguably the last time that a musical movement gripped not just the nation's record buyers but left it's own cultural imprint; Cool Britannia, Blur vs Oasis, the use of the Union flag, Select magazine's Britpop issue and other varied ephemera, Britart/the Sensation exhibition all made their mark. It was the point at which alternative/indie guitar music made a dash for the limelight. It was also the last time that print music journalism was massively consumed, hence the fact that various hacks have relentlessly backed whichever horse they feel will bring them back to those halcyon days.

In amongst the rush of recent Britpop reunions, The Bluetones announcement of a Don't Look Back style performance of their debut album was slightly overlooked. After all, they had gently slipped under the radar rather than gone out with a bang, and had produced albums since Britpop imploded. Technically they hadn't really been away at all, meaning they attained the rather unflattering “Britpop survivors” tag.

It's easy to forget exactly how popular they were; “Slight Return” was only kept off the top spot in the singles chart (when it really still mattered) by one hit wonders Babylon Zoo, whose single “Spaceman” was guaranteed number 1 status by an appearance on a Levis advert. The Bluetones' debut Expecting To Fly hit number 1 in the album chart, displacing Oasis, and was a platinum seller.

The fey and slightly winsome nature of The Bluetones' music always aligned them with the C86 movement, far removed from the laddish swagger of Oasis, the traditional English bent of Blur or Pulp's interrogation of modern sexual proclivities and mores. They always seemed slightly out of step with their peers, an impression reinforced by their videos and photo shoots. Britpop was dogged by nostalgia and a reverential treatment of the past, and The Bluetones' reimagining of jangly indie (from early American roots in The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and REM through to a very British interpretation courtesy of The Smiths, Primal Scream, The Stone Roses and The La's) cast them as doe-eyed, dufflecoat wearing retro merchants. They certainly weren't averse to lifting a phrase or two from rock history – “Expecting To Fly” is a Neil Young penned track from Buffalo Springfield's sophomore album and “Slight Return” is an obvious nod to Jimi Hendrix.

The Bluetones were a product of their time and place. Fittingly for a band from Hounslow the album begins with the sound of a distant aeroplane passing overhead on “Talking To Clarry”. Their name, by it's very essence, implies a keening melancholy and the album rings with a very defeated English air. Again, C86 and it's spectre of twee and underachievement loomed. In 1996 this wasn't a compliment.

What is also striking is how tonally similar the whole album is. Each song occupies a very similar structure, with similar chord changes and ringouts, and Mark Morriss' vocals rarely leave the same key. But despite the odd deficiency the album works it's charm on the listener. “Slight Return” was the song that introduced them to the masses, and it's maudlin charm hasn't waned. The opening refrain 'Where did you go, when things went wrong for you...' over languidly strummed guitar still sounds great, while I truly believe that Morriss never sounded in better voice than on this track especially when he intones that he is 'coming home, but just for a short while'. It was released as double A-side with “The Fountainhead”, which is a wistful and dreamy track. “Bluetonic” is a far more upbeat and less morose affair, while “Cut Some Rug” fairly rocks. What you also have to remember is just how influential John Squire was as a guitarist in this period; Adam Devlin uses a lot of Squire-esque techniques, and he wasn't the only one. It wasn't until Blur's eponymous fifth album that Graham Coxon really exorcised the ghost of Squire from his playing, while Noel Gallagher, Nick McCabe and countless others would admit his influence on their style.

The second disc rounds up various BBC sessions including the obligatory Peel session. Interesting, but non-essential, as it doesn't provide a document of the band in motion, especially as most of these cuts have already been included in different versions on their BBC Radio Sessions set, and Early Garage Years provides a much more definitive version of The Bluetones' initial genesis and development. For all the claims that this is a 'deluxe' release they could have added early single “Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?” and 1996's non-album single “Marblehead Johnson” (the one with the obligatory comic video of the lads in fat suits) onto the album with some B-sides and kept this to one disc.

