Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Food + Vladislav Delay, Union Chapel, 12th November 2009

Food + Vladislav Delay, Union Chapel, 12th November 2009

Union Chapel is one of a handful of London’s holy buildings to have reinvented itself as a live music destination in recent years, with performances spanning jazz, electronica, avant-garde and experimental artists, acoustic shows and all kinds of music that requires people to shut up, stop fidgeting and LISTEN.

Tonight the chapel hosts Vladislav Delay, one of the many working names of Finnish electronic artist Sasu Ripatti, whose latest album Tummaa is out on The Leaf Label. Commonly described as a ‘clicks and cuts’ artist, Vladislav Delay is a more fluid, atmospheric exploration of that tag, where timbre and rhythm take precedence over melody and harmony.

Ripatti is accompanied by jazz musician Lucio Capece, who explores the unexpected sounds of soprano sax as well a couple of bespoke instruments. Avoiding jazzy phrases, Capece keeps his input minimal but engaging, making breathy percussive sounds using a drum mallet and violin bow which are then processed and warped by Ripatti, using drum pads and lashings of delay to create conflicting feelings of intimacy and distance.

Where Vladislav Delay is primarily an electronic music project, headliners Food take a more transparent, organic approach to their improvised tracks, combining astonishingly inventive percussion (largely played one-handed as drummer Thomas Strønen uses his free hand to add loops, layers and effects) with minimalist melodic lines from saxophonist Iain Bellamy, mutating with repetition and recalling experimental composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley as much as free jazz.

Electronic music and jazz have obviously always been musical boundary-pushers, so it makes sense that the two should become acquainted through experimental artists like Vladislav Delay and Food. The relationship seems to be mutually beneficial too, with electronic music opening new horizons for jazz – which even in its freest, freakiest forms is still getting on a bit as a musical style – while jazz pushes electronic music away from dehumanised programmed rhythms and into more abstract and improvised territory, using real instruments played by real people.

Tonight’s show is like a sneak preview of future sounds, leaving us still and silent while our inner ears chatter with unthought thoughts and new beginnings.

Karen O And The Kids, Where The Wild Things Are OST

Karen O And The Kids
Where The Wild Things Are Motion Picture Soundtrack
DGC Records

If your ex-girlfriend was the inimitable Karen Orzolek – besequined screechbag and noted friend to children (see also, Tiny Masters of Today, her pre-teen punk protégés) – you’d know who to call when it came to soundtracking your blockbuster kiddie monster movie. With some inevitability, director Spike Jonze turned to Karen O and The Kids to add music to his forthcoming film Where The Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the classic US children’s book.

The kids in question turn out not be the spaghetti hoops and Sesame Street kind (probably for the best) but a selection of Karen O’s musical compadres, most of whom are well-known enough to have been credited more explicitly: her YYYs bandmates Nick Zinner and Brian Chase; long-limbed Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox; Dean Fertita of QOTSA and The Dead Weather; his bandmate Jack Lawrence, also of The Raconteurs; and multi-instrumentalist songwriter Imaad Wasif.

Often recalling Show Your Bones-era YYYs, the troupe of kidults contribute organ, marimba, bells and acoustic fingerpicking on gentle campfire songs and the occasional moment of Arcade Fire-style marching joyousness. A few bursts of kiddy chorus and a tinge of Americana almost tip proceedings into ‘wholesome’ territory, but the musicians’ punk credentials and Karen O’s yelped nursery rhyme lyrics serve as a balancing oddball factor.

The heartbreaking cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘Worried Shoes’ is easily the standout track and should be bought by anyone with an interest in keeping their heart beating. Karen O’s voice – cracked and vulnerable, sweet but steadfast with that strong twang on her R’s – captures perfectly the childlike nature of both the film and Johnston’s songwriting.

Across the 14 tracks there are only a handful of proper songs, with some tracks barely making it past the minute mark and often reprising previous sounds and ideas – a typical soundtrack approach, but as an album it could do with turning those snippets into coherent songs like the tubthumping single ‘All Is Love’ or the wistful ‘Hide Away’. Still, like the film itself, the record has the difficult task of trying to appeal to everyone who loves the book, from adults to teenagers to toddlers. For that reason alone, Karen O and The Kids did good, making a record that goes beyond the call of duty and stands as a pretty ace album all by itself. A must-buy for fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Daniel Johnston, wistful indie-rock and huge shaggy monsters.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Dirty Projectors + Polar Bear + Lucky Dragons, Scala, 2nd April 2009

