In Defence of Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’.

Written for Bad Reputation, 8.6.11
*
Another week, another women-in-music controversy, and another hotly debated video from Rihanna. Having ticked domestic violence and sadomasochism off the musical list, she’s responded to recent accusations of being a major player in the oversexualisation of pop by upping the ante, making her latest offering a blend of sexual violence and violent retribution. The video for Man Down, which opens with Rihanna shooting a man who is later revealed to have assaulted her after they dance at a club, has kicked up a predictable media dustcloud. It’s all a far cry from ‘Pon de Replay’. Continue reading

FLOOD THEATRE: aprés-moi, le deluge.


 
Laughter in dark times becomes necessary, providing both critique and consolation. And the nights are certainly drawing in. I mean, look at all this. Or, on what seems by comparison a light note, this surreal attempt to humanise the employees of an organisation geared solely towards turning a profit by trading in hatred and tits.

Satire has never seemed so conspicuous by its absence. It is one thing to see corruption, incompetence and venality occasionally exposed; it is quite another to see so many practitioners of corruption, incompetence and venality incessantly expose themselves with the bafflingly brazen insouciance of compulsive flashers drunk in a town park. So the news has turned horribly, endlessly funny – far funnier than any current attempt to dissect or diagnose its disgustingness. Look at this, or this, or the point at which the dark arts of spin, the erosion of journalistic enquiry, and the vacuum at the heart of the Labour Party coalesced to form a revelatory moment of pantomime androidry – and how quaint, how nearly comforting, how spot-on then but now unremarkable those past satirical visions seem, eh?

The lunatic reality of contemporary politics is galloping ahead of satire by significant furlongs, and few seem capable of or even interested in catching up. Which is where Flood Theatre come in.

Flood takes all the above into account, and styles itself ‘the new comedy for the new politics’. In soundscapes and sketches drawn with a dramatic flair for language and a fine sense of the absurd, it outlines our rats’ nest of politics, media and society with unflinching precision.

There’s a long and noble history of art that takes life in all its grim, bleak splendour and manages to wring out disbelieving laughter. There’s been Chris Morris, there is Stewart Lee, and, soon, there will be Flood.

Flood perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 5th-27th. Book now.

Can Adele and her Marketing Men change the face of Women in Music?

Written for Bad Reputation, 1.6.11
*
Poor old millionaire superstar Adele, eh? No sooner has the dust settled on the furore over her objections to being a higher-rate taxpayer, than she gets thrown into the vanguard of another of those putative Real Women in Music revolutions. A mere three years after she started out, and after just seventeen weeks of her second album at Number One, it appears to have suddenly dawned on Richard Russell that Adele exemplifies all that’s healthy and hopeful in the otherwise dire and overheated state of contemporary pop. Continue reading

Death of a Good Pub.

Some of my juvenilia, from when I lived south of the Thames. I wrote this in 2005 for the much-missed marvel that was Smoke, A London Peculiar, and I was inspired to dig it up by reading this post on Transpontine, the compendium of south-east London life. It’s an elegy on my favourite ex-pub in London, which I still miss. Now only the Montague Arms keeps a remnant of the dream alive.

*

Number one on absolutely no one else’s list of Good London Pubs is the sadly defunct Goldsmiths Tavern. When I lived in New Cross as a student I didn’t go near this place for months – it was open past 2am but was extremely dodgy in look and reputation, you heard various stories about plans hatched and deals done that would’ve made Guy Ritchie come on the spot. 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

Philip Roth wins the Booker Prize: Carmen’s Complaint

A now outdated post written for Bad Reputation.

Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.
– Jacqueline Susann’s verdict on Portnoy’s Complaint

Last week was a busy week in the book world. Sainsburys found itself anointed Bookseller of the Year to the chagrin of actual booksellers, the beleaguered Waterstones chain was saved from the asset-stripping abyss, and the Man Booker International Prize went to the veteran novelist Philip Roth. The last of these events made the biggest splash in the mainstream press, due to the consequent resignation in protest from the judging panel of Carmen Callil, the redoubtable founder of Virago Press, who – cue shock, horror, and the frantic ordering by booksellers of Roth’s backlist – disparaged Roth as a writer and disputed his worthiness to win. 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.

Libraries Gave Us Power: notes on the Manic Street Preachers and class

So I liked Owen Hatherley’s piece on Pulp, and I knew reading the comments would spoil it all, but reader, I read them. The majority were bafflingly wet-blanket in nature, wildly and wilfully missing the article’s point, if studded with bits of valid and interesting discussion. Specifically, though, I was surprised to encounter in both the article and the responses a lack of any mention of Manic Street Preachers. Surely you can’t reach back into the 90s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’?

‘We don’t talk about love,

We only want to get drunk

And we are not allowed to spend

As we are told that this is the end’

If Pulp were the last art-school band (and I’m by no means convinced of that), then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class? Continue reading

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

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.

Simon Reynolds has decently condensed his new ‘un into a Guardian article:

As the last decade unfolded, noughties pop culture became steadily more submerged in retro. Both inside music (reunion tours, revivalism, deluxe reissues, performances of classic albums in their entirety) and outside (the emergence of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive, endless movie remakes, the strange and melancholy world of retro porn), there was mounting evidence to indicate an unhealthy fixation on the bygone…

The book is not a lament for a loss of quality music – it’s not like the well-springs of talent have dried up or anything – but it registers alarm about the disappearance of a certain quality in music: the “never heard this before” sensation of ecstatic disorientation caused by music that seems to come out of nowhere and point to a bright, or at least strange, future.

I don’t wish to dollop even further layers of irony on top of this particular trifle – but we’ve been here before, too, haven’t we? This is repetition, if not revival. What Reynolds castigates as ‘retromania’ has been sporadically identified throughout the past decade, most perspicaciously by several of my mates around about the point at which the third pint starts to make its presence felt, because we’re old enough to remember when revivals seemed novel, if only because this was the first we’d heard of them. 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.

On liking American Psycho.

In 1874, Samuel Clemens called Ambrose Bierce’s latest effort The Vilest Book in Print, writing that ‘…for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.’ I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what Samuel Clemens might have made of Bret Easton Ellis. Continue reading

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bo(m)b

So the next scheduled Apocalypse isn’t until October. Good; I have stuff to do before October, but little to do after it, and at the current rate of Armageddon I won’t need to pay off my student loan. More importantly, Dylan was 70 on Tuesday.

One of my favourite theories/lies/facts about Dylan is that the lyrics to ‘It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ consist of titles or opening lines for other songs which Dylan felt he wouldn’t have time to write before nuclear conflagration moved these matters rather lower down everyone’s list of concerns. In similar manner – and because I’m quite aware that most of my writing is what you’d get if you fed ‘The Libertines’, ‘class war’, ‘wank’, ‘appalling pun’, and ‘cultural history’ into a Random Lyrics Generator – here is a blog post consisting of titles for other blog posts which I doubt I’ll ever get around to writing. Only about two of these are serious proposals, of course, and the rest self-parodic. But the two keep changing. Continue reading

Diminishing gigs and gigs of diminishing return.

There are times when I think that readers of this blog are simply bearing witness to the Orwellian tragedy of someone once boundlessly enthusiastic about live music slowly having it ground out of them by the suspicion that I’d be better off reading a book than spending yet another evening squashed, skint and bored in Camden while some overindulged former public schoolboy vomits down a microphone, but oh well, on with the motley.

I was sorting through some things last night – ticket stubs, diaries, anal-retentively compiled whathaveyou – and look, these are all the gigs I went to in 2004, back when Dirty Pretty Things was still a club night named after a Stephen Frears film rather than a by-word for frustratingly pedestrian musical spin-off projects:

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.

