Wednesday, 8 December 2010

What Difference Does It Make?: We can save 6Music, but not our universities

A small warning. Some political comments follow.

In a Guardian blog yesterday, Dan Hancox, a writer who's groped the muddy underbelly of politics before, lambasted Britain's music industry elite for sitting on their hands throughout the student-led campaign against education cuts.

He pointed out that the campaign to save BBC 6Music, the digital radio station threatened with closure last year, was backed by dozens, and then hundreds of well-known figures in the industry - Lauren Laverne, Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie, Emily Eavis and more. A huge internet campaign and reams of column inches eventually gained so much momentum that The Man changed his mind and The People got their music back.

The People, in this case, being exactly the population segment you'd also expect to be miffed about enormous cuts to education and the arts: middle-class, indie-loving, media-savvy 18-40 year olds, in Dan's words. So why aren't they standing up for the big picture stuff, which is just as likely to affect them in the long-term as the closure of a radio station?

My guess is this. They are just about media-savvy and educated enough to know that the British government see its citizens as little more than bots, with two functions. Press up and down to pay tax. Press left and right to vote. Game over.

As one of the commenters pointed out, the situation is different in some regards. The 6Music campaign was small, manageable, essentially apolitical. Nearly everyone agreed that the Beeb needed to cut executive and celebrity pay cheques, potentially saving millions, and then nearly everyone was baffled when the corporation choose to bring the axe down on a low-cost, niche radio station that provides a unique service to a small but loyal group of listeners (one that could never be matched by the commercial sector).

So The People made their voice heard, backed by celebs and media-savvy types, and the BBC decided to listen to the licence fee-payers and retain 6Music.

Success! Power to the people! Or is it?

The BBC is essentially publicly funded, as very few people do not have a television. If you have a telly, you have to pay the licence fee. But it is a choice, a service. We are essentially consumers in this transaction (as a horrified Reith turns in his grave). In fact, you don't even have to pay the licence fee to listen to 6Music - you just have to live in the UK.

Education is also publicly funded, largely - a proportion of our tax goes towards it. That proportion may change, but the principle remains the same. But you are not a consumer of government; taxes are mandatory and the way they are spent is chosen on behalf of you as a citizen. You can't cherry pick your service; there is no free market of competing governments from which you select your favourite, red or blue. Democracy involves compromise, essentially. Your vote is counted (press left, press right) and then you can like or lump the results.

Christ. Does that sound right to you? Is that what democracy is all about, in the end? The sacred D-word that took us to Iraq, Afghanistan and back?

Look at the BBC. I know the Beeb is unique because of the way it is funded, I remember the old idents, but come on - it isn't a principality. The licence fee is not a tax, because it's bloody optional. Throw away your TV if you don't like it (I'm simplifying here, but bear with me). And yet, even as consumers, we were able to shout loudly and get things done the way we wanted them done - and save 6Music. We would have paid the licence fee anyway, most of us, yet the BBC listened.

Now compare that with the way the government operates. This government in particular is all about 'choice', it seems. But no one can choose not to pay their taxes. (Well, except Vodafone. And Topshop. And Barclays. And...)

So we're not buying a service here. We are deeply involved in the running of this service as citizens, not consumers. We shouldn't be fobbed off with a sneer or teased with promises, broken promises and backtracking. 'You pays your money, you takes your choice', they shrug. But that is exactly what true democracy should not be.

What happens when a few hundred media bods and a few thousand music fans run an online campaign to save a radio station, mostly via a petition and some celebs mouthing off?

And what happens when hundreds, then thousands of students, school pupils, teachers, parents and ordinary citizens march through the streets, occupy their classrooms, make banners, wave flags, stage flash mobs in high street stores and invade a political party's headquarters?

The BBC ends up looking a hundred times more democratic, open and progressive than the Liberal Democrats, or contemporary British politics, could ever hope to be.

Apparently Jarvis Cocker will be speaking at the demonstration in central London tomorrow, but somehow I don't think David Cameron will be paying much attention. If only someone could persuade Morrissey to lead the troops down Whitehall...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Coming live from a distant subwoofer: Local Natives at the Forum, 23rd Nov 2010

From London Student, December 2010

Even avoiding my usual two-for-one cocktail deal up the road, there is just no getting past the fact that the sound quality at one of London's few remaining mid-sized venues is utterly, unforgivably woeful. Think of the bands who have played here this year – Jόnsi, Wolf Parade, Liquid Liquid,
Einstürzende Neubauten – and it seems bonkers that the Forum can get away with this half-arsed set-up; a feeble rig aimed straight into the ears of the front row and no further.

Local Natives' particular brand of finely balanced and tightly harmonised indie, like a cheerier Grizzly Bear or Fleet Foxes, is treated with asbestos mittens by the muddifying speakers. Standing in what should be a prime spot, 10 rows back and smack in the middle, the L.A. band's set comes off like listening to their precocious debut, Gorilla Manor, through a single subwoofer.

But! Local Natives are bigger than this sonic set-back. Their amazing too-tidy harmonies and fractured afro-popisms almost crave the shitty sound to make the thing sound like a live performance at all, so tight and polished is their set – but whereas a Grizzly Bear show leaves you open-mouthed at the fidelity to the record, Local Natives reanimate their songs with a welcome dash of vim and vigour.

