Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Not really so much about music but a link to another of my 1980s obsessions

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

club country 12" - the associates

A return to the Halcyon year of pop 1982
For the 12" version of 'Club Country', Billy Mackenzie stares out challengingly from the cover defying you to dislike this joyfully sneering slab of noise. This version comes with pummelling drums to start and a rather jazzy synthesiser bit in the middle. Like boys in lace and make-up it's definitely of its time but defiantly relevant considering the amount of artifice that seems to come with the media.

Unwittingly every day seemed to start the same
'A.G. It's You Again' another version of 'Arrogance Gave Him Up' from Sulk, less polished and with a strange, slightly hectic feel from the giddiness of the drums. So less like the theme tune to a nature programme.

In bed with Bourdieu
Never is it so evident that there is a 'cultural capital' attached to the making, selling and listening to of music. A very few incredibly manipulative people seek to define and control the tastes of the nation - even the world - and would dictate what radio stations play and what infiltrates our head-space. Never underestimate the capacity of music to mess with your head and subconsciously inform your outlook on the world - as a mind-altering substance it is second-to-none. Phil Collins should come with a warning. Ocean Colour Scene should be banned for its capacity to make one feel nauseous and Paul Weller.... well he should only be sold to those who promise, PROMISE, to burn it immediately afterwards once they have taken the required dose. Thank goodness then for 'Ulcragyceptemol' the antidote to the dangerous poison sold to us by the corporates, a stream of common sense and epithets for successful living. Let Billy Mackenzie guide you towards being a better person and the distant piano chords soothe the soul unfortunately harmed by the Beyonces and Britneys. "Put them down" and be a good boy.

Friday, September 04, 2009

she loves me not - alan rankine

In his inspiring work 'Rip it up and start again: postpunk 1978-1984' Simon Reynolds cautions us to be wary when dabbling into the music of our post-punk heroes after 1984. Not only had the shiny bauble of New Pop become 'bloated' and 'plunged into decadence' but Pop Stars suddenly found themselves spokespeople for the world on a scale never seen before. It was the time of the Po-Faced Political Message but also of Pop Stars blowing hugely ridiculous budgets on videos and yachts, champagne and cocaine, the record labels getting fatter and fatter. Everything Went Over the Top in the security of a bouyant market and Smugness ruled in the pop charts, epitomised by those horrible Spandau Ballet songs 'True' and 'Gold'. By 1985, as Reynolds quotes, even the great John Peel was lamenting that "I don't even like the records I like." But there is something strangely addictive about 'bad' music, after all witness the whole 'Guilty Pleasures' movement. And a dabble here and there into the post-1984 cultural wilderness can be rewarding, although generally anything from the mid-late eighties does suffer for being inflicted by what was deemed fashionable in the day, i.e. too much honking saxophone, overwrought female vocals and bathed in that smooth, syrupy production that makes it hard to distinguish the real instruments from the synthesisers. Far from being 'Abba on speed' New Pop began to sound like Abba had swapped the speed for Ovaltine.

It seems to me it was more the loss of the Punk and Post-punk spirit that Reynolds and Peel were mourning, the warped beauty of New Pop that for a brief moment lit up the mainstream more brightly than the bland monotony usually labelled 'Pop' music. Looking back there are treasures to be found. The Cure's 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me' (1987) is the best twisted Pop record ever made after 'Sulk'. Paul Haig descended into 'The Warp of Pure Fun' in 1985 and emerged with his dignity intact, while 'Perhaps' (1984) saw Billy Mackenzie haphazardly balancing between youthful hysteria and a growing propensity towards a 'maturer' style (although the later, unreleased, 'Glamour Chase' would see the transformation complete). ZTT were doing good things e.g. with Propaganda, although they were overshadowed by the crass antics surrounding Frankie Goes to Hollywood. David Sylvian, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Wake, Siouxsie and the Banshees.... the Post-Punk greats did not die they just reinvented themselves. However the mainstream certainly returned to the 'manufactured' - no longer could it be countenanced that something like 'Party Fears Two' could sneak into the top ten, into everyone's living room and steal their hearts with its sultry shimmer.

Into 1987 we wade, when Billy Mackenzie's erstwhile Associate, Alan Rankine, released 'She loves me not'. Prior to that he had spent time producing other peoples' records (such as the Cocteau Twins and Paul Haig), working with cultish record label, the wonderfully named Les Disques du Crepscule, and living in Belgium. It's not quite a forgotten classic but like Haig's 'The Warp of Pure Fun' (of which it is reminiscent and not entirely a coincidence since Alan Rankine produced it) it is just that, a fun record which, in this period of 80s revival, is able to stand up to (and maybe even surpass some) contemporary attempts at melding the guitar with the synthesiser. Responsible for most of the instruments / parts in the Associates, Alan Rankine has a keen ear for melody which makes even the weaker songs palatable, but even he was not immune from the taint of sax and syrup. The mid to late 80s also seemed to be to the detriment of the guitar, which almost disappears into the murk here, surprising since Rankine ranks with the best of the Post-Punk guitar pioneers in terms of the sounds he managed to conjure with his fingers and a few effects. Still there is enough sophistication to make up for the disappointment that it sounds, well, so conventional at times. Especially when compared to the diverse and wonky marvellousness of 'Fourth Drawer Down'. It's like listening to 'Perhaps' - you know that both men had to move on and could not have produced another 'Sulk' (and nor would they want to) but it makes you yearn for its weirdness, it's boldness in abandoning the typical song format and its attempt to cram every possible emotion into one circle of vinyl.

And 'She loves me not' certainly starts with a bang! and ends with the apocalypse! clamouring for your ears' attention. 'Beat Fit' has rather silly lyrics but is infectious and introduces several of the 1001 synthesiser noises which identifies this record as a spawn of the 80s - as does the hyper female backing vocals and ubiquitous saxophone. Luckily this is not too intrusive keeping as it does to the rhythm of the song rather than meandering all over it. Alan Rankine's singing voice is remarkably urbane, slightly gruff and cynical at times, but that seems to suit the world-weary, even baffled, tone he affects. 'Days and Days' is the first of one of the more schmaltzy songs here, along with 'Last Bullet' they are quite light and relatively forgettable, but then I have never been a fan of ballad-type songs so they are probably okay if you like that kind of thing. 'Loaded' juxtaposes icy, melancholic synths (the ones that remind me of speeding down German autobahns at night lit only by orange sodium) and a softer vocal, ostensibly about throwing your cares away and having a good time but underlaid with that sadness it suggests it can only ever be ephemeral? Finally a guitar is spotted from very far away singing to itself in the background. 'Enough of that' says the sax and wrests domination of 'Your Very Last Day', unfortunately quite a plodding song despite Rankine's attempt to enliven things up with a dramatic vocal, but tones its influence down for 'The Sandman' which deals with a chilling subject (child abuse) in a surprisingly sympathetic way, when it potentially could be very clunky especially since Rankine's lyrics are far more literal than his former partner's. 'Break for Me' adopts that cod-reggae rhythm that was once so popular (please don't bring it back!) and that 'shimmery-curtain' percussion thing but apart from those two crimes against music it is a pleasant moment, a break after the frenetic rush of 'Lose Control'. And certainly a moment's pause is required before the stand-out track of the album, a slight intake of breath before the aural assault begins. Betraying more than a little of the 'more is more' philosophy that so drove the Associates ever upwards towards musical greatness, 'The World Begins to Look Her Age' is an attempt to capture the end of the world, well what the end of the world would sound like if only hysterical female backing singers, chuntering saxes, synthesisers and Alan Rankine were all that were left. Into this one song Rankine crams an album's worth of ideas and sounds and textures; its overloaded certainly and in the hands of someone less skilled it would probably collapse under its own weight, but this was the man responsible for 'Club Country' and however he does it, somehow it works! It's like magic because taking it all apart it's a pretty much standard 80s pop tune but combining all the unprepossessing elements together with a random song structure, explosions, layer upon layer of alarm and panic, ramping it all up and over eleven, well... it's an exhausting experience. But like the best of the Associates it makes you feel; its more than wallpaper or something to put on in the background and ignore. This is a song that defies being ignored! And it's certainly better to go out on a bang than a whimper. So yes, there could be many things wrong with this record but when it works the sheer verve reminds you that greatness never dies completely.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there are no videos of Alan Rankine solo on YouTube so a badly taken picture of the album cover is all I can offer in way of illustration. Luckily he is a very handsome fellow :)