Dirty Projectors + Polar Bear + Lucky Dragons
Scala, 2nd April 2009

A pile of junk is neatly laid out in the middle of the room, a spotlight shining down on it. Looking closely it still doesn’t make sense, like being drunk or taking off your glasses; the objects look half-familiar but your brain finds it impossible to alight upon their meaning or purpose.
Kids with beards, chunky cardigans, specs, plimsolls, checkshirts - all the necessary accoutrements of London scenesters - sit in a Brownie Guide circle, cross-legged and curious-bashful. Lucky Dragons appears – a youngish wiry guy – kneels in his exposed electronic playpen, and starts up.
The first five minutes he’s laying out his wares, seeing where he can go, dipping our ears in the possibilities. A laptop and a box of buttons and faders are discernible – they conduct throbbings, hummings & tweetings, skittering and shaking sounds melting together and crumbling apart. The second five minutes and this melodica-panpipe-stick emerges, through which he conjures some free riffing. Hmm.

It’s getting worringly ‘ambient’-slash-Sounds of the Amazon Vol. I, and I’m just about to turn to my compadre and call it bollocks when:

Mr Dragons starts shaking what we’ll call a ‘shakeysticknoisemaker’, dancing around with it, cobra-necking. He hands the shakeystick to someone nearby, picks up another and starts handing out a whole bundle of them, more and more, until the inner ring of spectators has become an instrument in itself, shakeysticks cracking and coming together spontaneously in-and-out of rhythm.

Cynicism dies.

The music goes on. Mr Dragons gives the people freedom without direction, and they respect the project. It’s too right-on for words.

Next, the shakeysticks are gathered in and what we’ll call toyrocknoisemakers are given out. This time there are dozens of them, it seems, and they work like magnets over a central box of conduction/magic, a bit like an E bow for a guitar but totally unfathomable to my brain. Later there’s the snakecordnoisemaker which comes alive when people grab its ‘tails’ and then lock hands, connecting circuits and chiming chords and sweet dischords, reaching across the circle in search of new sounds. It’s somewhere between a physics class and an autism therapy workshop – people are re-learning sounds, lights, shapes, each other.
It’s not music, man, it’s a sound-connection. It’s for hippies, dead simple, and maybe we all want to be.

Polar Bear, for the uninitiated, are a typically couldn’t-make-it-up Upset The Rhythm band – two sax, one drums, one double bass, one guitar/laptop/balloon/Xbox controller (it certainly looked like one), and one afro.
Exploring an invigorating seam of jazz/noise, they freefall into free jazz, almost abandoning harmony and melody at points, and scare you up with rubber pink balloon vs sax face-offs before shaking you up with madcap time signature wacky races, finally falling back into a groovy pulse - yes, groovy, which in their hands becomes a satisfying reprieve of Yow! funkiness after a section of skronking brainmelt.
Overall, it’s like having a pipe cleaner go in one ear and out the other. That, is a messy headfuck with squeaky clean aftertaste. Fresh.

I had forgotten quite how charming Dirty Projectors are. How can anyone in their right mind not fall for them as they knock out these gift-wrapped slices of crispy genius, barely breaking a sweat?
Dave Longstreth’s fingers glide over the strings, his left and right hands each apparently using their own brain, at a speed so fast it makes rhythm more like spasm, only accentuated by his Mother Goose neck-jerk moves. But it’s all perfect, incredibly perfect.
And the girls! Nothing is quite like a DP harmony performed live. How they get that kind of purity of tone, note & timbre live I just can’t understand.
Dirty Projectors have such an unadulterated streak of originality that you can never forget you’re watching a former Yale composition student and (possibly certified) genius here, even when he forgets how to play ‘Rise Above’. Only for a minute though.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Horrors, 'Primary Colours'

The Horrors, Primary Colours
XL, Out May 5th 2009

So the Resurrection Men return, this time stitching their musical Frankenstein from fragments of the mid-70s onwards – Kraut, post-punk, acid – and leaving behind the psych, freakbeat and garage rock drawn on so heavily for the Horrors’ debut Strange House.

Opener ‘Mirror’s Image’ sets out the new sound immediately: Krautish start, segueing into a tight bassline before even tighter drums throw you into a swirling epic featuring the most blatant My Bloody Valentine-‘inspired’ guitars you’ve ever heard (they even pan right to left, making your brain the calm centre of the maelstrom when listening through headphones), followed with a simplistic post-punk riff and a pulsating atmosphere of foreboding just like all your favourite moody bands of the ’78-’91 period.

I’m gonna pre-empt what you’re thinking with a little aside, here.

