Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Guitar And Other Machines


Scott Sinfield, co-founder of the label Make Mine Music, has been recording under the name Portal since 1996. He has now decided to abandon that name, partly because of the associations that go with it. As he put it himself recently, it does have certain "Dungeons and Dragons" connotations. There are also a number of other acts using the same name. Whenever I search for Portal's music on sites such as Last.fm or Spotify, I am presented with a death metal band wearing scary masks. So it would certainly be less confusing if he started to use a different name.

To mark the end of Portal, Scott has put together "Home Recording Is Killing Music", a compilation that includes almost everything that he released under that name. He claims that it contains exactly 100 tracks, although I have only counted 94. It may be that I've miscounted as my brain is probably not functioning correctly after a week of excessive gig-going, or perhaps Scott is counting the extended piece "Music For Broadcast" as several tracks, even though it is packaged as a single MP3. But let's not quibble about the precise number of songs, the important thing here is that Scott has very kindly offered to give away the whole lot completely free of charge. He wants as many people as possible to download and share these tracks without feeling guilty. They can be downloaded from a blog, which also contains notes on the history of each song:

Within the blog, the tracks are sorted into a number of separate pages, representing the original Portal album and EP releases. If you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the entire archive, you can just download the tracks from an individual Portal album.

Portal's music has encompassed several different styles over the last 13 years, but it is often referred to by the general category of "dreampop". Some releases have more electronic elements than others, but the constant factor is Scott's very precise musicianship. If I had to compare Portal to one act, it would probably be The Durutti Column. I can't say for certain if this is a conscious influence on Scott's playing, but I would guess that it is and that he would be flattered by the comparison. An early Portal track, "Celebration", has the subtitle "Vini" and I am assuming that this is a reference to Vini Reilly. Another more obscure reference point that I sometimes spot in Portal's music is the Nuneaton duo, Eyeless In Gaza.

For anyone who is feeling slightly overwhelmed by the huge amount of music available in this archive, I would recommend the album "Reprise" as a good place to start. This was Scott's first collaboration with vocalist Rachel Hughes, and the combination of her voice with the luscious textures suggests something that would have been released on 4AD. I'm listening to this now as I type this article and the sound perfectly complements the snowy landscape I can see from my window.

"Prehistory" is also worth checking out. As the title suggests, it contains some of the earliest Portal recordings. Many of these are fairly simple in their structure, and less reliant on technology than some of the later tracks. The cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound", again featuring Rachel on vocals, is simply stunning.

By way of contrast, the final release, the "Options" EP, is Scott's attempt at a classic synthpop sound. It could easily be a New Order release from the mid-80s, and is one of my favourite singles from the past year. It features guest vocals from Glen Johnson, a name that should be familiar to regular readers of these pages.

These are just a few of my choices from Portal's back catalogue; I would recommend anyone with a bit of time to kill over the Christmas break to download as much of the archive as you can, and also please pass on the link to anyone who might not have read this post. Although Portal is no more, Scott has promised to return in the new year under a different name. I'm not sure whether this new music will continue in the same vein as "Options", or if we will be treated to something entirely different. But whatever Scott has in mind for this new project, I'm sure it will be worth the wait.

Monday, 21 December 2009

This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD - Birmingham 02 Academy

As is usually the case in the run-up to Christmas, I find myself with more gigs than it is humanly possible to attend. What looks like turning into an exhausting week kicks off at the newly-opened Academy with the return, after a 17-year absence, of Public Image Ltd. I am expecting to be disappointed, for a number of reasons. The show marks the 30th anniversary of the band's classic second album, "Metal Box", but John Lydon is the only one present who played on that release. Original guitarist Keith Levene is nowhere to be seen and, more worryingly, Jah Wobble, whose basslines defined the band's early sound, has not been invited back, having fallen out with Lydon in the early 1980s. I am uncertain whether Lydon will be able to carry off the "Metal Box" tracks without these key players.

