Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Music Won't Save You From Anything But Silence

Piano Magic / July Skies / Yellow6 - London Luminaire

Last weekend, the artist-run label Make Mine Music put on a show in London to launch their 50th release, a compilation called "MMM050". I'd never been to the Luminaire before and wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the better venues I've visited recently. It's a small club, accessed by stairs directly from the street (which reminded me of the long-lost Edwards No. 8), with the space in front of the stage wide enough for everyone to get a good view of the performance. In addition, there were large screens at each side of the stage, which meant that I could see the band from a different angle whilst directly watching the stage at the same time. But perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the venue is its no-talking policy; there were a number of amusing signs reminding customers to be quiet while bands are playing as it's not a pub where you come to chat to your friends. This may seem a little excessive, but it can be frustrating when chatter from the audience drowns out quiet music.

The show must have started earlier than I was expecting, and maybe we spent too long looking for somewhere to eat and checking into our ridiculously cheap hotel, as we unfortunately arrived too late to catch Yellow6. I can't really comment on his set as I didn't see any of it, but I imagine it was as blissful as usual. I guess I should buy the latest in his regular series of Christmas CDs to make up for missing the performance.

July Skies is the project of Antony Harding, who is actually based in the Midlands so has probably played Birmingham many times, but this London show is the first time I've caught him live. The music of July Skies is based on themes of psychogeography - the way a physical environment affects our feelings and behaviour - and it conjures up images of disused shopping centres, 1970s tower blocks and public parks in the rain. It's not surprising to discover that Harding's day job is as a town planner. Some of the songs have vocals, some just feature samples of old radio broadcasts, weather forecasts etc. Harding's intricate guitar playing is reminiscent of Vini Reilly, and the music is so delicate that I'm glad the audience have been told to remain silent.

It's interesting to see how Piano Magic's music has evolved over the past couple of years. While some guitar bands gradually bring in electronic elements to their work, Piano Magic have done the opposite and their set at the Luminaire was almost totally free of electronic sounds of any kind. The guitar-dominated songs they played were far removed from the freeform electronica of early releases such as "Popular Mechanics". The set mainly consisted of songs from the last two albums, "Disaffected" and "Part Monster", the only two older songs being "Silence" from 2002's "Writers Without Homes" and set-opener "Saint Marie" from 2003's "Troubled Sleep". There were also two (I think) songs from the new EP "Dark Horses" but I didn't recognise these at the time because in a rare lapse I hadn't actually bought the EP even though it had been out for at least two weeks. Needless to say, I picked up a copy at the show, along with the "MMM050" compilation.

I have wondered whether Piano Magic's divergence into more traditional song structures with loud guitars has alienated fans of their electronic sound; I certainly read a few negative comments online when their last album was released. I'm often guilty of disowning a band when they change their style, and "I prefer their earlier stuff" is a phrase I use about pretty much anyone who has released more than three albums. But with Piano Magic, their music has been consistently interesting and the recent material actually seems more relevant to me - particularly the new EP, now that I've got it home, read the lyrics repeatedly and worked out how they apply to my life. Whilst watching the show, it occurred to me that their songs sum up adult life in the same way that the jangly indiepop of the 1980s appealed to me as a teenager. Themes of travel seem to recur in the songs, but not as the exciting pastime that it can be when you are young. Instead the songs paint a picture of hanging around train stations, longing for the journey to be over. This is particularly relevant to me as I have spent a lot of this year travelling to gigs in different cities, something that I haven't really done since the mid-'90s.

The songs also focus on reminiscences of our youth, and both "Silence" and "Love and Music" refer to the way that when we are young we turn to music as a means of escaping from our problems. Maybe as they've grown older and wiser, the band have realised that this won't solve anything and they may even be trying to tell us that we should face up to reality...

Perhaps to tie in with the theme of ageing, Glen Johnson's hair has developed into a rather worrying football commentator-style comb-over, as you can see in this clip:

Ignoring Johnson's hair and the fact that they only played for about 40 minutes, this was an excellent show and I finally realised what has been trying to tell me for some time, that in today's fragmented music scene, Piano Magic are the band who best describe my life. When I'm an old man, perhaps with a comb-over of my own, I think I will look back on Piano Magic as the defining music of my mid-30s, in the same way that the Smiths and the Wedding Present remind me of my youth.

Friday, 14 November 2008

A nocturne filled with glorious ideas...