This kind of volte-face, if you will, can make it easy to dismiss a band. If you do garage rock, you gotta stick to it, right? Billy Childish would never ‘go all artsy’. Such a dramatic evolution can come across as insincere. Garage rock revivalists are unashamedly nostalgic, with an almost reverential treatment of the ‘real stuff’, the Golden Oldies and the obscure nuggets on 45s. To hear that the Horrors have moved on from the garage rock sound seems to show an ambivalence towards the Real Stuff - even a heretic attempt to better it.

In turn, this makes their new(er) influences seem almost arbitrary, like bored teens shopping for influences on a whim, scanning the racks for another sound to rip off now they’re bored with three chord frenzies. This behaviour is totally against the rules of garage rock, because three chords are all you will ever need in life if you believe in the Real Stuff.

On the other hand, you could (and I would) argue that the Horrors are merely following a thread of British rock created from what Bill Bailey calls a “wistful melancholy” brought on by 52% of our days being overcast. Added to that is the Britrock habit of ploughing the past to put it back together in new ways, as well as the more clichéd ‘eccentricity’ that British bands love to live up to. Strange House emerged from exactly this pool of rock (rockpool?), combining various elements of British R&B and freakbeat, the proto punk of the Sonics and the trash goth aesthetic of Nick Cave (to name but a few). In this light, the leap to Primary Colours looks much smaller.

The Spider and the Flies side-project had already pointed towards the new Horrors sound with their Something Clockwork This Way Comes EP, a record which sees Tom and Rhys playing jigsaw with Cluster/Harmonia knob-twiddling, half the Mute Records roster and miscellany from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As the pair responsible for bass and keys, it’s only logical to discover that the authentic 60s organ has been pushed out in favour of magic analogue boxes and pulsing bass guitar has come to the fore.

So, that’s the New Sound explained for you.

Visually, this produces some problems. Will the capes and cravats go in to storage? It used to be that changing your look with each album only added to your star quality, being part of an overall artistic ‘journey’ or ‘vision’ or somesuch - Bowie being the classic example. But now, to see a band like the Horrors choosing to follow a different route, aurally and sartorially, just feels silly. Our postmodern sensibilities just laugh at their ‘popstar’ pretence. Check them out on the cover of NME – they look odd. Pastier? Ah, no eyeliner. Live at Rich Mix a couple of weeks ago they were still clad head-to-toe in black, but there was no sign of polka-dotted waistcoats or crushed velvet, just simple, serious, beatnik uniform. But what else can they do? Dig themselves deeper into their unfair ‘cartoon band’ reputation? Or just throw on a leather jacket and get on with it?

Let’s get back to the record itself.

You certainly can’t fault the raw ingredients. As a band they are so reliably tasteful that ‘Joy Division’ actually means something as an influence in the way it doesn’t for, say, White Lies. Their flair for their instruments (not so much skill and talent as an intuitive curiosity and inventiveness that comes from not being virtuosos) is pretty phenomenal for young band on their second album. The guitar work is identifiably the work of a physics graduate, while the clever layering of parts is subtly Spector-influenced, notably in the middle eight of new single ‘Who Can Say’ where the Wall Of Sound is gently alluded to with a spot of tambourine and kick drum before Faris’s sleepy, ironical voice intones, “And when I told her I didn’t love her anymore/ She cried […] And then I kissed her/ With a kiss that could only mean goodbye,” a nod to the teen heartbreak melodrama pop of the Shangri-Las and the Crystals. Impeccable.

On ‘I Only Think of You’ that drum-tambourine part resurfaces, but with added layers of dronescape and an uber baritone that combine to put me in mind of the current London skyscape with its endless network of cranes elegantly arching into the haze. Have you ever noticed how many cranes there are now in London? I advise you to have a look next time you’re roundat someone's tower block flat. It’s terrifying, and this song is its soundtrack.

The album’s simpler, starker aesthetic is continued in Faris’s lyrics, which work largely within the rhythms now, abandoning the wild garage rock shrieks and screams. In fact, they’ve abandoned altogether that trash aesthetic that's embedded in garage rock. The Horrors were never comfortable with the rockabilly beer-swilling hoedown stuff in the first place, and it does them good to shake it off.

