Saturday, 2 August 2008

These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid

These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid
Domino

Like an agitated teenager adrift from the early 80s, Jack Barnett, the spindly frontman of These New Puritans, has one foot in our digitised urban jungle of tarmac and grime (in the physical and musical senses) and the other in parallel realms of occultist mantras, astrology and mythology. Beat Pyramid, the debut from the malnourished Southend four-piece, is a scatterbrain collection of urgent guitars, drone-fuzz bass, looping textures and wild tangents, veering from danceable post-punk to whirring soundscape interludes, all peppered with an ironic deadpan that makes no bones about its debt to Mark E Smith. The lyrics are both intensely cryptic and laughably banal; a bizarre reference to Michael Barrymore on ‘MKK3’ and the profound emptiness of the repeated “0800, 0800” on ‘Elvis’ place the record in a fantasy galaxy, floating alongside the magickal space-age of Myths Of The Near Future but with its roots in a very British melancholia.

For a debut record it’s an astonishing achievement. An ode to pre-Socratic philosophers on the sparse and fantastically grimy ‘Infinity Ytinifni’ rubs up against the playground punk of ‘Numerology AKA Numbers’ - but it’s obvious that this is a juvenile effort, in the best possible sense. The sheer volume of ideas and influences here could contribute to a truly classic album a few years down the line when they’ve grown out of their ADD mindsets and started drinking grown-up beer. Like when a four year old stops drawing stick-men and progresses to wobbly arms and googly eyes: TNP are way ahead of their peers, but Beat Pyramid ain’t their Mona Lisa. This really is a band that needs to be nurtured properly and not just shoved off the roundabout of indie fame when ‘the new New Puritans’ pop up in about, ooh, three weeks?

26/01/2008

The Horrors NME Awards Show @ Astoria, 16/02/2008

The Horrors + Crystal Castles + These New Puritans + Ulterior
NME Awards Show @ Astoria, 16th February

Welcome to one of the few genuinely decent line-ups on the never-ending Wagnerian nightmare that is the NME Awards Shows, the most ridiculous, turgid, self-serving piece of marketing guff since, well, the NME Awards. Sadly, Ulterior’s performance will be omitted from this review because nobody will ever convince me that the phrase ‘doors open at 5.30pm’ displays any grasp of logical reasoning. This is a real shame, because Ulterior’s Suicide-shagging-William-Reid industrial noise-drone is far too exciting to miss. Four hours of adverts for Shockwaves, Skins and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong (a pox on that band for eating into my word count) is more than any creature equipped with opposable thumbs can bear.

These New Puritans capitalise on what must be their biggest show to date, their sound becoming truly enormous propelled by those hip hop drums and nauseating low-frequency basslines. Jack Barnett has apparently come dressed as a Norman swan in chainmail tunic of plastic feathers, his bowl cut balanced precariously on a bird-like neck. A genuinely beguiling frontman, he at least seems to be having fun – Sophie sullenly pokes around on synths, scratching her neck and fighting to stay awake through their grimy, angular onslaught. It’s genius.

The Astoria ain’t quite right for Crystal Castles dirrrty club aesthetic, but that doesn’t stop the half-term rave kids’ sugar rush as they go batshit crazy for Alice’s winged-insect-trapped-in-a-bottle stage moves. Still, the deliciously warped malignancy of ‘Alice Practice’ and fizzing sodapop electro of ‘Air War’ stand out a mile above the samey bleeps of the non-singles, which doesn’t bode well for their upcoming album.

The Horrors return to headline the Astoria barely a year after their opening slot on the Rock’n’Roll Riot Tour, another steaming delight from the NME featuring The Dykeenies, The Maccabees and The Fratellis. Christ. Tighter and louder than ever before (both sartorially and musically), they’ve come a long way since then - this set almost makes the 45 minute mark, and Faris’ inter-song banter is becoming increasingly absurd: “sing for your supper,” he snarls into the mic, cracking himself up in the process. A handful of new songs are previewed, more experimental and less obviously derived from their garage rock bread and butter, and they certainly take themselves a lot less seriously than precocious fellow Southenders TNP or the notoriously snarky Crystal Castles.

At 9.30pm the whole shebang is brought to an untimely close. The crowd scratch their heads. It’s unsettling, but at least there’s time for a pint before the tube closes.

20/02/2008

Les Savy Fav, Let's Stay Friends

Les Savy Fav, Let’s Stay Friends
Wichita Records

It’s been six years since the last release from Les Savy Fav, a dumb move considering that their brand of noisy art-punk seriously came back in vogue in that time. No matter, with Let’s Stay Friends the Rhode Islanders are back to capitalise on their matchless live reputation with an album that’s without doubt the sharpest they’ve ever sounded. Opener ‘Pots & Pans’ is a pounding titan of a track, hinting at classic Flaming Lips; after seizing you by the earlobes it then collapses into the clattering Hives-a-like punk of ‘The Equestrian’, super-tight but with buckets of genuine DIY enthusiasm. Next, you’re plunged into the menacing cold water of ‘The Year Before The Year 2000’, a chic slice of post-punk with Gang Of Four guitars and a breakneck ending chanting the pseudo-mantra “1999! 1999’s alright!”

The real standout here though is ‘Patty Lee’, a veritable odyssey of miscellaneous brilliance taking in their trademark minimal guitars and pounding drums, funky falsetto vocals, a screeching solo and a bizarre Cure impression of hollow, reverb-soaked guitars, topped off with the dancefloor-ready shout-along, “Patty Lee turn your lights on please/ this party’s gettin’ outta hand!” Download this if nothing else.

Along with other standouts like ‘Raging In The Plague Age’ (featuring Tim Harrington’s musings on medieval sovereignty: “Being the king was pretty cool/ I'd have to say that ruling ruled”), Let’s Stay Friends may be the record that can finally equal Les Savy Fav’s thrilling live show.

12/09/2007

Adam Green @ Koko, 08/04/2008

Adam Green + Noah And The Whale @ Koko
8th April 2008

Call me crazy, but I’ve never had Adam Green down as ‘twee’. Sure, The Moldy Peaches were cutesy teens in animal costumes with lyrics by turn sickly sweet and childishly vulgar. But his solo career has seen him explore far beyond the DIY sounds and in-jokeyness of his former band, bringing in strings and organs and now, on fifth solo record Sixes And Sevens, panpipes and gospel singers. In the meantime his voice has matured into a rich and mellow baritone (which may not be to everyone’s taste, especially those Juno-come-lately fans who’ve discovered his work via the soundtrack to the recent flick).

Still, someone decided that Noah And The Whale would be the perfect anti-folk style support slot for this UK tour. And to some extent they are – kitted out in blue and yellow like earnest little Ikea workers, they have a fantastic violin player who actually gets melody parts rather than the usual mournful backing bits they’re allocated. There’s a song that’s suspiciously like ‘Brimful Of Asha’, but the rest are excellent despite the odd banal lyrical tweeism. This undeniably British folk bears little resemblance to Adam Green though – the US anti-folk scene has its roots in entirely different soil. Still, they go down well with the crowd of bespectacled kids who already know all the words.

Wearing a t-shirt adorned with the letter A and white fringing flowing from his sleeves, Adam Green is nothing less than charming throughout, even while singing about herpes, crack and ‘genital outlaws’. A ramshackle but effortless performance, he’s truly the bizarre gem in the NY folk scene’s crown. Moldy who?

Miracle Fortress @ The Luminaire, 04/04/2008

Miracle Fortress + The Joy Formidable
The Luminaire, 4th April 2008

Remember when indie girls cut their hair into shiny faux-punk bobs and wore chokers and tank tops and diluted all the venom and feminism and balls out of riot grrrl, leaving you with three minutes of peppy but vacant drivel for drive time local radio? You remember Republica? Yeah, well, there’s this band called The Joy Formidable, and for them it’s still 1998. Making no attempt to disguise a greedy suckling from the teat of their fellow Welshmen’s milky powerpop (think Feeder and Catatonia), their frontwoman has aforementioned faux-punk bob and is allegedly called Ritzy. Next!

