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.