The band seem genuinely chuffed to be playing their final show of 2010 here in London, where their following has grown exponentially since a tiny gig at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen in January. The unexpected disco dénouement of closer 'Sun Hands' ties up Local Natives' year just so, before they bow out gratefully to a satiated crowd.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Mescaline Hoedown: Jaill at Old Blue Last, 9th Nov 2010

From Loud and Quiet's December issue

How are we feeling about guitar rock, people? Were 60 long years enough? Can we plough this furrow every season and still get the full nutritional benefits, or will the yield be measly and blight-ridden? The answer, as the state of Wisconsin pointed out in 2008, is Yes We Can – and three Milwaukee boys in blue jeans are showing The Old Blue Last how, dripping sweat on their guitar pedals and imploring us to bring some green to the merch table after the show.

Kicking off their European tour in London, Jaill demonstrate what a provincial U.S. three-piece (the fourth member got lost in the airmail, it seems) can do with a decade of beers, tokes and psych-rock records. But if they smoke as much as they want us to think they do, the results are something of a surprise: juddering mescaline hoedown numbers (think Black Lips with a splash of Thermals) about real get-up-and-go topics like, um, shooting craps and lovin' their babies.

Jaill's parents might have made homebrew in the bathtub, but these guys just cruised around town looking for the best mini-mart deal on six-packs and Cheez Doodles. A band made in heaven for Sub Pop, who released their album That's How We Burn back in July.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Boy with the Marling Tattoo: Regrets? I've Had A Few...

This week I saw Local Natives play their last show of the year at the Forum. I'll be posting my review of that shortly, but first I'm gonna mention a slightly odd encounter we had on the way home.

I was just saying goodbye to my friend, and as usual we were dawdling near some Tube escalators and getting into a rant, this time about the X-Factor charity single. You'd be surprised how often I get into rants deep in the Underground. Anyway, we were commenting on the Help For Heroes charity when a youngish dude started to interrupt. Usually in this situation it means I have riled or offended a passer-by with my ker-azy pinko politics and am about to get told off for expressing my opinion in the airspace of someone who holds a different one.

But this time it's just a guy, about my age, on his way back from a gig. He asks us if we know who Laura Marling is, and we say we do, and he says we look like we would (I don't know what that means). He'd been to see her that night, on his own, and had been standing right in front of the stage and had lifted his leg up there to reveal to Laura Marling a tattoo, from his ankle to halfway up his calf.

It said Laura Marling. In child-like handwriting, large, with two child-like flowers at each end.

It was not the best tattoo I'd ever seen.

The woman herself saw it and proclaimed him to be "the most chronically weird" fan ever, to which he replied that he was drunk when he got it done. So she told him he was "the coolest" fan ever. Respect to her for acknowledging him. It must be really, really odd when people you've never met ink your name on their body permanently.

So he tells us all this and explains that when he got the tattoo it had been a toss-up between Laura Marling or The Courteneers. "You probably did alright there," I tell him.

"Do you like Laura Marling?" he asks.

"Not especially. She's alright. Not really my kind of music."

"Do you like The Courteneers?"

"Um, no."

"Oh, why not? They're brilliant. Which album do you prefer? [Words to this effect. He natters on about the progression between the first and second albums, to which we can only offer two baffled but amiable expressions] I reckon Liam Fray is one of the best lyric writers there is."


"Don't you think so? Oh come on, he's amazing [more words to this effect]. Well, who do you rate for lyrics then?"

Obviously we go a bit blank at this. Sam chooses wisely, someone who this guy will obviously know.


The dude is in general agreement but still rates Liam Fray up there with Moz. At this point I feel like there is not a lot I can add to the debate. He's incredibly friendly and obviously a very nice lad, if disconcertingly impulsive. He goes for the inevitable high-five and wishes us all the best, disappearing towards the Victoria line.

I can't imagine Laura Marling's fans are usually the type who'd get band tattoos done, so in a way the whole story pleases me. The sixth-form scarf-wearers were probably contorting their eyebrows at each other in that way that becomes really irritating on the other side of 18.

And it reminds me of a time that now seems almost like some other person's life, when I was barely even a teenager and plotting, with my next-door neighbour, our first tattoo - an occupation that has remained a staple, though I've never yet committed.

Which is a relief.

Friday, 29 October 2010

From the archives: ATP Nightmare Before Christmas 2009

Five postcards from Butlins

#1 In the main pavilion, Warren Ellis jerks his stiltskin leg out at right angles, ducking and swooping with violin tucked under chin. Dirty Three deliver a roar of sound and feeling that seems to pull the wind out of all of us listening. Almost as if he’s embarrassed to be playing music of such force and intimacy, he fills his stage banter with apocryphal anti-explanations: “This is a song about trying to get crisps out of a vending machine… but finding you have no pound coins.”

#2 A sullen, grey afternoon. We find Josh T. Pearson (later to be crowned King of Butlins by Warren Ellis) holding court on Minehead’s barren strand, his beard twitching in the salty breeze. Earlier he’d delivered his desert sermons in a gust of fire, brimstone and spittle, pleading with the angels from under his cowboy hat while spinning a sandstorm of crackled guitar.