Miracle Fortress have been creating, if not an overwhelming fizz of hype, then certainly a gentle bubble of interest among discerning music fans fond of ‘that Montreal sound.’ North America is producing such bloody weird indie right now – like Desert Island Discs, they’re at once tropical and otherworldly, and so very, very necessary. MF do that expansive, fusion sound brilliantly, but without the smug sheen of manipulative chord modulations that the Arcade Fire did so crassly on Neon Bible. With a certain DIY shabbiness (or maybe they just haven’t played much yet), every song is a melting pot of dark 80s indie pop, mucky shoegaze and chirpy battling guitars. It’s all super-fresh and nearly cute (but not quite, don’t worry), and their guitarist looks like either a) a mermaid, with saltwater perm and seashell earrings, or b) Becky, the babysitter you had in 1994 who let you stay up late and used your home phone to call her boyfriend. And there was a John Cale cover at the end. John Cale! Unlucky for you they won’t be back in the UK for a while, but definitely worth a download in the meantime.

Meeting Anton Newcombe: "I might be the tactile expression of the hand that holds the sword"


An interview with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre

26th February 2008

“I don’t feel the need to take out my personal aggressions on other people. I’m not persnickety, I’m not prone to hyperbole. I can do whatever the fuck I want, within reason, but I have to pay for my indiscretions, just like Prince Charles.” A grizzled but handsome man with striking greyish blue eyes holds his glass like a gauntlet, ice rattling violently side to side in his lunchtime vodka tonic.

Anton Newcombe is wearing a grey woollen jumper, the kind favoured by trawler fishermen, and on his sleeve is a patch of the Icelandic flag. His lank hair pokes out under two hats – a cable knit number more suitable for the North Sea, and under it a baseball cap. It’s a fiercely bright spring day outside the Columbia Hotel in West London, and the forty year old man behind cult psychedelic rock band The Brian Jonestown Massacre is being, well, pretty damn amiable. Contrary to what his hyperbole would suggest (yes, he is in fact rather prone to it), Newcombe is rather well known for taking out personal aggressions on other people, and I have to admit to a being a little nervous about this interview.

Newcombe has forged a lonely path on the outer fringes of rock music since 1990 with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, his own strung out creation, a freewheeling voyage to trip-out city that has seen over forty members pass through its ranks, including Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Bobby Hecksher of The Warlocks. The band remained relatively underground until Newcombe found infamy through the 2004 rockumentary DiG!, which chronicled BJM’s volatile relationship with fellow West Coast sixties revivalists and pals/arch-enemies The Dandy Warhols. While that band ultimately sold out and gained commercial success, BJM was thwarted by Newcombe’s inability to play by the rules, sabotaging opportunities through drink and drugs – the film portrays him as an unhinged nutcase with a chronic superiority complex and anger management issues (at one point he kicks an audience member in the head, leading to his arrest for assault).

Still, a movie is just that – a movie – and I wasn’t especially surprised to meet a man who, while being possessed of a conversational style not unlike a never-ending one-man word association game, is genuinely interested in and engaged with the world and the people in it. “Politics is applied policy, and my policy is to be civic minded,” he states, slurring his words only slightly. “My policy is to call it as I see it.” BJM’s new album, My Bloody Underground (songs include ‘Dropping Bombs On The White House’ and ‘Kicking Jesus’) seems to pretty political though? “Being able to read in this day and age, or not being brainwashed by fluoride and prozac, or being high on drugs and having a very high IQ is not political.”

Perhaps not, but Newcombe is certainly preoccupied with the state of the world as he sees it, deluging his Myspace friends with bulletins of cut’n’pasted news items, Youtube videos and conspiracy theories. “I can speak in a sentence with perfect syntax that actually makes sense and contains 23 words, and the President of the United States of America can’t. And my son can do 13 or 14 words in a row, so if that doesn’t disturb you you’ve been jacking off to, like, whatever you’re watching…Cash In The Attic or Jeremy Kyle or whatever.” This kind of polemical pronouncement juxtaposed with the absurdity of British daytime television is the hallmark of Newcombe’s inebriated rhetoric.

His politics certainly aren’t of the Chris Martin School of scribbling peace memos on the back of your hand or visiting farm co-operatives in Venezuela, though. Newcombe lives in a part-fantasy land where the trivial rubs up against the profound and he is the oracle of truth among us sheep-like non-believers. More than once during the interview he implies my stupidity when I raise an eyebrow at some of his more outlandish political views: “Hillary Clinton has been a CIA agent since 1968, and Obama is personally involved in this Kenyan thing that’s going on. And they’re rigging the caucuses.”

Well, that last one might have something to it. The most important thing for Newcombe, though, is to have the courage of your convictions. His existence is the true embodiment of ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, and he sees life through the lens of a true outsider. He shows an almost Daily Mail-like disdain for the superficiality and impotence of modern life: “The problem with these kids is everybody’s just got their head up their ass, and they’re running around chasing their mortgage payment, mutual fund portfolio, whatever, and then they get beat up by a thirteen year old. Everybody needs to get the fuck off their cell phone for a minute and pay attention, and if you see that thing happening, fucking knock ‘em down and break their back, I mean, it just saves the police time and…”

So if we’re going to hell in a handcart then we can take the law into our own hands? That doesn’t seem very ‘civic minded’. “No, but I mean, I don’t know what the appropriate reaction is to watching two teenagers stab each to death on the streets of London…I’m willing to do whatever I have to do. I’m a centurion, not a Caesar. How’s that?,” he challenges. You’re part of the body politic? “Completely. I might be the trunk. I might be the tactile expression of the hand that holds the sword.” It’s a glimmer of his unique genius, a hilarious yet learned soundbite, one of a bunch of Newcombe’s contradictory, polemical nuggets. Just when you think he’s making sense the vodka kicks in and words pour out in a loose jumble. “The industrial revolution has become a hopeless burden,” he rants, “and as the economy has diversified its just like, beans on toast, 99p, what are we gonna do with you? That’s true right?” Um, right.

Discussing the new album, Newcombe is proud to continue his long-standing advocacy of free music. “My expression of my humanity is a full spectrum of ideas, concepts, impulses and repulsions, and the balance, the equilibrium, of all those things. I cook, I create art in different forms, and I really want other people to try and take a sniff of that. Whether it’s on just a primal level, just jamming along, it’s just noisy - or whatever you wanna make of it as an abstract art piece. And it has nothing to do with Amy Winehouse or selling donuts or bars of soap.” Adding that he’d be ‘pleased as punch’ if everyone downloaded it for free (it’s available on the band’s website), he expresses his concern over the increased policing of the internet. Once again, we enter the paranoid corners of his mind – ‘they’ are going to shut down the internet, “they’re gonna make it secular and specific within your own borders, a digital class-based system.”

By the end of the interview I start to doubt that I’ve gleaned have any idea of who Anton Newcombe really is. His wife, not much older than me, sits silently on the armchair next to him. I wonder what their conversations are like. There’s no doubt that he’s completely for real, that he believes every word that comes out of his mouth even when he contradicts himself within the same sentence. Facts, trivia and conspiracy race around under his two hats looking for an outlet. It seems odd that they find their release The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s essentially derivative (although undoubtedly ace) shoegazey psych-rock. Then again, as he’s so keen to emphasise, Newcombe is “not really interested in people’s stupid impressions of my expressions of what I think.”

One More Grain @ White Heat, 08/01/2008

One More Grain + My Sad Captains + Mixedcases
White Heat, Madame Jojo’s
8th January 2008

Tonight sees a White Heat Records special down in the freshened-up, post-smoking ban Madame Jojo’s, something that usually marks a night of disjointed weirdness by a bunch of utterly dissimilar bands. This Tuesday continues the trend, opening with solo multi-instrumentalist, beat-maker and typically awkward wiry indie boy Mixedcases. His cerebral lo-fi blends live xylophones and guitars with sampled chatter and synths to make soundscapes for the 4am post-club ‘chillout’, as they say in ‘Beefa, though it all falls a bit flat in this early slot.

My Sad Captains are one of the most promising bands on the White Heat roster currently, and the sizeable turnout shows their potential for actually selling some records too. Sharing a member with Fanfarlo (another of those inexplicably cheerful bands that have appeared recently), their stompy choruses and pleasant country-pop indicates that a ‘proper indie’ (in an early 90s, Pavement-y sorta way) revival is upon us. We even get two check shirts for the price of one.