And just for fun, the Associates do 'Club Country' on Top of the Pops, Alan keeping out of the bizarre sartorial choices made by some other members of the band, thinking here of Martha Ladly in the swimsuit!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Squeaks, pops and Scratches: Adventures in Vinyl

It has been a long time in coming. It must have been over a year ago when I decided that it was time to test the idea that vinyl is the preferred listening choice of the 'serious' or nostalgic music lover. Although I was brought up with vinyl I would hardly call myself nostalgic for it since it always seemed a bit of a palaver setting it all up and then making sure that the needle was in the right place. It was when my house-mate pointed out that you placed it on the edge of the record to start rather than have to find the songs manually that I realised that perhaps I was a little bit out of my depth. I realised I was even more out of my depth when it took me over three hours to work out how to record the lps through the computer; after much knashing of teeth it was possible to be confident that the software that came with the record player was clearly rubbish rather than it being my fault for being unintelligent when it comes to technology. Fortunately Audacity saved the day and much knashing of teeth and tearing of hair later I worked out how to record the lp, save it to itunes and convert it to MP3 all in one evening. To quote the Inspiral Carpets, 'Nobody said it was gonna be easy...' It became slightly more surreal when some of my worst concerns about buying second-hand records on ebay and in charity shops came true and the lp simply would not play and any amount of cursing at it would not compel it to not jump and not crackle like a crazy coco-pop monkey on lsd with maracas, however it reminded me that someone had obviously loved the album so much they had played it to death (that one of these records was 'Sulk' by the Associates was quite pleasing in that respect if it was not so frustrating in wanting to listen to it...). Anyway the said purchase has opened up a whole new world of music, chiefly because it enables me to seek out even more obscure stuff from the 80s that is only available in vinyl, yay!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer Sundae 14-16 August 2009 (a review in bullet points for brevity)

Good things about Summer Sundae 2009 (general)
  • It didn't rain - hooray for sun!
  • It clinched more space from Victoria Park so there was more room to walk about and the sound clash from the various stages was less pronounced
  • The Garden was relaxing if you wanted some peace and quiet... ha ha albeit with lots of screaming children having a pillow fight
  • Now the Charlotte is gone Summer Sundae is one of Leicester's few hopes of seeing new bands and it did not disappoint!!
  • The Streets got swine flu so Idlewild jumped to headline!!
Bad things about Summer Sundae 2009 (general)
  • Having to avoid psycho ex-housemates
  • Disorientation caused by a larger site to play about in
  • Electronica largely absent this year - too much reliance on guitar and whiny folk singers, get rid!
  • Some strange choices of time-tabling
  • Constant queues in the Ladies toilets (but when doesn't that happen???)
Notable bands at Summer Sundae (in no real order of preference)
  • Wild Beasts - the mad poets of Kendal were glorious. These guys deserve to be HUGE - who else would dare sing sweetly choir boy about diverse and unpleasant (ahem) subjects as snogging drunken in alleys, yobs on a night out, fathers being ignored by the courts and the sordid dreams of shiny-shoed men?? I lost my heart in that tent
  • Idlewild - thanks to the defection of The Streets Idlewild were promoted (thank goodness) to headliners and gave a rollicking set of over an hour despite being unprepared for it, although the passion and anger of former years has definitely mellowed (but that's what you get for being over 30)
  • Minnaars - described as math rock crossed with indie dance not sure exactly what that means but definitely exuberant and kicking the retro guitar-synth into the twenty-first century, set the tone whereby younger bands put some of the more established bands to shame for their sheer panache and verve
  • The Kabeedies definitely get a mention for the best on-stage banter of the festival, not sure their sound is doing anything new but fun all the same like swallowing a whole bag of minstrels in one go
  • The Charlatans - Tim Burgess just stepped out of his time machine looking like he had never left the 90s. Like Idlewild the Charlatans rose to the occasion with the right amount of nostalgia / new song ratio and invited the crowd to feel touched by the wonder of their presence (or something like that) - anyway it proved that clunky Oasis stole the crown that should have belonged to the Charlatans
  • Kevin Hewick proved that people over 50 do not have to be staid and boring and can lie on the stage playing their guitar with their teeth. But only just.
  • Monotonix defy any kind of description except they are completely bonkers - playing scuzzed-up dirty rock and roll IN the audience - a security guard's nightmare they must be - moving their instruments around, only wearing pants, chucking water, hairy and sweaty, leaping off balconies, a drummer who is the personification of Animal - audience participation to the max and proving that it can be done. Monotonix I salute you
  • Ou est le swimming pool - strange sartorial decisions abounded (bat-winged cardigan with nowt underneath? tank-top gym wear? check shirt and hairband with moustache? Shirt and jacket like dodgy club promoter?) kind of wonky pop by a boy band who hate each other's guts
  • The Cheek - are they the new Menswear of the twenty-first century? Or is there something brewing in their heads which will blow us all away with its total awesomeness? Only time will tell but there was a good attempt at feigning aloofness whilst trying not to laugh as the sweat drips from the chin
The disappointments
  • Mystery Jets - pretty dull really except for their one good song about being in love with a girl who lives two doors down, since they sacked the Dad it seems to have gone downhill
  • The Domino State - wanted to sound like Echo and the Bunnyman and the Chameleons, sounded more like Richard Ashcroft without the Verve, bloated and dull
  • Broken Records - unforgettable folk whining, the first of many
  • St Etienne - it was amazing to finally see Sarah Cracknell in the flesh and with a feather boa but there was something lacking in the performance, bit flat and they only played one really really good song, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the rest was slightly drivel (sorry)
  • Bon Iver - less said about this the better as only more whiny folk. Should have been on in the day not the evening, its like getting a sparkler and it fizzing out before it even starts
  • The Zutons - like Bon Iver it makes me feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with my brain - both these bands are so popular but they just leave me cold. Zutons had no warmth no sparkle just sounded conventional and adding nothing to the musical lexicon - very disappointing ending to Summer Sundae this year
Bands I should have seen / seen more of
  • 65daysofstatic - VERY VERY LOUD but sounded promising
  • Micachu and the Shapes - clashed with The Cheek and our allegiance was to the boys from Suffolk
  • Hugh Cornwall - punk and post-punk relic
  • Future of the Left
Ou est le swimming pool prove that sartorial decisions are not their strong point

The Charlatans - effortlessly good

The Kabeedies - blurred but bouncy

Someone forgot to inform the drummer about the visual aesthetic - Minnaars

The Wild Beasts - obliterated by light and poor camera on mobile phone

The best way to see (and hear) the Zutons - slightly out of focus

Yawn, yawn - Bon Iver

Suffolk's finest - The Cheek

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

choose your own adventure - heartsrevolution

'choose your own adventure' books were always a bit of a con: firstly, of course you could only choose the adventure in the parameters of the author's imaginings (sometimes quite sadistic if it was one by Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson, such as monsters with huge numbers of eyes bursting open in blisters from their backs that lounged in pools of disfiguring acid, ice maidens with slaves controlled by metal collars that could burst and kill them, beautiful women enslaved within magic armour that forced you to kill them whilst tears rolled down their face, haunted houses owned by devil worshippers far more vindictive than any hollywood fright fest, vampires with biscuits made of blood to catch the unwary adventurer... who knows what impact such things have on the intensely open minds of young persons) and the fiendishly complicated and ultimately time-consuming approach to fighting monsters meant that it was always more tempting to choose your own outcome (vanquishing the monster of course) and keep going backwards and forwards through the options until the happy ending was reached. heartsrevolution on the other hand are a boy and a girl and 'choose your own adventure' is a deceptively simple, though compulsively hectic rush of adrenaline which despite its cutesy exterior hints at a dark heart beneath.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

