Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Searching for the perfect pop moment: An interview with GIRLS

First published in Loud And Quiet

Last month I met Girls before the band's Electric Ballroom show.

Christopher Owens is the nucleus of Girls, subject to his own chaotic quantum laws on the quest to write the perfect bittersweet pop song. Two albums and one EP into his late-blooming music career, he’s getting close to nailing it as well, but not without the assistance of various capable electrons, orbiting at a distance yet integral to Girls’ atomic substance. Chet 'JR' White is credited by Owens as someone who “helps record” the songs, but listening to their facetiously titled debut, Album, as well as this year’s acclaimed follow-up Father, Son, Holy Ghost, it’s obvious that his input has alchemical results on the deceptive simplicity of songs like ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ and ‘Vomit’. After recording the first album themselves, the gaps have been filled for a full touring band, right up to that second album pop cliché, a shimmy of backing singers.

I meet Owens on a dark evening when the clocks have gone back, just as the band finish sound-checking for their sold-out show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. He slopes into the dressing room holding a vile-looking cup of greyish milky tea, his bleached hair hanging half up, half down and flopping round two very pale blue eyes. He adopts that slightly sniffy, louche air that Californian bands carry with ease, but now and then he’ll become more engaged and set those blue eyes right on you. Wearing the indie uniform, unchanged since Cobain, of blue jeans and flannel shirt, he’s curated his grubbiness right down to the fingernails, baby blue varnished and chipped, though not dirty. His teeth are surprisingly un-American, like an old picket fence out of joint, but somehow this gives him a real edge that orthodontically conventional indie bands miss out on. I think about whether he was maybe banned from having a dentist as a kid.

Because Chris Owens, as everybody knows by now, grew up in a Christian cult. His baby brother died because of the cult's anti-medicine beliefs, and aged 16 he ran away for good. But now his relationship with his mother is on the mend, as you can hear in the handful of songs he's written about her – ‘Forgiveness’ and 'My Ma', an especially lovely track on the new record that’s somewhere between the Flaming Lips, George Harrison, Cat Power and the finest AM radio fare of ‘70s interstate journeys.

Horn splatter, glass shatter: Hudson Mohawke live at XOYO

First published in Loud And Quiet

Hudson Mohawke at XOYO
19th October

The best shows are most often those where artist and audience fall into a frenzied feedback loop of mutual appreciation, ecstatic vibes and perverse egging-on to go louder, harder, funner. Of the many qualities attributable to Glasgow producer and prodigy-turned-scene-stalwart Hudson Mohawke, that ability to tap into exactly what the crowd wants – or needs – is perhaps his most natural talent.

Faced with a sold out venue of pumped up Londoners defying the too-cool-to-dance stereotype, he plays it wide, filling the stage with giant letters spelling H-U-D-M-O and wisely breaking up the cascading technicolour onslaught of his own material with snippets of anything from Pusha T and dirty South hip hop to Bjork's crystalline yelps and a final coda of Tweet's 'Oops (Oh My)'. Tracks from this summer's Satin Panthers EP more than hold their own against Kanye and Jeezy though, with all hands raised for the horn splatter and glass shatter of 'Thunder Bay' and the sizzurped wobble of 'Cbat'. Happy hardcore rubs up against low-slung crunk and the ratatat percussion loved by HudMo's peers, but the effect is always one of all-consuming PARTY rather than unfocused eclecticism. Bottle this and flog it as a legal high for school nights.

A weird winter sparkler: Kate Bush returns with 50 Words For Snow

First published in Loud And Quiet. And my first non-disclosure agreement, legal eagles!

Kate Bush 
50 Words For Snow

We wait forever for a Kate Bush album, so of course two come along at once. After the odd rehashing of old material on Director’s Cut, a surprise Christmas gift of seven new tracks has appeared in our stocking. Given that Bush appears to be one of the most genuine and least cynical pop stars around, the idea that this shock-and-awe approach to album release schedules could be a contrivance to muster maximum media impact isn't a pleasant one, but it all seems very cleverly played. Still, any cynicism is shot to pieces after hearing 50 Words For Snow, an album dealing in suitably cold and wintry themes: icy precipitation in its various forms; humankind's relationship with wild, irrational nature; and attempts at love in the face of chaos and loss.

'Snowflake' casts Bush's young son as the title 'character' drifting down from the sky, partly sung and partly spoken in the cloying voice of a just-pubescent English boy. His mother interjects in a sweet but slightly icky expression of their maternal bond (“The world is so round, keep falling, I'll find you”). 'Lake Tahoe' and 'Misty' use a similar palette of skeletal piano phrases, brushed drums, and strangely synthetic-sounding string flurries in structures more narrative than musical – all three top 10 minutes. 'Misty' is the one about shagging a snowman, by the way. Bonkers on the page, brilliant in your ears, even when she sings, “I can feel him melting in my hands.”

The single 'Wild Man' is the most immediate, despite its spoken verses and creepy dual-voice chorus. Lyrical loopiness continues, with the abominable snowman as the subject: “Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside, you sound lonely.” But the strongest song on the album – and I can't quite believe I'm putting this to paper – is 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street', the achingly raw duet with Elton John, playing lovers torn apart across the centuries. “Come with me, I'll find some rope, I'll tie us together/ I've been waiting for you so long, I don't want to lose you again,” she sings over a twisting horn pattern like a Steve Reich offcut. It’s painfully heartfelt and quite chilling.

Then there's the really batty one, the title track, with Bush cracking the whip on the lazily erudite voice of Stephen Fry. “C'mon man, you got 44 to go!” she urges, while Fry nonchalantly proffers his words for snow, from the sublime ('stellar tundra') to the ridiculous ('phlegm de neige'). 'Among Angels' provides a sense of enclosure after an unpredictable second half but, weirdly, begins with a bum chord and a clipped “sorry”. A strange mistake on such a well-crafted album? With pressure to produce a classic after so many years away, perhaps admitting a tiny error allows Bush to shirk the weight of expectation by making the first move. 50 Words For Snow delicately negotiates its status, never shying from the artistic convictions of its creator, but still careful to put us at ease with her singular talent. Sometimes the genius has to play dumb so as not to scare off the simpletons. A winter sparkler.

Into the Night: Resurrecting the Garage with Azari & III, LIVE

First published in Loud And Quiet

Azari & III at White Heat, Madame Jojo's
November 1st 2011

Some tech-savvy good samaritan recently ripped and uploaded a BBC radio documentary about house music grandaddy Larry Levan, which included a four-hour live set recorded at the Paradise Garage in 1979. Rescued from obscurity, that tape is a vivid snapshot of the emerging scene, featuring soaring live vocals from underground legends Sylvester and Loleatta Jackson. And just when you think “they don't make 'em like that anymore,” Azari & III are in town to squeeze the sweat from your pores through the ol' fashion magic of analogue.

Yin meets yang in the voices of Cédric Gasaida (silkily purring in a fur hat and teeny-tiny white jeans) and Fritz Helder (streaming sweat and rasping dirty talk in a skin-tight suit), while the eponymous Azari and III lurk just behind, pushing an ‘80s template through a prism of contemporary ballroom house, trash-fash electro and luscious space disco. It's a wholly un-ironic resurrection of the extroverted, ecstatic, near-spiritual magic of prototype house, and along with that rip-roaring podcast it's the closest any born-in-the-Eighties kids are ever gonna get to the Paradise Garage. Whooping and perspiring, the congregation confers something genuine and majestic onto the glossy perfection of ‘Reckless (With Your Love)’ and ‘Into The Night’.