Despite the sparser crowd, the meandering art-rock creepiness of One More Grain is without doubt the most exciting thing on this bill. An apparently normal bunch of grumpy - possibly even rather old – men, OMG seem to be staging their own revivalist movement, this time of legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, with a nod to the Velvets’ spoken word tale of horror ‘The Gift’ plus added atonal guitar work for good measure. Taking his literary cue from the sorry towns and endless motorways of England’s grey and unpleasant land, frontman Daniel Patrick Quinn is less poet than Northern grumbler, and thus couldn’t be further away in disposition or geography to My Sad Captains. A bizarre gem; it warms your heart to know there’s a record label putting out stuff like this.

The Death Of Indie, with Anne Hollowday, 27/10/2007

The Death Of Indie
co-written with Anne Hollowday for London Student

Over the past few years, the dominance of dance and RnB in the charts has waned and in its place has appeared a glut of guitar bands and quirky indie popstars. As each X Factor ‘winner’ faces a shorter shelf-life than their predecessor, the public have shifted their affections towards a cast of trilby wearing boys and foul-mouthed girls. At first this was an obvious change for the better – no more boybands on stools or vacuous gyrating ‘divas’ – but like all trends, this one has reached its tipping point. Indie music is now the most mainstream and popular genre in the UK, and anyone old enough to remember the dying days of Britpop will feel a similar dark cloud approaching over this particular fad. How did indie get so – well, un-indie? And what does that mean for the few artists who are still flying the flag for independent music?

The fashion industry has spent the past few years copying the styles of two people in particular, and you only have to look around at your fellow students to take a guess at who the culprits might be. Correct: the ubiquitous Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. Kate, after a fifteen year career and barely a word from her lips, is considered the ultimate fashion icon and arbiter of cool. Despite the fact that Pete’s music has a cult following and doesn’t sell particularly well, his career has spawned countless more mainstream and radio-friendly copycat bands that also happen to dress like him. Kate’n’Pete tread a fine line between being both bohemian, rock’n’roll icons and tabloid regulars, household names that are a byword for cool.

By coincidence – or inevitably, depending on how you look at it – these two pillars of chic came together in 2005 to become an all-powerful super-couple, elevating themselves to daily tabloid fodder. Over recent years Britain has also seen an explosion in gossip magazine culture and reality television. Celebrity Big Brother has made household names of various indie characters like Maggot from Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Preston from The Ordinary Boys and Donny Tourette from Towers of London. Preston’s love life and Donny’s rockstar pretensions have earned them countless column inches in the company of other ‘troubled stars’ of the more rock’n’roll variety such as Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Even relatively obscure artists like Beth Ditto of the Gossip have made an appearance in rags like London Lite. Britain’s daily gossip fix has elevated the fame of these cartoonish indie celebrities – no wonder, seeing as they’re all far more interesting and unpredictable than their US counterparts Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie et al.

These rock’n’roll clich├ęs have become the zeitgeist whose influence is felt in the press and in fashion, in what we read, what we talk about, what we wear – not to mention what we listen to. Most importantly, Kate’n’Pete hold uncontested power over most of that holy grail of demographics: the youth. The 18-24 market is considered to be the most difficult to crack as well as the most coveted (being a generation with plenty of disposable income and no clue about saving money). This is where ad-land hijacks indie, taking its remaining credibility and style and selling it back to us on their terms. The companies that want our money develop their brands in line with whatever they think we’ll buy. Every mobile phone company seems to have sponsored a handful of music festivals and a series of ‘guerrilla gigs’ (remember them?). Drinks manufacturers Carling and Jim Beam have put their name to tours and festivals, hoping to raise their profile among the alcohol-loving youth. Step into Topshop or Topman and you can see this trend come full-circle – Kate Moss has her very own line and the Pete-inspired Dior Homme range has made a smooth transfer to the high street. The current incarnation of indie stands for taste and style but is also immediately accessible and commercial. In effect, ‘indie’ has become its own brand, completely detached from the independent music it used to signify.

The impact on the actual music has been less than positive too. A lot of truly awful bands have been unduly promoted in the race to sign up and spit out Babyshambles clones. New bands that don’t conform to the rock’n’roll cartoon have been sadly overlooked while countless scruffy teenagers in straw hats have signed on the dotted line for record deals that will no doubt leave them penniless and confused after their debut albums achieve mediocre sales.

The press and marketing companies have also become fixated with Myspace in recent years, as it’s a relatively easy way to discover the Next Big Thing. Even though a few artists have done very well from humble internet beginnings (Arctic Monkeys and Kate Nash being notable examples), there’s no reason why the Myspace fame trajectory is any better than the old method of gigging round the toilet circuit until you get signed – internet hype is notoriously fickle and many of these bands will be offered single album deals and no real support to develop their music. What seems like an explosion of ‘indie’ is actually the powerful record companies cashing in on a trend that they know will sell, just as they did with talentless teenypop in the 90s personified by fluorescent suit-wearers Upside Down and, bless them, 911.

Meanwhile, the UK hip hop scene has been mutating and evolving into something original, complex and significantly different to anything happening in the US. Under the radar, grime has become the antidote to the identikit mainstream indie bands. NME editor Conor McNicholas has been quoted as saying, “the grime scene is perceived as a lot cooler and lot more real than the indie scene,” yet the music press gives barely any space to up and coming grime acts. Whether in response to this stubborn lack of coverage or just as an anarchic joke, a number of urban artists have been collaborating with indie bands in recent years.

Lethal Bizzle is one grime act who has become a crossover star. Starting out as part of the More Fire Crew, Bizzle has since collaborated with yourcodenameis:milo and Pete Doherty, and he’s on the bill of the current NME Rock’n’Roll Riot tour. Lethal Bizzle was in the audience for hardcore punk band Gallows’ arresting performance at the SXSW festival in Texas earlier this year, and became a fully fledged fan. They’re now collaborating on a reworking of ‘Staring At The Rude Bois’, originally released by reggae punk band The Ruts in 1980. Bizzle’s latest album also features an appearance from indie’s current golden girl Kate Nash. These fusions of grime and guitars, dubbed ‘grindie’, are totally fresh and contemporary, offering the opposite of anodyne radio rock. Whether or not it’s perceived as a gimmick, it’s an indication of the two-way relationship between these two seemingly disparate genres. The term was originally coined as a joke by grime producer Statik, but it became the catalyst for a physical manifestation of the genre as Statik’s Grindie Volume 1 compilation was released last year to critical acclaim. “I think people tend to over think it,” he told the Style Slut blog last year, “all musical genres have similarities. I didn’t think about it being a good or bad idea, I just did it.”

Jamie Collinson, manager of independent hip hop label Big Dada recordings, remains largely indifferent to the ‘grindie’ effect. He says of the phenomenon: “it was just a hype-building exercise that snagged press attention for a short while. I think it was largely scorned and ignored by the grime community in general.” He concedes that hip-hop has been a point of reference for some bands though, particularly Arctic Monkeys. “Alex Turner has certainly namechecked Roots Manuva a lot, and you can see a kinship in their incisive, British lyrics, but that’s rare and these days indie kids are probably mostly influenced by The Libertines.”

Regardless of the little ripples urban music is making on the stagnant indie pond, record labels remain reluctant to promote talented acts that don’t conform to the coveted ideal of indie – skinny jeans and sharp cheekbones command more attention than an original, unique talent. When Franz Ferdinand first hit the spotlight they said their intention was “to make music for girls to dance to” – a mission statement that seemed genuinely unusual at the time. Now of course, indie is dominated by radio-friendly riffs, sugary pop harmonies and lightweight lyrical content. Recent knock-offs of this formula include Scouting For Girls’s ‘She’s So Lovely’ and The Wombats’ unintentionally ironic ‘Let’s Dance To Joy Division’, as well as most of the daytime playlist at Xfm and Radio 1. These are songs which have made the leap from MTV2 to background music on property programmes and in high street shops. It’s a testimony to their blandness that they’ve been absorbed into the mainstream so easily. Contemporary indie isn’t always boring, and mainstream music isn’t necessarily bad (there are plenty of quality pop songs around, after all), but none of it could be honestly described as ‘indie’ in the true sense of the word. Tony Wilson was a legend in the independent sector, single-handedly building Factory Records with a disregard for everything except the quality of the music, signing bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio to his label and even allowing bands to keep the rights to their music. These days, bands consider themselves indie if they are signed to a smaller subsidiary under the umbrella of a large company, when in fact they are still owned by a big corporation. This pattern of small independents being bought up by the big fish has done the independent sector few favours, and in turn affected the chances of success for more obscure, niche audience artists.

