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?