Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible is my next book, co-written with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke, coming out in February next year from Repeater Books.
My bit looks at the politics and pop culture of 90s Britain, growing up in post-industrial Wales, class and gender and the rest of my usual stuff, and how the album fit or didn’t fit into that context.
(Obviously a cultural materialist analysis of the Manics’ least commercial album is the one thing the world needs right now.)
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
– The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.
This is the fifth AND LAST in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’.
“For a start, the very fact that we were Welsh meant that we had to try 100 times harder than any other group. Even now, in some terrible news magazine, someone’s reviewed the album and the headline is ‘Boyos To Men’. And I’m not saying it’s racist or anything: I just find it incredibly thick. In a way I’m glad I’ve got all that now: it gives me something to rail against, to use as a creative feeder.”
Can you speak any Welsh?
“We were never allowed to learn. And that’s another big bit of resentment in us: it wasn’t on the curriculum for the whole of South Wales. I’d have loved to have been able to speak Welsh.”
“Damn it all, you can’t have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver.”
– Aneurin Bevan, c. 1956
After all this, I mean, I still feel Welsh, and I still call myself it. ‘Welsh’ for me can be a residual, reserve identity, buried or submerged, but still enduring; something to cling to when adrift, rightly or wrongly; something to anchor me. What the identity consists of, though, I’ve never been sure. It’s not a national identity but a local one, and its localness – the ways in which I feel myself to be Welsh -always keeps me conscious of the ways in which I’m not. Rather than ‘yes, that’s it’, it’s easier to say ‘yes, but that’s not all it is’. Wire in that 1997 interview may well proclaim himself ‘into oneness’, but there is no One Wales. Even beyond the country’s linguistic, geographic and political divisions, there exist multiple fractured identities, defining themselves by the local not the national – particularly through being from X, rather than from Cardiff. Growing up, attributes, accents and attitudes were associated with specific areas, towns, areas of towns, sometimes pinned down to exact streets. The Wales of swords and stone circles, drowned lands, dragons and druids, Taliesin and Eisteddfodau exists in romance alongside the reality of GLC’s Newport, Gavin & Stacey’s and Simon Price’s Barry Island, the drug-soaked, politically corrupt underworld of Lloyd Robson’s Cardiff Cut, the Valleys anti-romances of Rachel Trezise, and a multitude of other identities scattered and self-contained but highly secure in their specifics. To brush under the national carpet all of these peculiarities, to smother them in fantasies of ancient racial purity, the flag, the Senedd, or MTV’s predictably execrable The Valleys, does justice to nothing Continue reading
This is the fourth in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
To be Welsh is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky…
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
– ‘Welsh Landscape’, R S Thomas
To be born Welsh is to be born privileged
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth
But music in your blood and poetry in your soul
– from ‘In Passing’, Brian Harris
While living in London I had that second quote on a keyring for several years; if you’re Welsh, you might have done so too – or you might have had it on a mug, a teatowel, an embroidered sampler. The 1967 poem from which it is (mis)taken contains far bleaker Thomas-esque currents (‘ugliness that scars the spirit / as the earth’, ‘rivers of mingled blood and sweat’), but this opening snippet has become both tourist branding, found everywhere it can be sold, and a kind of faux-folk fetish for the Welsh themselves. With its elevation of ‘natural’ cultural creativity over material advantage making a virtue of necessity, it is our Keep Calm and Carry On – a comforter, a pacifier. Continue reading
This is the third in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.
Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever
so friendly is the white flag
they ignore. There is no truce
with the furies. A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice
held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.
– ‘Reflections’, R S Thomas
Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I`m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader.
– Richard Burton
Besides the drowning of Tryweryn, Ready for Drowning also snags the idea of drowning one’s sorrows, referencing the alleged propensity of the Welsh for – what shall we call it? – a steady, a committed, a co-dependent relationship with drink. The association of Wales with a certain kind of romanticised and spectacular inclination to alcoholism – not so much in reality as in legend – still persists. Ready for Drowning compares the flooding of Tryweryn with how, according to Wire: ‘a ceaseless chain of Welsh people seek to adjust to their circumstances by drowning their synapses in alcohol. …‘it’s half Richey, half Welsh identity – about how many of our icons either drink themselves to death or run away’. Continue reading
This is the second in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales. That’s a hosepipe ban waiting to happen… I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.