Cards on the table: I am a (very) former Labour Party member, a former unaligned-far-left hack, a former student politician, and a current jaded burn-out who’s more or less lost the faith. What I’ve regained since the last election is not the faith but the fear. Seeing this government use the excuse of debt reduction to conduct a sustained assault on the welfare state’s structures and foundation is not something I can stand by and watch. The question, as ever, is how to express this opposition. Saturday saw a TUC-organised official march, fringed with unofficial peaceful protests and unofficial direct action. The discourse after demonstrations is always varying degrees of unhelpful and unrepresentative, as reportage and analysis splinter into shards of individual experience, each of which reflect only a portion of the whole. This is in no way a contribution to ongoing debate, it is merely my own record and reflection.

The black bloc on Saturday was by some accounts the biggest since J18, which made me think that, as I’ve said before, what’s happening now seems like not a revolution but a return to the protests to which I was introduced over a decade ago – the days of carnivalesque anticapitalism and reclaiming the streets. That said, I think our critique of capitalism in the early 2000s was certainly more vague, still post-Cold War, appealing more to globalising and internationalist issues of social justice and civil liberties because less immediately rooted in financial crisis – and perhaps, for the same reasons, less last-ditch and desperate than it currently seems. I don’t know, and to have a clearer idea, I’d have to get out there and see for myself.

I didn’t do a great deal of Getting Out There on Saturday. I remained with a small group of disparately aligned friends and family, massing outside Embankment tube and then crawling through Waterloo and Westminster. There were an awful lot of us. There were gorgeous trade union banners which had seen action throughout the past century. There were Banksy-esque stencils of Clement Atlee’s image. There were official placards manually-adjusted to call Nick Clegg a variety of entirely-deserved things. The Bloody Hell, That Must Have Taken Ages prize goes jointly to those carrying the huge black cube representing the income of the highest percentile of earners, to which was attached far smaller red cubes showing the relative size of the average income (I think), and those driving the miniature tank playing the theme from The Great Escape. Both of these were the best things I’d seen on a protest since the enormous papier-maché bomb labelled ‘structural readjustment’.

The only demo of comparable size I can remember – where the front of the march had walked the length of the route and reached its destination while more people were still at the back of the march, waiting to move off – was the big Iraq protest in 2003. Then as now, those marching were not homogenous, came from all over the country, and held no obvious signs of slavish adherence to the Labour leadership. Nor did I feel alone in lacking both faith in parliamentary process and any burning desire to stand for hours in Hyde Park listening to hackneyed whistling-up from the stage. Hence, by the time of our stop-off in Trafalgar Square, I opted for the pub. When the revolution comes, shoot me.

The Chandos crouches just off Trafalgar Square, and used to be the post-rally destination of most of my comrades whenever we ended up in the vicinity, largely because, unlike many pubs on or near the route of demonstrations, it had no sign on the door banning work-boots, banners and/or placards. Once inside, an illustration of how far I’ve fallen since the early 2000s was provided by there being no one I knew there apart from my old politics lecturer, who failed to recognise me, as indeed he had during most of my time at Goldsmiths. At the bar I got talking to a bloke who, like me, was a veteran of 2003’s enormous anti-war march, to which he had taken his 12 year old daughter. According to him, she’d said, impressed by the turnout, ‘they’ll have to listen to us now, won’t they?’

He told me this and rolled his eyes, as though aware of how mawkish and implausibly convenient an ending this might make to a subsequent spiel on the pointlessness of peaceful protest. But honestly, fuck irony. Politics in the last few years has got so blatantly contemptuous, so transparently indifferent, that I doubt any kid on the march on Saturday would have had that degree of faith in people power.

The Monday after the march, back at work in Soho, I went out to see the damage done. Little trace remained beyond some indistinct scrawlings on the boarded-up HSBC on Cambridge Circus and, further up the sidestreets, a circled-A in pink spraypaint on a couple of flaking black litter-bins. The slogans written on the scaffolding outside Central St Martins – ‘Make the banks pay’, ‘ACAB’, were at least making more of a stab at focused oppositional discourse. Yesterday lunchtime, more than a week on, the slogans on HSBC were invisible under daubs of white paint, the bank was open for business as usual and pretty soon the West End will look, and feel, as though nothing ever happened.

Am I glad I marched? Yes, of course. And I’m still unaligned, and I reject the notion that my lack of a membership card matters. March 26th wasn’t an attempt at revolution, and was more than a bid for space on the front page, and more than an exercise in branding. It was an act of solidarity, an attempt to demonstrate to all who watched and all who took part that no one is alone in opposing the actions of this government. And it did that, even if that’s all it did.

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.

Continue reading

I don’t want a world in which Thatcher outlives Elizabeth Taylor.

Sloe-eyed and gin-soaked goddess Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), then. Quite genuinely gutted about this – I thought she’d carry on forever, like Shane MacGowan, or the Highlander.

We don’t have to argue about her talent – she was a very good actress, apart from when the film she found herself in was unrescuable shite, in which case she didn’t bother trying. Onscreen, her lush, immaculate, unapologetically high-maintenance, Old Hollywood glam made me want to use words like ‘luminous’ and ‘incandescent’. Offscreen, she did enough to advocate gay rights to get the Westboro Baptist Church consider picketing her funeral. And she combined being an impeccably classy dame with having the spark to remark that her marriage to Richard Burton made her ‘Welsh by injection’.

Continue reading

10 O’Clock Live: Three Men and a Little Lady?

Seen Ten O’Clock Live, then? …Yeah. Breathlessly billed as Britain’s answer to the Daily Show, a return to the satirical standard set by 1962’s groundbreaking That Was The Week That Was and the grand guignol glory days of Spitting Image, with hype like that the show was perhaps doomed to fall short of expectations.

Continue reading

All Quiet on the First Great Western Front

Last week I returned to the Old Country – well, not the Old Country itself, but rather Cardiff, my land’s increasingly swish and cosmopolitan capital, with its rapaciously expanding shopping-and-eating quarter and its incongruous postmodern street sculptures making it feel a bit like a Torchwood theme park. The second most immediately notable thing about Cardiff at the minute is the preponderance of Emo kids there. I know Emo hit the subculturally-attuned youth of south Wales hard, but that was some years previously, and I was aghast to discover that the wretched thing still holds much of the city in its terrible, slappable, Lego-fringed grip. Will we never be set free?

This weekend I’m going to Southampton to be a superstar DJ. By which I mean, to hand over some mix CDs and hope for the best. I hope you all have good weekends; here are some curios to take you into it. Continue reading

Analysis of international politics is being done better elsewhere, so here’s…

1. Pepe Escobar on Libya and environs.

2. A Steve Bell cartoon on the grotesque chaos of a British Brime Minister scuttling round the region pimping arms to despots. Business as usual, I know, on both Bell’s part and Cameron’s, but these things need to be called on sight.

And 3., to cheer us up, Rachid Taha’s obvious-now-you’ve-said-it reworking of perhaps The Clash’s finest hour. Lacking St Strummer’s patented brand of lyrical whatthefuckery – I mean what’s an electric camel drum* when it’s at home? – but retaining all the fabulist brilliance of the original.

* Is it this? Can they be electric? Do camels dream of electric drums? Etc.

Women, Men, and Music: the XY Factor

Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.

Continue reading

Father, Ruler, King, Computer: alternative Valentines playlist redux

In recent days, the search terms leading the unwary googler to this place have heavily featured the words ‘alternative valentines playlist’. I did one of these last year, and, self-evidently, haven’t done another since. I have re-uploaded the file from last year’s post though, so if that’s what you’re after, it’s here: Happy Highly-Expensive Chocolate Day.