It's Doom. And Ghostface. But not quite Doom&Ghostface. LIVE!!!

One of a few reviews and features taken from the end-of-year issue of Loud And Quiet, available throughout December.

Doom and Ghostface at the Roundhouse
5th November 2011

The man formerly known as MF Doom returns to the Roundhouse for a sold-out show, barely a year after his debut European performance in the same venue. Carting round the UK for a few weeks, the masked and multi-monikered rapper’s schedule happens to coincide with that of his on-off collaborator, the man formerly known as Ghostface Killah. And lo! A co-headline date is squeezed in, to the delight of the uniform legions of polite-looking dudes in New Era caps and flannel shirts, all of whom seem happy to give up their fireworks in the hope of hearing material from the long-awaited DoomStarks collaboration.

Unlucky. The intended running times fall victim to hip hop standards of punctuality as they take their sweet time on the solo sets, leaving us with just a few closing minutes of shared stage antics, back-slapping and big-ups.

But we make do. Both provide blistering run-throughs of their best bits, Doom stuffing his half with snippets from across his catalogue, including Dangerdoom and King Geedorah material plus tasty treats from Mm.. Food. He flomps across the stage with relaxed authority, face hidden behind the gold mask and sizeable pot belly poking out from an Army surplus camouflage net. Big Benn Klingon provides the usual hype man business with gusto to match his gut, and backpacks bump heartily with recognition of each rhyme.

Ghostface gives us an equally satisfying selection, throwing in material from Fishscale and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx as well as some classic Wu Tang. “Who copped the first Wu album?” he barks, provoking whoops that would indicate some of this crowd were seriously gangsta as six-year-olds. Annoyingly, the corporate gloss of the Roundhouse doesn’t extend to the sound quality, despite there being little more than a backing track and a few gruff voices to amplify. Familiar beats ricochet around the ovoid tramshed like bullets in a tin submarine, while the muffled bass rumbles underfoot as if emanating from a passing rudeboy’s ride. The rappers’ white-hot aura keeps us perky, but when it takes Ghostface shouting “Dollar dollar bill y’all!” to realise you’re listening to ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, you can’t help but feel a little cheated.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The King of Limbs remixed: Radiohead as source material for new gen producers

[Wrote this for the Spectator Night & Day arts blog but it hasn't been posted up yet]

TKOL RMX 1234567 
XL Recordings

Given the clangorous fanfare and critical parping that usually accompanies a new Radiohead album, the February release of the band’s eighth studio effort caused merely a few ripples in the big splashy sea of new music. Partly this is down to the band’s decision to forego the expected promotional duties, festival headline slots and arena shows, but another explanation is that The King of Limbs could be band’s least successful and least memorable record. While it’s not without its moments, particularly when it hits its stride halfway through with the twin beauties of ‘Lotus Flower’ and ‘Codex’, TKOL is Radiohead in B-side mode, showing off a practiced ease with their own style and the organic interplay between human and machine; acoustic warmth and synthetic glitch.

But it was also obvious that these few tracks (only eight of them!) would undergo multiple incarnations, as producers and DJs from the top of the tree to its bedroom-bound roots got their hands on the fertile raw material. Given Thom Yorke’s recent collaborations with progressive hip-hop producer Flying Lotus and home-grown talents Four Tet and Burial, it’s not hard to imagine Radiohead taking the remixer’s job into account as they tinker in the studio. Why finish a track definitively when someone else will do it for you? Why write 10 great songs when you could do eight and let the remixers go forth and multiply?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

No-holds-barred maximalism: Rustie takes it to the next level on Glass Swords

First published on Dummy, here's the first part of a review of Glass Swords, the debut from Rustie that's attracted a not insignificant number of digital column inches this autumn. It's a pretty intense listen, and to a certain extent I found it hard to warm to despite being nothing but impressed and intrigued all the way through. I am certainly interested to see how people will feel about this record in a year's time - does it point the way to an ascendant taste for plasticky, crayon-bright sounds, or is this the high watermark of a trend that's reached saturation?

Glass Swords

Following on the heels of Satin Panthers, the recent EP from fellow Glaswegian producer and LuckyMe collaborator Hudson Mohawke, Rustie’s first album proper is a similarly explosive, immersive, star-spangled knockout of a record that can be filed as a companion piece to HudMo’s 2009 debut Butter. While they both share a taste for no-genres-barred maximalism, cascading ’80s synths, ass-wobbling bass and warped lady-vox, on Glass Swords Rustie sees HudMo’s game and raises him, shrugging off the call of the dancefloor in favour of a personal voyage to the weirdest outer limits of timbre, melody, rhythm, texture and memory. And to think they called him dubstep.

Glass Swords gleefully tests your mettle from start to finish. It bulges, it strains, it stretches back and slaps you around with a glossary of shameless retro-funk-pop elements – hollowed out drums, G-funk squelch, pulsing house beats, dirty slap bass and even that horrifying vocal “ooh” last heard all over James Horner’s score for Titanic. The biting clarity of each sound builds a world that seems purely, deliberately digital – a bravely un-trendy move in a climate of analogue reverence, yet rather than seeming cold and artificial, this cut-glass digitalism refracts into an infinity of animated virtual worlds, polygon landscapes and platform games in glorious 8-bit colour.

Continue reading on Dummy...

Monday, 10 October 2011

Purist punk and suspicious mindsets on Iceage debut New Brigade

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Iceage's debut album, New Brigade, for Dummy. I found myself really enjoying it despite its fairly predictable template of scratchy retro punk and confused stabs at shock value (half-hearted references to runes and the KKK, plus a few Harrington jackets and bovver boots thrown in for good measure). Definitely worth a few spins if you're wondering where all the half-decent guitar bands went.

New Brigade
Out on Abeano

Four teenage Danes in Harrington jackets and switchblade smirks have just released their debut album New Brigade in the UK. Back home, Iceage have already attracted an unusual amount of media interest for an underground band of abrasive snotrockers, with local tabloids getting into a familiar fear-mongering froth over bolshy kids making too much racket (“Teenage bullies full of anger and anxiety!” according to one headline, as translated by singer Elias Rønnenfelt).

If alarm bells are ringing, you’re not alone in your suspicions. A supposedly underground band getting mainstream column inches? Who’s bankrolling this stunt? Where’s the guerrilla gig? Are Iceage a corporate Trojan horse for a new strain of piss-weak continental lager? Well, it’s good news: the band’s credentials appear to be clean – or rather, appealingly unclean and genuinely independent. A mood of nihilistic despair and aggression courses through New Brigade as they channel the savage post-punk of Wire and Mission of Burma with the obliterated noise-rock of early '80s no wave or primitive Sonic Youth, although their visual aesthetic is rather less savoury – a dubious tattoo of possibly-quite-fascist neofolk band Death in June has been spotted on guitarist Johan Surrballe, while shallow references to Klansmen the video above and runes are juvenile shock tactics at best. Doubtless these Danes trace their bloodline back to Søren Kierkegaard rather than Hans Christian Andersen, yet there’s little trace of the left-wing (or any-wing) moralising that came as standard in the first wave of punk.

Continue reading here...