This was never going to be a conventional gig. The reclusive former teen idol no longer performs live, so when he announced a three-night residency at the Barbican, it became one of the most talked about events of the year. There has been a lot of excitement surrounding these shows, even though Scott had made it clear that he would not be onstage himself. What we got instead was Scott's backing band and a 42-piece orchestra, with a series of guest vocalists performing songs from his albums "Tilt" and "The Drift". I'm sure some members of the audience would have liked to hear something from his early solo albums or even a Walker Brothers tune, but the setlist (six songs from "The Drift" and two from "Tilt") seemed to have been chosen to emphasise how the 21st Century incarnation of Scott Walker is very different from the one who performed Jacques Brel songs in the late 1960s.

Given the intense nature of Scott's vocal delivery on these recent releases, it is no surprise that alongside the four guests from the world of rock and pop (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Dot Allison and Gavin Friday), several classically-trained singers had been invited. I hardly ever attend opera or classical performances so I'm not familiar with the work of Michael Henry, Nigel Richards or Owen Gilhooly, but their performances were the ones that came closest to the original recordings. In particular, Michael Henry's interpretation of "Cue" was the most powerful of the evening, backed by two men smashing concrete blocks onto a table. I'm not certain, but I think the "BAM BAM BAM" vocals in this song may actually have been provided by Scott, although if it was the man himself then it was probably a recording as he did not make his presence known last night, even if he was, as some people have claimed, sitting behind the mixing desk.

Of the four "popular" vocalists, Gavin Friday's performance of "Jesse" was the most impressive. I really should listen to some of his solo work; I only know his early releases as singer of the Virgin Prunes. These were often abrasive but also sometimes melodramatic, so it doesn't take much imagination to see how he could have matured into a singer with a style similar to that of Scott. I was surprised that the one singer who seemed slightly out of place was Jarvis, who opened the show with "Cossacks Are". He made no attempt to imitate Scott's voice, instead sticking to his own vocal style and mannerisms, which meant this song was the only one that sounded totally different from the original version. In particular, his delivery of the line "That's a nice suit, that's a swanky suit" in his familiar Sheffield accent sounded almost comical. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Jarvis is one of the most compelling live performers around at the moment and he was the only person who managed to make one of the songs his own. It just seemed slightly incongruous when I was in the mood for the dark music of Scott Walker.

Many of the visual elements accompanying the songs were totally bizarre, as you would expect from a show put together by Scott. Jarvis performed his song whilst reading a newspaper, during "Buzzers" Dot Allison serenaded a tree made of wire coat-hangers, and "Clara" was punctuated by a man in boxing gloves rhythmically punching a dead pig suspended from the ceiling. I suspect the pig may have been intended to represent the corpse of Mussolini, whose execution provides the subject matter of the song.

There was also a dance element incorporated into many of the songs. Modern dance is an artform that I've never really understood, and I certainly felt this way whilst watching the performance of "Patriot (A Single)". This was accompanied by a man stumbling drunkenly around the stage wearing stockings, with another one over his head like a bank robber, and pink shoes with unfeasibly high heels. This put me in mind of the work that Michael Clark's dancers did with The Fall in the 1980s. I remember being similarly baffled when I saw that on Whistle Test.

However, reflecting on the show after a good night's sleep, it occurred to me that the dance was probably a literal interpretation of the song's lyrics. The dancer's attire could have represented the line "I brought nylons from New York, some had butterflies, some had flecks". At one point in the song he was chasing a sheet of newspaper being dragged around on a long stick held offstage; maybe this was supposed to demonstrate "the bad news is there is no news". But even if there was a link with the song, it did seem rather ridiculous and only served to detract from the serious mood of the music.

Forgetting the visual elements, the music throughout the set was intense and provided a reminder, if one is needed, that Scott Walker has created two of the most sonically and emotionally overpowering albums of the last 15 years. Finally being able to see these performed live, with or without Scott, was a great experience and I hope that the success of these shows will persuade Scott that it's time he returned to the stage himself.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Mere Pseud Mag Ed

I don't usually plug fanzines, but residents of Birmingham and Yorkshire might be interested in issue 4 of A Layer Of Chips, which features an interview with my good friend Pete Green. (No, not the one from Fleetwood Mac.)

As well as the interview, you get a CD containing five of Pete's recent songs and five from his former band The Regulars, including "Above the Party", which as far as I'm aware has never been released before.

If you're interested (it's free) then just email with your address and a copy will arrive in the post within a couple of days.

Listening to the CD has made me realise that Birmingham seems very dull now that we've lost not only The Regulars but also The Jug Of Ale, where they often played...