But what, pray, do you want with googling ‘alternative valentines playlist’ and variations thereon? Are you going to snaffle this playlist for substance or suggestion? Make your own, Madam: your other half is totally going to appreciate your own playlist more than one you downloaded from the bitterest Howard Devoto obsessive on WordPress. And if you don’t have another half, then I’m frankly baffled to learn that you spend your time doing anything other than making playlists and then playing them. I know I don’t.

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.

Continue reading

Oi! to the World: Blaggers ITA, ‘The Way We Operate’

Following my attempted rehabilitation of S*M*A*S*H, here is another song snipped from the forgotten High Agitation Pop tapestry of 1990s Britain, to which I haven’t listened for a good ten years.

Oh, remember Agit-Pop? Remember when mixing punk with hip-hop and electronica in the name of antifascism seemed like a good idea? Remember Blaggers ITA? Their Wiki helpfully did-you-knows that ITA is ’90s slang for “in the area”‘, which I didn’t in fact know at the time. There you are, that’s the 1990s for you: we made the word ‘here’ two words longer, then we developed an acronym for it.

I discovered Blaggers ITA via their short-lived support slot on the Manic Street Preachers’ 1993 tour. This was curtailed amid controversy over their singer having allegedly lamped a journalist over an alleged accusation of his past, intensely regretted, involvement with the far right. (I’m always less shocked than perhaps I should be by the number of people who switch political extremes, starting off by, when young, channelling frustration and resentment through a right-wing filter before seeing it for the repugnant sham it is. A similar trajectory was taken by the young Ricky Tomlinson, whom I like less than I like the late Matty Blagg. Maybe that’s because Tomlinson went on to do The Royle Family, which gradually decayed into a pseudo-sentimental piece of confected class voyeurism, whereas by contrast the 1991 Blaggers effort Fuck Fascism, Fuck Capitalism, Society’s Fucked is perhaps the best lairily succinct summation of a certain late twentieth-century mindset we’re likely to get.)

Anyway, ‘The Way We Operate’ was a response to the racially-inflamed brutalization of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, and the riots which convulsed that city the following year after the defendants’ acquittal by an all-white jury. It mixed televised reportage and calls to arms with guitars that swirl like circling news helicopters, riffing on Public Enemy’s ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ and segueing the admirable internationalism of ‘West Belfast, Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Soweto, East LA – it’s all the same thing’ into its inanely earnest chorus.

Don’t write ‘em like that anymore, do they? Not a great song, maybe. But with most of popular culture – comedy, tv, literature as well as music – currently punching downwards when it punches at all, I find it helps to be reminded that songs can have worthier targets. Even if these days this sort of thing could almost be described as fucking quaint.

2010 in clicks.

I received some relatively pointless stats from WordPress this morning, but perhaps it’s worth recording the most-viewed posts here:

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

What Carlos Did Next: Carl Barat and Sadie Frost in Fool For Love February 2010
3 comments

2

Handbags and Gladrags: the glittery genius of Kenickie March 2010
10 comments

3

I Love You But You’re Wood Green: Carl Barat at the Big Green Bookshop October 2010
3 comments

4

If the Beatles had read Blake: a word on the Libertines August 2010

5

About March 2009
1 comment

In the coming year I’d like to write more on women in music, both as artists and as fans; on punk as a revolutionary cultural moment; and on the near-certain death of the record industry in the age of the one-click download. I’d also like to write, but probably won’t, a retrospective on post-Libertines London bands entitled ‘The Good, the Bad, and Thee Unstrung’.

Is there anything you’d like to see more of on this blog, or, for that matter, less of?

If You’ve Never Then You Ought: Half Man Half Biscuit

My belated Christmas present to you all, in the dead days before New Year, is the recommendation that you get into Half Man Half Biscuit, if you haven’t already. After five or so years of listening to their back catalogue I don’t have a particular song to recommend, but I recommend you discover your favourite yourself.

Many bands polarise opinion; with ‘The Biscuit’ (as absolutely no one outside the febrile hive-mind of the Guardian weekend supplement calls them) it’s more that people divide into those who think they might like them, and consequently do, and those who think they won’t like them and never give themselves the opportunity to discover how wrong they are.

Always a risky business, innit though, ‘comedy’ in music. I don’t know how I’d class HMHB – as comedy goes, they’re more Chris Morris than Carry On, although they’re as quintessentially British as both. They skewer pretension in all its forms – sometimes satirically, sometimes whimsically, sometimes with nailed-on bleak observation of the nation’s corpse picked clean. But there’s a lot more to them than sneering, and a hell of a lot more than self-conscious zaniness. They’re not, as their detractors often presume, the musical equivalent of that bloke in your office who thinks that owning a novelty tie and a mug with a ‘comedy’ slogan makes up for having a wit and charm deficit the size of the national debt – in fact, they’ve probably written a song about him. They also provide, more or less, a running commentary on the spiralling absurdities of the British music scene.

Their lyrics are studded with nods to Thomas Hardy, and their music is often wickedly parodic. They are much, much cleverer than you think. Nigel Blackwell employs the Birkenhead accent’s capacity for dry disdain building to banked fury in a manner only bettered by Paul O’Grady’s anti-Tory tirade last October. In a sane and well-ordered world, Nigel Blackwell would already have turned down the post of Poet Laureate.

Just occasionally, this band make me feel alright about the world and my place in it. Happy new year.

I’ve also half-inched my new tagline for 2011 from them – the old one was getting me an alarming number of hits from bemused Nietszsche enthusiasts.

Gaye Advert and the Great Cock ‘n’ Balls Swindle

‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979

‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977

Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.

I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.
Continue reading

Sunday Service: ‘Twas the Riot Before Christmas

If you’re an easily suggestible sort, the last few weeks’ flurry of alarmist headlines on strikes, snow, and student riots might lead you to think of London as the convulsing epicentre of the end of the world as we know it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to work and play on the streets of the capital without detecting any signs of the collapse of civilisation, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Continue reading

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.

Those are the headlines. God, I wish they weren’t.

A rant, minor and ignorable. I get like this sometimes.

You know one of my earliest memories? My parents dressing me up in a bloody stupid costume in order to attend the street party that my town was holding in honour of the Royal Wedding of that clot the Prince of Wales to that vacuous brood-mare Lady Diana Spencer. All the children in my town were in fancy dress. Fuck knows why, it must have been a temporary madness. We’ve still got a sodding commemorative mug.

I was born in the 1980s. I grew up to get away from them. The only good thing about getting older was, I fondly deluded myself, that at least it wouldn’t be the fucking, fucking 1980s anymore.

And now what have we got? A Tory Prime Minister, unemployment through the roof, pointless wars abroad, strikes, bankers still raking it in and now a fucking, fucking, fucking Royal Wedding that we’re all expected to take a blind bit of notice of because it’ll take our minds off how SHIT everything is. And we will, of course.

And some of you are wearing bleached denim, crimped hair and the type of horrible moustaches more usually seen on sex offenders – not because it’s the perfectly laudable Movember, but because it’s in some way ~cool. Well, screw the 1980s revival in its overstyled Thatcherite ear. What the fuck are we doing as a nation?

Not Raving but Frowning.

 

Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same
And it’s “nice one, geezer” –
But that’s as far as the conversation went.


Last weekend was notable for a mass rave held in the heart of London’s West End, in the shadow of Trash’s last resting place. Inevitably, this ended up breathlessly reported in the Guardian as having marked ‘the return of rave culture’. Did it bollocks. Rave culture is, like the poor, always with us, and free sub-legal gatherings are scattered over the country like the unspeakable flakes shaken from a white boy’s dreadlocks.

Last Saturday has, like several other online-organised mass Doings of Cool Stuff, both social and political, set an interesting precedent for the relative power of a sufficiently large group of citizens to dodge, outstrip or overcome police opposition or obstruction through the power of social networking. But that’s as far as my positivity can stretch. I was dubious about the article’s claim that it marked the return of alternative culture – specifically, the free party – as a channel for political opposition, and perversely heartened by the similarly-minded cynicism swamping the comment section. The article has things arse-backwards: a confrontation between the law and people having a good time is a side-effect of the event, not its objective.