veil veil vanish - into a new mausoleum EP

Goth somehow suits the eternal greyness of Britain, desperate to glean something elaborate out of the mishmash of brutal box like houses and grotesque Victoriana that blights our nondescript towns. The Cure and their ilk are as familiar as the cracked pavements and greasy windowsills on the high street even if the black lace gloves and creepy makeup is largely gone. Now the Americans come to steal our monopoly on melancholy. Veil Veil Vanish from San Francisco, not somewhere to be immediately associated with the intense mournfulness that spreads slowly and with intent from the speakers. I wanted to think 'they are trying too hard' after all the Ep is entitled 'into a new mausoleum' and it's like duh death and goth how obvious. I wanted to hate it. To take songs like 'Reproach' and gleefully tear them to shreds (which the masochists would probably love if they have a goth-like inferiority complex). To use the fact that they appear on the Cure tribute album 'Perfect as Cats' covering 'The Upstairs Room' as evidence that you may as well go and listen to the original instead. Instead it's been on repeat all evening. It is the blissfulness of colliding guitars, exploding into the aural equivalent of gazing up into the wonder of a starfilled night; the intense anxiety / obscurity of those shattered by existence and needing to sing about 'shadows dripping like honey kissing'; the exhaustion of feeling captured in sound.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

white rose movement - kick / cigarette machine

Named after an abortive movement by students from Munich to oust Hitler from power, the band known as White Rose Movement epitomises dystopian world views of Ballard, Foxx et al tied to the pop bombast of Duran Duran - yes its another eighties throw back electroclash special but WRM do it so well you can forgive them for being a little bit derivative. Dancing towards the apocalypse, the power of 'Kick' (their debut) lies in the tunes they meld, speaking of the sleaze, tension, general nastiness of 21st century life, narrated by the sensual, sulky vocals of singer Finn. Certainly there is something inextricably sexy about synthpop, perhaps its the breathy vocalists the genre seems to attract, which both Finn and (former) bandmate Taxxi demonstrate (the double xx there perhaps another nod to pioneers like John Foxx?), alongside a catalogue of teasing yelps, random screams and emotional outbursts that makes this album so vital, so alive in its conception of 21st century nightmare. Like the movement known as 'New Miserablism' e.g. Interpol, Editors, White Lies etc there is more than a hint of violence driving the melancholy, but unlike say the White Lies for instance there is no compromise in 'Kick' as to there being any hope that we will break out of this; you can kick and scream and rail all you want but we are stuck in this mess. So you might as well revel in the seediness, in the sleaze and leap in with guts. Check out 'Speed' and 'London's Mine' for maximum exhilaration, 'Girls in the back' cuts deep whilst the hidden track after 'Cruella' is to swoon for. Also for the record; Newest single 'cigarette machine' (how quaintly subversive) sounds like Elvis had he been hanging round the English high street too long and ingested the local patter.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Balgay Hill: A play about Dundee, Billy MacKenzie, The Associates, about heroes, fame and home

History is (mostly) straightforward. Events happen, are recorded by a number of eyewitnesses, whether written down or carried in the minds of those who experience it. These become the definitive 'facts' which give us our sense of identity, our sense of who we are, the sense that we are the product of a long line of Others - that we are here today because of their actions. We impose upon it a beginning, a middle and an end. And because we are a perverse species we mostly like to insist on a happy ending.

Even music is prone to such gross simplification. Not so 'Balgay Hill' a play which reflects the inter-connectedness between home, our sense of belonging and the memories which become (formalised as) our histories.

"Neither James (Brining, Director) nor I wanted to write a straightforward bio because nothing about Billy or his story is straightforward. He is an amazing character full of contradictions trailing a litany of legends in his wake. He is a different kind of hero blessed with an extraordinary voice" (Simon Macullum, Writer).

Balgay Hill is (loosely) the story of Billy Mackenzie, maverick and magnificent singer with The Associates, told through the interwoven lives of four individuals from Dundee, where Billy was born and now rests close to the titular Balgay Hill. At first I was uncertain as to how this could be accomplished without seeming forced in terms of incorporating Billy's (larger than) life into the lives of mere mortals (so to speak), however it was very sensitively done, with the main framing device being a video that one of the characters was making about Billy's life as, they quite rightly said, there is no real, lasting memorial to him. Only fragments of a life that was lived for the briefest of moments in the spotlight; the seminal being when Billy shimmered onto the Top of the Pops stage - wearing a black beret and raincoat, seemingly trying not to laugh at Alan Rankine and the chopsticks stuck in his hair - rightly identified as a key moment (as beautifully described by Simon Reynolds in 'Rip it up and start again'). Such fragments can be misleading - how much do we really know about someone like Billy?

"To think you learned to know someone and find / That you don't know, don't know them at all." (Club County, The Associates)

Whilst Billy's life provided the structure for the events (the details of which would be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in The Associates, they cannot help but attract big stories to them), there was always some blurring between what belonged to the life of the character, and what belonged in the life of Billy. This was effective in that it created a real sense of how memories operate, they are often jumbled and incoherent, hard to fathom as to their time and place until we place them into a narrative. These memories were not existing as something given, but we had to piece them together, to give them meaning.

"I found a coin and washed away the silt / I found a shiny coin / A coin whose head was slightly to the tilt / Who'd leave it there in silt / guilt?" (Nude Spoons, The Associates)

Whilst it seems ironic that going by his singing voice you could have thought that Billy Mackenzie was as likely to have come from Saturn than from Dundee, also poignant was the emphasis within the play, in the words of writer Simon Macallum, "our relationship with the place of our birth". And although Billy himself left Dundee several times he always came back. Two of the characters in the play had never left, one never really belonged there, and the last only returned (as was implied) to die there, according to the Japanese saying. Sadly this was the same for Billy, who was found in his father's garden shed in 1997 having taken a fatal overdose. The closing of the play on Balgay Hill, close to Billy's final resting place, no happy ending, no tying of the ends reflects (for me) the reality of memory, there is no end, and with there being no end the memories will live on, gathering their own momentum; not Billy-as-he-was but Billy-as-he-is-remembered which will necessarily be different depending upon who is doing the remembering. Yet this is the nature of memories, they are idiosyncratic, highly personal and indisputable, the perfect foil to the 'boring old history' that we are forced to learn because someone tells us it is important. But it got me thinking, why do some memories endure more than others? Which memories of Billy will endure and which will fade? All in all it was more than a curiosity piece, it was a thoughtful and engaging work which deserves a lot of success. Now I wonder if Take That the Musical will have the same effect....

"So what if this party fears two? / The alcohol loves you whilst turning you blue / View it from here, from closer to near / Awake me!" (Party Fears Two - The Associates)

Some pictures....

Looking across to The Law from Balgay Hill

Looking across to the 'Silvery Tay' from the cemetery on Balgay Hill

The Dundee Rep Theatre

The best record shop I have visited in ages, Groucho's in Dundee

NB All quotes from Simon Macallum are from the 'Balgay Hill' programme; song lyrics from The Associates album 'Sulk'

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Crystal Stilts - Alight of the Night

The name Crystal Stilts sounds like one of those magical objects found only in European fairytales; like Baba Yaga's house that spins on chicken legs, the nettle shirts that Elisa must knit for her doomed brothers or the singing ringing tree that restores the morally bankrupt Princess to goodness.  Likewise the sounds constructed by the Stilts are somewhat vague and ethereal, with a tinge of the typical English weather.  If drizzle and mist could sing, rather than whisper with eerie precision in your ears, 'Alight of the night' might be the consequence.  Singer Brad sounds like he is enveloped in the stuff, his melancholic drawl subsumed beneath the weight of the ponderous production, recalling the wooziness of sinusitis, or that early sensation of numbness when operating on little sleep.  The world becomes cocoon-ed, perhaps a little indifferent, a little detached; its rather reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine and Shoegaze bands, but without the excruciating  ear-bleed.  Whatever - the results are beguiling, particularly songs 'The Dazzling' and 'Departure' which set a simple repetitive rift against bass-lines that chog along almost jovially alongside the mournful (and unfathomable) vocals, the slight melodies weaving in and out.  The power of the rhythms rise above the murk and prevent this album sinking into its own navel, creating an oddly uplifting experience.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Do the Mussolini (Headkick)