So Britpop can be boiled down to a few keynote releases, a handful of decent singles and a slew of record label pushed cash-ins that deserve all the opprobrium that they have received in the intervening years. Expecting To Fly is a decent album, one that withstands the ravages of the last thirteen years and stands comparison with a fair few of the likely lads in modern 'indie' bands. Britpop has led to a horrific succession of conservative, Luddite, male oriented guitar rock bands playing to a boozy gallery, which The Bluetones' wide-eyed charms manage to escape. While Expecting To Fly is a deeply traditional 'British' indie record, it might be time to dig out your old cassette copy from that battered shoebox in the garage. Or if you've sold it at a boot fair/given it to a charity shop, invest in this package.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Expecting To Fly by The Bluetones on the site please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Notes From The Tree House - Alessi's Ark

Notes From The Tree House is the debut album from the preciously talented 18-year old Londoner Alessi Laurent-Marke. Leaving school at 16 to pursue a career in music was a brave move, but one that has proved to be very successful with a large MySpace following leading to a record deal with EMI. Not many young artists would be afforded the luxury of picking their own producer, but Laurent-Marke was and requested Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes whose most recent production credit was M. Ward's Hold Time.

Her songs inhabit a sensory world of horses, libraries, asteroids, of counting stars and freckles, magic and most importantly love, all delivered with Laurent-Marke's breathless and idiosyncratic enunciation. They are whimsical exercises in orchestral pop, full of sweeping melodies and perfectly nuanced atmospherics. From the baroque madrigal opening of “Magic Weather” to the lush, symphonic “Constellations”, replete with wistful keyboards and a raised seventh that is emotionally revealing, the album begins to weave it's spell. Singles “The Horse” and “Over The Hill” are sequenced together, and this adds a strength to the opening quarter of the record. “Ribbon Lakes” and “Memory Box” are perhaps the most traditional 'folk' arrangements on evidence here, with a distinctly rustic Bright Eyes approach to dynamic and melody. Closing track “Glendora”, written while Laurent-Marke was 16, adds additional layers of sound that threaten to drown the song (especially the cheesy guitar solo) but the song's coda is otherworldly and unnerving, the most haunting moment on the album.

What is increasingly apparent is that despite the apparent innocence of the lyrics and their delivery this is a sophisticated take on modern folk music. But this is a collection of songs that is rooted relentlessly in the fleeting stretches of imagination and it is a singular take on love and life that is occasionally too saccharine. The one major complaint with this set is that her voice is not allowed the space to soar, constricted by an overbearing proclivity to drench every last moment in strings, unusual instrumentation and other aural embellishments. Note the similarity between “Over The Hill” and later track “The Dog” - the chosen arrangement only serves to heighten the surface resemblance between them. The songs work best when they are sparse, allowing the innate melodiousness of the songs to escape, and when Laurent-Marke evokes a darker mood that is fraught with tension.

Alessi's Ark descends from an identifiable lineage of fellow female songstresses (Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Cat Power, Feist, Joanna Newsom, Jenny Lewis, Laura Marling, Bat For Lashes). Staking a claim on such over-saturated ground is always going to be tricky, but Notes From The Tree House is a captivating listen that bodes well for the future.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Notes From The Tree House by Alessi's Ark on the site please click on the article title.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Favourite Color Blue - Tom Brosseau

I keep having the same dream about Dave Grohl
The one where he's drumming in Hole
They've got him wrapped in rusty chains
I think I'm supposed to free him
But I haven't got the brains

I went to church last Sunday and let me tell you what
When I got through it gave me back my strut
It makes me want to move down South
Every time I smile or raise a white bandana to my mouth

I'm secretly in love with my best friend's older sis
And I have been ever since I started doing the twist
I really believe she's the lock and I'm the key
Oh, but holding it all in is really killing me

Lyrics taken from "Favourite Colour Blue" which will appear on Tom's new album Posthumous Success, released by Fat Cat Records on May 11th.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Interim post #2

"Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined..."