Saturday, 1 October 2011

"Shit, I'm dressin' like I was at the Ali-Frazier fight, baby": Shabazz Palaces take London

I planned ahead on this gem and bought my ticket in August. I wasn't wrong: it was rad. Buy the album immediately and play this video LOUD, 'cos that sub bass is unforgiving:

Shabazz Palaces at White Heat, Madame Jojo’s
27 September 2010

Hooded and hidden behind shades, Palaceer Lazaro (or Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler, formerly of 90s hip hop trio Digable Planets) commands his debut London performance as Shabazz Palaces, a show that’s sold out twice over judging by the jostling and jamming in White Heat’s basement. The Black Up LP came out on Sub Pop this summer to immediate acclaim as well as curiosity as the label’s only hip hop release to date, an anomaly partly explained by Butler’s roots in Seattle but perhaps also signalling some continuing degradation of genre boundaries for internet-dependent music fans.

Flanked by percussionist Tendai Maraire, who chips in on vocals and choreographed hand gestures, Butler backs his rhymes with raw, weighty bass, noodling mbira, jazz piano cut-ups and other freeform eclectica. Drenched in wet reverb, the lyrics are too often buried out of earshot, but 'Recollections of the Wraith’ (see video above) finds a sweet spot almost unexpectedly with its simple come-on (“Clear some space out, so we can space out”) and startling melismatic vocal sample, as a slow jam ripples through the crowded bodies. An uncompromising and electrifying taste of a musician at the top of his game, a full 17 years after winning his first Grammy.

The blank face of melodrama: Can I get some back-up on Zola Jesus, please?

Everyone loves Zola Jesus, huh? I could barely find a bad review of this record, which must mean one of two things: either I am hopelessly out of step with what's hott + relevant + buzzy, like all these witchy house and draggy-gaze and don't-call-it-goth-but-it-is-really non-genres of recent months/years; OR (and I prefer this one), I am simply today's prophetic manifestation of cosmic musical truths, a Pop Nostradamus of the 21st century transmitting flippant critical insights and pointing at the falling sky while common-or-garden bloggers flap around mindlessly, recycling press releases and performing their ablutions.


It seems to me that Zola Jesus has cut corners artistically by releasing an album so soon after her last and failing to offer any noticeable change of mood or direction. Her voice can only bring out an intuitive response in the listener - you really do either love it or hate it, and for me it happens to be the latter, in the strongest possible way. It just seems so false, melodramatic yet blankly superficial, a hyperreal 21st century performance of a performance with emotions boiled down into a string of signs and off-the-shelf vocal tics. But as ever, I'm open to crits. What am I missing?

First published in Loud And Quiet

Zola Jesus
Souterrain Transmissions/Sacred Bones Records

How to make a Zola Jesus record in next to no time: Take one facsimile of Marina Diamandis’ voice. Extract the froggish tics and cod-operatic throatiness; discard rest, including consonants. Apply a layer of chest-thumping histrionics and allow to dry until almost transparent. Add a few coarse chunks of piquant instrumentation - prepared piano and re-animated toybox, for instance (or whatever presets you have to hand). Dust with upside-down crosses and a few bumps of unidentifiable low-grade dust; serve on a bed of ripped tights to wide-eyed fashion interns and MP3 bloggers. Any leftovers can be fobbed off on little sisters feeling down about their GCSE results.

Look, I hate to be flippant. But if Zola Jesus can’t be bothered to put any effort into her third studio album (the second only came out last August), then neither can I. A torturously tedious listen.

Never coming full circle: Pinkunoizu at White Heat

First published in Loud And Quiet 

Pinkunoizu at White Heat, Madame Jojos
20 September 2011

Despite the Japanglish name, Pinkunoizu bring their filigree rhythms and hypnotic movements from the slightly less distant climes of Copenhagen, working with what appears to be a standard issue post-rock vocabulary of drums, guitars, violin and more guitars. But with a mission statement to “never come full circle, to move hazily in bended ellipses”, the five-piece deftly sidestep the earnest bombast of similarly equipped bands in favour of a tightly-balanced propulsion that's taut yet fluid, dense yet ephemeral. Like a bullet train speeding past Mt Fuji, you might say.

You can taste Mogwai in the soft vocals and slowly evolving guitar phrases of quieter tracks, while the spectre of shoegaze is invoked at its most inspired and least dirgy as the set builds louder, faster and tighter. Battling guitars are couched delicately inside the mix rather than squealing for attention over the top, much like Yo La Tengo at their most rasping and rugged (there's even the lesser-spotted female drummer to stretch the comparison) or the Velvet Underground on the viola-versus-guitar jam of 'Hey Mr Rain'. The Peep EP, a more delicate and exotic experience than Pinkunoizu's live show, is out in November on Full Time Hobby.

Garage rock: the gift that keeps on giving. Now from The People's Temple

First published in Loud And Quiet

The People's Temple
Sons of Stone 
Out on Hozac

Another month, another Jim Jones-inspired band of psych-pop mop-toppers. Unlike Cults though, The People's Temple have a defiantly macho take on '60s garage rock, more in the vein of The Seeds and the Count Five than The Shangri-Las.

Sons of Stone, the Michigan band's debut, is like opening a dust-covered box of warped 45rpm wax salvaged from Lenny Kaye's garage, a loving recreation of that cherished lo-fi Nuggets sound, complete with simplistic pentatonic riffage, trebly bathroom-echo vocals and drums recorded in a concrete stairwell. Seems like Iggy dropped by to give a production masterclass too, with everything whacked right up into the red for some appallingly distorted guitars that couldn't be more faithful to the era.

While the first third plods along predictably, tunes like 'Starstreamer' and 'Sons of Stone (Revisited)' indulge in some commendably rough-edged proto-punk that any Roky Erickson fan would find easy to love.

Sweet like instant-mix pancakes, Givers release debut LP

Givers: Happy, and a little bit clappy
First published in Loud And Quiet

In Light
Out on Island in the UK, Glassnote in the US

Givers achieved highly sought-after buzzband status at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, TX, and it’s pretty easy to see why on the Louisiana band’s strikingly competent and unabashedly joyous debut. Opener and lead single ‘Up Up Up’ (which they performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in June, another rite of passage in the journey to buzzdom these days) is as sugary-sweet and over-egged as instant mix pancakes, spilling over with enough colour and melody to keep most bands going for a whole album.

The songs range from intricate to kaleidoscopic to bewildering, stitching Longstreth guitars, fragmented percussion, properly good vocals and flavours of zydeco (the folk style of their home state) into a skewed pop record that should appeal to fans of Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend. When a debut this solid comes along, you can’t fail to be impressed, although whether its sweetness and light will hold up over the long winter remains to be seen.

Ex-presidential San Fran gloom-pop: New songs from Fops

First published in Loud And Quiet

Fops, For Centuries EP
Available on cassette or MP3 from Monotreme Records

Following last year’s full-length Yeth Yeth Yeth, the Bay Area underground super-group Fops offer up this hefty EP, which at seven tracks and 43 minutes is even more generous than your standard long-player. On the other hand, closing track ‘Ronald Wilson Reagan’ takes up half of that running time with a lo-fi soundscape that evolves like bacterial cultures on a Petri dish, easing from phased guitar chords threaded with birdsong to splintered loops of distortion and vocal drones, all washed up like driftwood on a California shore.

It’s an interesting Side B but the first six tracks will be more familiar to fans of Fops’ alma maters, Thee More Shallows and Ral Partha Vogelbacher, mixing the hollow mechanics of early new wave with fuzzy-edged fingerpicking and some choice creepy lyrics: “I shot a parakeet after it called to me, half in Dutch and half in English.”