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

I've just returned from my annual trip to Iceland, where things are not quite as bleak as the press would have us believe. I didn't see any shops that had gone out of business, or speak to any locals who had lost their jobs. The only real difference compared to previous visits was that the local currency has dropped in value, which meant that essential purchases such as food and CDs were quite a bit cheaper this year. At least one shop said they were benefiting from this, as tourists are now spending more. I noticed a distinct air of cynicism towards the UK government and media for the way they have portrayed Iceland recently, but not towards the UK public in general as our money is always welcome in local shops! The main purpose of my trip, for those of you who are not already aware, is to attend the Iceland Airwaves festival, which happens every October. The festival organisers had been forced to place an announcement on their website reassuring everyone that it was still going ahead, to counter scaremongering from the BBC (amongst others) who had suggested that it would be cancelled. With a diverse selection of local and international talent signed up to play and a huge number of tickets already sold to visitors from all across Europe and the US, a cancellation was never on the cards. I was interviewed by a German radio journalist who was reporting on the effect of the financial crisis on foreign visitors. So far I have failed to find the show on the radio station's website, so I don't know if German listeners ever got to hear my comments.

There's not enough space for a full review of all the bands that played, so I'll just give a quick summary of a few of the highlights. Firstly a handful of non-Icelandic acts that I particularly enjoyed: I've recently discovered El Perro Del Mar so it was a pleasure to see her melancholy folk-pop played live. Final Fantasy is the project of Canadian violinist Owen Pallett, who uses an
assortment of effect pedals to create what sounds like a whole string quartet from just one violin. Miracle Fortress, another Canadian act, are possibly my favourite new discovery of this year's festival. They produce droning keyboard sounds that could have come from MBV's "Loveless", but overlaid with vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys.

There were other high-profile international acts that I didn't get to see, as it's always an effort to fit in all the bands you want to watch when there is usually something going on in at least five different venues, and I always aim to see as many Icelandic bands as possible. This year I was surprised that local favourites Mugison and My Summer as a Salvation Soldier were not on the bill, despite both of them having released new albums recently. I hope this doesn't mean they've become too big to play Airwaves. A highlight from previous festivals that I was pleased to see on the bill again this year was Mammút. Their energetic post-punk is always enjoyable and they've finally got round to releasing their second album. Lights On The Highway were slated by many of the reviews in the following day's press, but I enjoyed their '70s psychedelia. Just in case anyone hadn't realised which era they are stuck in, they included a cover of Pink Floyd's "Breathe in the Air". FM Belfast make quirky synthpop (not unlike US acts Yacht/Blow), including an almost unrecognisable cover of Rage Against The Machine's "Killing in the Name", which has become something of a club anthem locally. The band members were very friendly when I found myself having lunch next to them on the final day of the festival.

Seabear play a kind of rustic folk in the style of Sufjan Stevens or Iron & Wine. Their sound, in particular the vocalist, was so similar to the recent crop of great acts coming out of the US that I had to double-check that Seabear are in fact Icelandic. Their wonderful album "The Ghost That Carried Us Away" is released by Morr Music of Berlin, so it may actually be available to readers outside of Iceland who are tempted by the description. Hjaltalín were also compared to Sufjan Stevens in the festival literature, but the wide range of instruments they used put me more in mind of the Arcade Fire or even Birmingham's own Shady Bard.

Unfortunately, if you want to hear more of these bands then you may need to visit Iceland as most of their work is not released internationally. If you do find yourself in Reykjavík, then 12 Tónar is the place to visit. This has rapidly become my favourite shop anywhere in the world; they release most of the local acts through their own label, allow you to take anything you like from the shelves and listen to it on one of the shop's many CD players, and bring you endless cups of coffee while you're deciding what to buy. Their website doesn't feature a complete online shop at the moment, but if you are desperate for any of the music I've described here, just drop them a line and tell them that I sent you - I'm sure they will be happy to arrange international shipping.

This year the guys from 12 Tónar introduced me to the music of Kid Twist and kindly burned me a CD of a few demo tracks that were on the shop's laptop. The band were not performing on the main festival bill, but made a brief mid-afternoon appearance in the shop itself on the first day of the festival. They are obviously influenced by 1960s acts such as the Seeds and the 13th Floor Elevators, but I was reminded more of the noisy psychedelia that was briefly popular in the late '80s/early '90s (Dr. Phibes & the House of Wax Equations in particular) - perhaps because I was around to experience that era first-hand! I guess 12 Tónar may have plans to release something from them soon, although if they do, I think the band's choice of name could cause some confusion. While searching for the band's website, I came across a Scottish electro act and a US DJ, both of them also called Kid Twist.