As shown by Emma Goldman’s frequently misquoted maxim and, I’d like to think, this blog in general, music is inherently political. Any song retains the imprint of its conditions of production, and you’d be a fool and a Ramones fan to think otherwise. But the question of whether a particular form of music and culture is inherently radical or revolutionary is much murkier. Continue reading

Just a quick hello…

… to those of you who are here as a result of my cameo in this month’s Marie Claire, thanks to the fabulous Miss Ellen Burney.

I’ve been writing here for just under two years. I write on music, London, and popular culture old and new. I tell stories, I rant, and I put a socio-political spin on things when I can. Very occasionally, I try to make sense of the 1990s.

So, take a look around. I hope you find something you like here, and please let me know if you do! <3

Offcuts #3

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

I Love You But You’re Wood Green: Carl Barat at the Big Green Bookshop

As Gilbert and Sullivan never quite got around to observing: Carl Barat’s lot is not a happy one. An ‘unpopular’ Home Counties childhood and ‘disappointing’ studenthood; the Libertines’ brief and glorious flicker of fame marred by burglary, breakup and breakdowns; hauling a zombie version of the band around the world on tour while Doherty languished at home pointing the finger; surgery; a solo descent into spurious “DJ”ing, club nights and generally wandering lost among Primrose Hill scenesters old enough to know better; Dirty Pretty Things – still a band of admirable, workmanlike effort but diminishing returns and an inevitable grind to a halt – and then a self-confessed ‘year of demons’. (Only a year, dude?) Even if things currently seem to have taken a deserved upturn – new girlfriend Edie Langley, incipient fatherhood, solo album and book just out – the path that got him here’s still not the sort of beat a chap would choose.
Continue reading

Being a female music fan online and offline

While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.

Continue reading

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

Flood Theatre, The Suicide of the Rev. Lens, 12.07.10

Masturbation is never far from the mind when surveying the current state of mainstream British comedy, besmirched as it is with the self-absorbed and self-indulgent spatterings of established onanists. Flood’s philosophy, though, is the timely and welcome exhortation: ‘Don’t just sit in and wank’.

Flood Theatre is a new enterprise representing several young actors, directors and writers drawn predominantly from the East 15 Acting School. Their first performance of The Suicide of the Rev. Lens took place in Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre before a respectably large and appreciative crowd. Boxed-in and wilting in relentless midsummer heat as we were, the venue’s incipiently claustrophobic atmosphere aptly set the tone for a journey into Flood’s unsettling, murky and merciless world.

The production’s titular creation is a fulminating clergyman equally cursed and blessed with the ability to detect the cardinal sin of self-love. Around this central conceit, the seven cast members weave a loose narrative of episodic sketches and musical interludes. Their material blends darkly surreal digressions with incisive dissections of socio-political absurdities, hitting the usual government and media targets but also taking in an inventory of irritants ranging from the Free Hugs campaign to homeopathy to the vagaries of mental health diagnosis.

Flood deftly take inspiration from the surrealist and satirical work of Chris Morris. The show’s curiously haunting arrangements of prog-rock and indie recall the ambience of Blue Jam, and his influence is visible too in sketches touching on incest, paedophilia and abuse within the Catholic Church, in which uncertain laughter is shocked from the audience rather than cued or coaxed.

The presiding tone is one of intelligent irreverence, avoiding both gratuitous puerility and the laboured haranguing which plagues much overtly political comedy, edged with a fine sense of the absurd and grotesque. Flood is an engaging and important new arrival.

*

More information on Flood is available here.

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.

Offcuts #2

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.

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

The Greater Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

So. Farewell then, Malcolm McLaren, one of the best trolls of the twentieth century. With splendid synchronicity, last week also saw the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, railroaded through in Parliament’s pre-election wash-up in front of a pathetic forty MPs. The legislative enshrining of this particularly sweeping and short-sighted sop to failing business models shows up the UK government as shills to the interests of industry over democratic debate.

Take 1980. McLaren’s chosen wheeze that year was Bow Wow Wow, a fusion of Burundi, Latin, punk and épater la bourgeoisie which saw Adam Ant’s band backing child star Annabella Lwin. Bow Wow Wow have the distinction of releasing the first ever cassette single, a gleeful paean to empowerment through home taping:

In 1980, famously, home taping was killing music, and was definitely illegal. We kept doing it. And yet record companies somehow struggled on, charging exorbitantly for CDs and picking up and dropping bands unable to generate fast enough revenue as they did so. The reactionary blustering over home taping at the dawn of the cassette era parallels today’s filesharing debates, and today’s anti-internet arguments are more transparently disingenuous. The big-money industry model which has held sway for the past fifty years has been a blip, not a fundamental cultural cornerstone without which all popular music will collapse into dust. Artists themselves are adapting to the new opportunities offered by digital distribution and online word-of-mouth – go here for one obvious and shining example – it is an industry grown bloated on its previous parasitical lifestyle that can’t or won’t. It’s more than unfortunate that the latter is where the majority of money and string-pulling power still resides.

Discovering new music, and sharing your own, is and will remain one of the most fantastic, altruistic and mutually beneficial things that culture has to offer. The Digital Economy Act is not necessary to ‘prevent Britain’s creative industries haemorrhaging money’; it is a flailing, ham-fisted attempt to prevent Britain’s creative industries advancing to their next evolutionary stage. Death-throes are never dignified.

Offcuts #1

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.

Patti Smith, ‘Because the Night’ (live)

Like a certain kind of Dad tends to ruin Bob Dylan, Julie Burchill almost ruined Patti Smith for me. I only really trust Julie Burchill’s opinion on the need to outlaw asbestos, and my early-teenage reading of her enthusing over Smith made my eyes roll like a pill dropped on the floor of Soho House. A year or so later, I listened to Horses and kicked myself. Her stark and disdainful image on the record sleeve left me as amazed as the music. To realise that not only was it okay to be female, to be queer, to be ungroomed, to read, to write, to have ambition, to want to get out, to let yourself go – it could actually be brilliant.

On Saturday I went to her book-signing at the South Bank. The book itself is interesting, not least for its function as a kind of anti-confessional, a memoir shrouded not in prudishness or desperate self-mythology but content, affectionate dignity. She also played three songs, the second of which was her cover of ‘Because the Night’. She asked the crowd to join in to cover her nerves, and we did, hesitantly and subdued, nearly reverent:

There is something in her recasting of Springsteen’s song, the swooping and quavery way she delivers ‘they can’t hurt you now…’, that perfectly captures for me the certainty of protection afforded by music and its sharing, the sense of at once standing recklessly, defiantly before the world and taking refuge from it with another who understands. Making it so by proclaiming that it is so. On Saturday, collectively participating in its singing felt like something primitive, a basic ward against the elemental world outside my head. (It’s the chorus that does it. Not that the security, trust and defiant resolve embedded in its primal thump is peculiar to this song; I’d think, and frequently have thought, the same when singing drunkenly along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.)

Did you know Patti Smith used to work as a bookseller? She talked a bit about that, about having the permanent mark of the bookseller that means that, when in bookshops these days, she still occasionally gets asked for directions, and about the pre-fame certainty of failure and unappreciation. This led on to her method of getting over this by recalling that William Blake was an unappreciated and ridiculed failure for his entire life. I must admit, my optimism worn down to a stump, that whenever I hear variations on this theme I find it trite at best and depressing at worst, rather than comforting, but I managed to avoid thinking so for the duration of her saying so. It helped that her speaking voice is gorgeous: low, hypnotic, sleepy, vaguely like Dylan’s, chopping off the ends of words and pronouncing ‘cigarette’ without its middle syllable so it sounds like ‘secret’.