For Centuries is a gorgeously far-off and faded collection of gloom-pop made for cloudy day beachcombing, having far more in common with the bleak horizons of Echo and the Bunnymen than the current West Coast wave of affluent teenage tokers.

Monday, 19 September 2011

"More computer in the monitor please": Rainbow Arabia in Dalston

I was disappointed by Rainbow Arabia a couple of weeks ago in Dalston. The gig was pretty sparsely attended, for a start, and it felt like they were waving from a ship that sailed long ago in terms of the Mixmag-via-Middle-East maximalism. Shame they couldn't have released more material ages ago to capitalise on the 2008 buzz.

First published in Loud and Quiet

Rainbow Arabia at the Shacklewell Arms, Dalston
6th September 2011

The faded tropical glamour of the Shacklewell is a fitting venue for the similarly faded tropical clamour of Rainbow Arabia, the LA husband-wife duo behind two EPs of M.I.A-meets-Sublime Frequencies electro. Now touring to promote the full-length Boys and Diamonds (a slightly out-of-character release for Berlin techno label Kompakt), Danny and Tiffany Preston adopt a 1-1-1 stage formation, with the hired drummer hands providing some dynamics against the banks of programmed synths and snares. Dressed down in navy cardigan and Nike runners, Tiffany eschews the tribal raver aesthetic (very 2008), but if they’re so inspired by ‘world beats’ and the Middle Eastern dance music of Omar Souleyman & co, why are they so afraid to cut loose? Despite the cacophonous carnival stylings, some songs fall flat when man and machine don’t quite synchronise, while the preset rave whistle quickly becomes a chore on the ear. And really, is there a sadder question in popular music than “Can I have some more computer in the monitor?” None of this would really matter if Rainbow Arabia were bringing a few stone-cold party bangers to the table, but a few hours later and the songs have slipped from my mind like Saharan sand.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Dark matter and Cleopatra eyes: Austra live at Cargo

First published in Loud And Quiet

Don't call it operatic
Cargo, Shoreditch
7th July 2011

Goth is a question that cannot be answered yet will not die. What is it, exactly? No one can agree. Goth is the dark matter of the musical universe and best sidestepped as a term altogether.

And so: the current spectrum of darkwave banshees stretches from Planningtorock at the sharp end through to Zola Jesus at the rather blunt end, with tenuous foundations laid on the trembling theatrics of Kate Bush, Siouxsie and even that contemporary white witch Bat For Lashes. Austra frontwoman Katie Stelmanis's opera-trained voice is set on a constant quiver, strong but with a Bjork-ish throatiness.

Alright, listing all those left-field female pop voices is rather hackneyed, but in the case of Austra the voice is the reason we're here. Tonight it seems so faultless it could almost be – is she? Of course it's ridiculous, but at points Stelmanis seems to nail the notes so precisely you could swear she's miming.

Cleopatra-eyed and flanked by her two Coachella pin-up singers (tie-dye, suede fringing and glitter), the Torontonian marches from thumping album opener 'Darken Her Horse' to the pagan disco workouts of 'Beat and the Pulse' and 'Hate Crime'. The intensity and idiosyncrasy of that voice gets wearisome after 45 minutes, but a skilfully arranged cover in the shape of Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock' keeps us hooked until the final bars.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Departures: Why I love Amy Winehouse (Concise Version)

There are so many things to say about the recently departed Amy Winehouse, many of which were said in her short lifetime and many more of which have been repeated in the few days since her death.

All I can to add to the ever-expanding collective memory of her is my own experience of her music and the effect she has had on me. Her addictions, her fame, her disastrous performances and sporadic no-shows, her tabloid status and her immediately iconic look, from the beehive to the missing tooth to the ever-diminishing twig-like limbs... well, these are the things that the obituaries will have to talk about. But I was already a Winehouse fan by the time her personal life took over her musical endeavours, having chanced on her appearance on Jools Holland in 2003.

As a teenager who loved both the Libertines and Lauryn Hill, I was always – and sometimes still am – trying to reconcile my guitar with my voice. All the usual guitar-wielding women failed to hold my interest, like Courtney Love or Chrissie Hynde (this was just before the download age got going – finding worthy musical heroes was pretty tricky in the darkest West Country, despite growing up a few miles from PJ Harvey). Yet my favourite R&B voices seemed worlds away from music I could play myself, with their slick ProTools beats or jazz piano and vinyl crackle.

But then there's Winehouse, bashing out 'Stronger Than Me' on a Strat which even I had to admit was fucking boss, and I hate Strats. And I can clearly remember turning the TV on, in the corner of my room, standing there in a t-shirt and pants aged 16 at midnight on a Friday, as close to the sound as I could get and completely entranced by this girl combining the most unique, drawling, bluesy, growling, sweet and strange voice I'd ever heard with a guitar and a jutting chin, a macho stance and lascivious look. At the time, Winehouse had just turned 20 years old.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


14 Sep 1983 - 23 July 2011
Not wholly unexpected, but no less devastating for that. 
A hugely important musical figure in my life so I'll try to put some more words together later. 

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A quiet evolution in the undergrowth: An interview with Vondelpark

My 100th Helium Raven post is an interview with Vondelpark, a band from the wilds of South London and beyond and currently signed to R&S. Their new EP, NYC Bags and NYC Stuff, is very much in line with the bittersweet echo of London beats that the label has taken such a shine to with other recent releases from James Blake, Pariah and others.

Props also to Phil Sharp who took the photos for the interview, which he previewed on his blog. He's met at least two of my favourite artists of all time, by the look of it. 

First published in Loud And Quiet

Even a stagnant pond teems with life around its damp and fecund edges. There in the broken reeds and rainwater tributaries you'll find all sorts of chary and reclusive fauna, shrinking from your gaze and retreating deeper into the undergrowth to tend their offspring and forage for sustenance. So I find myself in Peckham on a rare visit to this oasis of cheaper living and isolated artistic indulgence, atmospherically a million miles from London's arid centre but really only a few streets south of the priapic new Shard development, a glassy-eyed visual metaphor for the recession if there ever was one.

Vondelpark, despite being named after a green space in Amsterdam, are a distinctly British proposition and a band that have made London's anonymous southern borders their home. Though apparently influenced by a trip to America's West Coast (as hinted at by California Analog Dream, the opening track of last year's Sauna EP), there's something about the mottled patina of their songs – warm yet cool, fond yet distant – that's exactly the opposite of the Golden State's freewheeling optimism. The vocals are submerged and rarely decipherable, floating above reclaimed garage rhythms on 'Hippodrome' or trip-hop shuffle on 'Jetlag Blue Version', and seem to be calling back to warmer, easier times. The Sauna EP is a document of that longing – for sunshine, a younger youth, a smoother toke.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The past is ours for the reaping: The Horrors release third album 'Skying'

SPF 50 all the way.

Dummy Mag asked me to write about The Horrors' new album, and you can read my words here.

I've been listening to Skying an awful lot this week. At first it almost made me laugh, playing spot-the-influence and hearing the band march ever nearer to the present day in their journey through the decades. But as I listened again and again, the album opened itself up to me in the way all great albums do. Things finally fell into place riding home along Great Eastern Street (left earbud only, you understand), drumming the handlebars and singing along to previously meaningless words that had somehow become the world to me. "La la la la..."