Iceland Airwaves has now been running for 10 years, and it seems to be more popular each year so there is no reason why it shouldn't continue for many more years. I hope to see some of you there in 2009.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

In a room with a window in the corner I found truth

SHADOWPLAYERS: Factory Records & Manchester Post-Punk 1978-81

"Shadowplayers" is a two-hour documentary, put together by James Nice and released on DVD through his LTM label. It covers the early years of Factory Records, told through reminiscences from label founder Anthony H. Wilson, designer Peter Saville and the label's more prominent artists such as Peter Hook and Vini Reilly, as well as many other Factory acts including Section 25, Crispy Ambulance and A Certain Ratio. Howard Devoto and Killing Joke also get a look-in, despite having no direct connection with the label.

The film is separated into a series of chapters covering aspects such as the founding of the label and Peter Saville's iconic sleeve designs, as well as key historical events including the death of Ian Curtis and the notorious Joy Division gig in Bury that sparked a riot.

"Shadowplayers" provides a fascinating insight into what was a very exciting period in the UK's musical history, and through its first-person recollections manages both to reinforce and dispel many of the popular myths surrounding the label. Perhaps the most interesting parts are the stories about Martin Hannett from those who worked with him. The popular perception of Hannett is of a great producer who was a real pain to work with, and that is certainly backed up by those whose records he produced. Nobody here pays any heed to the old adage of not speaking ill of the dead; at one point Hooky describes Hannett as childish, but ACR go one step further and even criticse his work. Guitarist/trumpeter Martin Moscrop claims that Hannett's very precise production techniques removed all the feeling from their debut album.

The most amusing scene centres around the mutual bitching between Tony Wilson and Section 25's Cassidy brothers. Wilson states that the brothers would win the award for "whingers of the year"; they then prove his point by complaining about the length of time it took to create the artwork for their first release and having to put the records in the sleeves themselves.

If I have one criticism of this documentary, it's the lack of variety in the way it's presented. For a film about a record label, there is surprisingly little in the way of musical content. It consists almost entirely of "talking head" shots of the contributors sitting at home, in recording studios or, in the case of Vini Reilly, outside slumped against a wall. On a couple of occasions, record sleeves are shown; for example, Section 25 hold up the infamously expensive cover of their debut album. But there are no clips of any of the bands playing. This is most apparent when ACR are talking about their image and the clothes they wore onstage in 1980. This would have been best illustrated by a live clip, or at the very least an old photo of the band.

The film is clearly aimed at those who have a prior knowledge of Factory's music and want to learn more about what went on behind the scenes; on that level it is a great success. For anyone wanting an introudction to some of the bands, a better place to start would be the BBC's documentary "Factory: From Joy Division to Happy Mondays", which has been shown several times and I believe is being repeated on BBC4 later this week. If the BBC were to release this on DVD then it would be the perfect complement to James Nice's film.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

When you get out of the hospital...


Five years since the last Spiritualized release, J. Spaceman returns with the album nobody thought he would live to make. Shortly after he started writing songs for this album, Jason was hospitalised with a serious bout of pneumonia and spent two weeks hooked up to a ventilator. His near-death experience has inspired him out of the rut he had fallen into with the previous two albums, and "Songs in A&E" is the most moving and consistent record he has recorded since 1997's "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space".

The overall sound of this record is positive and life-affirming, and it sounds as if Jason is in control again rather than just letting things develop around him as he has done on previous albums. His voice is also much more prominent, instead of being hidden behind layers of gospel singing, as on 2003's "Amazing Grace". The gospel choir is still there, but it is used more sparingly now - to emphasise Jason's contributions rather than to mask his lack of ideas as they seemed to be doing on the previous album.

The lyrics are one of the most interesting aspects. Many of the songs seem to deal with themes of mortality but Jason claims to have written them before his spell in hospital. So, did he foresee his own brush with death? I must admit I've always enjoyed the sonic bliss of Spiritualized over the lyrics as Jason does have a tendency to sing about his drug use above everything else, or at least use drug clichés ("getting high", "coming down" etc.) as metaphors for other aspects of his life. As many of you will know, I'm not keen on people who take drugs and boast about it just to fulfil their idea of a rock & roll lifestyle. As I've always enjoyed Spiritualized's music, I usually try either to ignore the lyrics or to come up with alternative interpretations that map onto my own (drug-free) experiences. However, I've spent a lot of time reading the lyrics of "Songs in A&E" and marvelling at the ambiguities, as I wonder whether Jason may now be considering a healthier way of life. He certainly seems to be expressing his love for his family, and maybe even promising to turn his back on drugs, but if you listen to the songs again you start to wonder if the fire inside his soul (from "I Gotta Fire") and the flame that burns in his heart (from "Sitting On Fire") are chemically rather than emotionally stimulated. The latter song in particular made me think of the potential double meaning in Lou Reed's "Perfect Day", which seems at first to be a romantic song about spending a day with a loved one, but anyone who's aware of Lou's history will immediately start to suspect that it's heroin that gets him through the day.

