Category: Reviews (recorded)
Little Empires: on Wales, history, identity, and the Manic Street Preachers
‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’
One: All Surface No Feeling
“The submerged land of Cardigan Bay is called Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the lowland hundred’). It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. Seithennin was keeper of the sluices, and one evening when there was a great banquet he became drunk and left the sluices open. The water rushed in and drowned the inhabitants. The poet Taliesin was the only one to escape alive.
“When man first came to live on the coast of Wales (sometime between the Neolithic and the Iron Age), the sea level was still rising between Wales and Ireland, separating the two countries further and further, and the legend relating to the drowning of the Lowland Hundred probably developed as a result of folk-memory of a sudden coastal flooding many centuries ago. The remains of peat and tree trunks which are visible on the beaches when the tide is far out further captured man’s imagination. Similar traditions are connected with certain Welsh lakes [and] with other parts of the Welsh coast… The moralistic and onomastic elements in all these traditions are very obvious.”
– Robyn Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (1989)
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
– from The Wasteland, T S Eliot (1922)
Lately I’ve been revisiting both the land of my birth and upbringing and mid-period Manic Street Preachers. The latter was a moderately painful process which has, incidentally, left me staggered all over again that ‘Tomorrow Steve Ovett has injured his calf’ was considered to pass muster as a lyric. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that everything good about the band vanished along with Richey; I think Design for Life is, while maybe not the best thing they’ve accomplished, at least the most valedictory, the thing I remain most proud of them for doing. But yeah, they should perhaps have called a halt to things shortly after that. Continue reading
The outside of everything: a Howard Devoto primer.
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
Ginger snaps: Nicola Roberts, Cinderella’s Eyes
Written for Wears the Trousers 10.10.11.
With Cheryl Cole having reached the apex of her particular fairytale upon her elevation to international pop princess, spare a thought for her Girls Aloud colleagues still at home raking the embers. While Cinderella’s Eyes is by no means a game-changer in the pop world, it succeeds at least in making a more engaging claim to the pop crown than either Cole or Coyle. After a so-so opening with the admirably obnoxious ‘Beat Of My Drum’ and the disjointed ‘Lucky Day’, Roberts lets the veil fall. Listing a litany of woes – her own insecurities, displacement, resentment at being subject to the whims of others, an endless parade of ‘fakers’, mean girls, industry executives, backstabbing, vaulting ambition, superficiality, disingenuousness and the inability to speak openly and honestly – against a relentless, incongruously chirpy off-kilter electro pulse and drum machine pounding, studded with the odd stab at Feminism 101 (“Makeup is make-believe”), it’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat. Continue reading
Patti Smith, Outside Society
Written for Wears the Trousers 09.09.11
The past few years have consolidated Patti Smith’s position as godmother and high priestess among women musicians. Following her induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, last year saw Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, receive a National Book Award and a future stage adaptation, and just last week she was awarded the coveted Polar Music Prize by the King of Sweden. Where this leaves her as an artist who once proudly and profanely proclaimed her position “outside of society” is anyone’s guess, but the establishment’s recent embrace of Smith appears to have been the spur for the release of this collection, a primer or sampler of her work aimed, presumably, at those discovering it for the first time. Continue reading
St Vincent, Strange Mercy
Written for Wears the Trousers 30.08.11
After her virtuoso debut Marry Me and 2009’s nicely disorientating follow-up Actor, singer and guitarist Annie Clark returns with this itchily anticipated third album. Recorded in her pre-Manhattan hometown of Dallas, Texas, Strange Mercy enlists the assistance of several musicians, including Beck’s musical director Brian LeBarton on keyboards, but Clark has no problem asserting her own musical, lyrical and vocal presence here. Her original concept for the album was to “redefine the idea of the guitar hero, utilising the instrument as a pointillist artist might wield a brush,” and it’s an approach which translates into a glistening, lush and luxuriant listen, full of digital cascades and string-laden crescendos, underpinned by an unsteady percussive stomp. The overall effect evokes a more fragile mid-period Blondie, or Goldfrapp with less of the sledgehammer sleaziness. Continue reading
The Raincoats, Odyshape
Written for Wears the Trousers 26.08.11
The wave of musical experimentation which took place in the wake of punk generated many new and startling sounds, some of which endured and grew in influence while others became lost to musical history. The Raincoats, a London-spawned, ever-shifting collective based around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, are now firmly in the former category. Their self-titled debut was described by Vivien Goldman as “the first woman’s rock album” to emerge, its lack of musical or vocal hierarchies or focus-pulling solo virtuosity pioneering an arresting and persuasive kind of rock without the cock. In 1981, Odyshape continued to shift the rules of the game. Continue reading
Robots in Disguise, Happiness v Sadness
Written for Wears the Trousers 19.07.11
Dee Plume and Sue Denim return with their fourth studio outing, another of the increasing number of albums funded by fans through the Pledge Music scheme. It’s a testament to the enthusiastic loyalty that Robots In Disguise can command that they have a following prepared to keep the faith when the mainstream industry isn’t. And, you know, why should it be? The pseudonymous duo are an intensely idiosyncratic band, still ploughing their furrow of superior electro-punk, with occasional shades of a sharper-toothed, steelier Shampoo, faux-naif femme fatale Claire Grogan, or a Fisher-Price Kills. Their music is curiously compelling more than it is kitsch or cutesy, though, and their chosen personas are insouciant, no-nonsense and utterly unafraid of independence. Continue reading
Girls in Trouble, Half You, Half Me
Written for Wears the Trousers 11.07.11
You can argue that the Devil has all the best tunes, but the Bible at least occasionally does a nice line in storytelling. Melodrama and metaphors for human existence pour off the scriptural pages etched in blood and tears. For Brooklyn poet, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alicia Jo Rabins, stories from the Hebrew scriptures contemplate the complexity of women’s lives in a way that remains relatable today. Her attempt to demonstrate this is Girls In Trouble, an ongoing art-rock project undertaken with her partner and bassist Aaron Hartman, wedding an interest in ancient scriptural stories to expertise in string-led indie and folk-rock. Continue reading
Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding
Written for Wears the Trousers 21.06.11
Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday a few weeks back was marked, in part, by reflections on the essentially blokey nature of his observable fanbase. While largely true, this has done nothing to lessen the appeal of his songs as cover material for women from Mae West to Sheryl Crow, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s turn as the man himself in the 2007 biopic ‘I’m Not There’. This re-recording by Thea Gilmore of Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding then, isn’t a revolutionary move, but not a foolish one either. It follows Gilmore’s performance at a Dylan tribute concert earlier this year, as well as, all the way back in 2002, her acclaimed recording of his ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. That song appears again on this album, as do guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, along with Thea’s longterm collaborator, bassist and producer, Nigel Stonier. Continue reading
Emmy the Great, Virtue
Written for Wears the Trousers 14.06.11
There always was more to Emma-Lee Moss than the flimsy whimsy of many of her contemporary dabblers in the rapidly evaporating pool of antifolk. This album confirms that she has greater things to offer. Virtue, written and recorded with Younghusband’s Euan Hinshelwood, released on the band’s own imprint, and financed through the Pledge Music fan-funding scheme, is a very different animal to her 2009 debut, First Love. It’s luxuriantly and smoothly produced, assured and accomplished, its ten tracks forming a cohesive whole in contrast to the debut’s collection of endearingly raw and disparate songs. Continue reading
Sons & Daughters, Mirror Mirror
Written for Wears the Trousers, 13.06.11
Given how quiet they’ve been since 2008′s This Gift, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sons & Daughters had called it a day. Not so. The Scottish quartet are back on the road and back on record this summer with third album Mirror Mirror, a record that not only marks a change in direction for the band but also offers Optimo Music’s JD Twitch his first role as producer, making it something of a gamble. But it’s one that pays off. Continue reading
The Indelicates, David Koresh Superstar
Written for Wears The Trousers.
Go go Corporate Records.
The word ‘provocative’ retains about as much meaning in contemporary art as the word ‘revolutionary’, but I’d still like to think that the Indelicates’ latest enterprise deserves more than a wearily raised eyebrow. Earnest, arch and irreverent by turns, their concept album on late cult leader David Koresh and the 1993 Waco siege is an achievement along the lines of Luke Haines’ Baader-Meinhof or Jerry Springer the Opera, and while I realise that only a certain demographic will regard that as a ringing endorsement, it is. Continue reading
Madam, Gone Before Morning
Written for Wears the Trousers.