Face to face, she was astonishingly old, I thought: nerve-thin, tightly strung, beatific. Smile. Clasp of the hand. I skipped off down the South Bank in the spring drizzle, the book clutched to me like it could stop bullets.

Handbags and Gladrags: the glittery genius of Kenickie

 

Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.

Continue reading

What Carlos Did Next: Carl Barat and Sadie Frost in Fool For Love

The last time I saw Carl Barat, he was still playing a rock star. Dirty Pretty Things’ final gig brought down the curtain on a part he played exceptionally well. A year on from their demise, out in the wilds of west London, Neil Sheppeck’s production of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love sees Barat audition for a different role. He’s always been a performer, with the Libertines’ and DPT’s gang mentality a fairly transparent protection against chronic insecurity and fear of isolation. There’s a similar protection afforded by having a part to play – a costume to wear and a script to follow which relieves the worry about being judged on your own merits. Doing so for a living seems a logical if precarious next step.

Continue reading

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.

A Good Band is Hard to Find?

When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
Continue reading

Non-Stop Punk Cabaret: Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Last week I went to the Barbican Centre to see the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Rarely has a film-showing had a more appropriate environment: the Barbican is stunningly early-70s, a symphony in brown and orange inside its concrete Brutalist exoskeleton. By the time the opening credits rolled, my hair had developed a Farrah Fawcett flick and I was fully expecting to be served a prawn cocktail by someone complaining about the three-day-week. Anyway: I enjoyed the film. It’s an accomplished pinch-of-salt portrait of Dury as child, father, husband, bandmate and musician, peacock-strutting his way from a semi-Dickensian institutionalised childhood to an adulthood spent in raucous and truculent self-actualisation. Andy Serkis is immense, as are the quietly cool portrayals of Dury’s long-suffering first wife and his largely unsung girlfriend, jobbing bassist and general muse Denise Roudette.

How punk was Ian Dury? Speaking musically: less so than his ubiquity on punk retrospectives might suggest. His closest association is with the big-band sound of an earlier generation. Into this mix his band stirred sinuous, sinewy funk, jazz and reggae in a brew that anticipates much of 2-Tone and later white-boy ska. The Blockheads’ sound has the confrontational physicality of early rock n roll, too, dextrous and muscular and thuggishly full-on. The opening verse of ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ is a rare gem of moonlit delicacy in a barrowload of brutalising rhythms, terrace-chant choruses and that glorious, swaggering, leering, brandished clenched fist of a voice.

Dury’s other big influence is music-hall, traceable in his arch delivery, left-field rhymes and the maudlin lost-world sentiment of ‘My Old Man’, and peaking in the posturing of his Essex swell Billericay Dickie. The chancers and romancers who populate his songs are sometimes indistinguishable from his stage persona, but Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll efficiently unravels the layers of performance inherent in this: Dury’s wideboy geezerisms are adopted, transposed on a background of art-school bohemia which he memorably describes onscreen as ‘[not posh;] we’re arts-and-crafts’.

Despite his musical distance from it, there is an edge to Dury which aligns him squarely with punk and its particular anti-aesthetic. Not only did punk’s appreciation of the vulgar and iconoclastic dovetail with Dury’s own, but he also embodies empowerment through the owning and reclaiming of one’s own social marginalisation, which Lester Bangs identified thus:

… one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power.

Punk allows you, if you can’t emerge butterfly-pretty and slide smoothly away from your shell, to fight your way half-out and carry on, dragging the smashed and broken pieces with you as an integral part of yourself. An uncomfortable, uncompromising process made spectacular. Punk’s gifting of defiant and unapologetic visibility to the powerless, and to those socially excluded on economic or aesthetic grounds, swirls in the venom with which Dury injects his music. It found particular expression in his 1981 commercial swansong ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, a reclamatory refusenik anthem which achieves a dignity of its own through refusing to accept it in its patronising, socially-ordained form. The song’s conception and subsequent banning are explained in this clip:

‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll’, with its exhortations to reject the ordinary and take sartorial and aesthetic pride in oneself, is a manifesto that should be nailed up in every schoolroom and recording studio in the land. Dury was one of our last great originals, a genuine outsider resistant to external definition by background or ability, quintessentially punk and unmistakeably English, whose absence highlights the threadbare, barren and character-free state of contemporary music. As a national treasure, he gives every other contender an unsteady run for their money.

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.]

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Get the fuck in. Last night I listened to the Top 40 with breath so bated it recalled the near-asphyxiating sixteen weeks when ‘Everything I Do (I Do it for You)’ held sugary sway. And, just for a very brief period, I listened to the 2009 UK Christmas Number One and I was happy enough to want to do the absurd nu-metal dance to it where you appear to be trying to stab your knees with your eyebrows. Oh to be thirteen again and able to snottily explain that it’s Actually about institutionalised racism in the police force and not just anti-authoritarianism, Actually.

I am astonished at this campaign’s success. I know it proves nothing more, and benefits nothing other, than the British public’s appetite for bloody-minded belligerence, but – and this is me saying this – lighten the fuck up. Rage’s victory is a lovely little concordance of popular discontent at the increasingly piss-taking nature of reality tv and the internet’s facilitation of grassroots organisation, and as such a highly positive note on which to end the decade. And it’s probably the best news I’ve had in what for me has been a horrible, dismal, unforgiving, cannot-catch-a-break year. Merry bloody Christmas.

Protected: Fuck You I Won’t Tidy My Bedroom: Rage Against the Machine versus The X-Factor

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

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

The Empress of I Scream: Amanda Palmer, Islington Union Chapel, 12.09.09

In an Islington pub for pre-gig drinks, I order that unpretentious student/goth classic, a snakebite-and-black. Because this pub has delusions of grandeur, the drink comes served in a goblet of engraved glass, an elegant setting belying the cheap and giddy good time that swirls in its velvety depths. As a stylish repackaging of the marginal and derided, it’s quite an Amanda Palmer way of doing things.

Across the street on the forecourt of the Union Chapel, a man with the dress and demeanour of a Victorian undertaker is peddling on a contraption of polished wood that might be a piano, might be a hearse. Slightly too-large-for-comfort sockpuppets are carried by men in black. The circus is in town, gloriously, and chancing across a beauty parlour full of sailors wouldn’t come as any great surprise. On the rows of wooden pews inside the venue, clusters of Palmerettes bloom like a thousand flowers: dark-eyed, candyfloss-haired, irrepressible and remarkably dressed. Amanda Palmer gigs are no bad place for the self-conscious, though; from the moment our hostess takes to the stage, resplendent this evening in a full-length swathe of black and white stripes, you can be fairly confident that no one’s looking at you. Although the evening features question-and-answer sessions and the auctioning of a painting completed during the show, this is less the Amanda and Friends Musical Cabaret that other of her gigs are more accurately billed as. Both the setting and her performance tonight ensure that the spotlight can barely drag itself away from her.

I often forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. In this respect Palmer’s playing is a revelation, a hammering out of powerful, authoritative notes that drill her words into your hindbrain. As a vocalist, she deserves superlatives that haven’t been invented yet; ‘Brechtian’ doesn’t come close, and neither does ‘punk’ or ‘cabaret’. Her voice tolls like a church bell, its dramatic depth and texture punctuated by the lightning-quick criss-cross of her hands on the keys. Her delivery of the songs tonight veers between imperious intensity (the stabbing staccato of ‘Runs in the Family’, or her nigh-on terrifying, breakneck cover of Jason Webley’s ‘Icarus’), and a yearning vocal caress which lights up ‘Boston’ and contrasts with the lyrical violence of ‘Delilah’. And then there are extraordinary, almost uncapturable moments, like her Struwwelpeter cover or the piece of Bach she plays after a typically nervy and self-effacing introduction. Her revelling in music is infectious and, like all too few artists, she concentrates on giving back as much enjoyment and enthusiasm as she inspires.