– Rhod Gilbert
O where are our fathers, O brothers of mine?
By the graves of their fathers, awaiting a sign…
The slopes of slag and cinder
Are sulking in the rain
And in derelict valleys
The hope of youth is slain.
– from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies (1938)
Idris Davies, the coalfield’s ‘bitter dreamer’, lost a finger in a mining accident and was first radicalised and then disaffected by his participation in the 1926 General Strike. Subsequently unemployed, and having been introduced to the work of Shelley by a fellow miner, he began four years of what he called ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’. In his poetry, as fanboyed by T S Eliot, he is notably attached to the word ‘derelict’, especially as a description of the south Welsh valleys, desolate and desecrated by industry. (They’ve only grown more apt as a pairing.) Davies has little of R S Thomas’ brutally bleak, at-bay snarling; his jeremiads are, like the landscape and land he describes, just ‘sulking in the rain’, sad and sullenly resigned. Continue reading
‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’
One: All Surface No Feeling
“The submerged land of Cardigan Bay is called Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the lowland hundred’). It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. Seithennin was keeper of the sluices, and one evening when there was a great banquet he became drunk and left the sluices open. The water rushed in and drowned the inhabitants. The poet Taliesin was the only one to escape alive.
“When man first came to live on the coast of Wales (sometime between the Neolithic and the Iron Age), the sea level was still rising between Wales and Ireland, separating the two countries further and further, and the legend relating to the drowning of the Lowland Hundred probably developed as a result of folk-memory of a sudden coastal flooding many centuries ago. The remains of peat and tree trunks which are visible on the beaches when the tide is far out further captured man’s imagination. Similar traditions are connected with certain Welsh lakes [and] with other parts of the Welsh coast… The moralistic and onomastic elements in all these traditions are very obvious.”
– Robyn Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (1989)
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
– from The Wasteland, T S Eliot (1922)
Lately I’ve been revisiting both the land of my birth and upbringing and mid-period Manic Street Preachers. The latter was a moderately painful process which has, incidentally, left me staggered all over again that ‘Tomorrow Steve Ovett has injured his calf’ was considered to pass muster as a lyric. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that everything good about the band vanished along with Richey; I think Design for Life is, while maybe not the best thing they’ve accomplished, at least the most valedictory, the thing I remain most proud of them for doing. But yeah, they should perhaps have called a halt to things shortly after that. Continue reading
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. Continue reading
There were several predictable bones to pick with this piece in which former editors of the New Musical Express select their most noteworthy covers. The feature leaves out a lot of the former Accordion Weekly’s history, notably anything prior to the late 1970s, but what struck me most about the covers chosen was the disparity between the first one and the last. Pennie Smith’s 1979 cover shot of the Slits, then a relatively obscure and resolutely uncommercial dub-punk girl-gang, mudlarking in the grounds of their Surrey recording studio, was part of a set which became a defining image of the band, notably through being used on the cover of their debut album Cut. This article looks briefly at the controversy generated by the images themselves, and how it relates to subsequent and current presentation of women in the UK music press. Continue reading
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
With Cheryl Cole having reached the apex of her particular fairytale upon her elevation to international pop princess, spare a thought for her Girls Aloud colleagues still at home raking the embers. While Cinderella’s Eyes is by no means a game-changer in the pop world, it succeeds at least in making a more engaging claim to the pop crown than either Cole or Coyle. After a so-so opening with the admirably obnoxious ‘Beat Of My Drum’ and the disjointed ‘Lucky Day’, Roberts lets the veil fall. Listing a litany of woes – her own insecurities, displacement, resentment at being subject to the whims of others, an endless parade of ‘fakers’, mean girls, industry executives, backstabbing, vaulting ambition, superficiality, disingenuousness and the inability to speak openly and honestly – against a relentless, incongruously chirpy off-kilter electro pulse and drum machine pounding, studded with the odd stab at Feminism 101 (“Makeup is make-believe”), it’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat. Continue reading
The past few years have consolidated Patti Smith’s position as godmother and high priestess among women musicians. Following her induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, last year saw Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, receive a National Book Award and a future stage adaptation, and just last week she was awarded the coveted Polar Music Prize by the King of Sweden. Where this leaves her as an artist who once proudly and profanely proclaimed her position “outside of society” is anyone’s guess, but the establishment’s recent embrace of Smith appears to have been the spur for the release of this collection, a primer or sampler of her work aimed, presumably, at those discovering it for the first time. Continue reading