You might recognise Sukie Smith from various acting roles, but her background on the small screen has little bearing on the widescreen feel of her current musical project. Madam are a six-piece band fronted and produced by Smith, and this is their second release after 2008’s In Case of Emergency. Smith is an accomplished composer who provided the music to the 2007 thriller Hush Your Mouth, and much of this album has the air of a similar kind of film score. The album’s title is indicative of its overall atmosphere: it brims with clandestine deeds done under cover of darkness, cryptic confessions, and regretful departures pre-sunrise. Continue reading
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman
Whenever I listen to a lot of Lupen Crook songs I can’t help (affectionately) picturing Poor Tom, the displaced nobleman in the guise of a beggar capering upon the blasted heath in King Lear. I realise this is unfair to Mr Crook aesthetically and stylistically, and in any case has hardly happened at all while listening to his latest. Home-produced and recorded in the months just before spring, Waiting for the Postman is a still and contemplative record of domestic claustrophobia, comedown and loss and their ultimate transcendence.
‘The Domestic’, low and lugubrious, starts things on a bitter and hard-bitten note, but the album’s darkly groovy self-laceration – heartbreak and paranoid withdrawal on ‘Cold Alone’, fame anticipated as soul-sucking pull on ‘Tale of an Everyman’ – is leavened with rippling rainy-afternoon melancholy and gently melodic reflections on friendship, love and their loss. ‘Chasing Dragons’, heartfelt and warm, is straightforwardly gorgeous. So is ‘Where the Crow Flies’, so is ‘Arts and Crafts’, and so is the intricately self-referential ‘A Little More Blood on the Tracks’ (and the chutzpah of giving it that title, unusually, didn’t even tickle my Dylanist gag reflex). ‘Hard Times’ is some kind of madly gleaming apocalyptic eurodisco that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Just an all-round awesome album. This record sounds like a long-held breath let out, like the aftermath of trauma, and it feels like balm applied to wounds.
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman is available here.
Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs, No Help Coming
Written for Wears the Trousers.
Holly Golightly – real name, no gimmicks – has worn a variety of hats in her almost twenty years as an iconic and inspirational recording artist, taking in styles from three-chord garage to R&B. Since 2007 her chosen outfit has been Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs, a country-infused collaboration with her longtime bandmate Lawyer Dave. Continue reading
Offcuts (The Indelicates, David Koresh Superstar)
My review of the new Indelicates album is now up at WTT. I couldn’t find a non-clunky way of including the fact that Jim-Bob of moderate Carter USM fame is on it, singing the part of Timothy McVeigh. So, uh, he is, and he does it well.
One thing which didn’t really merit a mention in the review is that the opening lines to ‘Ballad of the ATF’ fit perfectly with the opening lines of ‘Bad Romance’, which gives me a disconcerting mash-up of both in my head every time I hear either.
I also excised a paragraph of dubious necessity which ended: ‘You’d have to be an idiot to take offence at anything on this record. But as the aspiring Congressman said, there’s an awful lot of idiots out there and don’t they deserve some representation?’
And I took out the description of a particular vocal as ‘a crystalline vessel belying the bitter draughts it can contain’, because reading that back was making me want to put my own head down the toilet and flush the chain.
This album, though, go get it.
Oh, negative: The Kills, Blood Pressures
It’s been three years since the sparsely angular stylings of Midnight Boom, and even longer since the garagey growl of their early work, but the transatlantic partnership of Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince has survived the former’s sojourn among The Dead Weather’s demon blues to produce what the duo describe as their most ambitious and accomplished recording to date.
I Don’t Like Mondays: The Third Rail, ‘Run, Run, Run’
Picture, if you will, one of the more vividly and outlandishly grisly works of Hieronymus Bosch. (Hell, in these days of Web 68.0, you don’t even have to waste your energy on picturing it; here y’are.) Now imagine that some vengeful spirit has, in a fit of malevolent magic, brought such a scene to life and has set it trundling between north and central London, twenty-four hours a day, its creatures and creative torments crammed into the stifling confines of a bendy-bus. And there you have a basic idea of what it’s like commuting on the number 29.
Des Ark, Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker
Without wishing to damn with faint praise, Des Ark are very good at titles. Despite the rule about not judging a book by its cover, Don’t Rock The Boat, Sink The Fucker is a statement of militant intent which almost inevitably leads to expectations of a harder-edged musical style. Frontwoman Aimee Argote has long been steering an inconsistent course between post-punk, Appalachian folk and blistering blues-rock, and likes to keep the listener guessing. But any hopes or fears for a more aggressive direction get neatly overturned as soon as opening track ‘My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)’ announces itself with tremulous chimes and a delicate shimmer of strings.
Shilpa Ray & her Happy Hookers, Teenage & Torture
In music writing as elsewhere, shortened attention spans and a craving to be spoonfed have led to the unfortunate development of lazily reductive shorthand, enabling a user-friendly pitch of a particular artist even as it simplifies and undervalues their complexity. Hence Amanda Palmer’s pigeonholing as kooky cabaret diva, Nicki Minaj as cartoonish pocket Missy, and Shilpa Ray as whiskey-soaked wildwoman, when they’re all more interesting than that. Sure, Teenage & Torture, like 2009 debut A Fishhook An Open Eye, has the requisite blues-rock base and throat-shredding vocal superstructure to justify this stylistic categorisation, but the Mad Bad Girl tag is particularly pernicious. It’s a comforting label that makes sense of the discomforting, allowing, in this case, Ray’s rage-fuelled dissections of feminine ideals, sexual mores and consumer culture to be glossed as hysterical spectacle. The more we exoticise a performer as irrational and unfamiliar, the less valid and identifiable in our everyday surroundings we render her concerns and accusations.
A King of Shreds and Patches: Lupen Crook, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out
The Medway Towns, just far enough away from London for it to matter, have sheltered this country’s conscientious contrarians from Charles Dickens to Billy Childish. The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is the third album from the Kent Delta’s current wandering minstrel, Lupen Crook.
I hesitated over that ‘wandering minstrel’, you know, in case the description was fast becoming a cliché (or had, I don’t know, been copyrighted by Frank Turner). If that other frequently pigeonholed troubadour, Patrick Wolf, has reportedly considered changing his name to “please use a thesaurus or a brain to find another word for ‘flamboyant’ Patrick Wolf”, I wonder if, in time, Lupen Crook might end up requiring similar measures to get rid of the wandering minstrel tag.
Not that it’s an inappropriate or unhelpful label – much of Crook’s artistic strength does lie in a picaresque sense of threadbare and ramshackle rootlessness, a commitment to collectivism, a DIY approach to distribution and a palpable desire to entertain.
Anyway, the album. The Pros and Cons… is eclectic in content and form. Crook and co-conspirators Clayton Boothroyd and Bob and Tom Langridge draw on indie, ska, rockabilly, folk and anti-folk, sea shanties, twangs of grungy alt-country and swirls of Gypsy-punk, in songs that inhabit abandoned underpasses, pirate ships and blasted heaths, full of the crooked, the feral, the raw and the hopelessly romantic. They swing from the sharply catchy, gently despairing single ‘Dorothy Deserves’, to the delicacy of ‘World’s End’ and ‘How to Murder Birds’, to the full-tilt indie-rockism of ‘Devil’s Son’ or ‘Scissor Kick’.
As a frontman, Crook seems able to caper from darkly observant court-jester (Ray Davies sketched by Jamie Hewlett) to millenarian social critic (Scroobius Pip with less of the finger-wagging). The Pros and Cons of Eating Out maintains the same dignified distance from the mainstream and the metropolis which granted Crook’s debut a distinction from the post-Libertines litter, and which continues to set him apart from his peers.
Lupen Crook, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is available here.
The Walkmen: Lisbon
The Walkmen return with their sixth studio album, inspired by two trips to the Portuguese capital. The eleven songs here are confidently, intricately constructed miniatures of life, love and loss felt on a grand and sweeping scale, deftly nostalgic rather than knowingly quaint. There’s a clean and buttoned-up feel to much of Lisbon, all neat backbeat, coruscating strings, and fluidly simple arrangements reminiscent of early Sun records, while elsewhere it revs into drum-driven overdrive or dips into orchestral plunges with a flash of gleaming brass. Hamilton Leithauser’s throatily plaintive vocals dilute the surges of surf-rock, while the lyrics, reaching their summit in ‘Stranded’, conjure up images of isolation, empty streets and endless rain against a windowpane. Beside the straightforward retro-rush of ‘Angela Surf City’, ‘Blue as Your Blood’ races like a nervous pulse and ‘Victory’ sways with punchdrunk triumph before the title track brings down the curtain in epic, elegiac style.