Primary Colours was an album I played too much in the space of four weeks and have rarely returned to, although hearing it now does bring me back to a very particular time and place. Will be interesting to see if Skying carves a permanent niche in my life or just my summer. The Mercury shortlist awaits, I expect.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Tie-dyed in knots for Blondes at CAMP Basement

Went to see Blondes just over a month ago. For some reason there weren't many people at CAMP (maybe because it's a shithole with very optimistically priced beverages), but they stepped up and gave it their best for a motley crew of weeknight wreckheads and silent head-nodders. A very good band indeed, and their John Talabot remix is on Myspace, which is worth checking out even in this Murdoch-boycotting age.

May I take this moment also to recommend the head-spinning disco-but-not-rubbish deliciousness of John Talabot. His XLR8R podcast has been keeping me toe-tapping during the daily grind.

First published in Loud And Quiet

CAMP Basement
26th May 2011

At quarter past eleven, CAMP Basement contains just 40 people, give or take some smoking stragglers outside. Those in attendance seem bemused at the low turnout – seems we all expected a roadblock for this mid-week nugget of sensual synth grooves and retro-future-trance. 'Cos everyone loves retro-future-trance, right?

Anyway, Blondes take their position behind an impossible patchwork of hardware, keys and cables, embarking on a slowly building set that gently coaxes us into its ambiguous emotions, involving and evolving through dischordant horns, fuzzy analogue warmth and big, big beats. On record it seems cerebral, almost cold, but by the set's halfway mark we've got a rag-tag anti-rave going on down here, 40 of us locked into the beat, arms raised and heads nodding like clockwork.

Zach Steinman, one half of the Ohio-via-Brooklyn-via-Berlin duo, says of the semi-improvised show, “I'm not really sure if it would work in a huge club. If someone tried that I'd be scared.” Don't buy it. Despite the low turnout, Blondes could easily wave their hypnotic rave wands over a huge club – or better, an arboreal summer festival – and have a thousand-strong crowd tie-dyed in knots for their elegantly engineered free-flowing trance.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

An interview with Husband: Lusty pop-noir from Bologna

First published in Loud and Quiet

Maybe it's no coincidence that one half of pop-noir duo Husband, the bedroom producer and musical director Gianlorenzo, is called Giallo for short. The Italian horror genre most famously affiliated with Dario Argento is a tidy hook on which to peg the band's lusty voodoo rock, which has more than a touch of the George A. Romero about it too. Their debut single 'Love Song' lurches into view like a Zombie Pride parade, beating fleshy drum skins with half-gnawed thigh bones and tapping dead-eyed rhythms on your skull, sending a short, sharp dose of the heebie-jeebies down your spinal cord.

Picked up by Robot Elephant Records after the No Pain in Pop blog spotted their Myspace page, Husband’s output so far is minimal but striking. After putting out a couple of tracks backed with a handful of remixes and playing their first live shows, they're now back in Italy to work on more material and play a stretch of shows on their home turf over summer, including a support slot with the rejuvenated Battles.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

An apparition of dub: This Peaking Lights record is ruling my summer

Peaking Lights are the sound of hot sun blazing against your neck, a drop of sweat meandering down your cupid's bow, sticky hands clutching a cold can. The sound of distant buzzing creepy crawlies and squinting against the late afternoon glow. An apparition of of dub bass pounding from under the earth, disturbing the ladybird hanging shell down from an arching blade of grass.

The dub is like a ghostly echo of heatwaves past, conjured from a ouija board mirage of heat and light; a magnetic memory buried in the foundations of city tower blocks and street furniture. Indra Dunis' words are crumpled memories of cultural commandments, almost-nothings beaten into syntactical forms for a brief moment before disintegrating into the sun-bleached haze. Heart rates slowing, pulses beating thick and hot as the daylight slips away.

Peaking Lights' second album, 936, is out now on Not Not Fun.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Still playing with the past: The Horrors perform new album 'Skying', 17th June 2011

I'm on the Number 8, heading to Bethnal Green to see the live comeback of a band now defined by their ability to make impressive comebacks. A man standing near me is talking about the gig with his friend, explaining that he doesn't know the band too well but, “I like the whole genre of the Horrors.”

Inwardly I snort as my brain chips in with a facile comeback. “What, 'the past'?”

Haha. But I'm onto something, aren't I?

Just Skyin' around. In the past.

Tonight The Horrors are previewing their third album, Skying, at York Hall in the East End, just down the road from where the band lived while putting together the first album and making waves with their bird's nest hairdos, polka dot waistcoats and hanging-by-a-thread 20-minute live shows. Given that singer Faris has spent most of the past year working on his excellent girl-group-meets-Joe-Meek side project Cat's Eyes, a vehicle that got him a gig inside the Vatican, playing in Bethnal Green must seem like something of a step back. Although perhaps it's a tradition now, given that the preview show for Primary Colours was at Rich Mix, at the other end of Bethnal Green.

And what a horrible venue. At least at Rich Mix, charmless black box though it is, you could actually hear all the instruments. York Hall, a boxing venue turned leisure centre, is a velvet-curtained, polished-wood space in the typical East End fashion; a hall where drums go to die, or in this case to boom out aimlessly while drowning guitar lines and squashing Faris' baritone voice (which has always been a bit of a weak link when he's not squawking, and apparently he doesn't do squawking any more).

Given the drastic step-change in sound, look and atmosphere that accompanied the second album, I suppose I'd expected another reinvention. For a start they look pretty similar, if even more subdued and grungy, with shapeless black sweaters and leather macs hanging limply, while Josh's trademark huge black hair now drips over his face like '90s oil slick. They remain one of the best looking bands around, regardless – a band who you believe are a band, who you couldn't miss if you walked past them waiting for a bus at Liverpool Street or buying milk in Sainsbury's Whitechapel (I can confirm).

So that's what they look like, far away on that raised stage, but what does it sound like? If you've heard the new single 'Still Life' you may have noticed people tentatively throwing the B-word out there. I regret to inform you, they may have a point. The opening bars of the first song 'Changing the Rain' kick in, all booming and chunky. “Fuck,” I say to Sam. “It's not even baggy, it's the fucking Charlatans.”

Wait up!

Let's thrash this out. I've come too far with the Horrors just to abandon them when they have their Be Here Now moment (this was the first reference that sprang to mind when I heard the brass outro to 'Still Life'). We've established that the Horrors' genre is essentially 'The Past'; this is where all their ideas and inspirations come from. I have nothing against this in principle, even if we've been culturally conditioned to demand more! newer! faster! at all times, an attitude that's crying out for political and economic critique, obviously. (I've been meaning to write about this for some time re: the various discussions triggered by Simon Reynolds' latest book, Retromania, but that will have to wait for today.) But, as I mentioned regarding Primary Colours back in 2009, scouring the past for musical ideas is one thing if you select garage rock, let's say, and stick to it. But if you then choose something else – post-punk and kraut, or My Bloody Valentine – then it can seem arbitrary, as if you're shopping for influences. The new material makes me suspicious that this is in fact the case with the Horrors. First they gave us Nuggets of flaming garage primitivism, then it was dazzling man-machine post-punkism, and now apparently they've parked up in the '90s to see what's ripe for the pilfering on the shelves of baggy, shoegaze, grunge and (truly) early Britpop. At this rate their fourth album will sound like LCD Soundsystem and their fifth will be approximately contemporary.