After her virtuoso debut Marry Me and 2009’s nicely disorientating follow-up Actor, singer and guitarist Annie Clark returns with this itchily anticipated third album. Recorded in her pre-Manhattan hometown of Dallas, Texas, Strange Mercy enlists the assistance of several musicians, including Beck’s musical director Brian LeBarton on keyboards, but Clark has no problem asserting her own musical, lyrical and vocal presence here. Her original concept for the album was to “redefine the idea of the guitar hero, utilising the instrument as a pointillist artist might wield a brush,” and it’s an approach which translates into a glistening, lush and luxuriant listen, full of digital cascades and string-laden crescendos, underpinned by an unsteady percussive stomp. The overall effect evokes a more fragile mid-period Blondie, or Goldfrapp with less of the sledgehammer sleaziness. Continue reading
The wave of musical experimentation which took place in the wake of punk generated many new and startling sounds, some of which endured and grew in influence while others became lost to musical history. The Raincoats, a London-spawned, ever-shifting collective based around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, are now firmly in the former category. Their self-titled debut was described by Vivien Goldman as “the first woman’s rock album” to emerge, its lack of musical or vocal hierarchies or focus-pulling solo virtuosity pioneering an arresting and persuasive kind of rock without the cock. In 1981, Odyshape continued to shift the rules of the game. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 19.07.11
Dee Plume and Sue Denim return with their fourth studio outing, another of the increasing number of albums funded by fans through the Pledge Music scheme. It’s a testament to the enthusiastic loyalty that Robots In Disguise can command that they have a following prepared to keep the faith when the mainstream industry isn’t. And, you know, why should it be? The pseudonymous duo are an intensely idiosyncratic band, still ploughing their furrow of superior electro-punk, with occasional shades of a sharper-toothed, steelier Shampoo, faux-naif femme fatale Claire Grogan, or a Fisher-Price Kills. Their music is curiously compelling more than it is kitsch or cutesy, though, and their chosen personas are insouciant, no-nonsense and utterly unafraid of independence. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 11.07.11
You can argue that the Devil has all the best tunes, but the Bible at least occasionally does a nice line in storytelling. Melodrama and metaphors for human existence pour off the scriptural pages etched in blood and tears. For Brooklyn poet, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alicia Jo Rabins, stories from the Hebrew scriptures contemplate the complexity of women’s lives in a way that remains relatable today. Her attempt to demonstrate this is Girls In Trouble, an ongoing art-rock project undertaken with her partner and bassist Aaron Hartman, wedding an interest in ancient scriptural stories to expertise in string-led indie and folk-rock. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 21.06.11
Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday a few weeks back was marked, in part, by reflections on the essentially blokey nature of his observable fanbase. While largely true, this has done nothing to lessen the appeal of his songs as cover material for women from Mae West to Sheryl Crow, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s turn as the man himself in the 2007 biopic ‘I’m Not There’. This re-recording by Thea Gilmore of Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding then, isn’t a revolutionary move, but not a foolish one either. It follows Gilmore’s performance at a Dylan tribute concert earlier this year, as well as, all the way back in 2002, her acclaimed recording of his ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. That song appears again on this album, as do guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, along with Thea’s longterm collaborator, bassist and producer, Nigel Stonier. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 14.06.11
There always was more to Emma-Lee Moss than the flimsy whimsy of many of her contemporary dabblers in the rapidly evaporating pool of antifolk. This album confirms that she has greater things to offer. Virtue, written and recorded with Younghusband’s Euan Hinshelwood, released on the band’s own imprint, and financed through the Pledge Music fan-funding scheme, is a very different animal to her 2009 debut, First Love. It’s luxuriantly and smoothly produced, assured and accomplished, its ten tracks forming a cohesive whole in contrast to the debut’s collection of endearingly raw and disparate songs. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers, 13.06.11
Given how quiet they’ve been since 2008′s This Gift, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sons & Daughters had called it a day. Not so. The Scottish quartet are back on the road and back on record this summer with third album Mirror Mirror, a record that not only marks a change in direction for the band but also offers Optimo Music’s JD Twitch his first role as producer, making it something of a gamble. But it’s one that pays off. Continue reading
The 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
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
Whenever I listen to a lot of Lupen Crook songs I can’t help (affectionately) picturing Poor Tom, the displaced nobleman in the guise of a beggar capering upon the blasted heath in King Lear. I realise this is unfair to Mr Crook aesthetically and stylistically, and in any case has hardly happened at all while listening to his latest. Home-produced and recorded in the months just before spring, Waiting for the Postman is a still and contemplative record of domestic claustrophobia, comedown and loss and their ultimate transcendence.