Finally, there’s ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the seven-minute album outro used as a taster for Primary Colours on the band’s website. Don’t misunderstand the length - there are no freewheeling freak-outs here. Sounds are programmed, locked-in. And menacing too, until halfway through where it shifts up a gear and sounds, as they said in a recent interview, like going to the top of a hill on a summer’s day, “taking a load of really good E and then running down the hill really fast…”

With Strange House, there were complaints that the Horrors on record didn’t sound ‘free’ enough, didn’t capture the energy of roughneck garage rock or the velocity of their live show. They’ve now sidestepped that problem by writing songs with less freedom. By treating the Real Stuff with the ambivalence it deserves, and dispassionately abandoning the bits that didn’t work while seizing upon new ideas and new sounds, they’ve tightened up and pared down to create an album that genuinely grows on you, revealing more with each listen - and it's catchy as fuck to boot.

I mean, what else could they do?

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Peter Doherty, Troxy, 28th March 2009

Peter Doherty @ Troxy, East London, 28th March 2009

Pt I

Redwhiteandblue lights like bunting and Union Jacks as towels.
Pete ‘Peter’ Doherty in three piece suit and hat and looking – older? Not quite. Confident though. Focused enough to tie a tie. Flanked by Graham Coxon, who sips Coke from a can and rips up a ‘Time For Heroes’ solo graceful and raw, giving the song the service it deserves and has never really had with Babyshambles.
Adam Ficek on drums, Drew McConnell on bass, “the hardest-drinking string section in the country” at the back. Stephen Street wearing a Native American chief’s headdress, Dot Allison on ‘Sheepskin Tearaway’, someone taking care of organ (nice) and melodica (wrong), Mik Whitnall for a split second, Wolfman and Lee Mavers of the La’s, who does a pre-encore of ‘There She Goes’ but seems otherwise surplus to requirements in this village fete-cum-variety show-cum Pete Doherty: This Is Your Life flypast.

Old stuff: Pete opens with ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’. There’s a middle acoustic section with ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, ‘The Good Old Days’, ‘For Lovers’. He’s remembered how to play guitar. ‘Time For Heroes’ and ‘Fuck Forever’ are the final, bruising encore.

Some of the new songs work well with Stephen Street’s production/arrangements, like the village band Chas’n’Dave type numbers which are twee but done with enough conviction to be reasonably successful. But other new efforts feel weighed down, too decorated. When Street produced Morrissey, he created a solid support for an expansive, resonant voice. But Pete’s is fragile and mercurial, punctuated with shrieking, whispering and mumbling. His lyrics are just as vital as Morrissey’s, but it’s always been hard to hear Pete when he’s singing live and his voice (and words) are squeezed out now by melodica, strings and the heavy Babyshambles bass that used to be necessary to keep the whole thing on the rails and now just feels impolite. Even Coxon’s sexy guitar squall feels a mite unnecessary, though some of us get perverse pleasure out of what he does to his Tele.


Sonic Youth said to Kill Your Idols but in the end your stomach still tightens for ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ as you remember how Pete’s words cut through the sad small town life of yours years ago, offering a taste of love and meaning and shared or imaginary-shared moments with an English thorn in your side.

But now of course there are the Lads, the Shambles army, the polo-shirted, arms-round-shoulders terrace singalong Lads who love Pete – how? Why? (And is the new additional ‘r’ an attempt to shrug off the advances of the Lads and their beery man-love?) And more: there are their ironed-hair girlfriends and the forty-something-till-I-die brigade; and the selfish cunt inside you who wants Peter and his words all to yourself is angry and can’t believe all these people, these people who talk through songs and go back-forth to the bar, laughing in your ear, you can’t believe all these people could possibly feel all that you feel/t hearing “alarm bells ring when you say your heart still sings when you’re with me/ Oh please forgive me…”

But the Lads are here, and so we move on, and the idol is floated out on a pyre and you’re left with a new album of old songs, embellished like a creased old tart dripping in gold baubles picked up through the years, painted over but not so you can’t still see old beauty through the cracks. And it’s okay, because at home in a bottom drawer there’s a handful of scratched-up CD-Rs of those sessions where Pete + guitar + coughs + “Got me nuts?” = EQUALLED everything, once.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Titus Andronicus, The Airing of Grievances

[published Feb 2 2009]

Wipe down the wet patch Pitchfork left after their groin-thruster of a review and wrap your ears round The Airing of Grievances. It’s what they call a ‘blogosphere hit’.

Titus Andronicus are some guys from New Jersey who want you to know that they read lots of books and are, like, cultured. This here is their debut, and on first listen it’s a pain in the ass. Every song seems to be struggling under muddy overdubs and crappy distortions that they probably thought sounded like shoegaze. Kevin Shields would laugh these pups out the room. Actually, no, Kevin Shields would just make a noncommittal ‘mmph’ and get on with whatever he was doing before in Shieldsland.