At this time of mainstream indie dominance the artists that don’t fit the template are often overlooked, but ironically it will be those who are signed in the latter days of this fad, like the aforementioned Wombats, who are most likely to fade into obscurity. As Collison notes, “it’s a generational thing, there’s always a swing between the popularity of urban and indie. When urban is on top you get kids rebelling against that - a build up of energy and talent suddenly explodes, as it did around 2003 with a huge crop of new guitar bands.” As indie and its rock’n’roll cartoon characters continue to be seen, heard and consumed everywhere, urban music is bubbling away beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Is that time nearly upon us?

Black Lips, Good Bad Not Evil

Black Lips, Good Bad Not Evil
Vice Records

1968 was a pretty cool year. It gave us ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ by Tom Wolfe, the film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and The Velvets’ seminal album White Light/White Heat. There were drugs. There was rock’n’roll. And there were the Black Lips.

Well, almost. The Black Lips are a four-piece from Atlanta, Georgia whose fifth release, Good Bad Not Evil, is (much like the previous four) a work that obstinately ignores the past forty years of popular music, instead wallowing in fuzzy garage rock guitars, primal drumming, country twists and psychedelic flower-punk, all coming in under the three minute mark. This record sees the Lips make a leap from the crazed noisiness of earlier releases and explore new and even more bizarre territory. Southern slide guitars flavour the tasteless hilarity of ‘How Do You Tell A Child That Someone Has Died?’, while ‘Navajo’ is the soundtrack to a long-forgotten cowboys and Indians TV show. Single ‘Cold Hands’ is more typically Black Lips, but tidied up and straightened out so that if Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett ran a radio station that broadcast in the Mojave desert it could almost be deemed ‘radio-friendly’.

Their live reputation is pretty terrifying, so if you’d rather stay dry while soaking up your Sixties rock then Good Bad Not Evil should appeal. Obviously the Lips have their detractors, as anyone labelled ‘revivalist’ inevitably does, but if you’re a fan of Lenny Kaye’s genius Nuggets compilation or, heck, even The Horrors’ take on deranged psych-rock, then you’ll have no complaints. Long live flower-punk.

22/10/2007

The Cribs live at the Forum, 17th October 2007

The Cribs + Bobby Conn + Jakobinarina @ The Forum
17th October 2007


Entering to the glorious lycra-pop of Whitney’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, the Jarmans run off their usual spiel about being “The Cribs frum Wehkfield” and launch into eighty minutes of blistering punk ditties for a crowd who look like they’ve never heard music before, let alone music this good. Though there really are a lot of songs that have that trademark “oh oh oh-oh” bit in it, and though their shows do always culminate in nakedness, stage-diving and human blood, they’re still more rock’n’roll than your band, so shove it. Ryan’s rant at Glastonbury about the “mainstream attitude of most indie bands” would indicate that they’re happy to have a loyal fanbase of mentalists while remaining unknown to the world of London Lite readers. That is, until he wooed Kate Nash. Is the mainstream ready for Wakefield?

Nine Black Alps, Love/Hate

Nine Black Alps, Love/Hate
Universal Island

The most terrifying three words a press release can ever contain are without doubt ‘recorded in California’. It’s become an unfortunate rite of passage for rock’n’roll bands to decamp to the Golden State and make a record that’s invariably described as ‘summery’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘Beach Boys-esque’. Yuck. Nine times out of ten it’s a catastrophically ill-judged decision, because a few tambourines and clunky harmonies do not a Pet Sounds make. Manchester grunge-grumps Nine Black Alps have taken a rather enormous risk in heading to LA to record their second album, Love/Hate – how can their trademark supersized riffs and strangled vocals handle an injection of sunshine?

Opening tracks ‘Bitter End’ and ‘Burn Faster’ are instantly reassuring: the Alps haven’t deemed it wise to break out the tambourines after all, but have been exploring a far wider dynamic range than on debut Everything Is. There’s less chunky riffage and instead a more experimental use of cobwebby acoustic guitars (on understated closer ‘Under the Sun’) and screeching amps (the riotous ‘Forget My Name’). ‘So In Love’ hurtles along on a super-crunchy psychobilly riff, its car crash climax making for an album highlight that bears no trace of its LA origins.

They’ve returned from California unscathed but with a finely honed pop sensibility that owes as much to the expansive sounds of 90s US indie as to the Alps’ primary influence, Nirvana – but don’t panic, for every subtle touch there’s an unhinged Wayne’s World moment for us to pour beer over ourselves to. C’est le rock’n’roll…

12/10/2007

Radiohead, In Rainbows

Radiohead, In Rainbows
Internet only release/XL

Radiohead have now released their seventh studio album. The entire promotional tour for its release consisted of a three line blog post from Johnny Greenwood. The record, In Rainbows, was released as a download only on 10th October (with a boxset to come later in the year), for which there was no fixed price. “It’s up to you”, they said – pay what you want. They are so far refusing to release details of its sales figures to the official chart compilers, thus making it ineligible for the number one position that it no doubt has achieved a hundred times over already.

The fact that Radiohead have chosen to ignore all accepted conventions of releasing a record, cutting out everything from the distribution to the deal itself, may well have a lasting impact on how we buy and sell music from this moment on. But that’s something for the record company moneypinchers and PR layabouts to worry over. Frankly, the public don’t give a toss about any of that. Why? Because it’s the new Radiohead album! Just play it!

Four years after Hail To The Thief, an album named in honour of President Dubya, and the world seems much the same. We’re still bogged down in Iraq, that President is still the President, and the planet continues to hurtle towards the button marked self-destruct with barely a peep from the people who could stop it. But where Hail To The Thief was an angry polemic railing against heavy-handed authority and corrupt politics, In Rainbows is – well, it’s called In Rainbows for a start. Without artwork you’re left with just those two words as a guide to the meaning of this record, two words that turn out to be more than enough once you’re plunged into an album that is genuinely bursting with colour, leading your mind into endless sublime dreamscapes, as all Radiohead albums do.

The unmistakeable highlight on first listen is ‘Nude’, a song that’s been knocking around for ages and now finally done full justice in this mind-bogglingly beautiful track which picks up where Kid A’s ‘How To Disappear Completely’ left off, using its familiar layered, reversed and looped parts. This is the kind of subtle magnificence that other two-bit indie bands dream about; it wrenches your insides and forces you to close your eyes for Thom’s perfect vocal take and guitars so warm they melt and disintegrate into a cosy blanket of fuzz. Its twin pillar is ‘Bodysnatchers’, the obvious ‘first single’ if that had been a possibility with In Rainbows. Like ‘Electioneering’ in a post-victory honeymoon, it races along with an almost dancefloor-ready urgency as zillions of fantastic crunchy noises and springy guitars pop in your ears. This is why earphones are required equipment for any self-respecting Radio-head.

What really sets this apart from their other albums becomes apparent on tracks like ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ - where before the band would have used drum machines and unrecognisably altered guitar samples, they’ve eschewed sparse, cold beats for real guitars with incredibly rich, warm tones and expansive orchestral sections. Johnny Greenwood’s recent dabble in classical music is obvious, particularly on ‘All I Need’ which climaxes in a dramatic orchestral pile-up that’s so loud and so uplifting that even its morbid lyric, “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car,” can’t taint its optimism.

There could never be enough space to describe every genius touch on this faultless record, but that can only be a good thing. Radiohead make albums to keep, albums to come back to and albums to befriend. Acquaint yourself with In Rainbows personally, and find your own version inside. A perfect album from a truly peerless band.