‘The Domestic’, low and lugubrious, starts things on a bitter and hard-bitten note, but the album’s darkly groovy self-laceration – heartbreak and paranoid withdrawal on ‘Cold Alone’, fame anticipated as soul-sucking pull on ‘Tale of an Everyman’ – is leavened with rippling rainy-afternoon melancholy and gently melodic reflections on friendship, love and their loss. ‘Chasing Dragons’, heartfelt and warm, is straightforwardly gorgeous. So is ‘Where the Crow Flies’, so is ‘Arts and Crafts’, and so is the intricately self-referential ‘A Little More Blood on the Tracks’ (and the chutzpah of giving it that title, unusually, didn’t even tickle my Dylanist gag reflex). ‘Hard Times’ is some kind of madly gleaming apocalyptic eurodisco that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Just an all-round awesome album. This record sounds like a long-held breath let out, like the aftermath of trauma, and it feels like balm applied to wounds.
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman is available here.
Holly Golightly – 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
The Medway Towns, just far enough away from London for it to matter, have sheltered this country’s conscientious contrarians from Charles Dickens to Billy Childish. The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is the third album from the Kent Delta’s current wandering minstrel, Lupen Crook.
I hesitated over that ‘wandering minstrel’, you know, in case the description was fast becoming a cliché (or had, I don’t know, been copyrighted by Frank Turner). If that other frequently pigeonholed troubadour, Patrick Wolf, has reportedly considered changing his name to “please use a thesaurus or a brain to find another word for ‘flamboyant’ Patrick Wolf”, I wonder if, in time, Lupen Crook might end up requiring similar measures to get rid of the wandering minstrel tag.
Not that it’s an inappropriate or unhelpful label – much of Crook’s artistic strength does lie in a picaresque sense of threadbare and ramshackle rootlessness, a commitment to collectivism, a DIY approach to distribution and a palpable desire to entertain.
Anyway, the album. The Pros and Cons… is eclectic in content and form. Crook and co-conspirators Clayton Boothroyd and Bob and Tom Langridge draw on indie, ska, rockabilly, folk and anti-folk, sea shanties, twangs of grungy alt-country and swirls of Gypsy-punk, in songs that inhabit abandoned underpasses, pirate ships and blasted heaths, full of the crooked, the feral, the raw and the hopelessly romantic. They swing from the sharply catchy, gently despairing single ‘Dorothy Deserves’, to the delicacy of ‘World’s End’ and ‘How to Murder Birds’, to the full-tilt indie-rockism of ‘Devil’s Son’ or ‘Scissor Kick’.
As a frontman, Crook seems able to caper from darkly observant court-jester (Ray Davies sketched by Jamie Hewlett) to millenarian social critic (Scroobius Pip with less of the finger-wagging). The Pros and Cons of Eating Out maintains the same dignified distance from the mainstream and the metropolis which granted Crook’s debut a distinction from the post-Libertines litter, and which continues to set him apart from his peers.
Lupen Crook, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is available here.
The Walkmen: Lisbon
The Walkmen return with their sixth studio album, inspired by two trips to the Portuguese capital. The eleven songs here are confidently, intricately constructed miniatures of life, love and loss felt on a grand and sweeping scale, deftly nostalgic rather than knowingly quaint. There’s a clean and buttoned-up feel to much of Lisbon, all neat backbeat, coruscating strings, and fluidly simple arrangements reminiscent of early Sun records, while elsewhere it revs into drum-driven overdrive or dips into orchestral plunges with a flash of gleaming brass. Hamilton Leithauser’s throatily plaintive vocals dilute the surges of surf-rock, while the lyrics, reaching their summit in ‘Stranded’, conjure up images of isolation, empty streets and endless rain against a windowpane. Beside the straightforward retro-rush of ‘Angela Surf City’, ‘Blue as Your Blood’ races like a nervous pulse and ‘Victory’ sways with punchdrunk triumph before the title track brings down the curtain in epic, elegiac style.