(There’s a lot to be said about whether it matters, and how much and why, that Palmer is a female artist. Talking before, during and afterwards with starry-eyed provincial girls who’ve made a pilgrimage to London for this gig, hearing them freestyle her Palin-baiting lyrics and indulging in unashamed pansexuality – of course it matters. When I was the age and in the dire smalltown straits of some of this crowd, there was no one comparable in the public eye to entertain, affirm or inspire. I had no one to nail the absurdity of street harassment with the crucifying accuracy of ‘Ampersand’, and nothing approaching ‘Bank of Boston Beauty Queen’ and its wry dissection of the rewards of self-actualisation. And so, as a female and a music fan, I’m grateful for her. But in many other ways, Palmer is a transcendent, liberatory force of nature, and the media she chooses matter less than the message.)

Back to tonight. The incongruous candlelit venue is ripe for subversion, and she takes great pleasure in having her charming companion deliver Derek and Clive’s profanity-ridden parody hymn. Later, the magnificent ‘Oasis’ becomes a sacrilegious sing-along, complete with happy-clapping and exuberant shouts of ‘CRACKWHORE’ from the congregation. The encore, however, sees her stand stock-still, hands clasped before her like she’s ready to recite at Sunday-school, and perform an astonishing unaccompanied cover of Tori Amos’ ‘Me and a Gun’. Clear-eyed and spine-chilling, it’s a no-but-seriously flipside to ‘Oasis’ that makes the crowd collectively catch our breath. The crystalline version of ‘The Point of it All’ which follows, heartwrenching enough on its own terms, seems more affecting for being something of a conduit for the emotions held in check throughout the previous song. A subdued but stunningly powerful final note, it sends me back onto the still-unreclaimed street rejoicing in faith reaffirmed. Praise be.

Hopelessly Devoto’d: Magazine, Royal Festival Hall, 1.09.09

The debt that’s owed to Magazine and Howard Devoto, both musically and stylistically, is massive, from Radiohead’s paranoid melancholy to Joy Division’s jumpy genius. Morrissey, a fanboy from early on, would never have made his career complete without summing himself up to the point of self-parody in Devoto’s line I know the meaning of life / It doesn’t help me a bit. And on a Tuesday night in the twenty-first century, after the end of office hours, with London’s South Bank still marinading in post-Bank Holiday blues, peerless post-punk outfit Magazine are ‘reconvening’. The future ain’t what it was, alright.

This is my first gig at the Royal Festival Hall, and it feels about as incongruous as you’d imagine. Most of the glass-and-air-and-exhibition-space complex has the feel of an aircraft hangar, and waiting for the gig to start is akin to sitting around, sipping from plastic glasses of overpriced drink, in the hours before your flight is called. The bar urges you to order your interval drinks in advance to avoid the rush.

At a respectable hour we’re ushered to the fifth floor and out into seats in a box to the right of the stage. The whole venue is odd from up here. The boxes jut like cars on the slope of a rollercoaster and the crowd, spread out below us, is balding and bare-armed in the anticipatory heat. Magazine have always attracted the self-styled intelligentsia and that part of their fanbase appears to have grown in the thirty years they’ve been away. It is, as my companion observes, a very paunchy audience. There are children, there are mums and dads, there are ageing Camden casualties with their hair still – or perhaps, once more – an ill-judged peroxide. It feels very much like we’ve taken a night out from the present day and our current personae to not so much step back in time as step outside it.

The lights dim. Showtime. Projected onto the back of the stage is The Soap Show: Episode 2009. The spotlight glints off a glistening pate. It’s Devoto, dull-suited and scarlet-shirted, glaring round and holding the eye of the crowd like a ringmaster. He’s very far from his Bambi-eyed boyhood, but then aren’t we all. He’s aged with all the advantages of a teenager who started out looking fiftysomething, and he moves like a cross between Dr Evil and Nijinsky.

For the first hour or so the band run through third album The Correct Use of Soap, all the songs in order, including their bizarre and broken cover of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You’. In between songs, Devoto deadpans quotes from the anonymous writer of Caring For Your Record Collection, a pamphlet which must be older than the thirty years the band are making up for. Its pay-off line is ‘Try to avoid, ever, lending records to your friends’.

‘Turn the guitar up!’ shouts a voice from the back, several times. The band pay no attention at all.

The album’s highlight as played tonight is ‘You Never Knew Me’, a swirling, tauntingly tender glimpse of the Buzzcocks roots which otherwise stay as well-hidden as a teenage tattoo at a job interview. They close the first half with ‘A Song from Under the Floorboards’, which Devoto introduces as a song detailing ‘what happens when you don’t manage your coping mechanisms properly’. Like Radiohead’s indebted ‘Let Down’, the song pulls you down with it, spreading its hands to show you Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare extended to a world glimpsed only through the cracks. Devoto nails the chorus, snatching an imaginary insect from the air with precision so pinpoint that I flinch.

On the show’s second half the record is flipped. They open with Dave Formula playing the RFH organ halfway up the wall at the back of the stage, while behind a lectern at the stage’s lip Devoto intones his spoken-word piece ‘The Book’, the story of an entrance into hell, and for the rest of the set Noko’s guitar licks and Barry Adamson’s basslines come boiling, scourging, coruscating across the stage like something tangible.

As I’ve often said to emo kids in love with the validity of unconventional attraction: if you must form emotional attachments to the tubby and balding and call it cool, then Devoto’s your man. Like Morrissey these days, he’s got an odd balletic grace that transcends his age and stockiness. He slips the microphone out of its stand like he’s unsheathing a dagger, legs twisted and spine crooked like Steerpike, and his control of the stage tonight is something to behold: not a movement or a moment wasted. He doesn’t touch an instrument all night, but he’s dead-on in touch with the music: fingers snap, wrists flick, arms windmill, imaginary whips are cracked over the rhythm section. More than once he leaps, both feet off the ground, and brings his hands down flat at the split second the music stops dead. It’s something beyond dancing, something short of conducting: a blindingly obvious and perfect balance between controlled and controller.

In this mood, when he gives the off-the-cuff command that we don’t have to stay seated, within seconds there’s a rush for the space in front of the stage. The back rows and balconies rise and from there on in the set is thrown at us head-on, ‘Permafrost’ snarling unsettlingly out of the speakers with Devoto transformed from avuncular maitre d’ into something darker that holds the eye and ear transfixed. At the song’s apocalyptic apex, with the presence and possession of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Devoto sneers ‘I will / drug you / and fuck you / on the remains of the permafrost’ and the possibility that the little freak won’t doesn’t even cross the mind. (And with manual dexterity like tonight’s? Bring it on.)

Straight on into ‘The Light Pours out of Me’. Songs this good should be strictly rationed. Even – or especially – in the mouths of fiftysomethings, nothing sums up bored adolescence like the listlessly buzzing, chopped-out lines ‘Time flies / time crawls / like an insect / up and down the walls’. Always a band ahead of their time, post-punk while punk proper was still revving up and sounding no less undateable thirty years on, Magazine have achieved something like timelessness. There’s no ‘Shot By Both Sides’ tonight, due one suspects to their pioneering contrariness as much anything else, but the whole of the set has been a reminder that the best a band can offer is the chance of losing yourself in the crowd.

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.