#3 In the drizzle we spy two Horrors in capes and impractical shoes, consulting a map of the chalets. Later onstage, the monochrome ones seem to win over a typically aloof ATP audience with a set drawn solely from the kraut-gaze gloompop album of 2009, Primary Colours. Though unwilling to offer any more solid approval than a collective raised eyebrow, the crowd swells to one of the biggest of the whole weekend.

#4 Very, very late on Sunday night, Lightning Bolt are making My Bloody Valentine sound like the Shangri-Las’ kid sisters. A rumbling monstrosity fronted by some horrific, mutilated head – through the dry ice we make out a bandaged ogre, beating the terrified shit out the drums like an organ-grinder’s monkey possessed. Aural itching powder for the tired and emotional, LB stir up the only genuine thrashpit situation of the festival.

#5 And then there’s My Bloody Valentine, doing all three nights on the smaller stage because they are clearly too loud to be let out to play in the main pavilion – louder than stupid, louder than hell, Kevin Shields’ curls just a frazzled halo above his unmoving body, shrouded in smoke, the band blasting out sonic weaponry that cleaves straight through the laughable standard-issue earplugs. We give up and pull them out, and sink under the weight of pure volume.

"It's not that we want to be garish": An interview with Everything Everything

[written for London Student, October '10]

“We slide in from the epoch of Anglo American wire
And a Saxon spire, glint in the glare far above me
Put pressure on it!
She collapse me! Man alive, her every ache a baton to me!
Age of ending! Where’s the worth in proving I was here?”
- ‘Qwerty Finger’

These are the words of Everything Everything, a band who like to situate themselves outside of genre and convention, albeit with a generous nod to the catch-all of POP.

And poppy it is, if you disregard any kinship to ‘popularity’ and turn to the pop of artists Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi: British eccentrics of the highest order with a taste for eclecticism, unpredictable juxtaposition and bric-a-brac display of non-sequiturs, naughty jokes and stripy jumpers. If you can take that mental image and reconfigure it as a three-minute audio experience, you are some way towards imagining Everything Everything on record, in case you’ve missed the hype and airplay the band have earned since January.

Receiving substantial support from BBC 6Music after featuring on the Beeb’s hype machine Sound of 2010 poll, the four-piece have actually spent much of this year familiarising themselves with Britain’s glorious roadside service stations. The never-ending tour is passing through London’s Scala tonight, but bassist Jeremy says he still has the stamina for splitter van life.

“Going back on the road is a bit like going back to school,” he tells me in the red gloom of the Scala bar. “Not in a bad way, but just that we know what’s gonna happen day to day, which we haven’t had for a while. It’s kind of comforting, actually.” He reels off a list of his favourite EE shows, from Reading and Leeds to their first gig abroad at a festival in Holland, but every band has one performance they’d rather forget

“Our worst gig ever remains one in a pub in Liverpool called Kelly’s Dispensary. In those days we used to just take any gig – it was very early days when we were all living in a house and rehearsing in a basement. We turned up and there was no PA and just one mic between the three of us. We were just shouting, and the bar staff kept coming over and turning our amps down! And nobody there wanted to listen to us. We were a much punkier proposition in those days,” he says.

Having polished off those rough edges, EE now find themselves on the threshold of the strange and fickle world of pop. Not that the music fans of 2010 would acknowledge a concept as retrograde as ‘genre’, flitting as we do from artist to related artist; scrobbling, blipping and sharing without a thought to the past or future. The marriage of music with the internet has given us an infinite real-time feed of single tracks from any year, label, city or genre.

But for all their name might suggest, EE aren’t necessarily a band cut of postmodern cloth. Jeremy is ambivalent about newfangled listening habits. “The great thing about it is that the music press has less influence than it used to in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when you’d open a magazine every week because you always read it, saying ‘Here’s what’s cool, here’s what to wear.’ And now younger people aren’t led by styles and genre. If you like the song, nobody’s completely loyal.”

But there are downsides for EE, whose skewed poppiness is surely made for the full-length long-player format. “It is a track-led culture, not an album-led culture. Maybe the majority of people who listen to this record aren’t going to listen to it all,” says Jeremy of their debut Man Alive. “But you can’t let that change your working processes, you don’t want to have a collection of songs that don’t have anything to do with each other, you want it to have shape. All the albums that we grew up on have that kind of feel to them,” he adds, citing classic British art-rock from OK Computer to The Holy Bible.

So will the energetic complexity of singles like the forthcoming ‘Photoshop Handsome’ be able to cut through the endless choice of tracks and more tracks, or will bands like EE lose out as listeners spend less time with full albums? “It’s kind of the industry’s fault and it’s kind of not anybody’s fault, it just happened and we have to face it,” says Jeremy, adding that their intricate music is “purely natural – it’s not that we want to be garish.”

Singer Jonathan’s lyrics often address the problems of postmodern fandom. “A lot of what he writes about is to do with information overload. Jon’s lyrics are quite hard to understand rhythmically and the way he writes is very dense. The meaning will be quite vague and then you’ll get this shaft of light, and it becomes clear.” The lyrics are opaque without a doubt, but they have a surreal beauty and depth to them that’s deeply satisfying when so many new bands are singing about smoking weed and going to the beach. It takes a certain boldness to sing lines like, “Chest pumped elegantly elephantine, southern hemisphere by Calvin Klein/ Watch your dorsal fin collapse, I know nothing about my history,” a couplet supposedly about “the limits of science, breast enhancement and corporate branding”.