Written for Fashion Music Style – issue #7 out now
Shock of the Newport: notes on Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’
Marx’s Europe was haunted by a single spectre, but the furthest shores of the Welsh cultural psyche are stalked by two figures as powerful as they are petrifying: the Mam and the Missus. Such well-ploughed dichotomies as that of Madonna/whore are wholly inadequate as explanations of this particular view of feminine duality. Here I shall focus on the Missus, a figure who inspires both hypersexualised fascination and visceral dread of her destructive powers. This delicate divide between titillation and terror is nowhere more suggestively straddled than in Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s seminal release ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’. A full transcription of this sadly underexplored work is available for reference here. Continue reading
Bloody Chamber Music: Rasputina, Sister Kinderhook
A fondness for Victoriana needs delicate handling. Admiration for an era in part defined by the creation of a particular proscriptive femininity can easily imply a rose-tinted romanticising of what was an age of repression, oppression, division and hypocrisy. Thankfully, Rasputina have a sufficiently modern sensibility, and their lynchpin Melora Creager is enough of a genuine history buff for the group to take an informed and analytical approach to the epoch that inspires them rather than merely revelling in the unexamined edginess of creepy girls, corsets and consumption.
This long-awaited new studio release is a return to form after 2007’s patchy Oh Perilous World!. Now established as a ‘cello-rock’ genre in its own right, on the edge of the spidery shadows cast by Siouxsie, Marilyn Manson and, more recently, Smoke Fairies, Rasputina’s music remains defined by the swoop and scrape of sharp, spindly strings. Creager’s vocals remain effectively impressionistic, if sometimes overly wedded to the Bush/Amos/Newsom school of Breathy and Tremulous. A few songs here are touched by more traditional folk, with queasily seesawing slide guitar and an occasional Appalachian twang that recalls Creager’s work with Nirvana.
Thematically, Sister Kinderhook reflects Creager’s interest in the colonial settling and taming of a restless land, as well as attendant historical oddities like the 1844 Anti-Rent Wars explored in ‘Calico Indians’ and the discovery of giant bones in Ohio. The latter tale, ‘Holocaust Of Giants’, is shrilly piped in a vocal trill conveying childlike fervour and jubilation, the song managing to suggest a look both backwards to the Victorian dinosaur craze and forward to ironic parallels between yesterday’s doomed global giants and the belligerence and hubris of today’s. ‘The 2 Miss Leavens’ explicitly compares Victorian sentiment with modern methods of remembrance, while ‘Utopian Society’ is a tragicomic-opera in miniature and ‘The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz’ is a tale that could have escaped from Angela Carter’s clutch of twisted fairystories The Bloody Chamber.
The album is also full of varying types of captivity. Creager weaves tales of girls imprisoned by domestic or social tyranny or the imperatives of industrial capitalism – the twin support-struts of Victoriana – in attics, factories, graves or “marble dressing gowns”. In the eponymous factory of ‘Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works’, Creager reimagines its workers toiling in “privileged captivity” to produce the sartorial emblems of their age, while strings are plucked like plied needles and, in the spaces between, birdsong suggests an imitation of the twittering of caged factory girls. The elegiac closing track ‘This, My Porcelain Life’ is a cool hand laid against a fevered forehead, swelling spirals of emotional cello held in vocal check by an outwardly composed narrator aware of the implausibility of her wish for independent happiness.
Emily Dickinson, another of Creager’s recurring interests, could be the inspiration for many of Sister Kinderhook’s protagonists. This perhaps accounts for the preponderance of lines recalling her ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’: feathers abound here and – despite the dire straits ascribed to the inner lives of characters more often portrayed as porcelain figurines or painted miniatures – so does hope.
Smaller reviews written for Wears the Trousers:
Izzi Dunn, ‘Tits & Ass’ [Blunt Laser remix] (single, reviewed 11/09)
Is it unfortunate or serendipitous that ‘Izzi Dunn’ sounds like the question which follows a barely bearable mauling at the hands of an incompetent inamorato? As names to conjure with go, her latest single’s not bad either. ‘Tits & Ass’ (out now – hoHO!) is the first release from the West Londoner’s second album, Cries & Smiles, expected in March, and continues to showcase her skills as a versatile singer-songwriter, arranger, and cellist – a role in which she’s played and toured with the likes of Mark Ronson, Damon Albarn, Roots Manuva, Beverley Knight and Chaka Khan.
So, ‘Tits & Ass’, eh? Was there ever an expression so superficially glossy, giggly and glamorous, and so apt to devolve upon deconstruction into its tawdry, manipulative components, leaving it looking as flat as last week’s Page 3 and only marginally more appealing than a night with Peter Stringfellow? Arguments over sexual exploitation – particularly within the entertainment industry – have filled volumes, columns and lecture halls for the past half-century. While Dunn has no dazzlingly new take on things, her lyrics offer a succinct summation of the story so far. Her vocal soundbites scattershot from sisterly pleas for self-respect (”You know there’s more to you than tits and ass”) to Sex-Positivity for Dummies (”With her pockets full, who’s exploiting who?”).
This sloganeering slips down smoothly and soulfully between blaring brass and sharply stabbing strings, while elsewhere Dunn’s voice spikes into the insistent refrain’s slippery vocal shuffle. This curiously early-’90s musical backing is perhaps incongruously euphoric – the line “Tits and ass makes the world go round” sounds closer to ironic celebration than critique – but overall Dunn hits her targets (hypocrisy, objectification and counterproductive competition) more often than she misses. ‘Tits & Ass’ is a welcome reigniting of debate on hot-button issues, as well as a reminder that there’s little better than controversy you can dance to.
Schlock Horror: Evelyn Evelyn, ‘Evelyn Evelyn’
I’m sorry to prick such a bubbly artistic conceit so early on in the game, but Evelyn Evelyn rejoice in not being real. This is the latest project from punk-cabaret diva Amanda Palmer, an album which has kicked up a predictable, and, no doubt, gratifying amount of controversy. Your enjoyment of it will ultimately hinge upon how edifying or entertaining you consider the concept of Palmer and co-conspirator Jason Webley playing ‘Evelyn Evelyn’, conjoined twin sisters, whose grim history and eventual redemption is recounted in this musical misery-memoir.
It’s hard to argue for this album on its musical merits. Evelyn Evelyn is a wearily familiar imitation of the Dresden Dolls at their most by-numbers: listlessly insistent piano and vocals that murmur and sigh broken confessions. It’s evocative enough in its drawing on imagery and music from turn-of-the-century music-halls and carnivals, creaky backwoods Americana and the shlocky horror of Todd Browning, but, aside from its retro-curiosity value, it contains little of musical substance. Maybe ‘Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?’ or ‘You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister’ will strike you as halfway amusing parodies of, respectively, rictus-grinned ragtime and maudlin country. Maybe you’ll find some shred of sympathy or wonder in the tripartite ‘The Tragic Events of September’, in which the sisters pick over their story so far in spoken-word that manages the remarkable feat of being harder to listen to for how cloyingly cutesy it is than for the morbid nature of what it describes. Maybe you’ll be charmed by the closing cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, even though it sounds like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain without their comic panache. Or maybe, like the punters played to in ‘A Campaign of Shock and Awe’, you’re just happily, unironically here for the freakshow.
This project would perhaps have been better received had Palmer in particular not spent so much of her career singing – far more convincingly and movingly – from the inside of the socio-cultural cages in which she now gleefully imprisons her protagonists. Palmer and Webley’s decision to play both ringmaster and self-styled circus freak; their thoroughly unexamined ability to step between the powerlessness of the controlled and the privilege of the controller; and their appropriation of objectification for what amounts to a sniggering cabaret turn rather than the deadly-serious lived experience it comprises for others, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Neither of them appears able to sing without smirking, but there’s little sense that their creations are there to be laughed with, rather than at.
The album tackles its chosen themes – disability, exploitation, sexual abuse – with an alarming mixture of the knowing and the mawkish. Its flaws are not that it goes too far in its attempts to épater le bourgeois, or that it pushes any boundaries worth pushing; it’s just self-satisfied and slightly – not even shockingly – distasteful. So in awe of its own edginess that it loses the necessary self-awareness to rein in self-indulgence, this album is as much a study of the vanishing of hipsterdom up its own fundament as it is a critique of performance, modernity or fame. For all the overblown horror and tawdry tragedy detailed in the story of Evelyn Evelyn, the spectacle you’re really rolling up for here is Amanda Palmer jumping the shark.
England Swings: The Indelicates, Songs For Swinging Lovers
At a point where contemporary bands have as much edge as a beachball, the Indelicates have proved indispensable. Julia and Simon Indelicate have been in the vanguard of artistic response to new media, following the release of their 2008 debut American Demo by shaking off the coils of their label and founding the musical workers’ collective Corporate Records, on which this album is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. Their guitar and keyboard folk-punk owes something to the murky margins of the Nineties, notably Carter USM’s winning twinning of righteous sociological skewering with a lyrical patchwork of cultural references and wordplay, as well as the Auteurs’ and Pulp’s cerebral chic and puncturing of airy pretensions.