Written for Fashion Music Style – issue #7 out now
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.
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.
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.]
When is a blues band not a blues band? When you ask Vancouver duo The Pack A. D. We Kill Computers follows 2008’s Tintype and Funeral Mixtape, and a 2009 in which Becky Black and Maya Miller played 157 gigs, gaining themselves a reputation for explosive, beer-and-sweat-drenched live performances. The band insist that this third album will prove that their music puts the emphasis less on blues and more on garage-rock. “We are not a blues band, even though people keep putting us there,” says Miller. “We both love the blues, but we are a garage rock blues group.”
Small reviews written for Wears the Trousers.
Chores – the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (album, July 09)
First of all: Chores? ‘Chores’? Really? Are we suffering such a drought of linguistic invention that bands are reduced to picking names which lend themselves all too easily to lines like ‘listening to them is certainly one, ho ho!’? As for the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (sic) … well, the most I can say is that it’s less of a hostage to fortune than ‘Chores’.
I really want to like the first full-length album from this Portland foursome, though: any band, especially US-based, with the anticapitalist impulse on show in ‘New New Deal’ and ‘Noinsuranceland’ gets my vote. The latter is a possible nod to R.E.M.’s ‘Ignoreland’, but suffers badly from the comparison. It’s a shame that much of what seems likeable about Chores is often hard to make out over squalling guitars and murkily thumping percussion. The band are at their most engaging when they polish up their post-punk tendencies, as in the choppy ‘Touching Can Harm the Art’ or the Television-stalking ‘My Own Private Esperanto’, sacrificing shouty rhetoric for icy, controlled impressionism.
At their best, Chores make a creditable stab at the shadows of Talking Heads and the B-52s. At their worst – yes, I’m afraid they live up to their name. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.
Cogwheel Dogs – Greenhorn (EP, July 09)
The latest EP from Cogwheel Dogs continues the Oxford duo’s experiments in anti-folk. Vocalist Rebecca Mosley does a good line in raw-throated bitterness interspersed with sudden stabs of yearning clarity, backed by the strings of her musical partner Tom Parnell. The four songs on ‘Greenhorn’ are murkily intriguing sketches of domestic horror and emotional ferocity, evocative of childhood nightmares spilling from dark places. ‘Spit’ makes a lunge towards lilting before collapsing back into a percussive pit, chased by downward-spiralling strings. Cogwheel Dogs are adept enough at creating a counter-melodic mess, although one’s immediate thought is that this particular niche has already been filled by their fellow demons of the dreaming spires, Ivy’s Itch. Closing track ‘Octavia’ is perhaps the most accessible song here, with portentous swoops of cello backing a creepily insistent vocal that just might be about a drug-addicted doll with a thousand arms. Accessibility being a relative thing, of course.
The Langley Sisters – ‘It’s Strange to be in Love’ (single, September 09)
It’s disappointing how little of the ’50s retro/girlgroup revival has seen its musical proponents concentrate on sound as well as style. Thankfully London’s Langley Sisters, currently touring with Paloma Faith, appear to be looking deeper than the regulation puffball skirts, polkadots and pompadours to ensure that their music sounds as authentically timewarped as they look.
Kicking off with rippling piano and gloopily giddy vocals, ‘It’s Strange to Be in Love’ initially feels as though it could have skipped straight off the credits of a Doris Day movie. Dig deeper, however, and its lyrical references to the brain as a broken mirror and frolicking in fields of withered poppies, suggest a more intriguing pastiche of their chosen genre. Evoking love as psychosis, the song begins to scratch at the unsustainable instability and emotional repression that boiled beneath the socio-cultural surface of a decade which, like the song’s protagonists, is “destined to be extinct” and nonchalantly steering a course towards a disastrous denouement. Any scene with this soundtrack would have to show a bored, beehived housewife blissfully tripping on vodka and Valium while her husband dozes at the country club and her lover parks his motorbike against a white picket fence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.