Turning Rebellion into Money: corporate sponsorship of music and its discontents

A few months previous, a friend and I were drinking in a former strip-club in Shoreditch, the interior of which is a fairly accurate rendering of what you’d get if Vivienne Westwood vomited up the Court of Versailles. And it might have been a response to the nightmarish surroundings, and it might just have been the peculiarly provincial guilt that results from drinking away your Sunday afternoon when you know full well your ancestors would have been back from chapel and bringing in the sheaves by now, but my god, everything, both visible and abstract, didn’t half look like shit. We stared into our glasses (half-empty, of course), and one of the conclusions to which we came, while aimlessly sticking the scalpel into the corpse of popular culture, was that the music industry is becoming entirely parasitical. I found that particular observation nudging its way back to the front of my brain last week upon reading this article.

The good news is that, as the article confirms, online piracy hasn’t in fact been killing music, merely forcing both it and the industry to adapt and evolve. Most revenue for bands now comes from live performances and merchandise. This is as it should be: if a record piques your interest, if a sound sucks you in sufficiently for you to go and see how it looks onstage, and if after that, you’re hooked enough to have it emblazoned on a badge and bedroom wall, all to the good. But underneath the sighs of relief can be heard the clank and whir of industry cogwheels. In the eye-wateringly ugly vernacular, bands and their managers are looking “for new ways of making money from a shrinking pie”. Not just the music industry, either: global capitalism, ever-expanding, is now extending its sweaty embrace through the medium of sponsoring bands – circumventing record labels altogether and striking deals directly with artists and managers.

And again, sure, this is as it should be for a given definition of music – one that ignores all that’s great about music and accentuates all that’s regrettable. What is the point of music, after all? Is it to make money, which admittedly is the point of most industries, including those which batten on individual creativity and imagination? Or is it to express, to entertain, to forge some connection between alienated individuals? If the latter, is that really best accomplished by hawking your talent and your ambition to a boardroom’s worth of number-crunchers whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, and whose job depends on a product that isn’t actually music? To say nothing of the fact that bands may be choosing to associate with multinational companies whose records on ethics and human rights are decidedly grubby. Witness Groove Armada, cited in the Guardian article as having hitched their wagon to the immensely distasteful Bacardi.

Having your musical output facilitated, promoted or managed is one thing. But once you start looking to some monolithic entity outside the music industry for permission to exist as an artist you’re on very dangerous ground. Let’s be clear: it’s brands that have the power here. It’s laughable to suppose that corporate sponsorship won’t involve some process of approval and right of veto over the end product. The logic of brand-association dictates that advertisers are going to want to keep their pet artists, at the least, tabloid-friendly, and, at the most, hermetically sealed from associating with anything that isn’t bland, whitebread and squeaky-clean.

In 1993, Pepsi, who were in large part the originators of this brand/band marriage of convenience, had to hurriedly wash their hands of sponsoring the late Michael Jackson following unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. Pepsi’s action was, in the circumstances, a fairly understandable piece of arse-covering, but, at the other end of the scale, consider the schmuck from S Club 7 who sailed close to scuppering his band’s deal with British Telecom for the singularly heinous and, for both a teenager and a musician, totally atypical and unpredictable act of smoking a joint. Without entering into the tedious can-and-should-music-exist-without-drugs debate, let alone that of can-and-should-SClub7-fans-exist-without-involuntary-euthanasia, consider the serried ranks of formerly smack-soaked musical sorcerors – Billie Holiday, John Cale, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Charlie Parker for starters. In a pearl-clutching world of increasingly invasive attention to the private lives of public figures, and increasingly powerful manufactured outrage, would brands be willing to sponsor any artist of that calibre if they were subject to the same family-unfriendly tabloid mercies as Winehouse and Doherty? And never mind actions, how about words: the overseers of brand-association are notoriously jumpy. Are artists going to be able to express an opinion on politics, religion or sexuality that might reflect badly on their chosen brand? Will we end up with companies only willing to wield their dark arts in the service of bands so established as to be untouchable or so new as to obediently, mutely, boringly walk the line? In which case I have seen the future, brother: it is Bono.

Questions of potential corporate control are of course less pressing than the central one: what sort of craven, tapwater-blooded and tapioca-brained cynic forms a band with a view to letting themselves be sponsored by Red Bull? Nobody wants to see a singer fearfully glancing over her shoulder for her paymaster’s approval before she puts her mouth to the microphone, and no band worth a second of anyone’s time signs up for it. Who are you, Coq Roq? Haven’t we seen enough of the unedifying collapse of culture into product placement, and of the mainstream’s more insidious cultural cherry-picking? Never forget the capacity of major labels, from consumables to clothing chains, to burst a subcultural bubble; they swoop in, magpie-like, and sell off our shiniest, sexiest symbols in a way that sucks them dry of any significance they might once have held. Sod the hippie wigs in Woolworths, man; they’re selling Libertines tunics in Topshop. Your scene turns to ruined, co-opted, demographic-targeted dust the instant the admen lay hands on.

Maybe this response is just a reactionary jerk of the knee, but it all makes me deeply suspicious, and deeply despondent. You shouldn’t be able to trust your musicians – Christ no, without exception they’ve always been a collection of the desperate, dumb, deranged, damaged and deluded – but you should be able to trust the music. You should be able to take it as read that music is more than a money-making proposition. If approval by global corporate brands is to be the hoop through which aspiring artists jump in order to gain readies and recognition, then the free publicity and critique provided by blogs and forums is going to be more necessary than ever.

Pages in Plectrums night (Carl Barat, Drew McConnell, Mark Morris, Kieran Leonard): 1969 Returning?

As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:

‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’

‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’

I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.

Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’

I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:

1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS

And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:

1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).

He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.

A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’

Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’

And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.

Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.

A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’

Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’

Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’

A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’

Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.

As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.

A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’

And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.

On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.

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.

Sleeping with the NME: how the British music press picked up a dose of the crap

Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.

So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.

And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.

But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.

The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.

The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!’; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.

I dreamed that I was living back in the mid-nineteen-eighties: The Specials, ‘Ghost Town’

Just a quick link, in keeping with the prevailing socio-economic mood, of possibly the best song of the past three decades. There’s a lot to be said about a(nother) disenfranchised generation left with no choice but to disengage, but you get it all here: the backbeat’s plodding fatalism, the wind howling through streets of boarded-up shopfronts, the creeping undirected menace.

I remember, back in the day, a godawful cover of this by Back To The Planet. Fucken hippies, but you could see what they were getting at: 1994 and all that was another top-down assault on youth culture, the Criminal Justice Bill suddenly getting the apathetic to sit up, shake off the comedown and take notice of the systematic erosion of civil liberties. A bit. But there’s no call-to-arms here, just mournful observation, the anatomy of market failure and government misconduct.

And oh well, here we are again, looking for something to get us in the mood (unlimited respect or something like it to anyone who gets that reference without googling). Enjoy.

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.

When they pin me to the wall: The Indelicates, the Metro, 18.10.08

Last night’s Indelicates gig was a welcome confirmation of their place in my heart. I was closer to the front than I’ve been for a while – front row in front of Julia, where a baffling amount of space had been left, possibly by her sheer force of charisma or possibly due to fear of incurring her imperious wrath by getting too close while being clearly inferior. Essentially I fell in love with this band the first time I saw them, and they’ve never really deviated from the impression I was left with then. As a five-piece they were interacting far more emphatically and playfully than I’ve seen before. The playing’s more tight these days and as a function of their confidence, precision and bottomless rage, the songs sometimes feel deliberately deployed like gunshots.

Something it’s taken me some time to appreciate is the band’s impressiveness in aesthetic terms. Both female Indelicates have a unique sartorial elegance and poise; where Kate remains serenely unruffled throughout, cool and almost detached in her own bass-heroic world, Julia throws herself into her role, singing with eyes-screwed-shut concentration and finishing songs with icy precision collapsing into uncomprehending, self-effacing smiles, looking half-embarrassed by her degree of accomplishment and its reception. Simon, dressed brilliantly bizarrely (cf last night’s t-shirt featuring Cher as Che Guevara), just stares and sneers and seethes. And then there’s their rhythm guitarist, bless him. A shining example of the lengths one must go to for attention when your bandmates have the stage presence of Simon and Julia, his services to swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked stagecraft reminded me of nothing so much as Steerpike playing Sid Vicious.