Recorded in East Berlin, Songs for Swinging Lovers is appropriately imbued with similar cabaret stylings to those of the Dresden Dolls. The pervading Weimar atmosphere draws implicit parallels between the present culture deconstructed here and a past culture gone softly dissolute and succumbing to totalitarian creep. An entire continent gets it in the neck in opener ‘Europe’, a stop-motion stagger of drunken piano, cymbals that clash like wine glasses smashed on bourgeois floors and piled-up images of queasy cultural decay. ’Be Afraid of Your Parents’ is a cautionary tale of entrenched liberal hegemonies, a nervy, tottering quickstep of Derrida-quoting dinner-partiers leading a fatuous and self-satisfied dance round the ruins of the decadent west, oblivious to the insinuation of encircling uniforms. As a metaphor it’s typically bold, and as arresting as the visual pun on the album cover.
Full of ferocity, disgust and frustration, its meat bloody and raw, Songs for Swinging Lovers seethes with the wish to be cleansed. ‘Flesh’ continues Julia’s cutting critique of contemporary feminism (“Hey girls, ain‘t you heard we‘re more concerned about the hegemony than the women?”), her voice a deceptive lilt with Simon’s sinisterly silky backing vocals beautifully conjuring up an appeased patriarchy breathing down her neck. The savagely sleazy ‘Your Money’ sticks it to the corporate world and the wide-eyed singalong ’Jerusalem’ lampoons private education’s gilded youth.
Elsewhere, the frenetic riffs, contemptuously drilled Rs and Julia’s hammered keyboards give way to reflection and yearning, making the album as much barricade as battering-ram. Contemplating flight to the border in ’Sympathy for the Devil’ or envisioning the calcified grotesques of ’Europe’ drowned by rising tides, Julia and Simon sound as if they’re bunkered against zombie-like hordes of encroaching socio-cultural horrors, both the last gang in town and the only lovers left alive. Their outsider stance is burlesqued in ’We Love You, Tania’, the insistent siren-song of Patty Hearst’s terrorist seducers, and critically examined in ’Savages’, a celebration of social rejection shot through with fatalism and self-doubt. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ closes the album with a gently mocking lullaby for a generation whose short-sighted solipsism has elevated post-adolescent angst to an art form.
Songs For Swinging Lovers has a dark depth and complexity, not only providing the satire and savaging modern society requires, but also supplying its own self-questioning critique which acknowledges rebellion’s own pretensions and built-in obsolescence. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to the Indelicates – it never will, in a country that coined the phrase ‘too clever by half’ – but the remains of today should.
[Written for Wears the Trousers which is currently down for maintainance, hence this reposting of my latest. Longer and more rambling piece on the band to follow when I have the time.]
Back in the Garage: The Pack a.d., We Kill Computers
When is a blues band not a blues band? When you ask Vancouver duo The Pack A. D. We Kill Computers follows 2008’s Tintype and Funeral Mixtape, and a 2009 in which Becky Black and Maya Miller played 157 gigs, gaining themselves a reputation for explosive, beer-and-sweat-drenched live performances. The band insist that this third album will prove that their music puts the emphasis less on blues and more on garage-rock. “We are not a blues band, even though people keep putting us there,” says Miller. “We both love the blues, but we are a garage rock blues group.”
Small reviews written for Wears the Trousers.
Chores – the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (album, July 09)
First of all: Chores? ‘Chores’? Really? Are we suffering such a drought of linguistic invention that bands are reduced to picking names which lend themselves all too easily to lines like ‘listening to them is certainly one, ho ho!’? As for the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (sic) … well, the most I can say is that it’s less of a hostage to fortune than ‘Chores’.
I really want to like the first full-length album from this Portland foursome, though: any band, especially US-based, with the anticapitalist impulse on show in ‘New New Deal’ and ‘Noinsuranceland’ gets my vote. The latter is a possible nod to R.E.M.’s ‘Ignoreland’, but suffers badly from the comparison. It’s a shame that much of what seems likeable about Chores is often hard to make out over squalling guitars and murkily thumping percussion. The band are at their most engaging when they polish up their post-punk tendencies, as in the choppy ‘Touching Can Harm the Art’ or the Television-stalking ‘My Own Private Esperanto’, sacrificing shouty rhetoric for icy, controlled impressionism.
At their best, Chores make a creditable stab at the shadows of Talking Heads and the B-52s. At their worst – yes, I’m afraid they live up to their name. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.
Cogwheel Dogs – Greenhorn (EP, July 09)
The latest EP from Cogwheel Dogs continues the Oxford duo’s experiments in anti-folk. Vocalist Rebecca Mosley does a good line in raw-throated bitterness interspersed with sudden stabs of yearning clarity, backed by the strings of her musical partner Tom Parnell. The four songs on ‘Greenhorn’ are murkily intriguing sketches of domestic horror and emotional ferocity, evocative of childhood nightmares spilling from dark places. ‘Spit’ makes a lunge towards lilting before collapsing back into a percussive pit, chased by downward-spiralling strings. Cogwheel Dogs are adept enough at creating a counter-melodic mess, although one’s immediate thought is that this particular niche has already been filled by their fellow demons of the dreaming spires, Ivy’s Itch. Closing track ‘Octavia’ is perhaps the most accessible song here, with portentous swoops of cello backing a creepily insistent vocal that just might be about a drug-addicted doll with a thousand arms. Accessibility being a relative thing, of course.
The Langley Sisters – ‘It’s Strange to be in Love’ (single, September 09)
It’s disappointing how little of the ’50s retro/girlgroup revival has seen its musical proponents concentrate on sound as well as style. Thankfully London’s Langley Sisters, currently touring with Paloma Faith, appear to be looking deeper than the regulation puffball skirts, polkadots and pompadours to ensure that their music sounds as authentically timewarped as they look.
Kicking off with rippling piano and gloopily giddy vocals, ‘It’s Strange to Be in Love’ initially feels as though it could have skipped straight off the credits of a Doris Day movie. Dig deeper, however, and its lyrical references to the brain as a broken mirror and frolicking in fields of withered poppies, suggest a more intriguing pastiche of their chosen genre. Evoking love as psychosis, the song begins to scratch at the unsustainable instability and emotional repression that boiled beneath the socio-cultural surface of a decade which, like the song’s protagonists, is “destined to be extinct” and nonchalantly steering a course towards a disastrous denouement. Any scene with this soundtrack would have to show a bored, beehived housewife blissfully tripping on vodka and Valium while her husband dozes at the country club and her lover parks his motorbike against a white picket fence.
Existentialism for Dummies: Magazine, ‘Boredom’
Most of my favourite bands are in some way preposterous, with an awareness of their own absurdity as their biggest saving grace. One of the best things about Magazine is the fact that a band of such glacial heights and dour, majestic melodrama were also perfectly capable of keeping a straight face and playing for laughs. There are productions and performances too at odds with expectation and image to be taken entirely seriously, while at the same time constituting serious brilliance.
Take Magazine’s Peel Session of 1978, which includes a version of ‘Boredom’, the song written a year earlier for Howard Devoto’s only official, trailblazing recording with the Buzzcocks. The original goes like this.
Although boredom found a natural home in punk neurosis, it is a concept that belongs to an earlier generation of existentialist philosophy. The Buzzcocks’ original took the 50s-rooted sense of isolation and imprisonment in spectacle and distilled it in subversive, snapped and snappy couplets, undercutting its pale and intense intellectualism with that gleefully amateur two-note guitar solo as sharp as an ironically raised eyebrow. Magazine’s cover sees this subversion break the surface, spilling over in an obnoxious psychedelic froth of keys and manic drum fills that swirl around a dry but sugar-high vocal burlesque. Giddy and exquisitely piss-taking, the song of a bubblegum pop trio composed of Sartrettes in white gloves and ponytails smoking candied clove cigarettes, it abandons both punk’s blank-eyed minimalism and philosophy’s aching po-face to twirl its black beret around one finger, kick up its circle skirt and turn cartwheels across genre boundaries.
Like all good covers, this makes no sense until the moment you hear it and afterwards makes all the sense in the world.
Last Drags on the Decade’s Dog-end #4
Patrick Wolf, ‘The Libertine’ (2005)
Pretentions to militant outsiderdom were ten a penny in the past decade, but few walked the walk like Patrick Wolf. ‘The Libertine’ takes the millenium’s tendency towards no-more-heroes melodrama, fuses it with a sense of self-belief you could bend steel around, and forges it into an unstoppable flight of righteous prickly petulance. Bleak and Yeatsian in outlook and atmosphere, the song opens with delicately poised piano and slowly-unravelling strings that bow under the weight of a thumping backbeat. Its galloping rhythms swoop and loop through outcrops of dark electro, spurred on by lyrics that scatter at swordpoint a slew of romantic and chivalric tropes before Wolf, alone in ‘a drought of truth and invention’, pulls us along through a full-throttle tilt at the darkness of a dried-up dystopia and over the edge into a better world.