In the movies machines almost never listen to music, indeed they seem to go out of their shiny way to avoid it.  So the machines in the Matrix might get some stirringly creepy soundtrack to their human-growing activities, but in the reality they would only be listening to the hum of the electricity generated.  Cybermen may have a glorified I-Pod attached to their 'ears' but it is doubtful they hear anything more than the stomp stomp of their heavy feet as they go about their deleting business.  However if machines were going to listen to music it would be tempting to consider that they would not look much further than Sheffield's Cabaret Voltaire, surely the most suitable soundtrack to any dystopian nightmare?  There is no softness in their creations, no hint of the natural world in their stark soundscapes, brittle textures and distorted vocals.  So whilst some songs recall beauty, some revel in the soppy-ness of love and human relationships.  Not the Cabs.  'The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82' could only be forged in the fires of Steel City, the sweat and grind of the mill, the continual threat of gory accident or death, hastened by the dilapidation and griminess of everyday existence.  It's like heading back to the Industrial Revolution in a rusting shopping trolley, as told creatively through tape cassettes and voice modulators, guitars pushed to their limits through electronic veils.  Obscure, obscuring.  So "Nag Nag Nag" worms its seedy way into your skull, un-fathomable instructions barked in bleary voices, seemingly recorded in a wind tunnel.  "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)" constructs its beat around metallic intestines, churning through the sewers of human existence to spew out only garbled messages.  Whilst the woozy clatterings of "Yashar" are imbued with traces of Eastern melody, generally this is a grim, if satisfying, trawl - satisfying in that it reminds forcefully that music does not always have to be a pleasant or uplifting experience - it can be discomforting, unsettling even.  Take the saxophone on "Wait and Shuffle" merely a discordant meandering, only here it sounds threatening, as far away from the smug tedium of jazz as can be imagined.  Then in 1983 'The Crackdown' lets us imagine how it might be if the machines decided that they liked to disco.  Only a very imaginative (and un-self-conscious) individual might attempt a shuffle to "Baader Meinhof".  Anyone might move themselves around to "24-24", still cloaked in urban tension, but far more accessible with it.   Still, even if the beats are more familiar, the dissonance only becomes greater with immediacy; imagine Britney Spears doing a cover of "Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself), imagine if pop could be this discomforting?  (Although the sight of Britney, post breakdown, continuing to gyrate on stage is pretty discomforting in itself)  Chinks of light are also beginning to appear in the darkness; "Animation" with its shiny guitars and jaunty, if jerky, rhythm effectively creates machine-funk, "Diskono" escapes the dirge that otherwise drowns its comrades, describing (perhaps) the ecstasy rush of LEDs, and, of course, "Just Fascination", the closest to a conventional song as the Cabs are willing to provide, sent askew with its claustrophobic atmosphere - the prototype of electro-Goth.  The future is bleak, (if) the future is Cabaret Voltaire; listen to it and despair.

The searing sound of Cabaret Voltaire - 'Nag Nag Nag'

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dot to Dot Festival 2009 - Nottingham

The Dot to Dot Festival, for those who are not familiar with it, takes place over two days in May in two cities, Bristol and Nottingham.  I had the opportunity to attend the festival in Nottingham, which spread around fifty bands across five venues.  Fortunately all of them are close to the city centre however I saw only the minutest percentage of bands (only seven!, which is pretty pathetic really) and, of course, there being many frustrating clashes where I had to choose.  Still I was very pleased with who I did see, and I liked skipping between the venues (most of which I had not been to before) with the aid of a red wristband, none of the mud or trouble with rain like a proper outdoor festival.

The Pains of being pure at heart were LOUD and reminded me more than a little of My Bloody Valentine crossed with a Sherbet Dib Dab, although they didn't make my ears bleed (fortunately as it was still only 3.30pm).  Very cutesy, very fun but not too twee!

When Maps first emerged they (he) made music from the bedroom, woozy and unfathomable.  Now Maps are out of the bedroom and onto the dance floor!  Whilst new touches to old favourites like 'Back and Forth' refreshed their sound, the new ones (including 'Let go of the fear') were a bit formula electronic for my liking, having lost some of the idiosyncratic melodic touches of 2007's 'We can create.'  One which had the repeated refrain 'Love will come' was downright sinister.

I wondered into the Rock City's basement venue to watch Telegraphs who were a bit too US Rock copyists to hold my attention for very long.  In the main room I found Mumford and Sonfour young men sounding much older than their years with a succession of folk-y songs played on acoustic guitar, double bass, steel guitar / banjo and piano.  The singer looked a bit like a young Stephen Fry as the group next to me had the pleasure of pointing out.

There was more than a shiver of anticipation for the next act Patrick Wolf; I confess I knew very little about him but it was evident from the moment he stepped onto the stage in leather leatherhosen, knee high socks, and most of Barry M's makeup range exploded onto his face that this is someone who is DIFFERENT, maybe a bit STRANGE.  Well my measure-stick of 'different' is 'Sulk' by the Associates and the music did not even come close to the bizarreity and bravery of that album.

Much of it was quite conventional if I dare say it, the addition of a violin giving an eastern European flavour which perhaps makes it different to other bands around at the moment.  Who can say?  Never mind, it was entertaining enough and Patrick had a fine pair of lungs on him.

Ladyhawke lurked in the darkness and barely came out from under her fringe, but who could blame her when for the first ten minutes there were about eight photographers sticking their camera lenses in her face?  When they had gone she seemed to visibly relax and even came out front for a guitar solo (of sorts).  Backwards-looking-but-future-sounding songs like 'Delirium', 'Magic' and 'Dusk til Dawn' were rousing and got the crowd going despite the vocals being washed out by the over-enthusiastic synths.

Omigod - Friendly Fires  - I was NOT prepared for the frenzy!  Nor the sense of euphoria despite the beer raining down and the crush of the crowd!  Starting off with the best song on their album - 'Lovesick' - it only got better and better, singer Ed Macfarlane drenched in sweat from gyrating so much, guitarist and drummer duetting on cowbell and shaker to the beginning of 'On Board', the mad hysteria to the arrival of 'Jump in the Pool'... as a total immersive experience it was more than enough to make me want to do it all over again when the final strains of 'Strobe' faded away.

To end on such a high it was difficult to go and watch another band after that, and Crystal Antlers really were not doing anything for me so reluctantly I gave up the pretence that anything could match the Friendly Fires!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

the black ghosts - the black ghosts

It is rather shameful to admit that I completely passed The Black Ghosts by when they first emerged... introduced to 'Something New', which was a rather jaunty tune with a pleasing discordant chord opening, nonetheless it (unfortunately) came across as rather insipid outside the context of its encompassing album (although in place it makes perfect sense).  It took an opening song to a recent low-budget film with lame (ahem) sparkly vampires to ignite that fatal interest....  A little bit of research and it emerges that the 'Ghosts are formed from the smouldering ashes of Simian (splitting into two with Simian Mobile Disco being the most obvious link), a band who exists virtually in my collection and is virtually never played, being a bit too day-glo and sickly sweet for more melancholy tastes.  The Black Ghosts are, however, leaning more towards this vein; despite the high energy forced into dance-able tracks like 'Repetition kills you' and 'Anyway you choose to give it' there is a certain fragility in the arrangements - a sense of loss underlying the optimism - that keeps it interesting, a vibe that hangs together upon the wistful, yet fortunately not so cloying, vocals of singer Simon Lord (he seems to have lost most of the affectation he employed in Simian although there is an ill-advised lapse into cockerney at times).  Damon Albarn also appears but I am not sure he adds much in the way of interest (meow!)  In terms of the songs... there is a certain schizoid nature at work here; if you heard some of these songs randomly you would hardly link the two together.  Take 'Full Moon' (from said sparkly-vamp-fest) which could be from the pen of a folk group, all lilting guitars and throbbing bass speaking of the earth and pine trees, immediately followed by 'I don't know' which was made for all I know by intelligent computers and robots manipulating synth pads, only the voice recognisably human (and even then you would hardly link the Simon 'here' with the lushly-tracked Simon 'before').  Both have in common that they are ridiculously catchy.  Gloriously dramatic to open, 'Some way through this' is aching to be the soundtrack to bleeding hearts, however in the next breath 'Anyway you choose to give it' revels in the obsession caused by love - although the narrator is of sufficient presence of mind to almost resent their paramour for causing this parlous state - to what must be one of the most criminally underrated disco stomps this century (it's not the kind of thing I hear at the disco anyway when it should be!)  As well as disco, the 'Ghosts also reveal a well-raided musical styles sheet, managing smooth ('It's your touch'), funky ('Until it comes again') guest singers ('Repetition kills you') and ballads ('Don't cry').  It all builds for the cataclysmic final blow-out - 'Face' - constructed around the repetitious call to arms 'you've got to face the music', underpinned with basic killer beat and 80s throwback synth crunches that makes my heart skip with excitement and notch up the volume.  One to play as loud as you dare in the hope that the neighbours will lap it up with grateful pleasure.