I haven't posted on here much lately, mainly due to a two week stretch without the internet. It was shocking to realise just how reliant I am on the internet. Without I felt like I was paralysed, unable to work effectively. While I haven't been posting much lately I have been thinking about what I want to achieve, particularly in terms of music criticism.

If a degree of critical distance is not included in music criticism then music journalism could just be boiled down to a series of recommendations, and the reviewer a cheerleader for their own subjectivity. Whereas this can be valid and relevant, without positioning music within a broader social and cultural context or investing any level of critical inquiry then you can't tell your audience what really counts.

I'm not necessarily purporting that all music need take an oppositional stance – it is essentially there to be enjoyed, and it can be hard to take an objective view on something as cerebral and subjective as music. But music constantly evolves, retrocedes – there is no reason why music journalism cannot do the same. So much journalism these days is lazy; the internet has killed off objective reportage. Music is essentially a discovery of self, and music journalism I believe should initiate the same interrogation of self. Cogito ergo sum and all that.

So, sometime in the near future this blog will find a tangible home. It will exist in cyberspace in order that my various writings have a forum, but a physical object you can hold and love will be appearing this summer.

I also have had a couple of short trips this month that have encroached on my writing time; one to Falmouth, Cornwall where I spent three years studying and another to Euro Disney.

Disney should stand for everything I find detestable, and that my rational side should not enjoy. But here lies the nub – suspension of disbelief. In the Magic Kingdom a nefarious magic is at work. Enjoying Disney is learning to forget. Once inside you are infantilised as the endless procession shuffles around the parks. It is experience imprisoned, a simulacra. Memory is a double image; inside our own memory, memorialised on film, another memory of a culture experienced through film and television is secreted. Western frontier towns are recreated. Jingles implore you to 'Remember the magic'. As if we would forget. Nostalgia has a geometrically precise, physical location and it is Main Street, USA. I dread to think how insane the park in Tokyo is. I suppose it doesn't matter – the whole point is that you could be anywhere geologically, as long as you are transported to a specific point in liminal memory. But I will be back, amongst the mullets and bumbags (or fannypacks if you prefer). I am a sucker for memories. Even constructed ones.

Friday, 24 April 2009


Friends of the blog and all round dudes Lakes have changed their name to Kid Pang. Click on the article title to check out their MySpace and have a listen to their excellent music.

Atlas Sound

Go to and download the new mateial, and then listen to it a thousand times until you forget that all other music exists. It is that good. Going to see Deerhunter next month at the Scala and review it for God Is In The TV which I am really excited about.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Wavering Radiant - Isis

The fifth album from Californian progressive metal band Isis finds them expanding on ground laid by previous releases. To stand still, to stagnate, is anathema to them. Each album has it's own aspect, their own facets to explore and this is particularly the case with Wavering Radiant. It is more focused than it's immediate predecessor In The Absence of Truth, but in the same instance adopts the desire to avoid classification that they have occupied throughout their career. These progressive tendencies are highlighted by Adam Jones, guitarist in Tool, following bandmate Justin Chancellor's guest appearance on ITAOT by lending his technical prowess to two tracks.

There have been endless discussion over where to position Isis in terms of genre, but what is more important is their inclusive attitude to music. The character of Isis' music is largely indefinable; there is a precision to the songs, but it is not one of geometric exactitude. The churning, primordial walls of noise that characterised Oceanic and Panopticon have been replaced with a more ethereal and poised release, catharsis with melancholy acceptance, that does not sacrifice emotional fortitude.

Twenty seconds into “Hall of the Dead” the growing ambience is disturbed by buzzsaw guitars, but these are restrained. This restraint is symptomatic of the album as a whole; emotions are kept firmly in check, which allows them to provide brief interjections of anger and rage, which are all the more surprising and effective when they do interrupt the flow of the album. Aaron Turner alternates between a growl of painful (dis)articulation and clean vocals throughout, with the clean vocals sublimated in the mix to provide a sense of texture, the ghost of melody, rather than a focal point. “Ghost Key” continues the vein of exploration of rhythmic textures, anchored by Jeff Caxide's bass line. The song begins as an analysis of mood, nuance and tonal possibility, before being pounded by monolithic guitars. Album closer “Threshold of Transformation” is the song which most obviously pays its metal dues, but such is their ability to transform and transfigure their own material that after five minutes of complex riffery the simplicity of the Fender Rhodes break temporarily wrong foots you. This idea is then developed over the remaining four and a half minutes of the song, building to a crescendo before ending with Turner and Michael Gallagher's guitars gently guiding the song home in stately fashion.