The Avalanches, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ (2001)
Cut-and-paste is a dubious technique, missing more often than it hits, but when it works it’s wondrous. The Avalanches’ debut album provided a seemingly-effortless masterclass in superior sampling, with ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ as a deservedly acclaimed star turn. The dustbin of vinyl and B-movie history gets comprehensively upended in search of quality cast-offs, before these scraps are stitched together into a kaleidoscopic collage underlined with an imperious blast of brass that carries all before it like the flags of a conquering army.
Snow White, ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ (2004)
Perhaps the most defiantly runty of the decade’s squalling angular litter, the late and disappointingly little-lamented Snow White were always too good for relegation to a residency at Nathan Barley‘s Nailgun Arms. Their comparative strength lay in a Sonic Youth-derived lo-fi sensibility, song titles like ‘It’s Not Art, It’s Paedophile Porn’ and a preference for sneering over self-aggrandisement. Debut single ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ sticks out like a spike through the floorboards, the recording’s muffled and murky quality making the band sound as though they’re being held hostage in a coal shed. Full of densely scribbled white-hot guitar overwriting staticky bass and a buzzsaw vocal drone, rarely has a song done so exactly what it says on the tin with such bloody-minded and furious aplomb.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Last Drags on the Decade’s Dog-end #3
Missy Elliot, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (2001)
The best of several crossover cuts with which a bona fide goddess in hoop earrings and an inflatable binliner punctuated the first half of the decade, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ leads with a whiplash bhangra-bashing beat that doesn’t bother catching the ear but goes straight for the hips. Missy jerks the song’s strings like a demon puppetmaster, firing off smokily spare vocal rounds. Instantly infectious and a sufficiently sparkling gem as an original, its jittery genius was also picked up and polished in a glittering array of remixes that made the post-Nineties dancefloor a brighter place to be.
The Coral, ‘Dreaming of You’ (2002)
The Coral debuted in 2002 with a melting-pot of an album, bowled along on waves of retro-rummaging and sea-shanty-imbued psychedelia. Second single ‘Dreaming of You’ is perfectly structured pop that shines like a diamond dug out of a Merseybeat time-capsule, but remains sufficiently scratched with the band’s spirit of unpolished experimentation to rise above mere emulation of their influences. It’s a deceptively jaunty two-and-a-bit minutes, smoothing over the raw melancholic isolation displayed in its lyrics with a torrent of ramshackle harmonies and a restless and infectious melodic vitality. While subsequent albums would see The Coral’s envelope-pushing lead them down increasingly complex musical paths, ‘Dreaming of You’ is a slice of straight up-and-down genius whose star has yet to fade.
The Libertines, ‘Time For Heroes’ (2003)
Not the spuriously-compiled Best Of lately issued by those intent on picking clean the bones of a band long-buried, but the five-years-younger standout single from a band lean, hungry and arrestingly articulate. Its guitar-led opening clamour was urgent enough to turn heads away from the barren wastes of contemporary indie and onto the sea of possibilities and passions that swirled in the space between stumbling drumbeats and Doherty’s smoothly confident evocation of a once and future urban utopia. Amidst flashes of modern May Day folklore, ‘Time For Heroes’ forged its own mythology of young bloods, obscene scenes and stylish rioters, its lyrics rich with in-jokes, countercultural cast-offs and quietly camp wit. How long had it been since the charts were troubled by a piece of such grammatical, political and aesthetic perfection as the line ‘There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap’? The song throws open the doors to a kingdom of self-reference and self-reverence and, with a knowingly urchinish doff of the cap, ushers you into Arcadia and urges you to consider yourself at home. The Libertines flame was soon to be extinguished in a whirlwind of smack, self-destruction, supermodels and speculation on Pete and Carl’s domestic harmony, but, while it lasted, this was a band on fire.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Last Drags on the Decade’s Dog-end #2
Saul Williams, ‘Black Stacey’ (2004)
In a just and rational world, the stunning and eminently quotable work of Saul Williams would have seen him hailed as the Messiah by now. ‘Black Stacey’ is part confessional memoir, part consciousness-raising rallying-cry, all righteous, fluid articulacy over flowing, portentous beats. Willliams’ cool, composed and self-possessed narration, refreshing as a slug of cold water, argues down braggadocio in favour of a clear-eyed self-respect. The song’s apotheosis is its languidly swaying chorus laid down over the steady piano-led pulse of an artist who knows where he’s from, where it’s at and where we should be heading. Someone get the man a pulpit and a personality cult.
Lupen Crook, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ (2006)
Reportedly recorded in Mr Crook’s hallway, presumably during one of his rare fixed-abode phases, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ is scene-savaging par excellence, flecked with spit and sarcasm. Its tune is built around a steely scrape and skitter that sounds like the malfunctioning of a music-box, and a spray of squealing laughter that makes you tense with the urge to put your fist through the window of the Hawley Arms. Lupen’s pinched-tight vocal squeezes itself through the gaps between, with all the disgusted Cassandrine despair of the only sober passenger on a nightbus home from Dalston.
Amanda Palmer, ‘Oasis’ (2008)
It’s the fag-end of the future’s first decade and, in the land of the free, darkness is spreading under the shadow of a right-wing fundamentalist ascendancy that threatens reproductive rights and freedom of information. Who you gonna call, if not Boston’s finest punk-cabaret force of nature? On ‘Oasis’, Amanda hammers out a relentlessly breezy Beach Boys clap-along, face set in a rictus grin as her teenage protagonist recounts My Rape and Consequent Abortion: the Panto Version. This satire on received expectations of feminine behaviour sees life’s little misadventures pale into dismissible insignificance before our heroine’s life-affirming receipt of a signed photograph from Oasis. And why not? Described by Palmer as ‘pro-choice but anti-stupid’, the song’s strength lies not in trivialising real and immediate horrors, but in rendering them absurd enough to laugh at, and by extension pointing up the equal absurdity of their treatment in the social and political sphere. In a predictable if appropriately head-desking twist, the song’s subject matter meant that both the single and its Palin-baiting video were subject to an airplay ban in the UK. God knows what the Gallaghers made of it, but ‘Oasis’ remains a jaw-dropping counterpunch for times when laughter is the most powerful weapon to hand.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Last Drags on the Decade’s Dog-end #1
The Indelicates, ‘Sixteen’ (2007)
Sussex contrarians the Indelicates have established themselves as one of the sharpest and shiniest pins to push into a popular culture gone once again smug, bloated and prickable. Their much-anticipated but little-hyped album American Demo suffered in places from a disappointing production that saw too many songs fall short of their vital and visceral potential. The band’s third single ‘Sixteen’, however, had no shortcomings. Around a po-faced piano hook and Julia’s precise lilywhite trill, the song skips along, giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes, before crashing to a halt in mock-terror of turning thirty. Neither the first nor the last lampooning of a cult of youth and stupidity, ‘Sixteen’ sparkles nonetheless with an accomplished irony and unashamed intelligence still glaringly absent in those against whom the band define themselves.
The Streets, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ (2002)
In the millenial fervour for a generational spokesperson, unassuming Cockneyfied Brummie Mike Skinner proved an unexpectedly engaging contender. Original Pirate Material‘s chronicles of metropolitan male working-class life supplied the deromanticised dark side of Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. Third single ‘Weak Become Heroes’, much more than a paean to the occasional perfection of chemical excess, was an elegiac triumph of looping piano and closing-credits strings that worked as both retrospective and epilogue. Rooted in the distinctly twentieth-century Summer of Love, and the Government vs Repetitive Beats wars of the early 1990s, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ stakes the same claims as Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ for dance culture’s transcendent and egalitarian qualities, stumbles open-handed and grinning through ‘Sorted for E’s and Whizz’ while that song’s narrator looks on in studied contempt, before meandering home, one ill-judged takeaway poorer but rich in memories, as the night’s fluorescence fades to a drizzly grey dawn. Alternating clear-eyed observation with quiet reflection, Skinner tips his cap to his own heroes and influences, and sets the cap on a fractured fifteen-year dream in masterly fashion that leaves us ready to wake up, shake it off and move on, if not up.