There is further mystery in "You Lie You Cheat", where Jason appears to addressing an old rival and waiting for them to fall. But with the overall positive tone of the rest of the album, I like to think that he's actually speaking to himself, perhaps blaming his former drug-taking self for his recent problems, and telling himself to move on from his past life.

Whatever the intentions behind the lyrics, I hope Jason stays healthy and inspired long enough to bring us another record of this quality.

As with previous albums, "Songs in A&E" is available in a number of unusual formats, including a book, a DVD-style case and (the version that I bought) a rather garish green vinyl edition:

Sunday, 29 June 2008

This Is Your Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine - Manchester Apollo
In what has to be the most highly anticipated series of shows so far this century, Kevin Shields has finally got round to playing live for the first time in over 15 years. Having bought the tickets six months ago, and knowing that Shields has a reputation for being an awkward bugger, I wasn't really expecting this show to go ahead. But by the afternoon of the gig, I was feeling more optimistic as I'd spoken to people who had seen the band play at London's Roundhouse the previous week. I also had some idea of what to expect, having got hold of a recording of the warm-up show at the ICA. So, despite warnings that the decibel levels at the London show had exceeded the legal limits, I bravely/foolishly positioned myself directly in front of the left-hand speaker stack, where I could get a good view of Bilinda and also become fully immersed in the psychedelic projections at the back of the stage. I started to feel apprehensive when I noticed that those who'd attended the previous show were standing much further back, but as most readers will be aware, my hearing is already totally wrecked so I didn't think MBV could do any further damage.

At first, the sound levels were not particularly uncomfortable, but gradually built up to a deafening volume towards the end of the set. I'm reliably informed that this is different from last week's shows, which were painful from the very beginning. I guess that most people who didn't attend will want to know exactly what songs are being played. I haven't managed to find a setlist, so I'll try to recreate the listing from memory and by looking at the setlist from the ICA show. I believe the set went something like this:

I Only Said
When You Sleep
You Never Should
When You Wake You're Still In A Dream
Lose My Breath
Only Shallow
Come In Alone
Nothing Much To Lose
To Here Knows When
Blown A Wish
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise

I don't think that's in exactly the right order but it should give some idea of the kind of nostalgia that's on offer. There were some noticeable changes compared to the ICA bootleg that I've been listening to. In Manchester they chose to open with "I Only Said" followed by "When You Sleep", which are undeniably two of the best tracks from "Loveless", but it seems odd that "Only Shallow" had been demoted to later in the show when it's a much more dynamic song and works better as a set-opener. A couple of songs from earlier shows have now been abandoned: "Cigarette In Your Bed" (which they messed up at the ICA and had to start again later in the set) and "Honey Power" (which sounds strangely out of tune on the ICA bootleg) were nowhere to be seen, so I guess Kevin's notorious sense of quality control had kicked in. The biggest surprise was the inclusion of "Lose My Breath", one of the band's more delicate songs. This provided a nice contrast to the rest of the set, but with my ears ringing from the previous noisy offerings, I didn't fully appreciate Bilinda's beautiful vocal delivery.

There have been countless rumours circulating about what Kevin Shields has been doing since 1992, many of them concerning how many albums' worth of material he has written. However, there have been no new songs played at any of the reunion shows so far, so I think the chances of getting a new MBV album before Shields dies of old age are pretty slim.

The set finished, of course, with the classic "You Made Me Realise", with the central white noise section being drawn out to 20 minutes. This was clearly very trying for some members of the audience, who held their ears or moved to the back of the room. I managed to remain in my prime spot for the full duration, but I may live to regret this if I find that the final traces of my hearing have disappeared within the next few days. There don't seem to be any clips available on YouTube yet, but I have found a video of the finale of the London show, which looks very similar:

I guess this won't be everyone's idea of entertainment, but if I never get to see another gig, I will still be satisfied that I've finally seen "You Made Me Realise" played live (and survived!)