The Teenagers, interview, 06/10/2007

The Teenagers, 6th October 2007


What happens when label of the moment Merok (home to the wired electrothrash noises of Klaxons and Comanechi) sign three impossibly cool Parisian boys straight out of an American Apparel ad? Quelle surprise: the kind of sultry, sex-crazed synth-pop that only a trio of dirty French not-quite-teenagers could make.

Quentin, Dorian and Michael started with just a Myspace page for a fake band and, as indie lore generally has it these days, 10,000 friends later the record deal came knocking. We demanded they explain themselves. “Thing is, we really did what we wanted with no pressure from anything or anyone,” explains Quentin. And how would they describe their sound? “It’s awesome.”

Though they list influences as diverse as Madonna, The Strokes, Slayer and Jacques lu Cont (the DJ pseudonym of the man behind Les Rhythmes Digitales), The Teenagers actually sound like they’ve taken the legacy of Serge Gainsbourg, stripped away all the romantic fluff and filled in the gaps with bitching, stalking, perversion and adolescent fornication, all delivered in a heavily accented monotone over Strokes-esque lo-fi synth. Oh, and then there’s ‘Starlett Johannson’, their ode to their favourite Hollywood actress (“I know you’re born in ‘84/ Half Polish, half Danish…You don’t believe in monogamy/ I’m not jealous Scarlett, will you marry me?”) Do they know what Scarlett thinks of stalker’s sonnet? “Nah! We wish though!”

This summer the band packed their synths and moved across the channel to our very city. “I moved here not to settle in Paris,” says Quentin, “and have some extra years of fun, without expecting any kind of musical surprise. I was looking for something more lively than Paris. I found it!” There are no plans to make the move a permanent one though. “We just moved because it was easier to be in London for the music. It’s really more fun here than Paris to go out at night - but the weather is terrible,” Dorian adds.

Having played a batch of gigs in London in the past couple of months, what does Quentin make of their English audience? “We played Push at the Mean Fiddler and it was a really good crowd.” Dorian agrees. “Our crowd is mostly English and every time we play in London it’s amazing.” So, a sex-crazed band and hundreds of adoring fans – there must be substantial groupie attention? “Kind of…,” muses Quentin, “isn’t it supposed to be a taboo?” Surprisingly shy when it comes to real girls rather than A-list starlets perhaps? “It's terrible to see how much girls like boys in bands,” hints Dorian sarcastically.

Starlett Johansson is released on 12th November on Merok and The Teenagers are playing the Vice tour with Crystal Castles and These New Puritans later this year.

Reading Festival 2007, Sunday

Reading Festival, 24-26 August 2007

Sunday

It’s the last day of the festival, so of course everyone is now butt-ugly. One of the major downsides to not camping is noticing how much everyone stinks; that weird festival smell of clotted lager, armpits and damp hangs in the air. The perfect antidote to this shabbiness is found in the form of New Young Pony Club, who are incredibly confident for a band so new, and with perfectly balanced sound considering the Festival Soundman Factor. Although it’s slightly worrying that this hi-hat trend just will not die, their carnival sound and freshness and femaleness still make them stand out. In many ways, NYPC are the English CSS – they can play their instruments, sure, but Tahita’s banter is awkward and stilted in a very British way. "It’s like a party", she intones. Yes. "Is anyone here from Reading?" she asks. Yes, apparently some people here are from Reading. And remember: "It’s a long day ahead, so keep hydrated". Will do.

It’s Soho Hairdressers Day on the main stage as Funeral For A Friend, Lostprophets and Fall Out Boy all play to huge crowds. Predictably, FFAF’s new material isn’t received nearly as well as older songs like ‘She Drove Me To Daytime Televison’. ‘Juneau’ brings the crowd together for one of those sing-along moments without backing, which they execute with surprising tunefulness. Fall Out Boy are whiney and irritating, with the way they’re all clever and so not. And the aptly monikered Patrick Stump is like a young Michael Moore, with his baseball cap squashed over his chubby cheeks. God, he is nasal. Go away.

Now this is more like it. This is Reading, and Lostprophets are, today, inarguably brilliant. Ian Watkins has in fact become Rob Brydon in all but name over the past few years, whether intentionally or not, giving out hilarious one-liners: “I wanna see you pump your fists like it’s 1984!” Watkins manages, through balls-out showmanship, to get the entire crowd - way out past the mixing desk to the food stalls - to jump up and down together, but only when they start and not before: “Not yet Readin’! You can’t dance to talkin’!” He then patiently crafts the perfect circle pit (“that’s not a circle, that’s an oblong!”) for some bone-breaking hijinks. Sadly, and despite their previewed new stuff sounding like a brilliant return to their post-hardcore roots, they barely touch their early material except for a thrilling ‘Shinobivsdragonninja’ closer.

Thankfully, Reading closes with a cluster of sexy dance bands rather than yesterday's embarrassment of glitches. The Radio 1 tent is already packed out for CSS, who enter to a stage covered in helium balloons. The crowd absolutely adore Lovefoxx, and she returns the love, inserting ‘Reading’ for the ‘bitch’ in ‘Meeting Paris Hilton’, to hilarious effect. “Do you like Missy Elliott?!” she shrieks, before rapping along to ‘Work It’ in ‘Fuck Off Is Not The Only Thing You Have To Show’. There’s also time for a great disco cover of L7’s grunge-grrrl classic ‘Pretend That We’re Dead’, before the Sao Paulo six-piece disappear in a haze of confetti.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the crowd sticks around for LCD Soundsystem, the veritable grandfather of all this indie-disco, new rave nonsense. In theory, James Murphy is perfect sandwiched in between CSS and Klaxons (although considering the romantic relations between those bands, perhaps that’s not the right choice of words) until you remember that, unlike those bands, the tubby bear and his cowbells have no real songs. It’s all ice-cool and grown up and clever and completely yawnsome. A good time to make up for the Disaster ‘Shake by digging into possibly the best fish and chips I’ve had in years (if you live in London you will totally concur – you can’t find a proper chippy for love nor money).

As the final day draws in, the tent is stuffed to burst with the happiest looking people I’ve ever seen. Covered in the insides of glowsticks (apparently they’re non-toxic; I bet they woke up on Monday covered in noxious scabs) and waving light sabres, the crowd scream their lungs out for every single song. Klaxons variously walk or hobble on stage (Jamie’s broken ankle leaving him on a crutch) wearing assorted scraps of bacofoil and sequined hoodies. Storming into ‘The Bouncer’, the whole tent is kept jumping and shouting for all the singles, oohing along to ‘Golden Skans’ with all the boys having a crack at the falsetto bits, until they end the weekend with a positively heroic ‘It’s Not Over Yet’, their version of the club classic becoming an anthem for this generation too. The band is clearly overcome at what has been a manic rise to the top for them, and as for the crowds, feet crushed in their wellies, they are sated for another year as festival season shuts down.

Reading Festival 2007, Saturday

Reading Festival, 24-26 August 2007,
Saturday

Before you ask, yes, yes, it took me hours to negotiate my way home on London’s delightful night bus system. Returning not-exactly-refreshed by train the next morning, I reward myself with the once-famed milkshakes from that stall near the Radio 1 tent. Happily, it turns out they’ve removed one of the ingredients – they’ve removed the ice cream. The main ingredient. So I have a huge paper cup of milk with a mint aero in it for lunch. Mm-mmm, that really made me feel better about getting zero hours of sleep and being thrust back into the rock’n’roll barbeque.

Trudging back to the Radio 1 tent, I am equally horrified to discover that The Twang are higher up on the bill than Dinosaur Jr. What did I say about the line-up? Anyway, the Dinos are fantastic, they sound enormous and thankfully I’m not the only one with my air guitar out. Few bands can combine alternative noise-grunge with absolutely ripping shredwankery and still sound this brill. J Mascis isn’t convinced though: “You guys don’t like us, I can tell”, he sulks, swinging his post-resurrection-Gandalf hair round his head like a silver windmill.