Jarvis Cocker, ‘Cunts are Still Running the World’ (2006)
Everyone’s favourite malcontent, ahead of the game as ever, chose 2006 to anticipate the cultural turn towards weary recognition of a present as fucked-up and fatalistic as the past. The all-conquering valedictory vitriol that fuelled ‘Common People’ and ‘Cocaine Socialism’ is still here, controlled but uncompromised. This single could have been a slurred score for the powerless and broken, bitterly swilling the dregs of proletarian consciousness around in a can of White Lightning at a dilapidated bus shelter. It’s not far off, but Cocker’s scalpel-sharp sociological skewering is enunciated with a dignified detachment. The verses roll by with reined-in rage, stately and sardonic, dole-queuing up before a chorus that weighs in with a queasy, unsteady stomp, its ragged vocals letting the blanched despair show through.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Folk adds life: Beautiful Star: Songs of Odetta
My first encounter with Odetta was as a jewel in the crown of Scorcese’s documentary on Dylan. This clip of her 1959 performance still packs an astonishing punch: she whacks out echoing notes on her guitar that drip like water off a deep-cave stalactite and she sings like she’s carving commandments in stone:
Discovering the rest of Odetta’s work was no less of a revelation for me. Her talent and influence are both remarkable. Besides Dylan, she inspired generations of folk, blues and rock musicians and lent weight to the civil rights movement. She’s an eye-opening individual whose presence and contributions, like those of many women in music, are too frequently overlooked.
In an attempt to address this, the good folk at Wears the Trousers have come up with a tribute album which ‘reimagines some of Odetta’s signature tunes, underlining how her wide-ranging and enduring influence transcends any perceived boundaries of age, race or genre’. It’s both a brilliant introduction to an under-known artist and an accomplished paying of respect.
Beautiful Star: the songs of Odetta is out next Monday on CD and download, with all proceeds going to the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Resource Centre.
Emo superior? Paramore, brand new eyes
Who’d be Paramore’s Hayley Williams? Back since the days when puddles of critical drool were wont to collect at the feet of Debbie Harry, lone women in bands have never had it easy. If they’re not being derided for a supposed lack of musical ability, leading them to cling onto the coattails of their backing boys, they’re being judged on an examination of their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. With the mainstream rock press seeming to pay more attention to William’s frequent topping of ‘Sexiest Female’ readers’ polls than to the clutch of other awards Paramore have secured, it’s unsurprising that she was recently moved to argue that Paramore should be seen as more than “this girl-fronted band”. For some potential listeners, Paramore may also be tainted by association with multimedia phenomenon Twilight (‘Decode’, included here as a bonus track, was released last year in conjunction with the novel-based film). All in all, it seems plausible to treat their new album’s title as a plea for listeners to take a fresh look at the band solely on the merits of its music.
It’s ironic that the media focus on Williams has reportedly caused the band such grief, since her vocal presence is perhaps the thing which does most to set Paramore apart from other contenders. Over the course of three albums, her delivery has become mature, strong and smoothly, fluidly melodic, skirting self-righteousness while avoiding the bratty foot-stamping common to the litter of other pop-punkettes to whom she is often compared. (‘All I Wanted’ features a vocal blast that is no less impressive for the spectre of Evanescence it raises.) Lyrically, too, Paramore are perhaps surprisingly clear-eyed and engaging: we get the deconstruction of fairytale romance on ‘Brick by Boring Brick’; unapologetic escape from smalltown frustration on ‘Feeling Sorry’; and self-conscious meta-narrative on ‘Looking Up’.
In terms of style, they sit precariously at the point where the upper echelons of emo mesh with the lower depths of bubblegum-punk. The album kicks off at a breakneck pace, the opening of ‘Careful’ erupting out of a portentous backwash of beats, before we encounter the machine-gun rattle of lead single ‘Ignorance’. Then, having caught its breath for the angst-pop of ‘Playing God’, the rest of the album divides itself between the full-throated, fast and frenetic (‘Looking Up’, ‘Where The Lines Overlap’), and yearning or reflective slowies that veer dangerously close to power ballad territory (‘Misguided Ghosts’, ‘The Only Exception’).
Ultimately, while brand new eyes makes Paramore’s case for being taken seriously as a competent musical outfit, on the same evidence it is difficult to discern much greater depth to the band. The music here comes perfectly served in bite-sized chunks, making it easy to digest but difficult to get one’s teeth into. While undeniably heartfelt and delivered with power and precision, too many songs here suffer from an overly glossy and slick production which makes them slip down easily but without much impact, leaving the listener with little appetite for more of the same.
Written for Wears the Trousers.
Bring Me the Head of A.O.R.: Boh Runga, Right Here
Right Here is New Zealand star Boh ‘sister of Bic’ Runga’s US debut, and boy, does it depress. Scrupulously inoffensive, nod-along nonsequiteurs waft from every groove. Miss Runga is possessed of a decent set of pipes, and ably backed by collaborators including Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly and System of a Down’s Greg Laswell, but, technical aptitude aside, track after track here soars blandly, balladically by with no apparent desire to distinguish itself.
Okay, there’s the barely interesting ‘Evelyn’ (bemoaning a manipulative best friend) and the moderately affecting ‘Home’ (intervening in a friend’s emotional trainwreck), but the rest of Runga’s material proves that the only thing worse than a broken-hearted break-up is an album full of half-hearted break-up songs. It’s perfectly possible to do justice to this sort of subject matter, but Runga handles it with no hint of Jenny Lewis’ acerbic edge or Amanda Palmer’s scalpelsharp powers of dissection. The production ranges from plodding to watery to dreary to overblown, quite often in the space of a single song as a subsitute for genuine emotional expression. This is a soundtrack for slow-motion sighing by women who might like to fling themselves full-length on the carpet and howl out their shattered soul but fear messing their hair up and putting the boys off. And nowhere on this album, possibly pace ‘The Earth and the Sky’ – a watered-down ‘Origin of Love’ sans the subversion or originality (and Christ, wasn’t a heteronormative version of Hedwig just exactly what the world’s been crying out for?) – does Runga come close to capturing the heart-clenching, fist-pumping joy of the kind of love that would justify all this Vaseline-lensed moping in the first place. On the evidence of Right Here, our heroine’s better off without him, but nowhere near as better off as you’ll be without this.
I wrote a version of the above review about six weeks ago, and its memory has haunted me every day since then. The star and a half I felt moved to award the album at the time – the participants had, at least, turned up – have come to seem like a calculated insult to all other music ever made. The more I think about this album’s existence, the further down I slip towards baffled despair. I deplore the time I wasted on it, and the time which I am powerless to prevent being wasted by any other misguided listeners. I weep for the innocent instruments used to perpetrate this horror. I can only shrug in sympathy towards the good people of New Zealand, doomed forever by association with this, as if Crowded House weren’t already misfortune enough. I mourn the talent, work and opportunity so casually sucked into the creative void that this album represents.
There is, after all, no obligation for an album to be good. And there were so many ways in which this album could have been bad. It could have been an opus of obscurity, boasting a lyric sheet produced by flicking ink over twelve pages of Thus Spake Zarathrustra and giving what remained visible a couple of runs through Babelfish. It could have been a splendidly solipsistic splurge of grimecore performed by a credit-crunched Cambridge graduate convinced that the necessity to downsize to only one car imbued him with ghetto authenticity. It could have featured CIA-sponsored basslines designed to cause spontaneous involuntary defecation in the listener. These types of badness would at least have given me something to bite on. But no, Right Here doesn’t care enough about its audience or its critics to be anything other than boring, barren, and bland, bland, bland.
Round about the seventh spin of this album, I began to imagine Boh Runga off-record as some cackling demonette, hellbent on damning by association every woman thinking of picking up a microphone. But then I read the album credits and realised that the blame has to be more widely, and predictably, spread. Those involved with Right Here include the hack responsible for Meredith Brooks, one in a long grey line of string-pullers and script-hoisters in the mechanically effective marketing of artists – more often than not, female artists. Now, again, the creative method which sees songs written for singers needn’t invalidate the end product, as evidenced by gems as disparate as Joan Baez and Girls Aloud. Or even ‘…Baby One More Time’, the toxic genius of which loses nothing by its having been composed by a sparsely-bearded Swede. But this, the meagre going-through-the-motions of a boring, bland puppet whose strings are blandly and boringly pulled by the boring and bland? It may seem harmless, but make no mistake: this sort of music is a minor irritant, a piece of grit barely worth brushing away, but around which can coalesce a pearl of purest counterproductivity. The job of arguing for the agency, credibility, and even the necessary presence of women in music is still a depressingly difficult one. It’s hardly helped by this sort of pseudo-empowered postpostpost-feminist slop that ‘The Jeep Song’ should have seen crushed under Amanda Palmer’s chariot wheels.
Why do these people bother? What earthly use or ornament do they imagine they’re providing? I can think of no explanation less base than the simple profit motive. This is an album geared towards that market in slick, shallow and superficial music-like substance which is designed to slip down devoid of flavour, texture and nutritional value rather than sparkling on the tongue or, god forbid, sticking in the throat. This album is raw tofu sprinkled with saccharine. It’s a substitute for music. It’s not here to be listened to with anything approaching interest or enjoyment; it’s here to sell because it’s here. These people are in the business of music and they want your money. For god’s sake, don’t give them it. Fuck technical aptitude, fuck ‘soulfulness’ without soul. Fuck everyone’s fifteen minutes if they’re going to be spent in other people’s blameless, beauty-starved earshot. Show me magic, you bastards.