I am also concerned about how Lydon himself is going to behave, and whether he is going to make a mockery of PiL's reputation. In recent years, he has become something of a cartoon character, with appearances on "I'm a Celebrity..." and butter adverts, and many people still think of him as Johnny Rotten. I've always thought it a shame that he is remembered for the Sex Pistols, who were really just a short-lived novelty act, when PiL produced much more enduring material. Lydon seems to feel this way too, as he often talks of PiL as his first love. During the early years of the band, a lot of his lyrics (and not just the ones that were a blatant attack on Malcolm McLaren) seemed to express a desire for independence and to prove that he did not need anyone to run the band for him.

Despite this disproportionate media focus on his time with the Sex Pistols, PiL have become the latest name to drop amongst trendy, NME-approved newcomers, who I suspect have never actually listened to "Metal Box". Lydon makes reference to this before tonight's show has even started. He apologises for being "the band that taught all those fucking second-rate wankers how to play" before storming into the only song that could possibly open the set, the 1978 debut single, "Public Image". This is the most straightforward punk song that PiL ever recorded and is perhaps the closest they ever got to the sound of the Pistols, but it is still light years ahead of anything on "Never Mind The Bollocks". After that, the pace is slower, giving new bassist Scott Firth a chance to prove that he can handle the dub-inflected lines from the "Metal Box" songs almost as well as Jah Wobble. Lydon tells us that each one of the songs means something, and this is apparent from the emotion that he puts into the delivery. "Death Disco", a song about watching his mother die from cancer, sounds even more distorted than usual, while "Albatross" actually seems slightly more funk-influenced and maybe not quite as unlistenable as it did when it opened "Metal Box". I've always thought that this song referred to casting off the chains of the Sex Pistols, and perhaps celebrity in general. It is clear tonight that after 30 years, Lydon has still not managed to get rid of his own personal albatross, whatever that may be. Between songs, he is chatty and almost camp at times, joking with the crowd and sarcastically scolding us for cheering "Poptones", a song about being raped and dumped in a forest to die. The songs themselves are often very dark and Lydon's delivery of them seems to conflict with his otherwise jovial nature. It's not clear whether there are two contrasting sides to his character. I am inclined to think that the schoolboy prankster is just a mask he still feels compelled to use after 30 years, and only in his songs is the true, cynical John Lydon allowed to come to the fore.

The darkest moments come during the three songs from "Flowers of Romance", PiL's least-accessible album, consisting of just percussion and Lydon's wailing voice. I've always enjoyed this album but been wary of recommending it to anyone else, so I am heartened when a friend who has only just got the hang of "Metal Box" suggests that he might try "Flowers of Romance" next, on the strength of the live songs. We are also treated to a handful of songs from the tail-end of PiL's career, but it seems that Lydon realises that these are never going to stand up to comparisons with the early material, if the bias in the setlist towards the first few albums is anything to go by. More surprisingly, the set also includes two songs from Lydon's solo album (has anyone actually listened to that?) and as a final encore, we get "Open Up", his 1990s collaboration with Leftfield, making use of the laptops dotted around the stage. Despite this song being very different musically from the rest of the material, it highlights how Lydon's distinctive voice can be put to good use in different surroundings.

The full setlist, for those of you concerned with such trivia, went something like this, although probably not exactly in this order:
Public Image / Careering / This Is Not A Love Song / Poptones / Tie Me To The Length Of That / Albatross / The Suit / Death Disco / Four Enclosed Walls / Flowers Of Romance / Disappointed / Warrior / USLS 1 / Psychopath / Banging The Door / Bags / Chant / Memories / Annalisa / Religion
Encore: Sun / Rise / Open Up

I have to admit that I am often guilty of deciding in advance what my opinion of a gig will be. With PiL, I even had the basis of a review in mind weeks before the gig happened. I had convinced myself that I would need to use Lydon's famous catchphrase, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" I'm glad that for once, my preconceptions were shattered. With over two and a quarter hours of music, taking in some of the most innovative songs in Lydon's repertoire, I don't think anyone could complain that he had cheated us. Although no new material was aired, there is talk of a new album if Lydon can raise enough money from this tour to pay for the studio time. He clearly still has the attitude so let's hope he also still has the imagination to give us another "Metal Box".