The video for 'Anyway you choose to give it' , which sort of goes with the idea that it's made by computers or robots!

For comparison purposes, 'LaBreeze' by Simian....

...and the brilliant 'I Believe' by Simian Mobile Disco (you might recognise the singer)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

bell hollow - foxgloves

Foxgloves are amongst my favourite flowers, a graceful blush of pink amongst the trees, carefully designed to manipulate the bee into its pollen-lain interior.... Bell Hollow likewise draw you in with a rich, velvety sound like those petals.  Whilst having more than a passing resemblance to Interpol and their ilk (not a terrible sin in my book I'll admit) Bell Hollow do not have the same aggressive edge exhibited by that band, more of a shimmery softness around the edges; so trailing a hand lazily in the water on a sultry summer's day (rather than getting all hot and irritable on the sweltering streets of New York).  Opening with the spirited dance-y 'Seven Sisters', Bell Hollow echoes all the pleasant aspects of those fey whimsical bands that you feel might be too delicate to be bruised by the rigours of success (and alas Bell Hollow are no more, adding weight to that ad hoc theory....)  Even Nick Niles singing "and we're young and wild" barely stretches to upbeat.  Even so the sound of melancholy is a wondrous thing, his voice drips with such lusciousness it has the effect of making even the most prosaic of actions compelling.  Exhibit A on 'Our Water Burden' - "take the letter on the mantle, open it slowly, read my hand-" convinces me that even a shopping list would be transformed in his capable larynx.  If you have an irrational hatred of jangly guitars then this album might be hurled against the nearest wall in a fit of pique, for herein is plenty of delicate chiming 'bell-like' guitar (I am honestly running out of metaphors and words to describe this kind of thing, no wonder music journalists go a little barmy in the search for better and greater adjectives), inducing all kinds of pleasant imaginings in the mind of the susceptible listener; personally I am still reclining in a boat slipping silently through the water, somewhat like the doomed Lady of Shalott, especially by the time 'Eyes like Planets' mopes into view.  Things head rapidly downhill after that before pining away with the despair of 'Lowlights' only...only... before there is a brief flash of resilience 'The Bottle Tree' which crackles with the bitterness of resigned 'told-you-so' - 'that was then, but this was now, you got what you wanted but it went sour' - a battered cry to be careful what you wish for if ever there was one.  Still, a good dose of melancholy which never collapses into utter misery is always welcome, only the sad note to end on reflects the fact that it DOES end here. Forever.  And the bell tolls goodbye.

The lovely strains of 'Seven Sisters' (as found on YouTube)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Stills - Logic will break your heart and Oceans will rise

I refused to even engage with the second album from The Stills (Without Feathers) as soon as I learnt that David Hamelin, who had previously been the drummer, would be taking on vocal duties alongside Tim Fletcher, who sang for the majority of their first album 'Logic Will Break Your Heart.'  Not that I have any specific prejudice against singing drummers (ahem Phil Collins ahem) and I am very sorry to Mr Hamelin but the sublimity of 'Logic Will break your heart' was mostly secured for me because of the vocals of Mr Fletcher, which are often so beautiful I often found myself longing to have his dulcet tones drip-fed into one ear continuously (the other ear would be reserved for David Sylvian) as I am certain this would make the world a much better place to inhabit.  Anyway, I am running ahead of myself to get on to the second without talking about the first... Aside from having an inspired title, 'Logic Will Break your Heart' for me was the best example of the harnessing of an intelligent post-punk sensibility and reconfiguring it through the glossy sounds of the '00s; okay they are still dealing with the same issues as everyone else, love, death, love and death, however the heartfelt nature of Tim Fletcher's keening vocals helps to lift this collections of songs above the murky parapet of indie rock and imbue them with a fatalistic core that taps into our deepest fears of melancholy and being alone-ness (or something to that effect).  An instinctive pull towards melody pervades songs like 'Changes are no good' which contains some of my most favourite lyrics ever - 'All the world's deranged and I'm left crushed, people delayed or in a rush' - for their simplicity.  'Fevered' is sheer heartache melted and poured into the amplifier, a tiny tear clinging to the ephemeral plastic of our mass culture.

Like the Killers, the Stills kind of lost their edge on their second album although, as I admit, I have not taken the time to listen to it and find out.  I will have to wallow in my ignorance for the third attempt 'Oceans will Rise' is taking my attention at the moment and... hooray there is Tim Fletcher's voice stamped all over it and David Hamelin's voice is pleasant enough and there is plenty of melody to counteract the slight element of U2-esque bombasity that has crept in, but then 'Logic...' had such an atmosphere of resigned introspection that even the slightest cranking up of those guitars could blow away its fragile pretensions.   Saying that, I think The Stills have sacrificed some of their quirkiness for conventionality, unless they were a conventional band all along and 'Logic...' was merely an aberration.  Still, whilst some of the songs are forgettable ('Hands on Fire' is pretty bland, 'I'm with You' predictably dull) there is enough to make you hope; 'Snow in California' is a lovely song with seductive harmonies, 'Snakecharming the masses' a more low-key appeal and unusual structure; an achingly beautiful song seems to be trying to get free from 'Dinosaurs' if it wasn't for the intrusive 'rawk' guitar that stomps heavily all over the fledging attempt.  So 'Logic...' still beats the pants off 'Oceans' merely for its refusal to get too enmeshed in the need to be anthemic  - for this reason, 'Oceans' seems rather forced instead of effortless. 

Courtesy of YouTube, the sublimity of 'Changes are no good' from 'Logic will break your heart'

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking it easy with Mansun and Marion

There seems to be a 90s revival happening at the moment, lots of rumours flying around about the 'seminal' (I say this with a heavy amount of sarcasm) 90s band The Stone Roses reforming, and The Charlatans and Saint Etienne playing at the Summer Sundae festival in Leicester this August, to suggest but two things floating around the Internet ether.  So I decided to have a listen tonight to some tunes that I was listening to in that very decade.  A couple I have to mention; the first is 'Take it Easy Chicken' by Mansun.  I was never a huge fan but I did love this song, due to the wonderful sneering vocals and the dense guitar riff that drives into your skull with the subtlety of a migraine.  Besides the gratuitous incorporation of a farmyard animal into a song title is pretty funny.  The second song I 're-discovered' was 'Sleep' by Marion; poor Marion never really seemed to get anywhere and I think they ended up re-releasing Sleep twice in slightly different versions.   Like 'Take it easy chicken' I get the sense that Marion do not really like the protagonist of their song, although singer Jaime Harding is too polite to sound really cruel.  I always like the lyric 'Go to sleep there's more fish in the sea' as a potential put-down, sadly I have never had an occasion to use it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