‘Arms Against Atrophy’ has an admittedly fantastic fiddly guitar solo that could’ve come straight from the frets of Albert Hammond Jr., but really if you wanted that kind of stuff there are five separate full-length albums featuring the real thing available in a record shop near you. ‘My Time Outside the Womb’ also treads the fine line between referencing and karaoke, especially with singer Patrick Stickles’ mumble-shrieks and general Strokes-y rhythms.

And weirder: the psychology of Abraham Maslow mentioned in a song titled ‘Upon Viewing Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”’? It should be wrong, kind of works followed up with ‘Titus Andronicus’, a neat slab of ‘White Riot’ riffing that ends right when it should at 3:13. The way Stickles crams in lyrics so they bulge awkwardly off each line is pretty charming too, especially when they go like this: “Life's been a long, sick game of ‘Would You Rather’/ So now I'm going to medical school, as a cadaver.”

By third listen the songs are really laying down roots and the next day I've got that beery chanting glued to my inner ear. TA have clearly done their required reading - but next semester they should consider wearing their influences, musical and literary, further inside their sleeves and let their words take the music somewhere new. And maybe watch some bad movies.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Cildo Meireles, Tate Modern

Cildo Meireles,
Tate Modern

‘Volatile’ is a mystery reserved for four people at a time. The final work in the Cildo Meireles retrospective at Tate Modern requires you to take off your shoes and socks and brave the step into darkness. What you find, when your eyes adjust, is Meireles’ work at its most dangerous and its most achingly beautiful.

Britain’s first comprehensive retrospective of this Brazilian artist’s work is an immersive, emotional and sensory experience. Down the river, the Turner Prize show is a mortuary of dry, sexless ideas in comparison. Meireles’ work, for me, approaches the apex of what Conceptual Art could and should be, leaping out at you in a shriek of red ink and ticking clocks. What he does, and what the Turner Prize has forgotten how to do, is to combine ideas with art to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, so that the artwork is not merely a symbol of an idea or a representation of a bone-dry essay, but a thing that stands on its own, inviting a variety of responses including, perhaps, a non-intellectual one.

In a nutshell, Meireles’ work pours cold water on our contemporary artistic fixations. His concept of Conceptual is not to re-present objects in a way that frames some clunky, inflexible academic idea, reducing it to a full stop at the end of a train of thought, but to open up our responses with something playful that nevertheless conceals a darker heart.

Dynamic narratives are created from everyday objects like Coke bottles, pennies, radios and rulers – personal objects we all own that are laden with symbolism. From these nuts and bolts he explores political corruption, time and space, the subversion of authority and the concept of infinity. ‘For me,’ Meireles has said, ‘the art object must be, despite everything else, instantly seductive.’

In ‘Mission/Missions (How To Build Cathedrals)’, a pool of copper pennies invites you to dip your hand and rake the shallows, evocative of blood drip-dripping from the mausoleum of bones above you. A string of communion wafers ascends towards some higher spirituality, ironically offering the body of Christ in a bid to eradicate the cannibalism of the indigenous people of Brazil. Many artists can do political, historical and subversive. But few do it so sensually or with such simple meditative intensity.

The viewer – or, more accurately, the participant – is required not just to think but to feel, to hear hundreds of radios whispering in your ear, or the sheer volume of a room where every object is red, or cold shivers down your neck as glass cracks beneath you. Some mysteries are best left unexplained.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Shearwater, St Giles-in-the-Fields, 22 November

Shearwater @ St Giles-in-the-Fields Church, 22nd November

St Giles-in-the-Fields, nestled in the monolithic shadow of Centrepoint, imposes an attentive quietude on its congregation. Shearwater hold court as our hands and noses turn to ice and chasten our mouths into an awed silence.

Last time I was at St Giles, high priestess Patti Smith held a vigil for Saints Rimbaud and Hendrix, her religious imagery by turns blasphemous and sublime. Tonight, Shearwater scale down the lyrical content to songs for tiny sparrows (God’s most cared-for living thing, as you know), but scale up the sound, barging in on the freezing, silent air and crashing down in grand piano bashes, guitar squall, clattering percussion and, leading the charge, frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s mesmeric voice, mouse-quiet one moment and gale force ten the next.

The band, featuring upright bass, melting electronics and multi-instrumentalist dude Thor, also explores the quieter side of indie rock as originally intended by its two founder members, also of Austin, TX band Okkervil River. The evening ceremony is broadcast to our souls, clear and affecting in the pin-drop silence as we huddle together with scarves wrapped around ears and hands. We got that, loud and clear.