Thursday, 12 June 2008

With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly

"Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust", the latest album from Sigur Rós, will be released later this month. If you want to hear it now, the entire album is available for streaming from online radio station

I've only listened to it a couple of times so far, but my intitial reaction was that it sounds like a natural progression from "Takk" but maybe a little more poppy. Obviously I use that word loosely, but it's definitely more accessible than earlier releases such as "Von" and "Ágætis Byrjun". I may well write about it in more detail once it's released... which brings me to my dilemma. The band's official website has a pre-order option for a "deluxe edition", costing £60, which is packaged in a hardback book of photographs (probably similar to the packaging of last year's "Heima" DVD) and contains a bonus DVD. This won't be available until late September, about three months after the regular version is released. So the main question is whether I can wait that long. Plus I have already bought several expensive limited edition releases in the past six months or so (Radiohead, Coil and the Current 93 subscribers' editon that I have paid for but won't be released until the end of the year), therefore I'm also wondering if I can justify forking out £60 for something else.

I know that there are Sigur Rós fans who will be reading this and that most of you bought the expensive vinyl edition of the last Radiohead album, so I'd be interested to hear if anyone plans to buy this one.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Should I send him nasty letters? Should I push him off his bike?


I spotted this 7” single in the weekly mailout of my regular mail order company and, without knowing anything about David Cronenberg’s Wife, I had to order it simply because it has the best band name and song title of the year. Thankfully the music lives up to the promise of the title. The song starts with some great surf guitar, then the singer comes in, sounding like Lou Reed, or 90s favourites The Flaming Stars, or… something else. This is really bugging me as the drawling vocals remind me of a 90s band (possibly even a specific song) and I can’t work out what it is. If anyone has any idea which band I’m thinking of then please let me know.

It soon becomes apparent that the vocalist is a potential psychopath, as he ponders various methods of getting revenge on his former friend, before the song climaxes with a terrific garage rock racket, including what sounds like bottles being smashed.

I recommend getting hold of this single if you can find it, but it is quite limited. In case you can’t find a copy, here is the video, which manages to be funny and slightly disturbing at the same time:

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Always different, always the same


So here we are – another year, another Fall album. When I first saw this one advertised, I thought it was one of those semi-official compilations that seem to appear just as frequently as actual studio albums. The title could easily have been generated by a computer program that picks random words to come up with possible names for Fall albums, and the cover art looks as if it has been deliberately designed to resemble the albums of the early 90s ("Extricate"/"Shift Work"/"Code Selfish"). However, I soon discovered that it contains completely new material, including a few surprises.

At first, it seems to be following the same pattern as the last few albums: totally forgettable opening song does nothing to instil hope, but then tracks 2 and 3 blow you away with classic Fall riffs and Mark E. Smith spitting out the words in his inimitable style. So we appear to be in familiar territory, until track 3, "50 Year Old Man", gives way to a strange banjo instrumental. A quick glance at the stereo reveals that this is not the next track, but "50 Year Old Man" is actually 12 minutes long and split into four distinct sections. Yes, you heard me correctly – The Fall go prog rock! It has been suggested that the four parts symbolise each decade of the band's career, although I’m not sure which era the banjo is supposed to represent. More surprises follow with the next song, "I've Been Duped". Again, it starts off like classic Fall, until the vocals kick in but it's not Mark, it's his wife (and keyboard player) Eleni Poulou. Once you get past the shock of a Fall song without MES, this one is very effective and is slightly reminiscent of the Slits, or possibly Kleenex/Liliput.

The cover of the Groundhogs' "Strangetown" doesn't quite work, mainly because it appears to be skipping all the way through. I inspect the CD for dust or scratches, then wonder if I have a duff copy before a quick read of the unofficial Fall website tells me that it's supposed to sound like that. Now I know I listen to some pretty strange music but even I can't quite see the logic in producing a CD so that it sounds like it's faulty.

The last half of the album contains a sequence of great tracks, in particular "Is This New" where the lyrics and vocal delivery remind me of mid-80s Fall. While nobody would deny that Mark E. Smith's voice is instantly recognisable on any track from the past 30 years, I do think that there are noticeable differences when you contrast recent vocals with those from early Fall songs; I guess he just sounds older and more world-weary now. But on "Is This New", his voice sounds much fresher and it brings back happy memories of my first encounter with the band during my teenage years.