empires and dance - simple minds

It's always an exciting moment when an assumption that you have held for such a long time is irrevocably shattered in the light of a new discovery.  I was always dismissive of Simple Minds based on the fact that when I was conscious enough to listen to and remember music their output was pretty much the overblown stadium rock God posturing of the mid to late 80s which I cannot help feel numb towards (stadium rock in general that is).  There's nothing wrong with ambition yet achieving the pinnacles of success (almost) inevitably mean a slide downwards and the 80s are littered with countless bands who reached the stars only to be burnt and cringe into a congealed mass of MOR.  Of course there are exceptions to the rule, however based on my admittedly scanty knowledge, Simple Minds appear to fit into this arbitrary category quite nicely.  Reading the reviews for their 1980 album Empires and Dance it seemed to suggest it was something of a masterpiece and having listened it is hard not to think it is far more sophisticated than their later rock efforts.  Not that it was even popular at the time, like many of the bands I have discovered in recent months abandoned by their record companies and the public, it does not seem much of a coincidence that much of it is dark (read miserable), experimental (read all over the place) and oblique (read incomprehensible lyrics).  I have no idea what Jim Kerr is singing half the time but something about his pronunciation makes it seem important.  Opener I Travel bursts brightly into being quite aware of its brilliance, a sparkling intensity of spacey synths, squalling guitar and decadent disco that could slip into the charts today and you would swear it was by Ladyhawke or White Rose Movement or Neon Neon it is so NOW (but of then) except for Kerr's unmistakable vocal style of course (him not being a woman either which is all the rage in electro in the noughties). It all ends too soon.  Today I died again is heavy with echo and subdued in comparison, concerned with a life lost - 'The clothes he wears, date back to the war.'  Celebration is starker still, a glam-stomp only someone forgot to put the glam in, disappearing with it into the void instead.  This Fear of Gods is almost-trance drip dripping into consciousness (like a fast train travelling through snow-bound mountains) until it turns on a chord and disrupts itself crashing into brighter sparks.  So many echoes here... Capitol City reminds me of dirge-pop, not in a good way particularly.  'Hey Waiter' things are getting a bit peculiar around here, firstly Constantinople Line comes over like a Gothic Japan, and now some woman is talking in French (a la Visage), until a nursery rhyme mash-up and hideous wounded saxophone keep cutting her off (aha must be twist/run/repulsion then).    Its back to business with Thirty Frames of Second channelling the same nervy sense of paranoia that would define post-punk pioneers  like Magazine, and the shiny synths here reminiscent of those great 80s school TV programmes we watched like Dark Towers and one I cannot remember the name of but it concerned an spooky boy alien who landed in a gravel pit.  Kant-Kino has a great title and lovely squelchy synth attack which comes and goes again before it is even introduces itself properly. You have to love how some bands can just throw away a great idea like that. Oh for the experimentation of youth!  Which leaves the final Room 'I only live here, a fragile man' emerging from the slow burning mire, only to peter out again...  Empires and dance indeed, the hedonism before the crash (as we may/may not be experiencing again), the sound of a band struggling to contain a thousand ideas (so lets put them all in).

A performance of the brilliant 'I Travel' from 1980 (with thanks to YouTube)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Here comes everybody - the wake

In 1985 Scotland's The Wake made the kind of music where you are afraid to sneeze in case you disrupt the delicate melodies; even breathing seems a harsh activity in the company of the ethereal Here comes everybody a relatively hidden gem in the history of Factory records.  Although at first condemned for producing sub-Joy Division standard post-punk dirges on their debut (as must every band signed to Factory at the time) by the mid-80s The Wake were coating their tales of love lorn and love lost in woozy blankets of loveliness, sugaring the misery so to speak.  Elements of pop and dub-tinged bass provide the bedrock bubbling away beneath which prevents songs from floating into the ether or the sensitive listener either drowning in sorrow or in syrup, whilst the vocals are gentle without sounding too twee or cloying.  Indeed singer Caesar sounds so doleful, even on the more upbeat songs like Talk about the past,  you might have, like me, the strong desire to want to force feed him with fairy cakes and tea until he gives in and raises a smile.  Nevertheless it is the fragile beauty of the triumvirate of Torn Calendar, All I Asked You To Do and Here Comes Everybody which all deal to some extent with the disappointment caused by love (a good topic for the day after Valentine's) which are the most endearing.  Here Comes Everybody overlies cavernous drums with tender melodies and crushing heartache - 'I lost you in a lonely crowd, you wanted to be free / you wanted to be someone else, I'll always disagree" whilst All I Asked You To Do wears its pop sensibilities on its sleeve and, like The Cure at their best, is infectiously catchy, the simple melody underlain with mists of synth to create a dream-like atmosphere.  Torn Calendar is the wispiest little thing, best consumed in the quiet rather than the bustle of everyday life.   Together with The Names (sort of their label mates) The Wake create soundtracks to lose yourself in the waves of soothing melody.

Friday, February 13, 2009

new song - Howard Jones

Seeing Howard Jones on Top of the Pops performing New Song with a semi-naked man in chains standing beside him is one of my earliest memories, and for some reason it has always stuck with me.  Listening to the song now in adulthood it seems a very peculiar juxtaposition between a rather twee and naive-sounding primitive synth-driven muzak sound with very grown-up lyrics exhorting us to be all post-modern and open-minded, so 'don't crack up, bend your brain, see both sides, throw off your mental chains' which has subconsciously become a kind of mantra. It is a shame that after writing such lyrics as 'challenging preconceived ideas' HJ went and blandly called it 'New Song', which, along with the dated soundtrack, unfortunately detracts from what I think is still a strong and important message especially when in the depths of a 'I have no reason to be here' existential crisis.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pop Always Shines on TV

Two videos from the 80s which both happen to revolve around the act of watching the television in an otherwise deserted room - Independence Day by The Comsat Angels and Visions of China by Japan. Both want to convey an important message. With respect to both songs being fantastic, the production values of the videos are pretty terrible and suspiciously similar.

Poor Comsat Angels' singer Steven Fellows is agitated because instead of the usual Saturday night entertainment he is being subjected to continual images of people in uniform marching through New York and rockets being launched. Like him I would be pretty frustrated if that happened. So he gets together with his band-mates to sing about it.

Poor David Sylvian looks pretty bored too, trapped in a room with only a TV and jigsaw to occupy him. Occasionally he puts the TV on but like the Comsat Angels' TV this one is faulty and keeps showing only static and unreal images of China. Oh look there's some people marching in uniform! Even worse the only clothes he has left to wear are a check shirt and some dungarees. Bravely he struggles on and even manages to complete his jigsaw before being rescued by his bandmates and taken to a fancy dress Communist party.

When the Postman Doesn't Call on Valentine's Day

The shops are awash with hearts and flowers and chocolates and all the trappings of a commercially insipid and putrid Valentine's Day.  Call me bitter but in the spirit of being perverse I have concocted my own Anti-Valentines compilation, selecting the most twisted, miserable and bleak songs which bring either unsympathetic thoughts of love or present an alternative to being trapped in the nightmare of what constitutes the perfect ideal vision of a romantic relationship (as in the fantasies of advertising companies).  Hey so they're not all totally connected to love but the title alone should convey enough:

Touchy! - A-ha
Tears Are Not Enough - ABC
Dog Eat Dog - Adam and the Ants
I could be Happy - Altered Images
Hope there's someone - Anthony and the Johnsons
It's Better this Way - Associates
What's A Girl To Do? - Bat for Lashes
Small Talk Stinks - Bauhaus
I don't love anyone - Belle and Sebastian
Blue it is - Billy Mackenzie
Declare Independence - Bjork
Love Burns - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
No Need to Cry - British Sea Power
Why Should I Settle for You - Candie Payne
Maybe Someday - The Cinematics
Love + Pain - Clor
Men's Needs - The Cribs
Music is My Hot Hot Sex - CSS
How Beautiful You Are - The Cure
We're So Happy - Danse Society
Some Kind of Fool - David Sylvian
The Trial - Dead Can Dance
I Luv U - Dizzee Rascal
I Love You Cause I Have To - Dogs Die in Hot Cars
Darling, You're Mean - The Duke Spirit
Is There Something I Should Know? - Duran Duran
Getting Away With It - Electronic
There's A Ghost In My House - The Fall
Get Up and Use Me - Fire Engines
Bandages - Hot Hot Heat
Leif Erikson - Interpol
Fall in Love With Me - Japan
Don't Let Him Waste Your Time - Jarvis Cocker
Heart and Soul - Joy Division
Everyday I love you Less and Less - Kaiser Chiefs
Destroy Everything You Touch - Ladytron
Can't Stand Me Now - The Libertines
I Want to Burn Again - Magazine
Going Missing - Maximo Park
Jealousy - Octopus
She's a Rejector - Of Montreal
Rip It Up - Orange Juice
XOYO - The Passage
Chained - Paul Haig
The Murder of Love - Propaganda
Lipgloss - Pulp
You and I - Mass
Love is the Drug - Roxy Music
Only Love Can Break Your Heart - Saint Etienne
Dirty Disco - Section 25
Overrated - Siobhan Donaghy
Typical Girls - The Slits
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before - The Smiths
Say Hello, Say Goodbye - Soft Cell
I'm Free - Soup Dragons
I Think I'm in Love - Spiritualized
Still in Love Song - The Stills
Beautiful Alone - Strangelove
Walk on By - The Stranglers
Is This It - The Strokes
Life's What you Make It - Talk Talk
Watch me Bleed - Tears for Fears
That Move - Teddy Thompson
Infected - The The
United - Throbbing Gristle
Suffocated Love - Tricky
Rockwrock - Ultravox
You've got my number (why don't you use it) - The Undertones
Femme Fatale - The Velvet Underground
History - The Verve
Get Free - The Vines
Pagan Lovesong - Virgin Prunes
All I asked you to do - The Wake
Inaction - We are Scientists
Freeze - We are Performance
Last Christmas - Wham!
Love is a Number - White Rose Movement
Fell in Love With A Girl - The White Stripes
Must be the Moon - !!!

abc - lexicon of love

On the subject of Sheffield bands, ABC are another ubiquitous 80s band but once which I feel were right to be lauded, particularly for their 1982 album Lexicon of Love (I am working on the theory that 1982 was one of the best years for music in the world ever).  It's totally a concept album - Martin Fry gets dumped and writes a whole album's worth of material about it, poor man must have suffered- however it is a concept that works brilliantly.  It's got some of the symbols that stand for some of worst excesses of 80s music to boot like saxophones, orchestras, irony and that kind of histrionic texture that can swathe the music in syrupy gloop if its not carefully applied by someone like Trevor Horn.  Yet this is when pop was at its finest and this is one of pops finest attempts at capturing the headiness of a time when the UK was crawling out of the despair of the late 70s and men could wear make-up and have bouffant hair and sing in gold lame suits on Top of the Pops and nobody would bat an eyelid (although it was supposed to be the dark ages then in comparison to our supposedly more tolerant present).  Songs like Poison Arrow are stupidly catchy at the same time as being gently nasty - 'who broke my heart, you did' cannot be more direct and seething - and anyone who is not a sobbing wreck by the end of All of my Heart blatantly has not got one.  Even the less well known songs like Tears are not enough and Valentine's Day keep pace, Date stamp beginning with the sound of cash machines and exposing the business of love for the fraud it is (ironically it is almost a dead cert that some of these songs will be doing the rounds on those cheesy Valentine's Day compilations).  I also love the trivia that the girl who inspired this album was invited in for a cameo - she is the girl saying 'goodbye' on The Look of Love, part one.

 Here is a glimpse of the famous gold suit.

simple minds - promised you a miracle

I always mightily disliked Simple Minds, mostly because they are one of those bands like Coldplay and U2 who have that overbearing sense of bluster and swagger which suggests that, wrongly or rightly, the limelight is more important to them than the music.  They were part of Live Aid.  Like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran they are always trotted out as an example of an archetypal 80s band like there is nobody else to choose from.  Their most popular songs are dull bland and pompous like Don't you (forget about me).  Bizarrely enough however I was inspired though (by listening to Spandau Ballet of all things) to investigate as to whether their earlier incarnations would yield any interesting surprises.  And it did.  (This is clearly a dangerous challenge to set myself, after all what if I started liking early stuff by Bon Jovi or something???)  I was drawn towards the shimmering, tangential pop of Promised you a miracle delighting in its attempt to eschew the usual verse chorus set-up for leaping straight into the chorus, Jim Kerr's posturing vocals interwoven with a pleasant jangle reminiscent of fellow Scots Orange Juice (although the echo stops there) and delicate synths.  It's pretty funky compared to their leaden attempts at rock that came later.  Notable mentions to fellow companions from New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84), the dreamy stylings of Glittering Prize and the title song, with its incredibly familiar synth-led melody which I recognise from some crappy dance tune of a couple of years back, Open Your Mind by Usura.  It's amazing what dance music has cannibalised.  Perhaps there IS something in my nascent theory that 2 Unlimited were inspired by John Foxx...

A performance of said song on the much-missed Top of the Pops.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

delicatessen - there's no confusing some people

In an unexpected case of history repeating itself I found the third, and last, Delicatessen (who formed in Leicester no less) album from 1998 by accident in the secondhand racks in Record Collectors in Broomhill, Sheffield, the same place I found hustle into bed (1996). It was only two pounds, cheaper than a pint of beer, so how could I leave it there? (I wondered at the same time if I was flicking through CDs which had been there since I had left University (getting on for over 10 years) which gave me some comfort that one part of Sheffield had not disappeared under a shiny new, ultimately soulless, tower block). Anyway the album itself is remarkably pleasant after hustle, not so filthy and violent and repugnant which admittedly, for me, gave that album its charm. Singer Neil Carlill's voice is as rough and ready as ever, the songs tend to ramble a bit, but there is a brightness and a wistfulness about the music which did not exist before, although the lyrics seem to me as oblique, Lightbulbs and Moths takes its title literally for instance. The sun is beginning to shine through the cracks in the boarded-up windows, alas it was perhaps too late for chart glory (if that was the aim), although it still outshines a lot of the trash churned out in the 90s, recall for instance (in whispers) Sleeper, Powder, theaudience, Menswear and their ilk.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

comsat angels - sleep no more

Hailing from Sheffield, Comsat Angels appear to one of those 'What if...' bands, bands that should have been / should be more famous than they were/are (I am finding that a similar dirge can be sung for many bands found upon my late 70s/early 80s journey of discovery). Founded in the years of hopelessness that gripped the country, Comsat Angels released three albums of consistent magnificence (according to the reviews) and then started to disintegrate under pressure from lack of success and found their sound compromised and diluted (it is telling that a future reconciliation concert will feature songs only from the first three albums). At the moment this is conjecture to me as I have only experienced the second album, however what I have found there has encouraged me to seek out more in my own immutable way via a CD binge and whilst awaiting those I am availing myself of Sleep no more (1981) the second. And what a bleak album it seems at first listen. Along with Cabaret Voltaire churning out the grim-ness, Pulp (about to) relish in the narrative detail of the baser elements of human behaviour, ABC cataloguing the wreckage of relationships and Human League ignoring the dour past for future sparkle, it is a wonder that Sheffield did not collapse under the weight of its despair at this time. However there is miserable bleak and stately bleak and this falls into the latter category. At first listen it seems musically quite minimalist however there are hidden depths here; Dark Parade is majestic, a slow simmering anger of a song, building in tension until singer Simon Fellows cries out 'No release' in a way to make the nerves in your body tingle all over. The title track Sleep No More creates an eerie atmosphere in its attempt to go nowhere except into the realms of insomnia. Eye of the Lens was not on the original release however it is a joyful inclusion here, its searing tempo and buoyant rhythm underlying a creepy tale which seems to owe a debt to Kafka. Revelling in uncheery paranoia it may be, Sleep No More somehow elevates itself above the turgid introspection that mires bands like Radiohead.