In the Carling tent, all the hip kids crowd round for band of the moment, Battles. With a stage piled high with boxes and buttons and bleepy gadgets, the band huddle over their machines, trance-like, creating mind boggling pretentiousness of the highest order. Now, artwankery is usually one of my preferred genres, but in this case, finding yourself counting out the 9/8 time signature and hearing it jar, over and over, with the 4/4 drum loop, it’s just a bit fucking tedious. Like a college music project that escaped the lab, even the kids in hi-tops and hoodies are swaying rather despondently. On the plus side, they do walk away with the weekend’s award for best light show, in their apparent homage to classic Disney flick Tron. [NOTE: I love Battles these days. I blame the milkshake and the heatwave. Chal, Aug 2008]

And so I wander over to visit the corpse of punkfunk in the shape of !!!, a band whose built-in obsolescence factor of having a name made only of punctuation (they’re un-Googleable!) means they’re the anti-internet phenomenon and, therefore, the anti-Arctic Monkeys. Ergo brilliant. Anyway, for a genre that’s dead this is all pretty euphoric and, hey, if it tarted itself up a bit it could almost pass for that wondrously meaningless genre known as new rave. This is far more rave than any of that stuff anyway, loud and sweaty in a proper Balearic sort of way. The stage is teeming with people and instruments and singer Offer in his boxers, flanked by a terrifying hypnotic visual of ballroom dancing iguana skeletons. At this point, what with that pint of milk and the Tron lights and the cowbells and the iguanas, I’m only reasonably sure that I haven’t taken any hallucinogens this afternoon.

I could do with the aural equivalent of a cold shower to get out of this headspace, and conveniently there’s a double whammy of damp squibs headlining. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are not my companion’s favourite band, and to prevent any vomitious mishaps we have to stand well back. Unfortunately, it’s still close enough to hear that the Chilis have chosen this night to really get into some of those extended funk workouts they’ve been meaning to practice for ages, and the slap bass has us coming over all queasy. When they allow John Frusciante the spotlight for a buttock-clenching version of Eva Cassidy’s ‘Songbird’, it’s time to make our excuses.

The View are an absolutely pointless band who seem to have no idea of the meaninglessness of their songs in the context of the history of pop music. It’s totally mindless claptrap for girls and boys in battered straw hats; moronic lyrics that would make Noel Gallagher feel like he was performing a teatime matinee for six year olds. “Thus nixt sawng is aboat ge’an pissed”, gurgles front man Kyle, before launching into the sorriest excuse for a guitar solo since Tony Blair’s utterly misguided public appearance on his red Stratocaster. Someone please set The View on fire. Tonight, I make it home in time to catch the tube.

Reading Festival 2007, Friday

Reading Festival, 24-26 August 2007

Friday

Have you ever had a moment of supreme cleverness that was utterly ruined by that ol’ bandit of British summertime, the weather? This year’s Reading was plagued by scorching sun, endless clear skies and teenagers with dribbly ice lollies running down their hands. Cunningly, in preparation for this onslaught, I decided to do what I would otherwise consider an act of cowardice of almost French proportions – commute to the Reading festival.

Yes, like a total loser, I commuted by train every morning and night to a festival that was dry and tent-friendly. Having read the warnings on the official website, it seemed that about a third of the camping area was out of action, so I thought I was cunningly avoiding a three day mudbath (having already emerged, weak of limb and trenchy of foot, from this year’s Somme-like Glastonbury). And so, inevitably, it was a beautiful, baking Indian summer weekend. Still, at least I left my wellies at home – everyone else looked like a bit of a tit in their Dunlop greens and burnt pink shoulders.

It’s only fitting to come to the actual music two paragraphs later, as this year’s Reading festival is widely recognised as being one of the worst line-ups for about five years. This I blame solely on the fact that the year’s new bands have been a veritable mid-priced buffet of limp pickings and regurgitated meat and potatoes, most of whom have a cutesy shtick of speaking in accents that they wish they had and having a ‘who can write the most banal lyric and get away with it?’ competition.

So, pleasantly for you, none of this tosh will be covered in the following review.

Clashing brilliantly with the smug sunshine, The Horrors creep on to the stage for one of their typically uncompromising festival sets. Faris Rotter just gets badder and badder, prowling around like a captive animal flanked by the white-eyed zombie Spider Webb and Josh von Grimm’s truly terrifying perma-grin. No doubt they’re dying to get back to the safety of night time winter gigging, but luckily none of the band seem to have got any colour in their cheeks this summer.

Another absurdly inappropriate-for-festivals band takes to the Main stage, with an equally absurd moustache. Interpol are finally back on the live circuit and Carlos D has cultivated a bizarre Wild West ‘tache, following a trend started by Matty from White Heat (the club night and record label), who this weekend is spotted looking increasingly like a 1920s strongman, right down to the extreme Brylcreemed side parting. Needless to say, Interpol’s set is a perfect mix of older stuff – ‘Evil’ has become a complete classic – and new stuff that’s received with equal rapture. Luckily, and somewhat unusually for festivals, they avoid the kind of sound problems that so often mar bands that go beyond noisy guitars and heavyweight drumming. The only thing is, it’s still really, really sunny. And that’s just wrong. Interpol, I’m afraid, need a goddamn light show. They need smoke. Although Carlos does try to help by doing his smoking and playing at the same time trick which, even with the moustache, makes him one of the most attractive men in the universe. I wouldn’t have believed it either.

As the sun finally gives in for the day, Patrick Wolf enters to a packed out and positively bleating crowd in the Carling tent. Every song is met with squeals and cheers as he shows just how much he’s matured as a showman over the past year, strutting about the stage besequined and pouting to his sexy beats and heartrending violin. If you haven’t seen him, or even if you haven’t seen him for a while, now is the time to go and watch Wolf as he hits his stride as one of the most original and exciting artists in the country.

And so to a band who hit their stride about twelve years ago but are still full of the same kind of teenage energy as they had five albums ago – Ash headline the Radio 1 tent, returning to live music as a three piece after apparently giving Charlotte the heave-ho earlier this year. And, I’m afraid to say, they do indeed struggle. It seems they’ve also forgotten to tell their soundman about their new found trio-dom too, as Tim’s guitar lines barely make it above the clatter of Rick’s ever brilliant drumming and ‘Darth’ Mark Hamilton’s bass. As always, this Ash set is a Greatest Hits show, stopping off at ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and ‘Orpheus’ (though sadly bypassing the massively under-rated Nuclear Sounds album). Newie ‘End Of The World’ provokes a mass sing-along and they encore with their debut single, ‘Jack Names The Planets’ which, and I know you probably don’t need reminding but please, humour me, is THIRTEEN years old. And they still look like awkward, sexy teenagers.

Kanye West @ Westminster Central Hall, 20/08/2007

Kanye West@ Westminster Central Hall
20th August 2007

Somehow, in the past couple of years, a producer from Chicago who wears a yellow plastic watch has become the most important hip-hop artist in the world. Kanye West is a pretty unusual suspect for such a title. For a while back there in 2005 it was looking like Fiddy was bringing thuglife back, with his unmistakable delivery down to a gunshot wound in the mouth. Kanye, in contrast, is not the world’s best rapper. He would admit it too, if only to himself. But dang, the guy has got the Midas touch when it comes beat-making.

Kanye’s real genius lies in the way he breaks the mould. First, his look. His clothes fit him; he namechecks Dior; he’s got that yellow G-Shock watch. G-Shock! Second, his attitude. He’s constantly spoken out against homophobia in rap music, something that has, predictably, led to rumours about his own sexuality. He made headlines for slamming the President’s handling of Hurricane Katrina on live television, when he claimed that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people.’ On the other hand, his hit singles have relied in reworking samples of, well, already very good, very memorable songs and, y’know, rapping over them. New single ‘Stronger’ samples – or rips off, you decide - that instantly recognisable Daft Punk loop from ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’. Say what you want, that’s pretty much the crux of his act, even if he does do it very, very well.