To wit, one of the final new songs they play (which may be titled 'Endless Blue') even sounds like 'My Iron Lung', big and grungy but with an unmistakably wan, British edge. Of course, it may sound nothing like that on the record, but the miserable sound quality contaminates all the new stuff to appear muddy and heavyweight, with none of the pristine amphetamine sharpness of the second album – even 'Sea Within A Sea', easily one of their best and weirdest songs, sounds slightly turgid.

Elsewhere they've kept on plenty of the Kevin Shields guitar flavours but new ingredients include – yes – a bit of Simple Minds, plus a definite '80s 4AD quality in the clever combination of density and dreamy lightness. But again, who knows what subtleties might come through on the album, because you can't actually hear it in here. They play absolutely nothing from the first album, which is no surprise but makes for a pretty static experience visually, with Faris not venturing anywhere near the crowd or embarking on his usual disruptive prowling antics.

I'm still not sure what to make of it. Buoyed by the critical reception to Primary Colours, it would seem the Horrors have moved further towards sleek, smooth, big-venue alt.rock for grown-ups. But if they wanna play with the big boys, they're gonna have to deliver the tunes, and I can't hear a 'Losing My Religion' in this set.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Three from Lefse Records: Algodon Egipcio, A Classic Education, How To Dress Well

A few bits coming up on Helium Raven:

An interview with Italian noir-pop newcomers Husband

Blondes live at CAMP and Beaty Heart live at White Heat

New albums from Julian Lynch and The People's Temple

My verdict on Nero's Dubstep Symphony for the BBC

But something else for now, looking at an interesting label you may or may not know much about: Lefse Records. I haven't worked out if the name of the imprint is a reference to the old-school Norwegian snack food (check it out), but it's run by a guy called Matt Halvorsen, which is most definitely a Scandi surname. I'm more intrigued by their odd little roster, which includes Neon Indian, Fair Ohs, Ganglians and How To Dress Well among others.

Other less exposed artists include Algodon Egipcio ('Egyptian Cotton'), a Venezuelan bedroom musician making summer-hazed, beer-goggled, echo-chambered pop with shades of Atlas Sound, Surfer Blood, Panda Bear and Girls. Okay, that flavour's been done to death in the past 18 months, but it sounds at least twice as good sung in Spanish and it's all somehow laid on thicker and creamier and denser and kind of speckled and sparkling. I'm going to call it Tapioca Pop, why not. His album La Lucha Constante ('The Constant Struggle') is a pleasingly coherent and warming little thing for sweaty June nights such as this.

My next favourite so far is the Italian band A Classic Education, recommended to me by their kind countryfolk Husband. I get the impression they're quite the elder statesmen of Italy's indie kingdom but like the vast majority of European bands they don't seem to have impacted on the consciousness of our navel-gazing isle, despite being quite radio friendly, I think. Actually I need to stop saying radio-friendly - when you've been listening to Gloss Drop all week your radio-friendly-radar gets pushed well out of whack. But A Classic Education have a lovely '80s indie scratchiness overlaid onto some quite straightforward retro melodies that might appeal to you if you ever liked Modest Mouse or even Okkervil River or something (it seems they've supported both). Personally I never enjoyed either of those bands but I like A.C.E. from a retro-pop perspective, as someone who adores Luna, Galaxie 500, Orange Juice, and now Cat's Eyes... simple stuff but so tastefully produced. If Algodon Egipcio is Tapioca Pop then maybe this is Milk Bottle Pop? Before Maggie stole it, of course:

A Classic Education seen here in a weak metaphor

They have a six-track EP called Hey There Stranger, but I think there might be more out there through Italian labels.

Finally an artist whose had a fair bit of exposure now, but I'd like to mention How To Dress Well because, erm, I just like it loads. It's all a bit du jour with the lo-fi dream-dub production and indie-meets-R&B vox, sure, but Tom Krell projects that strange and ambivalent mood that I find so appealing both in the hypnagogia (sorry) of Sun Araw and Hype Williams and in the dubsteppy mournfulness of Burial or Holy Other. Nothing is simple here, beginnings are endings, we move sideways through the songs catching half-remembered hooks and budget versions of the hip-hop staples - the razor-sharp compressed handclap is reduced to, well, just a guy clapping. I love the fact that there's no element of kitsch to be found - it's an honest appreciation of R&B that reminds me of the excellent (though sporadic) clubnight So Bones at The Nest in Dalston, where the music policy is like an anti-Guilty Pleasures of the best R&B, hip hop, chopped and screwed etc. If I had to choose a foodstuff for this type of pop I would go for Extra Thick Vanilla Shake Pop. The kind that's too thick to get through the straw without giving yourself brain-freeze.

This track, 'Decisions', is far too short and has a beautiful video.

So yeah, definitely looking forward to hearing more from this Sacramento-based label. Sometimes you can forget how brilliant labels can be as curators and exhibitors rather than companies.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

No smoke, no mirrors: Katy B live at Koko

First published in Loud And Quiet

Katy B at Koko, London
12th May 2011

There was a time in Popworld when a silk bomber jacket and a pasting of Juicy Tubes lip gloss counted as ‘making an effort’ – think back to that classic wave of early Noughties combat-trousered lady-pop, the am-I-bothered cool of Miss Dynamite, All Saints and early Sugababes. Fast forward 10 years and prosthetic face humps and a foghorn voice are just the start of a very, very long checklist for the new breed of starlets who think Gaga was the first person to draw a bloody lightning bolt on her face.

Sigh. And yet here we have Katy B, a pop star who clearly did not receive that memo. And here we are at her first headline tour of the UK, squeezed into a sold-out Koko crowd (about 50/50 male to female) who can only be described as ‘up for it’, watching her bounce around on stage in silk bomber jacket and curls, effortlessly trailing dust in Jessie J’s airbrushed-to-all-hell face.

And effortless is the operative word with the Princess of Rinse and her youthful pop swagger. Her voice – so girlish, so untroubled – nails every note with unforced finesse while she slides stage right to stage left, serving up her already-formidable back catalogue of hits: ‘Perfect Stranger’ (live version above), ‘Broken Record’, ‘Lights On’, ‘Katy On A Mission’. Saxophone and trumpet provide jazzy punctuation to one side while a drummer and DJ provide the beats – it’s such a basic set-up you could barely call it a stage show. No smoke or mirrors, no wigs or pyrotechnic corsetry, no self-help “love yourself” bullshit or patronising motivational pep-talks. Just that effervescent voice trilling about boys she wants to dance with and beats she wants to dance to.

And it just works. Ignoring that checklist, Katy B has hewn together her own authentic pop formula from the echoes of the club, fragments of UK funky rhythms and big fat dubstep, touting chart-ready bangers to pop-pickers who just want the songs and not the rest of the wannabe crap and the Autotune and meat dresses and crocodile tears. I wish her Gagazillions of global mega-stardom, sure, but for now, can we keep her? Can we?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Multiple-Bank-Holiday-Madness: Summer daze with Dananananaykroyd (srsly)

It's like pop and punk, together! No, not pop-punk. Or punk-pop. It's fight pop, apparently.

I simply cannot believe that I like this record. Not just like, actively fucking love. I had to give a mark out 10 for L&Q but it's very difficult to do that at the best of times, and with the new Dananananaykroyd album, boringly titled There Is A Way, I ended up in all kinds of brain squiggles about it. I love it, but is it really "good"? I s'pose this is the problem that lies at the rotten heart of music criticism. A problem you learn to ignore.