For their fifth studio album they decided to work with Joe Barresi and the clarity of his production work allows the instrumental passages to be fully realised. It is in these lengthy instrumental passages that the album finds it's disposition. These sections possess a tactile and hypnotic quality, with electronic synthesis playing a lager part in the overall sonic architecture than on previous releases. The title track, by some margin the shortest track on offer, is one minute and forty eight seconds of ambient electronica, with the sound rolling over the listener in undulating waves, gradually receding and folding in on itself before seamlessly seguing into “Song To Wake A Serpent”. Wavering Radiant is less drone oriented, but Isis' music still inhabits certain characteristics of drone. Notes are isolated, manipulated, elongated, time is decelerated providing a temporal dislocation. The overall edifice is deeply layered, with complex time signature changes amidst the subtle organic/inorganic soundscapes and melodic chorus laden bass lines that interlink effortlessly with the guitars.

Isis are on of the few contemporary pioneers amongst heavy music, not content to rely on metallisms or purely generic devices. In common with Tool, Mastodon and Sunn O))) they create a sense of malleability, and with Wavering Radiant they continue to expand the form and language of metal beyond the constrictions of orthodoxy without ever fully divorcing themselves from the genre. Audience expectations set the bar high for them, and they continue not to disappoint.

Antibodies - Sky Larkin

Leeds three piece Sky Larkin's sound is somewhat hard to position. They possess elements of twee revivalism, and given their links to Los Campesinos! amongst others it would be a reasonable conclusion to situate them in this tradition that is recently becoming a growing concern, but they harbour a more muscular edge and have certainly heard a few Sleater-Kinney records in their time. These alt-rock stylings are married to a more accessible and identifiable 'pop' structure, although this perception may be constructed through having a female vocalist. Certainly Sky Larkin's edges are smoothed by Katie Harkin's silken vocals.

Commencing with a bluesy, Pavement-esque guitar figure, before being dissected by an ascending chord structure, 'Antibodies' is an energetic and enervating release. Harkin's guitar playing and the combination of rhythm section Doug Adams and Nestor Matthews create a tight framework around which the song is structured.

Parent album The Golden Spike was an album about commemoration of places, situations, emotions. “Antibodies” is a song about long distance love (their very own “500 Miles” apparently), with it's refrain of 'Sentiments stretched over sediment and soil' evoking the melancholy of yearning. It is a song of elliptical repetition, and repeated listens reveal its craft and charm.

Their influences are all worthy wells to draw from, and these are skilfully balanced by the band. Sometimes a song well played and written will hit the mark, no matter how derivative it is. Within the boundaries of genre you can find moments of great invention. Producer John Goodmanson has completed an admirable job in evoking the sound of varied alt-rock outfits, and in common with these retrograde ambitions the single is to be released as a C60 cassette. But here lies the crux; the band have crafted a well conceived and poised set of songs on their album, and it works well as a coherent body of work. But isolate any of the songs and it becomes apparent that they lack the relevant dynamics to catapult them from cult concern to genuine contenders. Yet.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Antibodies by Sky Larkin on the site please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Metro Station - Metro Station

Do Metro Station actually exist? Like the first Gulf War there is a case to be made against their actual corporeality. They appear as an illusion, Californian ciphers, bloodless purveyors of teenage angst. It's not even the chronic lack of originality that is the problem, they are the musical equivalent of Stepford Wives – it is music designed purely for someone else's pleasure with no individuality. They may as well be automatons.