Reasons why the saxophone is not the work of the devil No 3

Switch by Siouxsie and the Banshees

In different places into wrong categories / Familiar problems cross the wires

Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals recently proclaimed somewhere that the saxophone would not appear on their next album; to all intents and purposes this is cool, after all the saxophone is associated largely with the cheesy blandness of airport lounges, elevator shuffles and that horrid excuse for improvisation called 'jazz' (bebop bedobop bedeedeoolbop in the best Howard Moon impression) as well as the worst excesses of the 80s like the godawful Baker Street.  Yet the saxophone can appear in some strange contexts.  Like, for instance, who would ever dream that Siouxsie and the Banshees would ever allow a saxophone even ten foot near them?  The Banshees are associated for me with gothic spikiness, spitting in the face of established taste and grubby glamour, into which the bright shiny saxophone with its myriad buttons and fussy detailing would NEVER figure.  Yet there, in their debut The Scream (1978), is definitely the sound of the sax.  It would seem to be the fault of guitarist John McKay.   It is exhilarating the juxtaposition between the two; the sax here is not optimistic, shiny nor bland, it is a dread beast filled with the anxiety and despair for (of) the age, transplanted into a keening riff that rattles the nerves and silences the sneer of punk.  Such a doomy (mis) use of an instrument serves well the dark lyrics and dramatic vocal stylings of Siouxsie.  

Thursday, February 05, 2009

dead can dance - dead can dance

Despite mankind's onward climb towards civilisation there is the sense that the primitive pagan elements of life are never far away, whether it is the underlying violence that simmers in society, erupting in occasional bouts of violence (whether by the knife or by the gun), the superstitions that many continue to practice on a daily basis (however idiotic it seems I cannot go under ladders, put new shoes on the table or open an umbrella inside), or the attraction of simplistic, tribal influenced music, that manifests itself in repetitive and hypnotic rhythms. The kind of music which grabs you in blind reverie and taps into those shadowy parts of your brain which have eluded evolution and the increased sophistication and complexity of modern day living.  And so - Leaping into consciousness with the sound of explosions, ecstatic yelps and compelling rhythms of The Fatal Impact, the debut from Dead Can Dance captures the imagination with the power of its primal borrowings.  Singers Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry yelp, glower, sigh and yodel their way through musical atmospheres reminiscent of the wildest terrain, resolutely earthly but soaring unearthly, seeming to explore the baser instincts of the human psyche ready to burst from the civilised shell at a moment's provocation, as well as its great beauty.  Songs like A Passage in Time and The Trial are dark and elegant, as 'Gothic' as they come; Frontier like the Cocteau Twins had they emerged from the rain-forest.  Despite the shadows they evoke it's not all darkness - the restless shifts of Ocean have a subtle beauty that recalls the sunlight glinting on the waves, whilst East of Eden effects a, dare I say it, jaunty tone that lightens the mood even where the lyrics do not, until the shivers of Threshold return us to the cold.  

To prove their power - The Trial live (1986):

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

See how Goth they are

A bit of Danse Society courtesy of YouTube

Danse Society - Seduction (The Society Collection)

Danse Society are a kind of comedy, electro Goth that sounds like the version of Goth that the Mighty Boosh might come up with given a couple of keyboards, guitars and some very big hair. If you don't believe me, let's take a look at the ingredients: Discordant guitars - check! Dramatic singer, booming voice, pronouncing his words very properly - check! Synth-tastic atmospherics - check! A drummer about to collapse from pounding the drums so much - check! VERY SERIOUS song titles with slightly disappointing lyrics - check! Throbbing bass - check! Black clothes - check! Dry ice - check! (see video posted above for proof)
That's not honesty, that's delusion
There feels to be a lot of love in this collection, even if it does not always quite hit the heights of musical genius, with singles from 1981-1983 released by the band through the Society label. Neither are there any huge surprises here if you have been paying attention to all those electroclash 80s throwbacks well the template basically starts here. 'Clock' starts powerfully enough and continues in the same vein with a simple chiming guitar riff over driving percussion, the singer pronouncing Must get 'Motivation before they stop the clock' which suggests that he must be having the same day at work as I am. 'Continent' goes darkly sci-fi before launching itself into a stomping rhythm, undermined by the disturbing, whispered vocals.
In your nightmares we're all so happy
The stop-start staccato opening of 'These Frayed Edges' segues into a more conventional rock outing, the repetition of 'frayed edges' suggests the want of a more convincing chorus - although the throwaway line about the 'from the future' is what got me thinking about the Boosh in the first place and their future Electro Sailors. They do like a dramatic opener and 'We're so Happy' does not disappoint - the sound of thunder announces its arrival, building to a crescendo with the stamp of synth and drums, when (hopefully) the singer throws away his cape and reaches into the air as he sings forth the first note - yep, it's that kind of song. Yet something seems to hold DS back, perhaps the tempo is a bit sludgy and despite the promises of triumph it never really gets off the ground. 'Women's Own' takes clattering saucepans as inspiration, a sly nod to the housewife's choice of magazine? 'Ambition' 's long, ponderous opening eventually explodes into a decent stab at melodrama, and whilst 'Danse/Move' is another attempt at greatness it unfortunately fails to set the dancefloor alight but we might at least see it smoulder.
That's not love, that's confusion
An album, then, of not-quite-getting-there, yet endearing with it.

Rediscovering the 90s

I decided to go through my CDs and get rid of the ones I never listen to anymore which seemed a little like sacrilege except for the benefits in terms of storage purposes. Already my CD tower is filled to the brim and the rest of the collection must languish in a box on top of the wardrobe so they do not ever stand a chance of getting played. They might as well be taken to the charity shop to be picked up by someone who might love them more than I. Most of the CDs hidden away are from the 90s when I got into the CD buying habit thanks to Record Collector and Fopp in Sheffield. Record Collector had a massive selection of second hand CDs, perfect for skint students and those obscure records impossible to find anywhere else. Fopp too was outrageously cheap compared to the HMVs and Virgins and also specialised in the harder-to-find albums, e.g. anything that is not mainstream. Looking through the box I was reminded of my one-time consuming interest in drum and bass - like Roni Size, Spring Heel Jack and Goldie - and those strange, lolloping, descended-from-baggy bands like Campag Velocet (which appealed to me for the obvious Clockwork Orange influence but who played one of the most poorly attended gigs I have ever seen) and Regular Fries, who I saw live a couple of times and massively enjoyed because they were completely bonkers, one of their instruments being a bird cage festooned with objects. Then there were the romantic dreamers Suede and the Verve, whose fortunes, and ability, fluctuated quite wildly depending on the mental stability of their frontmen, and, of course Pulp, the first 'proper' band I saw live, being introduced to the craziness that is going to gigs (the second, Suede, was even more carnage) and stood 2 inches away from Jarvis Cocker and got very excited, as well as my sister and I queuing outside HMV in Bristol for hours to get their autographs (whatever happened to Sound City?) It's interesting that a few of these bands seem to be absent from iTunes - for instance Dark Star whose song Gracedelica is a tantilising reference on a cassette tape I cannot play, and an unknown band with a song called 'New Brunswick' - so perhaps I will have to wait until the 90s revival proper before I can listen to the 2nd and 3rd albums by the Regular Fries (I only ever thought there was one!). And bis (!) purveyors of beyond-tweeness with their secret vampire soundtrack and eurodiscos, whatever happened to them?

White Lies - To Lose My Life

I was looking forward to hearing the new album from White Lies, the next group of indie kids to have jumped onto the 80s throwback wagon (wow what would THAT look like??). So far I have only made through one song - To Lose My Life - before laughter prevented me from downloading any more. Its not that I don't like it, far from it, its very catchy in its own right. As usual the media are rushing to compare them to Joy Division, originators of the raincoats brigade, however this is a lazy reference as they bear only passing resemblence. I would like to think that Ian Curtis would wince to think that the excruciating lyrics - example 'Let's grow old together / and die at the same time' - was being compared to his poetry! I would suggest that White Lies have lifted their influences more from the Midge Ure-era Ultravox / Duran Duran school of weighty and portentous song-writing, coupled with the bombast ambition of U2 and Coldplay and Snow Patrol and Elbow and Editors and all those bands stuffed with earnest young men, proving too that they can pack out stadiums with their particular brand of melancholy-lite. And that is why Joy Division are the wrong comparison, their grief was private somehow and introspective, whereas White Lies cannot quite shake the sense of hope and optimism in their music, which Joy Division did well to banish entirely.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Europe after the Rain - John Foxx

After the emotionally distanced and anxiety-ridden Metamatic (Underpass and On the Plaza are anti-advertisements for the modern world) John Foxx reconnects with his romantic side and goes all exuberant for Europe after the Rain.