Finally making it on stage over an hour late, Kanye launches into his fashionably short set with the kind of manic energy you rarely see in rap, stomping across the stage and reaching out to the screaming girls at the front. Backed by an all-female new rave orchestra (down to the matching neon prom dresses and hi-tops), Kanye’s live show includes green laser beams and endless silver confetti - but in case we’d forgotten that this whole performance was for televison, he insists on doing the first song again. Leaving ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘Jesus Walks’ off the set list shows that Kanye is either hugely confident about the quality of his output or dying to get back to the safety of the VIP area (also spotted: Javine, well known ‘Popstars: The Rivals’ runner-up and all-round hip hop groupie). There’s no encore, and the whole show barely makes the 45 minute mark. I guess that’s what you get when the audience is full of Vodafone competition winners – I mean, they haven’t even paid for their tickets, they should be grateful to get anything, right? And did I mention the advertising? The whole event is so plastered in promotional material I can’t figure out where the gig ends and his PR company begins. Those mortar boards the security staff are wearing? All for Kanye’s new album, Graduation, in case you hadn’t heard. Free phone charm? Courtesy of Sony Ericsson. Souvenir paper sunglasses to remind you of the release date of Stronger? Take a handful.

But here’s the thing. These songs are brilliant. And more importantly, Fiddy Cent has said that if Graduation sells more copies than his own new record, which comes out on the same day, then he’ll quit rap. So. Buy it, and by supporting Kanye and his plastic accessories empire you can contribute to the end of pointless posturing thugrap.

Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth reissue

Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth (Reissue)
Domino

In the queasy morning light after the sordid all-nighter that was 1977, Young Marble Giants coolly fizzed into being, making a feather-light impact on popular music in the way that only the most innovative and unique bands do. Domino have wisely chosen to re-release the Cardiff band’s one and only album, Colossal Youth, complete with a bumper set of demos, singles and other miscellany from their brief existence.

Colossal Youth was way, way ahead of its time. Unlike other ‘classic’ albums of the period (Unknown Pleasures, Fear Of Music), it hasn’t aged a jot. It remains fresh, challenging and alien in a Mark Ronson-ified pop world, especially considering how laughably primitive the machines and synths they worked with were. Brothers Philip and Stuart Moxham create a brittle landscape of chopping guitars, neat basslines, creepy organ and invented noises for Alison Statton to do her nonchalant speak-sing thing over. It’s Statton’s voice in particular that creates the tense mood – sparse yet oppressive, minimal yet melodic. From the haunted house vibe of ‘The Taxi’ to the Redondo Beach-alike title track, Young Marble Giants created their own world of songs with their own rules, so different from the prevailing aesthetic of the time.

Bizarrely, Amazon is selling Colossal Youth in a bargain package with Nico’s The Marble Index. The records are actually a perfect pairing; unique, uncompromising and terrifying, and resolutely out of the mainstream after all this time. The remainder of the collection is a worthwhile insight into the beginnings of both post-punk and new wave, but does perhaps detract from the purity of the album alone. Thus, I can only award nine stars out of ten. Unless you get The Marble Index too, in which case I award twelve.

03/08/2007

Yellowcard, Paper Walls

Yellowcard, Paper Walls
Capitol Records

Having already had to lay my ear on the new Sum 41 album this week, Yellowcard welcomed me back to a more thoughtful brand of emo punk. Though at heart Paper Walls is a predictable rehash of a tired genre (complete with lyrics sung through the nose and that ol’ opening-guitar-riff-followed-by-crashing-drum-intro chestnut), fans of the band will lap it up – slick production, catchy songs recorded VERY LOUD and reams of tedious lyrics with all the relevant teen themes: loneliness, love and inadequacy. Yellowcard’s traditional USP over other bands in this vast pigeonhole of popular music was their violinist Sean Mackin, who gave the band a unique opportunity to become the ultimate soundtrack to the love and strife of androgynous emo teens, and hence really, y’know, mean something to all those kids dying their hair black over the side of the bath. Sadly, Mackin seems to have recorded his parts from the corridor on this record, despite the fact that when they do allow him some space to show off on ‘Five Becomes Four’ he viciously shreds his way through what would have been a forgettable guitar part.

The last four tracks are vastly superior to the meat and potatoes emo of the first two thirds, however. ‘Dear Bobbie’ is the weirdest thing here, featuring (I assume) one of the Yellowcard grandpas reading from an old love letter to his young wife: ‘I still think of you when we dance although we can’t jitterbug as we did then’. It’s a genuinely tender moment – ripe for some strings, you’d think, so where are they? Closer ‘Paper Walls’ even has a completely un-naff choir part - I shuddered when I saw it in the credits but it’s actually unobtrusive and beautifully arranged (by that elusive violinist). Yellowcard have ideas and potential beyond the grasp of their peers; if only they would use it and push some boundaries rather than getting cold feet at the thought of rocking the boat and losing fans.

03/08/2007

The Scorpions, Humanity: Hour I

The Scorpions, Humanity: Hour I
Sony BMG

Ha ha. Heh. The Scorpions have landed on my desk. I didn’t realise they were still around. HA, hahaha. Brace yourself. It’s a concept album – about a war between humans and robots. That one never dies, despite the fact that the closest we’ve ever got to proper robots is a washing machine that starts when you phone it up from work. Also, it’s called Humanity: Hour I, which begs to be read aloud in that voice that does all the movie trailers. After searching for a while I can’t actually confirm this, but I will make an educated guess and presume that Humanity: Hour 2 cannot be far behind. Didn’t we learn after Guns N’ Roses? Didn’t we all agree that two part albums are absolutely always wrong? But seriously, don’t mock it – this record is at Number 2 in Greece.

Okay alright, let’s take this a little more seriously. The Scorpions, to fill you in, are a classic metal band from Germany. Their first album, Lonesome Crow, came out in 1972 and they have sold unbelievable amounts of records. Zillions of records. I am quite sure they don’t give a toss about whether concept albums are cool, and Axl Rose is a mere whippersnapper compared to their true Rock Dinosaur status anyway. And you know what? I like it. It is so far removed from anything you will ever hear on the radio, so far from the youth-obsessed music press, Kate Nash and Jamie T, that it stands on its own as a bombastic spectacle and a demonstration of everything that’s great about heavy metal. It has integrity. It has immense guitar solos. It has swagger, drama, and absurd lyrics: ‘At the end of the day, you're a needle in the hay/ You signed and sealed it, now you gotta deal with it/ Humanity, goodbye’. My favourite track? ‘Love Is War’ and ‘Love Will Keep Us Alive’ both get my vote, but are just pipped by ‘You’re Lovin’ Me To Death’. For those about to rock…

03/08/2007

Sum 41, Underclass Hero

Sum 41, Underclass Hero
Mercury Records

Some pop history first. Between 1977 and 1983, alternative music developed and mutated a hundred times over, snarling through ‘God Save The Queen’, stealing and reshaping reggae and funk before crash-landing in shapes as diverse as Soft Cell, Joy Division and The Smiths. Had it been possible, the Pistols would never have dared, nor needed, to release another Never Mind The Bollocks after seven years. Ignoring my unintentional comparison with the truly incomparable Johnny Rotten, in the seven years since Sum 41 released their multi-platinum selling album All Killer No Filler the Canadian punk muppets have journeyed through genres as diverse as pop-punk, faster-pop-punk and even pop-punk-metal. Sheesh. When you consider that pop-punk is itself a genre that dates back to the early 90s it seems perverse that anything so generic and repetitive can dare to call itself by the P-word.

Opener and first single ‘Underclass Hero’ is embarrassingly familiar, bearing an almost identical rhythm and melody to 2001’s ‘Fat Lip’. Chief songwriter and husband-of-Avril, Deryck Whibley, has explored marginally more mature themes on this record (absent fathers and George W. Bush) but it’s such a predictable and yawnsome move from the big kids in short trousers that they barely register. The childish political posturing throws up some lyrical clangers too, of which the worst must be: ‘and now the President’s dead/ Because they blew off his head/ No more neck to be red/ Guess to heaven he fled’. Shocking. The band’s weedy manifesto also falls flat by bleeping the lyrics in the CD’s insert – down with the establishment indeed. Then there’s the obligatory stoopid song: devoid of humour and sung in Franglais, it concerns ‘ma petite poubelle’ and finding something in one’s ‘pantalons’. Quite.

But hey, all of this is irrelevant to how pop-punk operates. Fans of this most repellent and outdated of genres stick with it doggedly. Much like the never-ending Scary Movie franchise, Underclass Hero and its predecessors purport to be satire but are nothing more than adolescent poo jokes.