Metro Station represent all that is reprehensible about American popular culture. They are indicative of how marketing and promotional companies appropriate subcultures and different social conventions in a desperate attempt to gain an edge, to stay ahead of the curve and look cool to 14 year old girls. So what emerges is a tangled web of signs and codes – emo, tattoos, hardcore, breakdancing, hip hop, and skate culture. It's all fair game. The medium is the message – it doesn't matter what music is provided for the target demographic, just as long as something is released. The package is just as important as what it actually contains.

Formed by Trace Cyrus, brother to Miley and son of Billy Ray (erstwhile new country star of “Achy Breaky Heart” fame, although for me his career high was his cameo in Mulholland Drive) and Mason Musso, older brother to Mitchell. They met on the set of Hannah Montana in which both of their siblings star, in a meeting engineered by their mothers. Quickly gaining a huge following on MySpace they attracted the attention of Red Ink, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. Further proof that social networking groups have replaced the art of the A & R representative as the recruiting ground for most majors and that it has become a key part of their business model in terms of talent spotting and marketing. So, Hollywood connections and a large friend list on MySpace have led this group of privileged young men to international fame and, perhaps more importantly, sales. The album was first released in 2007 and created little stir, but is getting a new belated push in the UK due to 'Shake It' hitting the Billboard Top Ten.

Divesting yourself of all prejudice, you can make pretend that their eponymous debut album is pop music pure and simple. But it is badly executed pop music with little attention to song development or structure. “Seventeen Forever” sets the template; electro inflected energetic pop, power chords, the urgency of youth, a hint of sex, the peculiar urge singular to teenhood of wanting to be older but wanting to be embalmed at that age. These are themes that resonate through the ages to the early dawn of pop music, but go and listen to “Satisfaction” by the Stones and compare how tame the supposedly barely restrained sexual longing is. “Control” claims to be about, well, losing control but there is no drama, no narrative beyond the admittedly energetic track. “Shake It” is a chorus with a song bolted on, albeit a naggingly infectious chorus. Musso and Cyrus' vocals lack depth or dynamic, which is particularly evident on the appallingly flat backing vocals, and they go in for horrible accentuation and breathy delivery. The subject matter and lyrics may as well have been generated by some form of randomiser as they are completely interchangeable – boy meets girl, girl rejects boy, boy crashes Hollywood aftershow party to impress girl, girl eventually accedes, girl takes clothes off. Although not if she had listened to one of the questionable ballads on display. “Kelsey”, sadly not about Kelsey Grammar, is a particular offender, with it's refrain of 'I'll swim the ocean for you, the ocean for you, woah-oh-oh-oh Kelsey'. Elsewhere “Wish We Were Older” updates The Beach Boys' “Wouldn't It Be Nice” with a truly horrendous Europop backing track and some curious yodelling on the chorus, while“Tell Me What To Do” possesses the sort of lameass rap last perpetrated by Robbie Williams.

Tedious, turgid, wearisome, monotonous, weak, gauche, self absorbed, totally and utterly devoid of any content. Hype and positioning have granted Metro Station a position that their music certainly doesn't befit. There are a raft of electro pop purveyors around who write more original and interesting songs but that probably won't sell a tenth as many records. Actually, make that a hundredth. Perhaps Bill Hicks should have been granted his wish and Billy Ray Cyrus be hunted and killed, but that's stretching a point. The transient nature of pop music means that in a year this will hopefully be forgotten.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Metro Station on the site please click on the article title.

Klang - The Rakes

After an uncertain second album The Rakes return with a laddish swagger for their third long player Klang. Their sophomore album Ten New Messages was an attempt to broaden their scope, which was especially evident in Alan Donohue's lyrics, but the overall feeling was that the band were hampered and constricted by this approach.