But for every off-kilter line there’s a glorious pop hook, while wry politicking is balanced by eccentric joie de vivre and dirty misheard lyrics, like the now nearly infamous are-they-aren’t-they line in ‘Suffragette Suffragette’: “Whose gonna sit on your face when I’m gone? Whose gonna sit on your face when I’m not there?”

They promise they’re saying “fence”, but nothing is quite as pop as it seems in the technicolour universe of Everything Everything.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Monday, 18 October 2010

"D/R/U/G/S are good, they're from Manchester"

Tomorrow D/R/U/G/S are playing at The Nest in Dalston, formerly Barden's Boudoir. They are very much my cup of tea, at least on paper, so I'm expecting good things from the show, partly because the venue is the new project from the guy who used to run Fabric.

I'm not sure how I feel about a band called D/R/U/G/S. Initially it seems repellently Hoxtonite; later it's annoying to type; after a while you become immune to it and start saying things like this post's title when explaining the band to friends. Band name as infinitely variable gag machine. Not the first time, I s'pose, but it's a teensy bit Nathan Barley you'd have to admit (and saying that sounds hopelessly dated in itself).

At least they've updated it with the oh-so-2010 use of slashy symbols. The Guardian has noted this trend so it must have reached tipping point in certain London postcodes.

I'm going to stick my neck out a little and say that D/R/U/G/S have come up with a sound that is "original yet danceable" (my quote for the sleeve, if you will). A tricky marriage: clubbers (or 'people who go to clubs', if that makes you feel less sicky) tend to confine their appetite for experimentation to chemical and biological interactions, choosing their BPM and bass tastes long before leaving the house, home-strength Dark 'n' Stormy in hand. The aim of rave (in its earlier incarnations, especially) is to provide a steadily evolving fabric of pattern and texture that affects your brain and body in almost unconsciously felt ways, so that The Drop is that neuro-physiological pay-off used sparsely for optimum effect.

Not that I'm trying to reduce dance music to mere physical stimulant, but dance plugs directly into the spinal cord in a way the majority of popular music doesn't, which is partly the result of the bizarre circumstances we choose to experience it in (darkness, strobes, intoxication; a sanitised weekend bacchanal with only marginally less gory results).

Meanwhile, the constantly mutating strain of rave for the bedroom, for headphones, for gloomy moments staring out your bedroom window at a pavement strewn with mulchy autumn leaves, is inherently erratic, complex, less danceable. The slow builds and subtle shifts of dancefloor rave aren't necessary when you're soberly sipping tea, wearing your boyfriend's hoodie late on a Tuesday night.

And to combine those two rival aspects of danceability and intricacy is always a challenge. I think it very rarely works, but when it does it is Truly Great. Like so much of my favourite music of the past few years (Caribou, Four Tet, Luke Abbott and others whom I've written more than enough about in this blog), D/R/U/G/S appear to not only embrace complexity, variety, maximalism, bricolage, etc., they also seem to have one ear on the dancefloor, keeping the tempo up and referencing more traditional dancey sounds (like the housey vocal snippets on 'Rad Pitt').

If I elaborate anymore I might end up postulating a feeble cod-sociological explanation for the rise (or revival) of Intelligent(Intricate) Dance(floor) Music based on: the increasing costs of clubbing, alcohol, cab fares and city living; the weakening potency of 'dance drugs'; the relative affordability of home music production software; and the rise of both bedroom DJs and blogosphere tastemakers (who might typically be found in their bedrooms on Saturday nights listening to music on headphones, only prodded into dancing/blogging about dance music when that music is suitably 'headphones-y' and beard-strokey and intricate).

But it would basically be bullshit.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

No More 'No More Running': Animal Collective design shoes

As the Guardian reports, Animal Collective will be giving away their next album as a cassette with a pair of "otherwise plain canvas shoes" costing $75 (£45).

Apparently all profits will be going to some kind of eco-charity project, but wouldn't the most environmentally conscious move be to release the album digitally and donate all profits to the Socorro Island Conservation Fund? I suppose they're hoping that releasing music in such a physical (and expensive) way might limit online sharing, but really it punishes hardcore fans who will pay any price for a collector's item while rewarding fair-weather listeners and illegal downloaders who'll just BitTorrent it anyway once the audiophiles have done their worst on the cassette-to-MP3 conversion.

And just to keep things interesting (and pricey), the first pair will be designed by Avey Tare. Yep, in total you can expect Geologist, Panda Bear and Deakin to all put their stamps on "otherwise plain" sneakers in the next few months at a similar price. And of course there'll be kids out there who fork out £188 for the pleasure of owning four pairs of fake-Cons/Vans, four cassettes and a tape player off eBay.

I understand that bands are finding it increasingly difficult to make money from record sales and I totally sympathise, because there's nothing that kills creativity more than keeping musicians on the road for two years solid to pay off their advance. But I don't think gimmicky, over-priced collector's items and limited editions are the answer.

Radiohead's Colin Greenwood recently reflected on this conundrum for the Index on Censorship. Excitement! Radiohead have apparently finished a new group of songs. But it sounds like they'll be coming up with another approach to releasing this album following the pay-what-you-like system they pioneered for In Rainbows three years ago.