03/08/2007

The New Pornographers, Challengers

The New Pornographers, Challengers
Matador Records

Meh. The thing is, I know they’re good, I’m sure they are; all the right people are saying all the right things about them, it’s plain that they’re absurdly talented musicians and they’ve been on David Letterman, all of that. And yet – meh. For those who haven’t heard of The New Pornographers, they are often termed a ‘Canadian supergroup’ (a totally bizarre accolade that brings to mind some ungodly collaboration between Win Butler, Bryan Adams and Avril Lavigne, perhaps in aid of protecting the Arctic wolf) despite the fact that you probably won’t have heard of the bands they were each part of before. Instruments of choice include wurlitzers, mandolins, glockenspiels and banjos as well as a range of vocal turns, notably from Neko Case, the redheaded star of the show despite the Pornographers being the baby of lyricist and chief songwriter A.C. Newman.

This, the band’s fourth album, is a little more comfy, a little more quiet and perhaps a little more safe than its predecessors. Though Challengers will certainly be considered a mature and sophisticated effort, it veers dangerously near to MOR territory at times, particularly as the tempo remains at a constant mellow trot throughout. The organic warmth of tracks like closer ‘The Spirit of Giving’ makes for a perfect bedtime record, but that’s also down to rather too many forgettable filler tracks and a soporific quality that overly orchestrated pop can often succumb to.

Fans of quirky, melodic pop full of unusual instruments and rich harmonies (Belle and Sebastian springs to mind) should buy this immediately, and no doubt the Observer Music Monthly and Uncut will hail it with showers of stars. But, I’m afraid, for me it’s still, y’know, meh.

03/08/2007

Jackson Analogue, And Then, Nothing

Jackson Analogue, And Then, Nothing
Universal-Island Records

Many people, ones in bands especially, are of the opinion that one should review records on their individual merit. Rock’n’roll antics, rivalries and feuds, the scene you’re part of, the haircut you’ve cultivated, the quotes you’ve had misinterpreted – these must all be put firmly aside as you deliberate the music and the lyrics in their pure, unadulterated form. I say, bollocks. You can’t help but look at a record in terms of its place in the world. Who are they? And what the hell are they wearing? If David Bowie was just some bloke who looked like your dad who’d also happened to write ‘Life On Mars’, then, trust me, you wouldn’t own his records.

Thus, I’m always wary of a band who’ll declare that ‘music is about passion not fashion and the right song counts for more than the right hair cut’. Music has always been about fashion. Even when Kurt Cobain came along wearing pyjamas and hair dyed in Kool-Aid, he had a look. You have to look like something, even if you look like death. Frankly, it strikes me as something to say if you’d really like to be a cool ‘fashion’ band but have no idea how to go about it, leading you to resent those bands who do have a few good haircuts between them. Methinks Jackson Analogue doth protest too much.

Coming to the end of my word limit then, let me point out that Jackson Analogue aren’t bad at all. They sound like The Bees covering Kings of Leon (they are from the Isle of Wight, after all). They show an appreciation for the protracted blues jam without ever straying into such territory. They squeeze in a bit of classic rock organ. The vocals are a bit iffy, but if you like Led Zeppelin you’ll be fine. And, despite their passion over fashion mantra, you can clearly see a waistcoat in their press photos. But, ultimately, though the opening tracks on debut And Then, Nothing are full of bluster and intent, it all peters out very quickly and becomes derivative and repetitive. So, by demanding me to judge their album solely on its musical and lyrical merit, they have earned half marks. Time for a trip down Brick Lane then fellas?

03/08/2007

Clinic, Funf

Clinic, Funf
Domino Records

Some years ago, when I first saw Clinic live, they had already existed for half a decade. Dressed in doctors’ scrubs, they used a melodica in virtually every song and played a set so hypnotic that the crowd was left wondering if it wasn’t perhaps Derren Brown behind that surgeon’s mask. Needless to say, Clinic have never been chart-botherers. From raw punk riffs to psychedelic scuzz, they channel anyone from the Velvets to Phil Spector through surf guitars, 60s organ or that really creepy melodica (FYI, a melodica is like a mini keyboard that you play through your mouth. Quite).

After the release of fourth album Visitations late in 2006, Clinic have followed it up with the obligatory B-sides collection. A dire listening prospect as far as most bands are concerned, the B-sides album is usually a necessary marketing evil preceding the old ‘musical differences’ chestnut and a parting of ways. In this case though, such a compilation is truly worthy of the plastic it’s printed on. Though Funf doesn’t present some alternate vision of Clinic’s output or better any previous work, there are some real gems here. The eerily festive ‘Christmas’ and all-out garage punk of instrumental ‘The Scythe’ showcase the extremes of Clinic’s range, and the soul rhythms of ‘Lee Shan’ contrast perfectly with Ade Blackburn’s tense vocals sung through a clenched jaw.

Fate is a cruel bitch, as the saying goes, and the saddest thing about this record is that no one is really going to buy it and, after ten years, few really know who Clinic are. They’ll have to wait for the inevitable retrospective when they split before taking their rightful place alongside Sonic Youth and Suicide as purveyors of brooding, intense punk rock. Or, you could do them a favour and get this record.

17/06/2007

To My Boy, Messages

To My Boy, Messages
Abeano Music

Hailing from Liverpool, To My Boy are purveyors of a sexy, scratchy space-pop that will no doubt be filed under ‘new rave’ along with countless other new bands who happen to be wearing Nike Hi-Tops. Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing much ravey about Messages save for a generous use of shimmering synth and energetic beats. Besides, this album is actually about something: each song is an ode to their fascination with the power of technology and the possibility to ‘step inside the mainframe’. The eleven tracks blend malfunctioning drum machines, glassy guitars and android vocals to provide a backdrop to philosophical musings on the internet, atheism and civilisation.

This is a sound that could only have come from the meeting of art school savvy (Sam White) and a physicist’s geeky obsessions (Jack Snape). They preach the democratising force of computers, asking ‘how can you feel alone when we’re all in the zone?’ Yet this isn’t an exercise in irony – in songs like ‘Outer Regions’, their ‘atheist hymn to optimism’, To My Boy praise the computer as a tool for interaction and increased human contact rather than the sterile object we generally regard it as.

With this in mind, Messages is obviously a member of the Kraftwerk church of Computer Love, but musically this record has far more texture and warmth. Ace singles ‘I Am X Ray’ and ‘The Grid’ pound along like a thousand monkeys with cymbals and, along with most of the other tracks, they’re made for the dancefloor. Besides, Messages is defiantly un-retro – this is not an album about robots and fantasy futurism but about the globalised, wireless world that we already live in. Ultra-modern and uniquely stylish.

17/06/2007

Immaculate Machine, Fables

Immaculate Machine, Fables
Mint Records

Kathryn Calder, vocalist and keyboard player in Immaculate Machine, is a sometime member of The New Pornographers (if we’re going to get technical, she actually just chipped in some vocals and a spot on the Joanna for the Pornographers’ 2005 record Twin Cinema). I know this because it’s mentioned every single time I read anything about Immaculate Machine.

Bearing this in mind, it’s not at all unfair to compare new album Fables against The New Pornographers’ output, because riding on someone else’s shiny coattails can never be an antidote to mediocrity. The good news is, Fables is a record cut from the same cloth as all your favourite Canadian bands, complete with layered harmonies, plenty of hooks and a plethora of unlikely instruments. Opening track ‘Jarhand’, a perky sing-along featuring vocals from The Cribs and Alex Kapranos, stands out as the best from this collection but also sets the bar too high for the remaining nine songs. The pounding, shouty ones like ‘Old Flame’ and ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ work best, with the glacial, prickly mood of ‘Northeastern Wind’ appearing as a welcome slice of melancholia towards the album’s close.

Elsewhere though, the three-piece lean too much on complex arrangements and instrumentation, with twee, syrupy results. Calder’s voice doesn’t help matters, being a stodgy and characterless instrument in songs clearly intended to be full of character. Likewise, the lyrics are a bluff of something more meaningful: “Send you off on a big adventure, X’s lead you to the treasure” on ‘Dear Confessor’ is typically banal. Then again, fables are cute nursery stories, not grand philosophies – and you wouldn’t stick a Descartes audiobook on in the car now, would you?

16/06/2007