They left behind grey, industrial, sepulchral London for grey, industrial, sepulchral Berlin to write and record the album, disillusioned with the vapidity of the London music scene. Anyone expecting a Reed/Bowie/Iggy/Liars style reinvention however will be disappointed. Although they have expanded their lineup, The Rakes have streamlined their sound to a palette of clipped disco drums, chugging bass and skeletal guitars augmented with the occasional vociferous piano line. There is nothing wrong with stripping a song back to it's core elements – The Fall have made a career from deconstructing the base components of rock music, albeit with wonderful stylistic reinventions and phases along the way – and The Rakes clearly have a template which the band is comfortable with. Ten New Messages was shrouded in an air of melancholy, with Donohue's lyrics affected by London post 7/7. The outbreak of racist discourse and the media's response to the attacks were clearly things they felt uncomfortable with and explored in depth on the album. In fact Ten New Messages was weakened when it left this narrative cycle, with the more knockabout songs depressingly feeling more like artifice. On Klang they retrocede to the wry, weary social observations of their first record rather than grand social statements.
Capture/Release, released in 2005, was one of the keynote releases of the first wave of indie bands but it felt too clearly demarcated, it's influences clear and perfunctory while the polite deferences to working and drinking in the city presented a London-centric worldview. The lack of a specific context or conceptual framework for these songs left the whole movement open to criticisms of vacuousness. While they captured the emptiness of this working environ beyond the singles they sounded like a band who had been rushed into the studio far too early. Where Klang supersedes these previous releases is in it's cohesion. 10 songs, clocking in at less than 30 minutes with the longest song being 3 minutes 21 seconds. Every song is taut and muscular - like the onomatopoeic album title, the album is full of metallic harshness, a spiteful malevolence. And my Lord, is it cocking great fun.

Opener “You're In It” sets the tone for the rest of the album with its staccato, angular rhythms and pithy lyrics. “That's The Reason” and “Bitchin' In The Kitchen” are ostensibly songs about having a good time, but their combination of mod stylistics and sleazy late 70s era Rolling Stones guitar lines allow them to transcend the basic subject matter. Leadoff single “1989” could have been titled 2005, such is it's surface lack of progression from their debut record. But the chiming “Hong Kong Garden” guitars and lazy background vocals show a development in songcraft. What emerges from these collection of songs is a less polished, dirtier version of Franz Ferdinand. They even throw in a few filthy couplets worthy of Kapranos and co - 'You are exceptional at being sexual' etcetera – that would have seemed out of place on previous releases. Of course The Rakes' version of romance is a drunken fumble after a heavy night out rather than the glossy seduction of Franz's latest. And with Franz Ferdinand moving into more synth led territory there is a sizeable gap in the market for a band like The Rakes to capitalise on.

Alan Donohue's vocals will probably divide listeners, but he belongs to a great tradition of non-singers as vocalists (think Lou Reed, Mark E Smith, Martin Bramah) and while his range hasn't improved greatly (baritone to a keening yelp) his presence as a frontman certainly has. He initially gained attention for his curious mixture of Ian Curtis and David Brent moves when they played live, but whereas before he would mumble and seem embarrassed by his central position he now enunciates each vowel, warbles away and generally bestrides each song.

Are The Rakes' regressive ambitions a depressing indication of the lack of social awareness of modern indie bands or is their consistent approach to melody and subject matter an admirable stance? They tried to diversify, realised it wasn't apt and have returned with a focused, melodic and accessible album. The unity of purpose outweighs any criticism of their lack of progression or fixation on certain tropes – that modern life is rubbish, we are all victims of the aspiration deficit, the emptiness of the endless cycle of partying, having a detestable job, and the futility of trying to attach meaning in an increasingly mechanised and insignificant decade. 'Sometimes you can't smell the shit 'til you're in it' is perhaps a more prescient indictment of our current malaise than some lengthy, verbose and outwardly worthy protest song.
This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Klang by The Rakeson the site please click on the article title.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Beg, Steal or Borrow # 3

I don't really listen to a lot of heavy music these days, and tend to be quite choosy about what I do listen to. Mastodon's fifth album Crack The Skye is amazing, a heady rush of oneiric mysticism, Icarus mythology and personal tragedy which is complemented by the increasingly melodic and progressive tendencies of the band. Highly recommended.