Colin himself says: "I buy hardly any CDs now and get my music from many different sources: Spotify, iTunes, blog playlists, podcasts, online streaming - reviewing this makes me realise that my appetite for music now is just as strong as when I was 13, and how dependent I am upon digital delivery."

This pretty neatly sums up the best and worst of the dramatic shift to digital in the land of music consumption. Pro: Music from many different sources means a wider variety of music can be exposed and shared; younger music fans particularly tend to be less preoccupied with genre and more open to new sounds. Pro: Music from many different sources means MORE MUSIC. Yay! Like Colin, I reckon my appetite for music is just as strong as when I was 13. My access to music isn't mediated by a weekly magazine or what my friends listen to (my GOD, that'd be dire) but is a constant stream of suggestions and blips and scrobbles and tweets and interaction that brings me right into the industry, amazingly.

But. The con: "I buy hardly any CDs now." Alright, I know Colin is getting some of his music from iTunes or 7Digital or Bandcamp, but he is also streaming. And so am I, and so are you. Spotify, Myspace,, Soundcloud, podcasts... all free, and that's why my appetite is just as voracious as when I was 13. It would be incredible to relive my teenage years with the kind of overwhelming access to music I now have (although perhaps not desirable. So much pressure!), but with everything free and streaming just a few clicks away, where does that leave the artist? On bloody tour, again, that's where.

And not everyone likes Ginster's Steak Slices. Especially not Animal Collective, I reckon.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Luke Abbott, Holkham Drones

Luke Abbott, Holkham Drones
Border Community

This week comes another excellent new release from the excellent Border Community label, accompanied by what will most likely be an excellent show at Ginglik in Shepherd's Bush. The line-up includes Walls (the brilliant splicing of Allez Allez and Banjo or Freakout) plus DJ sets from Nathan Fake and James Holden.

The record is Luke Abbott's first proper album, Holkham Drones, which follows last year's mini-album Whitebox Stereo (also on Border Community) with essentially more of that same quintessentially BC sound, strongly influenced by label head James Holden. Pulsing, underwater beats, woozy analogue synths, warm rushing drops and percussion like icicles shattering in your cochlea.

And early listens got me thinking. Rock hacks and everyday folk often like to reel off sad little top tens of 'druggy' albums like Screamadelica or Forever Changes or fucking Sgt. Pepper, but really none of those records, acceptable as they may be in their own individual ways, come close to actually offering an auralisation of the drug experience.

Not that I'm going to stoop so low as to start some debate on the authenticity of 'drugginess' on record; Christ, what could be more boring, really, than talking about how drugs have influenced music, or vice versa? As though 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' is any more than a nursery rhyme about the munchies just because - OMG! It's got DRUGS in the title!! They were proper on it! Shit, they should sack off the whole David Mitchell-the-doggie-drugs-mule ad and just broadcast a Public Service Announcement in the shape of all the lamest 'head' music ever committed to wax: Kids! Put down your cocaine pills and syringes full of 'the new terrifying legal high' Ivory Wave! Don't be like Jerry Garcia!

"Well, I had some very weird experiences. My main experience was one of furious activity and tremendous struggle in a sort of futuristic, space-ship vehicle with insectoid presences. After, I had this image of myself as these little hunks of protoplasm that were stuck together kind of like stamps with perforations between them that you could snap off."

Woah, crazy shit, right kids? You'd definitely give acid a bash if you thought it'd be that exciting. Except - nope, turns out that's what Jerry was seeing when years of Elvis burgers in roadside diners put him in a diabetic coma. Mmm.

So to get back on point, psychedelic ker-aziness is just not what I call an "auralisation of the drug experience". I'm going to ignore psychedelia-influenced stuff that does attempt this in other, more successful ways (Spacemen 3 maybe) and just argue that Luke Abbott (and by extension, Border Community releases in general, because they do have a very identifiable shared sound) manages to replicate in sound not so much the state of 'being on drugs', but the emotional responses held within all of us that drugs can sometimes toy with, either by exacerbating them or cutting them off or reshuffling them in ways not previously experienced.

I think Abbott does this through a combination of 1) pulsing, almost soft beats, like hearing your heartbeat in your inner ear, or playing a drum kit made of cotton wool, and 2) a rushing warmth that's constantly tweaked up and down, in and out, sometimes dropping you from high into that full, analogue warmth that's like a pure serotonin hit; like walking outside on a hot and beautiful Sunday morning when you've nothing to do but go get the paper and make scrambled eggs.

So not drugs. Just emotions, I guess. But those kind of emotions that, though they're available to everybody, tend to get unlocked more readily with recreational drugs (I'm not going to get scientific and talk about serotonin/dopamine levels etc because I don't understand enough about it, and probably neither do you, and it's really not terribly important to the point I'm trying to make).

And I suppose that's what I look for in so much of my favourite music, maybe without realising it. There are certain songs that I find I can't listen to too much because I fear I'll somehow deplete the effect they have on me, an almost physical effect that taps into those emotions and neurological responses and reassembles my brain jigsaw in disorienting but intensely satisfying ways. I'm sure everybody has different songs that do it for them. But 'Whitebox', by Luke Abbott, is probably one of them. Check out the YouTube clip above - but don't go overboard now.