Love Bites: Buzzcocks, Spiral Scratch EP
All the ink excitably spilled over the Spiral Scratch EP, its importance to the punk moment and its surrounding DIY culture, is for once entirely justified. It is the definitive work of a definitive band – the Shelley-Devoto era Buzzcocks, rather than the melodically lovelorn troubadours, still excellent but not extraordinary, which Buzzcocks became through their post-Devoto reshuffle. It is four songs in eleven minutes of jittery speedfreak punk and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Aptly titled, the music here is at once constrained and claustrophobic, panicky screeds of guitar and frantic drum fills hemming in breathlessly gabbled lyrics, and an irritatingly insistent, needle-like pricking at the hindbrain. The gleefully amateur (two notes, or three?) guitar solo that slices ‘Boredom’ in half is pure punk minimalism. Likewise, Devoto’s stab at capturing the sub-Rotten delivery, that uber-obnoxious yammering where the vocal cords appear to be entirely composed of snot and amphetamine, comes close to producing (or pre-emptively parodying?) the definitive punk vocal. It captures, more accurately, what you think Rotten’s going to sound like until you listen and realise how inimitable and curiously feline his voice actually is, but it still happily gobs in the eye of all other contenders.
The lyrics, again, form a litany of tactics and techniques that would come to define the genre. Beyond the obvious tenets of boredom, isolation and dysfunction, ‘Boredom’ mixes all-encompassing ennui with the knowingly self-absorbed self-abstraction of ‘you see I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’. The band are, as Devoto keeps reminding us, only acting dumb. The lyrics are, winningly, shot through with a sharp-edged wit which punk often singularly lacks, kicking off with ‘Breakdown’s laugh-out-loud understatement of ‘If I seem a little jittery…’, continuing with the dry ‘I can stand austerity but it gets a little much’, and running through Shelley and Devoto’s deadpan call-and-response dissection of relationship dissatisfaction in ‘Time’s Up’. Another of the many tensions more widely explored in punk but encapsulated here is that between an impulse towards glee in deviant pansexuality (cf also the still-astonishing ‘Orgasm Addict’), and a viscerally disgusted horror of intimacy (cf Devoto’s shriek in ‘Boredom’ of ‘who are you trying to arouse?! / get yer ‘and out of my trousers!’, like an outraged maiden aunt).
There is a sense here of there being too many words and notes for comfort or relaxation. Too many disparate thoughts and ambiguous intrigues are packed into a line like ‘I hear that two is company for me it’s plenty trouble / though my doublethoughts are clearer now that I am seeing double’ – is it discussing infidelity, alcoholism, mental disconnection or the intertwining of all three? – which neither the careering music nor the desperate vocal can stop to explain. Having too much to say in too little time is a function of punk’s peculiar certainty of built-in obsolescence and impending disaster, the impuse to throw all that you have at the world before both you and it are overwhelmed by anarchy in the UK. While ‘Boredom’ and ‘Breakdown’ write this large (‘I’m already a has-been’; ‘I just came up from nowhere / and I’m going straight back there’), the petty domestic reflection of a preoccupation with the future’s destructive ferment is nailed in the musical and lyrical impatience that has the protagonist of ‘Time’s Up’ chainsmoking and tapping his foot while his girlfriend deliberates. There is no time to waste before your time’s up. The product of a band that were over in this incarnation almost before they began, Spiral Scratch is both a document of and testament to a social and cultural moment where if you were going to do anything, you had to do it now. Everything that follows may as well be a footnote.
Spiral Scratch EP: youtube playlist.
And if you like that: Time’s Up
Protected: Tomorrow belongs to twee: Barnaby Bright, Wake the Hero
False waves in desert drouth: Quinta, My Sister Boudicca
Remember the days when recognition might mean remarkability? When pop stars deserved the name because they seemed like a different, superior species, doing things with music, words and vocal chords that the rest of us could only gasp at and gratefully groove to? In an era where music increasingly means moneyspinning manufacturees, it’s more important than ever to hold one’s head above the backwash of banality and keep in sight the idea that artists can be extraordinary, eccentric and exotic rather than smoothly, blandly populist. On the evidence of her debut album, My Sister, Boudicca, Quinta falls, with a crystalline tinkle and a light dusting of glitter, firmly into the former camp.
That’s the theory, at least, and at first glance it looks convincing. Quinta certainly talks the talk. She’s a former Bat for Lashes collaborator and a multi-instrumentalist. Her name was coined by her classics teacher father because she was the fifth of five children – the kind of quasi-fairytale snippet that might crop up in one of her songs. Her album’s limited run of 200 hard copies, each wrapped in screen-printed, hand-stitched sleeves, adds to its air of curiosity and uniqueness. The songs contained within, however, are less in keeping with their intricate and distinctive packaging than one might hope.
The landscape My Sister, Boudicca paints is wintry, its characters snowbound or set in splendid isolation. Vocally, Quinta recalls the piano-and-icicle stylings of Joanna Newsom or early Tori Amos. The title track breathes new life into the legend of Boudicca with a multi-tracked vocal heading a march of imperious strings, while Quinta’s voice on ‘Two Dead Birds’ is as fragile and delicate as its subject. As might be expected, the instruments on display are varied and not all conventional – whistles whistle, synths and woodwind suggest howling wind through gaps in ragged vocals, strings see-saw or spiral upwards, and ‘Sunday’s Child’ and ‘Reading to Me’ employ tremulous spoken-word. ‘In America’ is perhaps the most commercially viable song here, with a hymnal opening that fades into a wash of electronic beats. The following track ‘Ballad of the Ice Dancer’ also stands out: three frost-rimed minutes evoking Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ as a frozen ice tableau, all massed whispery vocals and a glacial plink of percussion.
With music this accomplished and evocative, it might be argued that Quinta can be excused lyrics which largely fail to interest or inspire. Her abstract, poetic words, when they occasionally spike into coherency, tend to draw on or co opt the standard quirky-female fare of nursery rhyme, recipes, and nature’s capacity for tragedy and cruelty. It is here that My Sister, Boudicca lets me down. Quinta is hardly derivative, but neither is she especially distinctive, and there is little here that truly startles or sets itself apart from the alt-crowd. While this album is an excellent start, it remains to be seen whether Quinta can lift herself above the current female-centred quirk-quake of Little Pixie Roux and the Machine for Lashes.
Blaze of Glory: The Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away
Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the double driving force of New York’s Fiery Furnaces, have developed a reputation for changing direction with every new record. Their 2003 debut drew superficial comparisons with the White Stripes, and their subsequent journey through acclaimed obscurity has taken in the resolutely radio-unfriendly Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing my Choir as well as the more accessible 70s and 80s retro pillagings of Bitter Tea and 2007’s Widow City. The band’s seventh studio album sees them shift conceptual gear once more with I’m Going Away, allegedly a collection of songs to soundtrack an imaginary sit-com. The band say they ‘hope that some of the songs on this record can be used as theme songs to folks’ own personal versions of Taxi’.
One can indeed imagine lead single ‘The End is Near’ being played as tragicomic credits roll, Matthew and Eleanor blissfully singing of mutually assured destruction over gently tinkling piano, a personal apocalypse chalked in pastel. Elsewhere on the record, what emerges is something close to early Super Furry Animals’ mastery of lazily melodic pop-psychedelia, heavy with piano hooks and drifting guitar riffs, which seems to fulfill the label’s promise of ’70s sunshine-glazed piano pop’. It’s the deviations from this main drag that tend to stand out: the title track, for instance, is a gorgeous garage-blues growl with a bassline like a revving motorcycle. Every road taken leads to a satisfying destination, though, from the Cocteau Twins-dusted reverie of ‘Even in the Rain’ to the Southern Gothic thunderclap of ‘Staring at the Steeple’. Even the few moments which might be regarded as filler, like the marginally welcome-outstaying shoo-be-doo of ‘Cups and Punches’, are either imaginative or endearing enough to sustain the interest of a casual listener.
Eleanor takes the lion’s share of vocal duties, her smoothly intricate melodies flowing over the music like liquor over shards of jagged ice. Having opened the album with teeth-bared intent to shake off the shackles of current circumstance, she tosses in subsequent references to journeys underway, recalled or anticipated. The album sees her variously pursued to Manchester, riding pillion to Lake Geneva, harnessing the Gulf Stream and getting lost at sea. When not detailing these cross-country adventures, her lyrics ably sketch out static small-town melodrama in ‘Ray Bouvier’ and ‘Cut the Cake’.