Maybe because there's a certain amount of guilty pleasure in listening to an album so gleeful, so ridiculous, so summery - attributes I normally despise in music, especially from a chirpy guitar-wielding band who've opted for precision radio-friendliness on a record that's not gonna be on the radio much. I can't explain it! Except I love it! Most people would think that was perfectly okay. To my post-gradu-addled critical theory brain it's almost vertiginous.

But I promise you. If you think this is the sort of thing you don't like, you might be wrong. Go on, have a sniff. (Works best on about the fifth listen.)

First published in Loud And Quiet

There Is A Way
Out on Pizza College, 13th June

Likely the only “fight-pop Glasgow six-piece” in history, Dananananaykroyd roped in Slipknot producer Ross Robinson for knob-twiddling duties on their follow-up to 2009's Hey Everyone! – not an obvious choice, you'd think, but the breakneck thrashiness and razor-sharp clarity of these 11 tracks recall none other than hardcore squealers The Blood Brothers, another Robinson-produced band.

Dananananaykroyd carefully pair that heaviness with contagious melodies and arch lyricisms (“A spider's corpse is carried away by ants/Like voluntary coroners”) for a regionally-accented anti-pop much in the vein of Future of the Left. Stand-out tracks include 'Think and Feel', a ridiculous slice of accelerated punk funk with a dash of B-52s oddballsiness, immediately followed by super-bouncy would-be radio hit 'Muscle Memory'. Best consumed at full volume through knackered car door speakers, rampaging down to the seafront with the windows down: a total summer-gasm of a record.

Monday, 23 May 2011

"Like a red star/ Like a bruised scar": EMA's deconstructed grunge

EMA is Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns. The other week she played the Macbeth in London and shot an arrow through my grunger girl heart. There's something so simple and fresh about her record, Past Life Martyred Saints, despite its constituent parts being mined from other genres - lo-fi, riot grrrl, grunge, folk, noise - that it made me want to grab my guitar. Not many records I like at the moment can say that. I'm feeling a rock revival coming on (might be limited to one bedroom in N5).

This is the single, 'California', and although it's pretty different to the rest of the album it's a hell of a calling card. Below is my live review for L&Q.

First published in Loud And Quiet

EMA at the Macbeth, London
11th May 2011

Seventy-two inches of bleached-blonde, bourbon-soaked, stung-lipped American Woman lopes on stage in hotpants and grabs a star-covered guitar. Erika M. Anderson, wearing a necklace bearing her alias EMA, ain’t too easily ignored. Formerly of Gowns, the cult drone rock duo that imploded at the end of 2009, EMA tonight plays through most of Past Life Martyred Saints, a debut of deconstructed grunge that places her bold-but-fragile voice at the eye of the storm, circled by drawn-out riffs and warped desert rock.

Stripped of the record’s extensive multi-tracking and distortion, that voice takes on a different character, somehow more vulnerable, like a runaway teen with too many tall tales and battle scars. Between songs she jokes with us, slurring her words as she snaps on her “showtime suspenders” (patterned with piano keys), but it's a clownish façade that slips once the guitar kicks in and she's spitting her stories of high school and violence and bluebirds and the Viking funeral ships that bear her ancestors.

Closing with 'California', an astonishing ode to the state that “made me boring”, she pulls the mic lead round her neck like a noose and raises two fingers on her right hand: the all-American ambassador, armed with religious blessings and a gun. We're not so much her audience as her battle casualties, joyously martyred to serrated edge rock and roll.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sit Down. Stand Up. Red Stripe: Gigs are sometimes the worst way to hear music

Last month I wrote about the Halls gig at the Old Blue Last for L&Q, and felt kinda bad about having to conclude that it was mediocre. Essentially, I thought they'd done the music a disservice by failing to turn their bedroom producer fare into any kind of live show. I'm seeing them again tomorrow, same place (according to the line-up that's been floating around), supporting Beat Connection and the rather good Entrepreneurs. If bands ever took advice from sideline snipers and blather-boxes like myself then I'd expect them to rock up with some freshly-honed stage moves and stunning visuals at the very least; ideally they'd make their entrance from the door of a 35 ft mirror ball lemon. But somehow I think this will not be the case.

Last night, at the other end of the synth-dude spectrum, I caught Emeralds at Village Underground. This arpeggio-humping synth/ambient/drone trio came to my attention last year with their album Does It Look Like I'm Here (s'on Spotify), but they've been around for a few years and apparently have about 40 releases behind them on various small labels, including Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace imprint. So they're a little more established than Halls, shall we say. But how much better was the live show? Well, there were no laptops involved (that I could see) and they had wisely set up the synths side-on to the audience so that we could seem them pressing stuff, a bit. And they have a guitarist! He sways around in a post-rock sorta way. 

All the same, I don't think more than a handful of people could have been described as 'engrossed' in the Emeralds live experience. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with it - at the very least it's cool to see how such complex, textured tracks are brought to life through the beating heart of analogue - but it makes me wonder about the limitations of the standard gig format. When Brian Eno patented his Ambient music it was all about creating sounds that could happily exist in the background, while the listener splits her attention with something else. Likewise when you're listening to a DJ in club surroundings you're free to dance and chat and move around without looking over to the booth (unless you're one of those creepy booth-snoopers with your eyes fixed on the decks. Weirdo).

And on and on - so much music is designed as part of an overall experience, not as the experience itself. Like in ballet or dance where music is just one of the required elements. Or in many non-Western musical traditions where participation is expected and there's no performer-audience divide. Or, in fact, in its recorded state as the soundtrack to your day. Music doesn't need to be 'Ambient' to be literally 'ambient' - how much time do you spend listening to music while doing nothing else? Most of my listening happens while I'm getting on with other things.

So when it comes to the music of Emeralds, or even Halls, I just wonder if its anti-flamboyance, evolving textures and slow-burn dynamics wouldn't be better served in a less straightforward 'gig' situation. If there's nothing to look at, why are we all facing the same way? Are there other ways of presenting live music that are better suited to the actual sounds being made? By way of example, a couple of memorable gigs: Yo La Tengo at the Royal Festival Hall, providing a soundtrack to a '70s French documentary about marine life. Lucky Dragons at the Scala, handing out homemade electronic instruments to the audience. Both were totally engrossing and gave the audience a sense of purpose and belonging, as though it really mattered that we were there, creating an atmosphere together (ergh, what a hippy I'm becoming). But without that, we risk reducing the gig to something functional and replicable, a simple product to be touted now that CDs are virtually worthless.

Wow, downer post. I'll dish up some happy clappy shit next time!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Normal service resumes shortly

Public Service Announcement:
A month of academic toil is now behind me, so expect normal blogging service again within days, if not hours.


EMA's deconstructed grunge is like an arrow to my heart

A raucous and unexpectedly addictive comeback from Dananananaykroyd

Popping my Richie Hawtin cherry at the Mute-curated day of the Short Circuit festival

The effortless pop magic of First Lady of Rinse Katy B

Gatekeeper and Laurel Halo soundtrack the half-seen horror vids of my unsupervised childhood

And many many many more exciting things, probably from the worlds of 'post-dubstep' and 'hypnayawnic pop' and 'offensive mainstream pop I feel the need to lash out at', among others.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


July 3rd 1957- April 25th 2011

By complete coincidence, I put the 
wrong t-shirt in my bag today.
It was my X-Ray Spex t-shirt.

Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Digital Love: Extended thoughts on Record Store Day

The thing about record shops* is that they aren’t actually any fun. The old Rough Trade in Covent Garden was good for 20 minutes of circling the staircase and ‘scuse-me-pleasing round the imaginatively classified collection (by country or genre or era, or just ‘The Fall’).

But I can’t say I ever formed a band there, or got a date, or even had anything recommended to me. Rough Trade East is no better – the staff seem polite enough but there’s usually silence in the racks, with that day’s chosen record playing in the background. There used to be these noticeboards near the front with Bassist Wanted messages and houseshares available and unglamorous record label internships on offer, but then the boards got moved to the back and forgotten about. There’s a good range of music books and magazines, which is helpful now that Borders has closed, although I don’t suppose you’re allowed to read them while you have a coffee at the front. (There is actually a by-law in Shoreditch requiring all shopfloors over a certain square footage to operate a Gaggia.)

Oh, the records. Well, it’s nice to browse. Most of the records I want are at least £3 more in Rough Trade than I would pay at Fopp or online, so obviously I don’t do my main music shopping there. Why should I? It’s a business, not a bloody charity. The artist gets a piss-poor amount either way. No, what record shops are really good for is rarities – vinyl, cassettes, special editions, bonus CDs, posters, badges, Buddha machines, signed copies, instore gigs and exclusive playbacks. This is obvious when you see that the busiest day of the year – Record Store Day, on this very Saturday – draws huge crowds with the tantalising promise of super-limited edition vinyl (in some cases so limited that there aren’t any. Oops). They aren’t there to pay £11.99 for the latest Panda Bear CD.

You have to understand that I have zero emotional attachment to music as a physical object (with the exception of guitars I guess). I like vinyl as a novelty item – it’s fun and I used to enjoy cueing up Dylan and Baez on my dad’s record player, which I hauled into my own bedroom aged 14. I got into cherry-picking odd 7” or 12” records from charity shops or HMV, often ones with unusual packaging or just cheapo bits and pieces – I’ve got a Guns n’ Roses 7” on orange vinyl if you’re making offers, and some scratchy Lenny Kravitz, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd; all the junk shop perennials.

But the record player would skip when I walked across the room, and on the whole vinyl was an expensive hobby – there were only a couple of proper record shops within an hour’s drive of my house. So I mostly stuck to CDs, half of which were burned from friends’ collections, song names scrawled in biro on the covers. The entire collection got ripped to computer for efficiency when I was about 15, filing everything alongside my latest Napster downloads, which were themselves a labour of love at 56kbps. I remember trying to hear The Smiths for the first time (being without an older bro/sis/neighbour to mentor me) and hogging the phone line overnight for a pathetically low-bitrate MP3 of ‘The Boy With A Thorn In His Side’ – a disastrous choice which delayed my love of The Smiths for another three years.

This guy had too many records. Whaddya know.

And you know what? CDs get in the way. CDs are just stuff that you buy. They’re not musty and organic and papery like vinyl. They’re plastic and they shatter and wobble and the liner notes get creased and ripped if you slide them in too quickly. So even if you have a massive record collection you end up playing them through your computer, right? Because you probably also have an MP3 player. If all your music is on your hard drive and on your iPod, do you really need to have shelves and shelves of plastic? Is it to congratulate yourself on how much you love music? Or to prove that to anyone who steps into your living room?

I'm not advocating giving up physical records for shitty low-quality MP3s, YouTube rips and Spotify Mobile, however. One of the main sticking points with my desire to abandon plastic record collections is the continuing tyranny of Apple software and hardware, a development that has profoundly shaped the last 10 years of music listening and buying and shafted everyone except Steve Jobs & Pals in the process. The rise of the iPod meant the rise of poor quality listening, because Apple imposed a lockout on decent quality files (ie, WAV), forcing users to adopt the mediocre AAC file quality. Not bad for listening on the street, but not something you want to convert your whole collection into. And what happens when Apple eventually phases out the iPod?

It would be great if the majority of our listening was 320k MP3 and lossless formats like FLAC. The fantastic online shop Boomkat regularly offers a choice between MP3 and FLAC on its download products, with a price difference of a couple of pounds at most. This is presumably to cater for the DJs and bedroom producer types who also use Boomkat for its extensive vinyl offerings, as MP3 files are noticeably rubbish once you put them through a set if Funktion Ones. And that’s great – if you’re a DJ playing out then vinyl and CD will often beat digital for quality. On the other hand, plenty of DJs and live electronic musicians now do completely digital sets – not iPod sets, but high quality WAV/MP3 files played through Traktor or similar DJing software. (Boomkat also offers an incredible wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, with extensive reviews and contextualisations for every release as well as audio previews. It's rad.)

So it seems to me that shops like Phonica and Sounds of the Universe, specialising in techno, house, jazz, funk and related dancefloor-orientated music, are currently more vital than indie peers like Rough Trade and Sister Ray. If playing records loud in a dark room is integral to the music itself, then physical records will remain important for a long time. The punters aren’t just collectors, they’re DJs making their own living off those records. But when the record stands as an inert signifier of a possible live show – as it does for a rock band – then owning the vinyl seems a little less important.

There are a number of strands branching off from each of these thoughts – in many ways this is the issue that underlies all music (and music writing) at present. Ie, What Does The Future Hold?

Who can say, but a final word regarding Sister Ray’s Phil Barton, who recently told the Quietus: “Increasingly we’re moving out of what I call ‘the dance market’, or what was the dance market, because there is no market – so there’s no point in stocking house records anymore, because nobody buys them.”

The man who runs one of the biggest and supposedly best record shops in the country says nobody is buying house records. Dude, if they’re even bothering to go to a shop for their vinyl anymore, they’ll be at Phonica. EVERYONE is buying house records.

*For they are shops! Not stores!

Friday, 15 April 2011

JUDAS: You can't 'go electric' if you're already a cyborg

Pushing envelopes harder than Postman Pat

I'm going to briefly break from the Gaga moratorium imposed on this blog generally to comment on NME's initial reaction to 'Judas', which was released to the world in a shower of binary code and retweets this afternoon.

"[I]ts genius (and we are going to very tentatively use the word 'genius', in the sense that we believe pop music at its best is a genius medium) is that it really doesn't sound like Gaga in her comfort zone at all. [...] The breakdown has elements of the hardest techno and the boingiest dubstep, yet the chorus is so instantly pure-pop unforgettable that it just might – might – be even better than 'Bad Romance'."

I'm sorry to do this to you, but let's just focus on this line. To even try to come to terms with the 'phenomenon' that is Lady Gaga is beyond the scope of this blog and my own sanity. Suffice to say I was given a promo copy of The Fame in the antediluvian closing days of 2008 - I hated it, laughed at the lyrics, binned it and waited for her to go away.

I have never claimed to be a weathervane of pop.

But again: "The breakdown has elements of the hardest techno and the boingiest dubstep".

Here's the track. You can skip to the breakdown at 2m 40s if you wish.
Judas by gagadaily

Yup. So in the spirit of SHARING MUSIC AND LOVE, here's some boner-fide-ay hard techno for NME's Dan Martin to swivel on: To your publication's second trollworthy blog of the week, sir! I'm not going to link to either of them because Air France, the current banner ad on NME's site, would then have WON this little tit for tat.

Mote017 :: Marcel Fengler - Thwack by Mote-Evolver

Gaga moratorium now reinstalled.