Friday, 12 February 2010

These New Puritans, Hidden

These New Puritans, Hidden

Two amazing albums in one month? And I haven’t even had time to listen to Four Tet, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, or Magnetic Fields, et cetera and et cetera, yet. (Note: Yeasayer is out in February, officially. But who cares about official release dates, right?)

Is January turning into a perennial bumper crop of music in the same way as it always is for cinema, with movies trying to cash in during awards season? Too bad these awesome albums are preening and posing for an awards ceremony that doesn’t exist. Sometimes it’s kind of sad that the Brits and the Mercury Prize are so pathetic (and that there’s no real alternative since NME took its finger off the pulse about five years ago), but on the other hand it’s distinctly satisfying that brave and innovative albums like the one I'm about to review aren’t lowered to competing on a shortlist with La Roux or The Killers for a hollow golden token which serves only to place a full stop at the end of a career spurt while allowing hacks to move on to the Next Big Thing.

Well, These New Puritans were The Next Big Thing a couple of years ago; I was totally in love with their debut Beat Pyramid and pissed off that so much criticism of the band was based around them being pale, angular and from Southend, which in a pre-Primary Colours world was still a joke ("Look at those naff provincials with their pretentious sixth form ‘philosophy’ and ironic love of Wu-Tang Clan", etc).

Well, no. They’re just weird. Like the many of the genuinely great musicians, composers and artists of the past 50, no – 100 years? 200? Not that I’m pushing the whole ‘tortured genius/mad artist in his garret’ thing, which is one of those ridiculous clichés that means nice and talented people are seen as ‘lesser’ in comparison to bastard miserly megalomaniacs with vast and delicate egos, like some of the sainted ‘legends’ of rock and pop sneering at me from the semi-matt covers of respectable music monthlies. Naturally, I digress.

So, Hidden. The second album from These New Puritans. But first: did you hear that Blakroc record? Where the Black Keys teamed up with Wu Tang, Ludacris and Mos Def to play hip hop with live instruments? Well, turn that concept inside out. Invert that shit. This is electronic beats, razor sharp production and white boy vocals, nasal and half-mumbled – and oh yes, did I mention the bassoon motif popping up throughout the album?

‘We Want War’ is the single; you may well have heard it by now – make sure you soak up the gorgeous video embedded above. Bear in mind that it's the first single, and it's seven minutes long. The production is really what hits you first. Though Beat Pyramid showed a lot of flair and innovation from such a young band, TNP have clearly made staggering leaps ahead. The silvery shrrrring! of a gleaming sword pulled from its hilt couldn’t be a sharper contrast to the cavernous gravity of the bass and beats, showing that the band’s production sensibility is first and foremost a hip hop one, focused on pristine sounds and rigid rhythms, with vocals taking a supporting role.

The beat on ‘Thought Rush’, for instance, a track on the Rough Trade bonus CD, is very, very much like that 2003 number ‘Never Leave You (Uh Oooh Uh Oooh)’ by Lumidee, which, interestingly, is a much worse version of the Ol' Dirty Bastard track 'Welcome Home' - no doubt TNP had both those songs very much in mind. It’s also weirdly sparse and more ‘live’ sounding than any track on the album proper, and also includes some brilliantly inappropriate bassoon polyphony near the end.

Also on the extra CD, a competent dark and techy remix of ‘We Want War’ ticks some boxes, but I’m sure it’s only the tip of the iceberg for dissecting Hidden into dozens of incredible remixes. The inclusion of an instrumental version of the track – thoroughly listenable in its own right, so well produced is it - is surely a canny move. Also, an alternative mix of ‘Hologram’ offers a cleaner, stronger vocal performance and a captivating piano arrangement which is about 94,758 galaxies away from the usual ‘piano song’ on an indie album, and in fact reminds me a touch, what with Jack’s half-spoken Estuary lines, of a couple of the almost jazzy arrangements on Original Pirate Material (the ones that had less to do with Mike Skinner, we must assume).

‘White Chords’ is also ripe for a seriously good remix, with a Thom Yorke style vocal and light and dark elements flashing in and out; a girlish ‘ooh’ reverberates and glitchy buttons ripple as the bass spreads out thick and spacious over a dubsteppy beat.

‘5’, the album’s coda, is weird, subtle and oddly affecting, and sees Jack Barnett try his hand at pure composition. Apparently he had to learn notation and write the bassoon sections ‘deaf’, as it were, before the band travelled to the Czech Republic to hear it played to them for the first time by a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble. A number of influences make themselves known, including, I suppose, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar, as the band has mentioned in interviews, but there's also a Reich/Riley-esque minimalist phrase played (I think) on tubular bells and sounding like nothing less than the soundtrack to The Exorcist – which is then butted out by a ghostly children’s choir and Jack Barnett’s sombre, quiet monotone.

Like the rest of Hidden, it’s like nothing I've ever heard - and it's exquisite.

As a final word – please do buy this record. It’s really not going to sell that many copies and this band very much deserve to make another album. Sermon over.


Imagine how good it would be to be a youngish indie fan who’s been learning bassoon for years ‘cos his parents made him, and all he wants is to be Johnny Thunders – wait, this is 2010: Ezra Koenig? – but then he hears this and he’s like, Wicked, now I can be an indie star too, I’m gonna start a band!, etc etc. Cue new generation of proper weird pop, a true post punk revival.