The giddy, obnoxiously toe-tapping closer ‘Take Me Round Again’ is a lyrical highlight, weaving together repeated scraps of nursery rhyme, ballads, blues and Broadway. This Burroughsian blend, stirring up impressionistic euphoria, gets swept along in a swirl of shimmying rhythms and rippling keyboards undercut by a vaguely military percussive shuffle. It’s impossible to sit through the six or so minutes of ‘Take Me Round Again’ without your shoulders, hips and fingertips wanting to jump up and join in. (Try it yourself.) The chorus’ penultimate the longest way around is the sweetest way home also brings the album’s conceptual journey full circle. I’m Going Away is an accomplished next step in a career of radical departures.
WRitten for Wears the Trousers.
Both Sides Now: Courtney Love, Nobody’s Daughter
Grunge’s Norma Desmond is never an edifying sight these days, but on the strength of America’s Sweetheart I was expecting to like the new album. I did try, but essentially it isn’t what I used to love about her, nor is there anything new I could learn to love. One of Courtney’s best aspects has always been the insistence on transcending her Mean Girls detractors through adopting their costume and wearing it well, but it’s gone too far here, become blunderingly cartoonish rather than knowing and controlled. Most disappointing of all, she sounds defeated where she used to scream defiance, her voice a worn-out rasp through bee-stung lips where it used to be a buzzsaw.
The usual song-suspects are all here, done very much by numbers: the rueful (probably) Kurt-remembrance and fear-death-by-water escapist lament (‘Pacific Coast Highway’, which she’s already done better with ‘Malibu’); the defiant tarts-with-heart anthem (‘Dirty Girls’, which she’s always done better than this) ; the plaintive take-me-as-I-am cradling of your head to her bosom (‘For Once in your Life’). Certainly I’ve never liked her solo work as much as I did Hole, but there’s nothing here that really stands comparison with America’s Sweetheart, from the teeth-gritting rage of ‘Mono’ to the Cassandrine anatomising of feminine ambition that was ‘Sunset Strip’. The songs that stand out are few: ‘Stand Up Motherfucker’ is tolerable fun, Courtney snarling ‘Stand up motherfucker, I will see you now’ like Don Corleone in pantomime drag, but it’s schadenfreude rather than triumph. ‘Never Go Hungry Again’ does the same sentiment better for its musical simplicity and the lyrics’ quiet dignity. The last three songs are an extended and frankly boring fadeout. Surely she can’t leave us like this?
The headlong rush of ‘Loser Dust’ is the album’s one bright spot: Courtney at her acerbic, taunting best, both the vocal’s careering sneer and the killer description of a certain kind of woman as ‘starving and carnivorous’. I think this highlights where the album lets me down: where she used to excel at using a personal focus to explore the universal mysteries of the feminine physique and psyche, Nobody’s Daughter is full of Courtney’s turn to the external and the transient – highways, hotels, rehab clinics – and it feels appropriately flimsy and diluted. Like The Bell Jar‘s Esther throwing her clothes off the rooftop, it’s a futile if briefly self-fulfilling spectacle. C-Lo these days is as glossy as she’s always wanted to be, but her face has become the collagened Hollywood mask, too tight and smooth for anything real to break through the make-up.
Take Me Back To Weird Old Blighty: Silvery – Thunderer & Excelsior
Silvery are a band whose singer has been posting obstreperously and incessantly on the forum of a defunct Libertines website for years. I was determined not to like his band, but sucks to be me, for I do. Silvery have won me over by knowing their psychogeography, liking their Bowie, Queen, Sparks and XTC and flashing their archaic military insignia.
Like all the best bands, Silvery are fucking odd. The general impression their songs give is one of going mad while clinging to a dilapidated carousel in the middle of the Crimean War, as Alan Moore earnestly explains the history of London’s underground rivers and a gin-soaked hysteric machine-guns a barrel-organ. The songs are as alien, giddy, claustrophobic, incipiently sinister and encroached upon by rapidly-swarming fears as the era that inspires them. The lyrics are delivered in a panicky barrage of breakneck falsetto and the music writhes with earworms like a freshly-snatched corpse.
It’s possible to grow weary of the album as a whole – too much full-on dizzying Wurlitzer and shrieking Victoriana leaves you queasily surfeited. Were I less enthusiastic about the same things as the band, I might describe Thunderer & Excelsior as a forty-minute fit of the vapours. In small doses, though, like laudanum, Silvery are both a welcome tonic and surprisingly addictive.
The Last of Barat’s Privateers: a Dirty Pretty Things retrospective
I never had especially high hopes for Dirty Pretty Things, and not just because they chose to operate with a bassist called Didz. Carl Barat’s self-destructive and self-fulfilling pessimism seemed to make their dragged-out demise inevitable. The man is essentially a throwback to a half-confected, distinctly pre-Sixties matinee-idol world of crypto-chauvinist chivalry and genuine honour, dignity and class, any product of which could never find mass acceptance or acclaim in a triple-distilled popular culture where pantomime, melodrama and public humiliation are painted as gritty reality, angst and authenticity are faked or appropriated wholesale, and the self-assurance of slick and cynical ironic posturing carries more weight and gets you further than this band’s faltering steps towards emotional sincerity. When did you last hear a song as guilelessly earnest and heartfelt as ‘This Is Where the Truth Begins’? If you don’t cringe, you’ll cry.
For a man out of time, engaged in a culture war where your side can only hope to go down fighting and where snarling gets you nothing but praise for how pretty your mouth is, the best you can hope for is a shrug and a smile. Much of Carl’s work post-Libertines has been you know how I feel out of place until I’m levered off my face writ large. ‘Bloodthirsty Bastards’ and the frankly astonishing ‘Buzzards and Crows’ transcend what begins as myopic scenester-baiting to make a stab at expressing universal and eternal human tragedy. Their protagonists are cornered, boxed-in, trapped, disgusted and despairing, Up The Bracket’s swaggering urban sprawl reduced to spying on cities through cracks in the floor. (Carl dedicated ‘Gin and Milk’ to longstanding fans last night. You have to wonder.)
Their second album gave up the fight in its opening song, its narrator abandoned face-up to the vultures, and then slumped into halfhearted crowd-pleasing fluff (‘Come Closer’, ‘Plastic Hearts’) or half-articulate railing (‘Kicks or Consumption’, ‘Best Face’), picking itself up only for the quietly embittered, finally accusative closure of ‘Blood on my Shoes’. By this point my feelings on the band had come almost full circle. Their first UK gig left me with an aftertaste of baffled disappointment at a frustratingly lacklustre affair, Carl’s head-hanging and the band’s general insubstantialness overshadowing their tightness and competency. They lacked entirely any hoped-for spark, that moment of connection which makes you glad you’ve made the effort. Their second tour saw them switch stasis for spontaneity, with unpredictable setlists and endearing interband dynamics, and subsequent gigs in Oxford, London, Sheffield, Cambridge, Paris and Edinburgh led me through unqualified adoration to a comfortable, affectionate familiarity, with a side-order of horror at the encroaching tides of industry imperatives that made the band at times little more than a soggy, sorry exercise in marketing and money-making. Study and work aside, it’s been a year or so since I felt compelled to go chasing round the country in search of some definitive, catalytic bangbangrocknroll glory-story that seems to have proved as illusory for them as for us.
And so we arrived at The Last Hurrah, a diminished hardcore of provincial girl veterans, reminded of better times and absent friends. A half-full thousand-capacity club in the bowels of the metropolis, plastered with aftershow posters that dripped with desperation. A solitary tout outside in the cold. The stage ungarnished except for a Union flag. The sound periodically fucking up. An ending fitting for the start?
Their songs are full of endings, of course, each delivered in an angry and bittersweet manner that rendered them equally apposite, from the bleakly resigned (they all followed me down here / to the story’s sorry end) to the grimly dignified (I know when I should leave in disgrace) to what passes for optimistic (here’s to tomorrow and the lonely streets we’ll roam / but if we don’t leave now we’ll find ourselves with no way home). With them providing the closing credits to their own biopic, there was little else fitting to do but join in.
The last ‘So…’. The last obnoxious oi-oi intro to ‘Playboys’. The last what would it take for me to be your man? The last digging out the deadwood, the last post on the trumpet and the last words: yeah yeah yeah. Carl is still breathtakingly beautiful. No Pete, god rest his musical soul, no Libertines songs and no special guests to speak of, just all the boys together. A final defeated bow, arms linked. No hope of hope and glory, but one of their better gigs, and one I’m glad I made the effort for. I know the essentials of what this band gave me: a friendship group imbued with the same spirit of adventure, defiance and recklessness, the same last-gang-in-town camaraderie as the songs we paid and travelled and shared all we had to sing along to. They gave me catharsis and connection. I can only give them the credit that appears to elude them even now.