After just a couple of listens, I found that I was enjoying this album more than anything they've released in the last 10 years, so if you're a fan of classic Fall but not familiar with the recent releases, this would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Come Back In Two Halves

WIRE - Manchester Academy 2
This weekend, Wire played their only UK show of the year, as part of the Futuresonic festival in Manchester. The evening began at the Contact Theatre where the band were interviewed on a sofa by legendary punk journalist John Robb, who is still sporting the same hairstyle that he's had for the past 25 years. The first thing I noticed as the band walked onstage was that Bruce Gilbert was missing. There was an extra chair laid out so I assumed they were expecting him to turn up later. If I'd bothered to check the band's website recently then I would have known that he only made minimal contributions to the recent EP and has now quit the band. The interview seemed disorganised and also a little awkward. There was only one microphone, which was passed between band members until they decided they could manage without it, and Robb did not seem to have planned enough questions to fill the allocated time. The band seemed like they would rather not have been there. Colin was fairly relaxed and did most of the talking, Robert said nothing for most of the conversation until the interviewer directly asked him a question. Graham looked tired (he explained that they had come straight from the soundcheck) and at one point appeared to have fallen asleep. He was also very irritable and responded aggressively to some of the questions, in particular he tore Robb to shreds when it was suggested that the "Pink Flag" album had a typical punk sound. I wasn't sure if this was just down to tiredness; it almost seemed that there was some long-standing tension between the two parties. However, in one of his calmer moments, Graham did mention that he felt sad to be back in Manchester and not be able to meet up with Tony Wilson. Partway through the interview, an audience member interrupted with a question. I don't think Robb had intended for there to be audience participation but he soon realised that this could rescue him as he was rapidly running out of questions of his own, so he opened the session up to the crowd. Inevitably, someone asked about Bruce and the response from the band was a little cagey. They explained that he no longer wanted to tour but it seemed there may be more to his departure than they were telling us. They were also asked for their views on Britpop and I was pleased to discover that they seem to dislike that period in music history nearly as much as I do. Unfortunately Robb soon decided that we were out of time so I never got to ask my question.

Photo: Bvrlyjn

After a quick bite to eat at the Deaf Insitute (which sadly does not cater specifically for deaf customers; it just takes its name from the charity that inhabited the building before it was turned into a bar) we headed to the Academy for the evening's main entertainment. By this stage I was starting to worry about how well the band would work without Bruce, and also whether Graham could stay awake until 10.30 when their set was due to begin. I noticed a laptop near the front of the stage so I started to suspect that they were replacing Bruce with electronic sounds. However, when the band took to the stage I discovered that they had drafted in Margaret Fiedler (from Moonshake/Laika) as a replacement. The laptop did not appear to be used at all. It was a very guitar-driven set with no discernible electronic elements so I can only assume that the screen was displaying the lyrics in case Colin forgot them. Although the band gave an impressive performance, the show suffered from poor sound quality for the first half. By the end, things seemed to have improved slightly but this may just have been because we had grown accustomed to the distortion, or perhaps the band were deliberately playing more aggressively to distract us from it. The structure of the show was also rather strange. The band played for about 30 minutes, concentrating mainly on "Send"/"Read and Burn" material with one, I think, or possibly two new songs. "Being Sucked In Again" was the only 1970s song played during the main part of the show. Colin handled most of the vocals, with Graham taking over for the most aggressive version of "Agfers of Kodack" that I've heard them play. His delivery suggested that he was still seething from the earlier encounter with John Robb. After leaving us wondering if they only had enough energy to play for 30 minutes, the band returned for three encores, which consisted of "Boiling Boy" and a host of "Pink Flag"/"154" songs, including "The 15th", "Lowdown", "12XU" (so frantic it was nearly over before I realised what it was) before ending with "Pink Flag" itself.

Although I didn't get the same buzz from this show that I got the last time I saw them back in 2000 (when the sound was better and the set was more varied), it was apparent that Wire have written some of the best material to come out of the UK in the last 30 years and they can still put on a better performance than most of today's young bands.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Talk About The Passion