[On a related note, this is of course the reason why a disproportionate amount of girls are into twee. It’s not that females are naturally programmed to prefer pretty ickle tunes with earnest lovesick lyrics (obviously), it’s that it gives bored 15-year-olds a chance to be in a band and put to use those ridiculous violin/flute/piano lessons that Mummy forced on them for 10 years in some sickly remnant of a 19th century ladies’ education, all of which seemed so incredibly boring before but now turns out to be an excellent way to get foppish lads from Upper Sixth to write earnest lovesick lyrics about their wavy red hair and awkward smiles that they hated until they realised their true cultural value in Twee Land. Cue girls on keys/flute/harp etc in twee bands. I'm not sure it's The Answer, but it'll do for now]

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Yeasayer, Odd Blood

Yeasayer, Odd Blood
Secretly Canadian

Do not adjust your set. Two voices, twisted and treacly, ooze out of the speakers over bubbling synths and booming drums. What the hell? Check to see if the track is corrupted – everything seems okay. Well, what did you expect from a band like Yeasayer?

Weird and brooding opener ‘The Children’ gives you an inkling of where these Brooklyn experimentalistas want to take us with their second album, Odd Blood – a retrofuturist prog-pop journey which stands on the shoulders of their acclaimed debut LP All Hour Cymbals, travelling deeper into the realms of the uncategorisable and becoming an early contender for 2010’s album of the year in the process.

As part of a wave of U.S. bands defining a new pop aesthetic influenced by African rhythms, Eastern scales and other sounds that used to be lazily described as ‘world music’, Yeasayer have always stood out as the village elders of the scene, with their extravagant and meticulously crafted songs and live performances.

The first single from Odd Blood, ‘Ambling Alp’ (released last year) is a perfect example of the band’s refined ear for detail, with their trademark hollow, artificial drums and funky, clipped bass underpinning a whole palette of unidentifiable noises dropping in and out over Chris Keating’s acrobatic gospel-tinged vocals. It’s about the most certifiably bonkers a band can get within the four-minute pop song framework. Your brain latches on to the almost embarrassingly earnest, sing-along lyrics (“Stick up for yourself son/ Never mind what anybody else done”) while the music sneaks in round the back, and by the second or third listen ‘Ambling Alp’, and the rest of the album, seem instantly familiar.

‘Madder Red’ in particular, with its chanted opening, off-kilter melody and colossal enormo-drums, is completely weird but totally immediate, with a minor key chorus that might as well be Duran Duran – it’s immaculate, dazzling pop.

Just trying to pay attention to each sound – with every verse and chorus different to the one before – is hard work. ‘Love Me Girl’ starts somewhere between commercial trance and the YYYs’ ‘Heads Will Roll’, but mutates into a pulsing, jerking electro gem so sleek and polished you can see your face it. Is it prog? Is it electro? Is it pop? Erm. It’s bloody odd, that’s what. And I’ll put money on it – Yeasayer have made one of the best records you’ll hear this year.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Get a pen - it's tips for 2010

Right, I've gone and done it - as if you needed another list of hot! up and coming! fresh! new bands. Well sod that, here's a few that I like and that you might too.

Esben and the Witch

I saw Esben and the Witch supporting Josh T. Pearson at Cargo in December, and despite only catching the second half, I was genuinely captivated by this odd little Brighton trio.

Using guitars, laptops, DIY drum kits and various percussion instruments, Esben… (named after a creepy Scandinavian fairytale) create a dark, romantic atmosphere of nocturnal journeys, wild creatures and black magic, without resorting to obvious Kate Bushisms or twee lyrics. In their live set especially, they use electronics and heavy drums and bass to prove they’re not aiming for folky and delicate but dark and stormy – much more Snow Queen than Snow White. Fans of Bat for Lashes and Patrick Wolf will definitely be enamoured.

Their track ‘Eumenides’ is, according to an interview with the band, inspired by Aeschylus’ Oresteia via a Francis Bacon painting, with lyrics influenced by Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Yikes. If that sounds too pretentious for you, they also do a cover of Kylie’s ‘Confide in Me’ (see above). They mostly reminded me of Portishead, with their use of bass-heavy electronics and singer Rachel’s expressive and very English voice bearing a resemblance to Beth Gibbons’. Her note-perfect performance managed to completely hush the audience without any stage gimmicks – in fact, they’re still finding their feet on stage and struggling a bit with the amount of instruments and things going on around them. Given a bit more time and a brave producer (Geoff Barrow would be the obvious safe bet), I think they could be pretty special.

The band’s EP,
33, can be downloaded for free here


Warpaint is three girls (and, I think, a fourth changeable member) from Los Angeles playing smoky, strung-out post-rock topped with wispy, velvety harmonies. Imagine if the XX had misspent their youth on the beach smoking pot around campfires instead of setting alight skate park bins – add a splash of gothic psychedelia, and you’re there.

More importantly, Warpaint are exactly the kind of band I’d love to be in, although clearly they have a pretty strict America’s Next Top Model-approved application process. Never mind. They blatantly have ‘shroom-fuelled sleepovers watching The Wicker Man and running amok in the neighbourhood, hatching plans in their treetop clubhouse and sneering at boys.