One new song: ‘I Am Koresh’, murky and militaristic, which in sound and concept reminded me of ‘Personal Jesus’ and is apparently from their upcoming second LP, ‘a concept album about Waco’. (Hmm.) ‘America’ was brilliantly done, dedicated to John McCain and with a crowd-baiting namecheck for Sarah Palin in place of Bill O’Reilly. (Hmm, again. As Sinead said afterwards, there’s layers-of-irony and then there’s just losing your mind. I have steadfastly avoided comparing my favourite bands to my previous favourite band, but part of ‘America’s dodginess for me is the same unsettled well yes, but – that bothered me (and them, to be fair) about ’Archives of Pain’ – by all means be blazingly angry about your conception of the vagaries of bleeding-heart liberals, but don’t let the finished article read like the Daily Mail. Not that ‘America’ isn’t vastly more subtle and superior.) At least there was no ‘Better to Know’, ‘America’s drippy cardigan-wearing cousin.

As for ‘Our Daughters Will Never Be Free’, I wish everyone with a progressive, performative bone in their body could have crammed in to see it. Julia, abandoning the keyboard, sang the first verse a capella to crowd handclaps before the band slammed in and she took entire control of the stage, tiny and piercing and wound-up with churning uberfeminist rage, disgust and despair. She concluded, slumping back down with her hair all over her face, howling pro-choice invective and the final ad-lib ‘You can be that girl or you can be my kind of girl…’ I can’t imagine it done better.

Best band around.

I will forget my dying king: The Indelicates, Dublin Castle, 19.06.07

Camden, that boil on the neck of North London, was briefly brightened up last night by an Indelicates gig. They were the best I’ve seen them so far. Arrogant as fuck, opening with ‘The Last Significant Statement to be Made in Rock’n’Roll’ and in content and form embodying the line Anger is an energy.

The more I hear them live, the less satisfied I am with the demos and downloads I have. I like their clever-cleverness and their occasional prissiness of delivery – the concept behind a song like the girls-school madrigal version of ‘Our Daughters Will Never be Free’ makes it a practical requirement – but I can see why they attract criticism on grounds of being twee or self-satisfied or, apparently, too ‘drama-studenty’. (Sorry, she went to Goldsmiths; objectionable drama-student tendencies spread there with the virulence of memes or STDs).

But the demos lack the seeming desperation and spat-out contempt that drives the songs when live. On record, only ‘Fun is for the Feeble-Minded’ and maybe ‘Julia We Don’t Live in the Sixties’ come close to reflecting the urgency and vitriol of their onstage selves. ‘Sixteen’ is glorious live, skipping along giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes. ‘Heroin’ (which I was astonished to learn is not a Suede pisstake, but should be), is a perfectly sustained and poker-faced lament that pulls the carpet out from under the past decade’s eulogising of crap towns, pointless lives and pale thin girls with eyes forlorn. ‘We Hate the Kids’ is already one of our great lost singles, simplistic enough but delivered compulsively vicious with a beautifully executed swagger that renders it anthemic. Live, they mean it even more.

Lyrics like ‘Rebellion shores up the market / Rebellion keeps the nation healthy’ have been done, of course (’Turning rebellion into money’, ‘Rebellion it always sells at a profit’), but when they’re done it’s generally a sign of self-awareness rather than empty sloganeering. Being conscious of and informed by your own ultimate futility and counterproductiveness – the knowledge that your kicking against the whole corrupt edifice does nothing so much as tire you out and keep it standing – is preferable to trading on the idea that popular music currently has any great capacity for danger, subversion or originality, that the revolution is only a sponsored arena tour away. The scene has (once more) become sufficiently smug, bloated and prickable as to call into existence fierce quick creatures with sharp teeth. They are a necessary band. Best song titles since Doherty/Barat, too.

I’m quite aware that people dislike The Indelicates. Alright. It’s rare for me to find a band I’m happy to love. It’s rare that a band inspire me, and this band does. This band also make me want a badge that says ‘They don’t hate the kids as much as I do.’

Infinity Goes Up On Trial: Bob Dylan, Brixton Academy, 21.11.05

Dylan at Brixton was unreal. In retrospect, since the show opened with a tribute to Link Wray, I’d like to think it ended with a tribute to Joe Strummer. There was a solemnity to things, at times, but not in a way that brought things down at all.

Okay, of course he’s appallingly old now and looks it, but he doesn’t look bad on it at all. And as the bores complained, he’s out of tune, but a) when has he ever been in tune?; b) define ‘tune’; c) ‘Lay Lady Lay’; and d) since when was that the point?. It’s not that his voice is shot, it’s just a different voice. He’s had so many and this is the latest. When some songs used to skid gloriously all over the place, with the exuberance of a toddler knee-sliding on polished parquet at a wedding reception, his delivery now keeps them grounded and anchored, a lilt as light as an empty rocking-chair. There’s something solemn and stately about the way he performs now.

There’s also glimpses of his former selves, like, as Susie said, a Magic Eye puzzle. His early earnest folk persona and his Messianic speed-freak Blonde On Blonde persona and his almost unbearable god-bothering Eighties persona, they’re all still there. It happens when he turns his head and takes the crowd in and there’s a collective intake of breath. There’s still that swagger and cockiness that avoids being arrogance and instead is just absolute self-assurance. Just him knowing he’s been right all along.

There had been a bit of talk about him tailoring the recent sets to express a newfound/rediscovered anti-imperialism. Sunday he played ‘Tales of Yankee Power’, and okay, we had ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (!!!) and ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, and arguably ‘Honest With Me’, but who knows the logic behind it. He’s had more than a moment of being atrociously right-wing and I think he even voted for Bush Senior. It doesn’t matter. Songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Masters of War’ have been taken out of his hands and into common ownership. They’ve enriched and strengthened twentieth-century protest the way that only good music can.

The set still contained a few songs I didn’t recognise, which is another reason I love him: there is always more to discover. There was less tiresome bluesy fretwank from the band this time, although there was still a bit. There was, fantastically, ‘Cold Irons Bound’ which sounded about ten years ahead of its time. ‘Visions of Johanna’, bloody hell. Again, there was that swaying between wanting to cry at how fantastic it was both as song and performance, and wanting (only slightly) to laugh at the fact that individual lines were getting their own applause. But then, when you write stuff of startling pinpoint accuracy like We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it or Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously or Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while (a line that I’m still not sure how to read), you deserve to be indulged.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, yeah, stately and solemn, and somehow not missing the visceral, malicious quality of its early outings (the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig has the definitive version of it, after ‘JUDAS!’ and after his transcendentally sneering and defiant response of ‘I don’t believe you… you’re a liar… Play it fuckin’ loud!’ The version they play then is fucking scourging, the repetition of ‘How does it feel?! like a whip across the shoulders). But the time for that has passed. He knows he was right. There’s still him-against-the-world feel to things, but it’s not-quite-bitter, resignation rather than rage. He’s beyond and above it all: ‘Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust‘ might, for his younger self, have been slyly about his outlasting Lennon, but these days I wonder if he cares about competition or rivalry, or even recognises it.

Hanging around for the encore, I was expecting the same as the last two times (Like a Rolling Stone/Cat’s in the Well/All Along the Watchtower), but no. ‘Cat’s in the Well’ was cut (possibly there’d been enough apocalyptic visions for one set) and instead there was London fucking Calling. Forty years or so, bloody hell. He matters, the same way the Clash mattered, the Manics, the Libertines. In the way they embody their influences, they matter. Dylan is what music should be and what lyrics should be, how songs should change your life.