For a short time back in the late 1980s, I would probably have described R.E.M. as my favourite band. But my relationship with them started to sour as far back as “Automatic for the People”, and I have to admit that I’ve not even bothered to listen to their last release “Around the Sun”, as the two that preceded it were so limp and lifeless.
So you’ll understand why I approached this album with some trepidation, despite being promised that the band are back on form. The first thing that I noticed about “Accelerate” is that it’s only 34 minutes in length, possibly the shortest album they’ve recorded (but I wasn’t anal enough to dig out all the others just to check). To me, this is a good sign, as I often get bored with bands who feel they have to use the full capacity of a CD just because it’s there. The overall feel of the album is loud and fast, but thankfully it sounds nothing like the sludgy mess of 1994’s “Monster”, their previous attempt at a “rock” album. Many of the tracks sound more like beefed-up versions of material from their IRS heyday; the Byrds-like guitar sound is back, the lyrics are more cryptic than they have been in recent years, and Stipe’s vocal delivery is so urgent that you need to refer to the lyric sheet to catch everything he says.
While there is no doubt that this album is a product of the 21st century, it could still sit comfortably between “Fables of the Reconstruction” and “Lifes Rich Pageant” (my favourite R.E.M. album, despite the missing apostrophe in its title). The band are obviously aware of this sense of nostalgia; the two more folky numbers, “Houston” and “Until The Day Is Done”, are both reminiscent of “Swan Swan H”, and the lyrics of “Sing For The Submarine” make a sly reference to “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”.
“Accelerate” is not without its faults. Closing track “I’m Gonna DJ” comes across as a little cheesy, with Stipe telling us of his plans to “DJ at the end of the world” and how heaven has a “kickin’ playlist”. My grievance with this song is a very personal one, as I’ve always found that songs about DJs make me cringe, probably because I worked as a DJ for many years. Other listeners may see “I’m Gonna DJ” as a follow-up to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” and a fun way to end the album.
So, overall this is not quite a classic R.E.M. album, but it’s closer than I would have dared to hope for. For any former fans who have been avoiding R.E.M. for the past 10 years, this could be a good time to re-acquaint yourself with the band.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Welcome, and the five best albums you’ve never heard

Hello and welcome to anyone who has accidentally stumbled across my initial attempt at a blog. I’ve just started this page because over a couple of drinks after work last week, a colleague persuaded me that I should start to publish my thoughts on music. The plan is to include reviews of some of my latest purchases, plus a few recommendations of releases from the long-distant past that you may not otherwise have heard of. I’m not sure how often it will be updated, but to begin with I thought I would dig out an old article that I wrote a few years ago for a departmental magazine at work. This magazine usually featured news of who was leaving, having a baby etc alongside a few adverts for rooms to let, so I’m not sure what the regular readers made of my musical recommendations. I never found out if any of my colleagues went out and bought one of the albums after reading the article, so I suspect it might mean more to readers of this blog:

Whenever I see one of those “All-time top 100 albums” polls, the kind favoured by Channel 4 or Q Magazine, where the Beatles and Radiohead always come out on top, I think it’s a great shame that the people voting don’t show a bit more imagination. While most of the albums that appear in these lists also feature in my all-encompassing record collection, there are far more interesting releases that never get a look-in. So in a special one-off, here are the five albums you would all own if only you knew they existed.


Cult underground hero and cat-lover David Michael Tibet has been making music for nearly 25 years. Aided and abetted by Nurse With Wound’s Steve Stapleton, his career has steadily progressed from near-unlistenable industrial soundscapes (I would advise readers to approach his early ‘80s work with caution) to the most delicate of acoustic folk. On this, one of his most moving releases, Tibet ponders such tricky subjects as lost love and what happens to his cats when they die.


As always, Bob Pollard tries to cram as many songs into 40 minutes as possible. Several of the tracks clock in at under a minute but these guitar-driven American pop tunes are so catchy they have you reaching for the repeat button. However, it’s Pollard’s eccentric lyrics that make GBV one of the leaders in their field – sample lines: “I’ve lost all my money to a 300 pound ghost”; “A necklace of 50 eyes is yours to keep”. Those of you familiar with my campaign against bad grammar will realise just how good this album must be when I say I’m prepared to overlook the fact that two of the songs contain a split infinitive.


Wire’s debut “Pink Flag” often turns up in lists of essential albums but their second album offers a much more varied listen, as they start to move away from the 100mph punk thrash and experiment with more atmospheric pieces. Just like the Guided By Voices album, ‘Chairs Missing’ features a host of very short songs, each one with a totally different sound from the preceding one and inventive/meaningless (depending on your mood!) lyrics. This is a very British record though, and was a big influence on the Britpop scene of the mid-90s. However, Blur and Elastica never turned out anything this creative.


Prolapse are not easy to categorise. The Fall and Sonic Youth are obvious reference points but the dual vocal attack sets them apart from their contemporaries. A woman with a vaguely posh-sounding voice tells us about claustrophobia and the contents of her bedroom floor, while a drunken Scotsman rants incoherently over the top of her. The album comes with two lyric sheets, one for each of the singers, and Scottish Mick’s words are printed phonetically, just like in the books of Irvine Welsh.


Perhaps the most mainstream album in this list, but how many people actually own it? Worth owning for the opening track “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” alone (possibly THE greatest single of the 1970s?), the Mael brothers’ blend of glam rock, synth pop and operatic vocals is years ahead of its time. As with the other albums on my list, a good album is turned into a great one by the imaginative lyrics. The humour displayed on each of the tracks makes it obvious why Morrissey is a fan. A true classic, marred only by the fact that Ron Mael looks like Hitler.