Their exceptional debut EP
Exquisite Corpse was released by Manimal Vinyl and now they’ve been snapped up by Rough Trade and are touring with Yeasayer and Akron/Family. Going by tracks like ‘Elephant’, with its twisted vocals, shuffling drums and bouncy post-punk bass, we can expect an excellent debut long-player in 2010. Check out the video, above – girls, guitars, wind machines, awesome. I also like how the camera keeps zooming in on their instruments – look! They can play! No, really! Ha. Lots more good tracks on their Myspace.

Gold Panda

Next up is producer and sound collager Gold Panda who, aside from being my ideal man in oh-so-many ways, produces dreamy splice-ups of charity shop records and video tapes over Four Tet-style percussion clicks and bleeps. Which is interesting, ‘cos he’ll be playing with Four Tet and James Holden at Fabric in a couple of weeks and – oh! I’m going to be there. Stalking him.

‘Quitters Raga’ (no apostrophes, apparently, but brilliant title nevertheless) is a choice cut, if you’ll excuse the MixMag terminology, with a muffled bass drum underpinning cut-up raga sitar and singing while the beats blurt in and out in a very Border Community-approved manner. However, he's also been making his name at the controls for Little Boots and Bloc Party remixes, ensuring him some real crossover potential.

Hilariously, Gold Panda has made it on to the
BBC Sound Of 2010 list, which probably does him no favours and only serves to boggle the minds of 50-quid men hoping to update their record collections. A five-track CD-R, entitled Miyamae and released on electronic and dubstep label Various Production, will set you back the meagre sum of £5. Check out his other tracks on Myspace, too.

Ellie Goulding

I’m just going to say a little something about Ellie Goulding because she’s appeared on all the major tip lists and has clearly been lined up as the next in a seemingly endless line of washed, prepared and ready-to-serve electro starlets.

One thing to love about Ellie Goulding, regardless of how you or I might feel about this seemingly endless line of ready-to-serve electro starlets, is that she’s clearly on the Little Boots end of the spectrum – obviously gorgeous and young and blonde and all, but also a bit…rubbish? In the way that Little Boots, though pretty and zippy and zappy with her glittery eyes, sparkly pop and Matthew Williamson frock, is still very much a lass from Blackpool who’d out-rave you all night and then be sick on your shoes.

vid for the single ‘Under The Sheets’ (not allowed to embed it, but the vid above is from Jools Holland), a really quite decent pop song helped out by oh-so-now production (massive drums, catchy electro chorus), sees her wandering around the set slightly awkwardly wearing a very 2010 outfit of slouchy hoodie over spangly top. Sometimes one Ellie will have a little go at dancing, and then other Ellies sit in the corner strumming guitar and looking much less uncomfortable, and then there’s a fuckload of splashy crashy glitter coming out of the drums at the end. Joyous.

I give her my total support, but somehow fear that she’ll do a Little Boots over the next 12 months, with annoying
Marina and the Diamonds taking Florence’s spot as the favoured starlet.

A moment to mention Marina too – now, I’m *sorry*, but: So awful! So horribly produced! She’s described as ‘quirky’ and ‘flamboyant’ and yet,
according to the BBC Sound of 2010 poll, she gets her inspiration “by studying DVDs of Britney Spears,” and she also “covers Gwen Stefani on stage.” She’s not Kate Bush-kooky, she’s Katy-Perry-kooky – all hot and tight and cheerleader-y and ironic and backed by a major record label. That kind of kooky.

Other shit tips from the BBC poll include
Owl City, with an absolute lolocaust of a track which at first only reminded me of Nizlopi until I realised it was Maroon 5 doing nursery rhymes as community service. Is he using autotune or is his voice that disgusting without any help from a machine? It’s the kind of song that makes my friend Sam wince like he’s pissing blood.

The Drums

The Drums however, I can kind of dig. In case you haven’t heard them yet (it won’t be long – they’re on the cover of NME), think Girls and Washed Out and that whole chilled, surfy, Californicated fuzz that’s been coming out of the US lately, but make it a tad more ‘accessible’ and ‘tastemaker-friendly’.

Check out this commendably simplistic video for commendably simplistic track ‘Let’s Go Surfing’. Sadly, some of their other songs strike me as Cure rip-offs and not really that good, but that’s the joy of our disposable digital culture, eh? You can ignore them. Oddly, the BBC website seems to think that there’s something “unconnected” about a song that sounds like Iggy Pop or Lou Reed covering a 60s girl group (which none of The Drums’ songs do anyway, shame), as though Mr Pop and Mr Reed would turn their noses up at that kind of music. Dumbasses. Who gets paid to write
that shit? Have a look at The Drums' Myspace for more.

And a final tip, thankfully not on the BBC list:

Perfume Genius

Apparently Perfume Genius, otherwise known as Mike, lives with his mom in Seattle and paints furniture for a living. He’s been compared with Antony Hegarty, for reasons that will become clear when you listen to this, as well as Neil Young, but I think Daniel Johnston is a good reference point too.

He’s clearly recording at home, on his own, his high-pitched voice sounding even more fragile breaking through the lo-fi murk. He’s signed to Transparent, home of Washed Out, and apparently makes his own videos too. Almost certainly he’ll finish the year as the least known of this little selection but, to be quite honest, I think he – and we – will be absolutely fine with that. Listen to more of his stuff