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...