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Colour, Sound, Oblivion

EFTERKLANG - Birmingham Asylum

I had been debating all week whether to attend this show. On the same night, Ben Calvert was putting on one of his regular Bohemian Jukebox events, which seemed like the more convenient option, being in a central location. The Asylum is, I believe, a new venue, located in a part of town I never visit and I had no idea how to get there. Despite feeling a certain loyalty to Ben, my curiosity got the better of me at the last minute and I decided to take a psychogeographic wander through the industrial wasteland to the north of the city centre and check out the new venue. The disused buildings I passed on the way provide the perfect setting for what seems to be primarily a rock/metal club, but Efterklang don't quite fit in with these surroundings. They soon make me forget the bleak scenery outside and instead I start to think of their Danish homeland.

I have listened to most of the band's recorded work at home and found it very atmospheric and relaxing. The live show, however, is something else entirely. It is far more rhythmic than I was expecting and two things become apparent as soon as they take to the stage. Firstly, they have two drummers, like Adam and the Ants. Secondly, one of the drummers plays standing up, like the Jesus and Mary Chain. They don't really sound like either of those bands, although comparisons could perhaps be drawn with the rhythmic elements of the Ants' early work. The sit-down drummer sometimes stands up and plays a trumpet. The stand-up drummer also sings, sometimes engaging in luscious harmonies with the female keyboard player. When he's not doing this, he roams the stage playing a variety of hand-held percussion instruments, or just drumming on the ceiling. The music often has an epic, cinematic sound and it seems lazy to compare it to Sigur Rós, so I won't do that. It is reminiscent of a whole host of bands: recent Faust, or perhaps even King Crimson, but the band that repeatedly springs to mind is Mercury Rev. This similarity is impossible to miss on the songs that feature a flute, also played by the singing keyboard lady; nobody here is content with one instrument. What I'm talking about here is the proper Mercury Rev, which many readers may not know or care for. I don't mean the washed-out sound of their last couple of albums, I mean the Mercury Rev of the early 1990s, when they were doing something truly exciting and their live shows were always unpredictable. It has saddened me to watch their gradual decline over the last few years, so it's uplifting to see that their original spirit lives on in Efterklang.

The band's name is the Danish word for "reverberation" and is also sometimes used to mean "remembrance". Both of these are very appropriate, given the band's overall sound and also the feelings they invoke in those present. While I've never had any real experience of synesthesia, if I had to use one word to describe Efterklang's sound, it would probably be "colourful". The artwork for their new live album resembles a Paul Klee painting, and if you close your eyes when listening to their music, this is the kind of abstract image that you might conjure up. The geometric shapes in contrasting colours could be thought of as representing the different instruments and musical styles that combine in Efterklang's work. They should clash terribly but when brought together, these diverse elements form something unexpectedly beautiful.

During "Step Aside", the singer starts to wander around before disappearing backstage. It's not clear whether he is looking for something in particular, or has just been inspired to explore his surroundings by the music coming at him from all sides. He returns after a short while, having found what he was looking for; a glockenspiel. He uses this to play a single note at the climax of the song. The instrument is then discarded and is not used for the rest of the show. However, this small act generates a cheer from the crowd and highlights how each individual element, no matter how tiny, is equally significant to the structure of one of Efterklang's songs.

The most enjoyable gigs are often the ones that you go into with no particular level of anticipation, so that they take you by surprise. With Efterklang, I was prepared for an evening of pleasant ambience. I did not expect something that left me still feeling invigorated two days later. I have since revisited their "Parades" album but have been unable to recapture the heights of the live show. If you are intrigued by what I've written then by all means try their recorded output, which has its own artistic merits. But the true joy of Efterklang can only be discovered when you are standing a few feet away from them. These two live clips may give you some idea of what I'm talking about. (You can see me for about two seconds, right at the end of the second clip as the band are leaving the stage.) Those of you with access to services such as eMusic or Spotify might like to do a quick comparison between these clips and one of their albums; there is an amazing level of energy and passion in the live show that they don't quite manage to capture on record.

If anyone in Leeds reads this in time, you could do a lot worse than getting yourself down to Stylus at the Leeds University Union tonight where Efterklang are playing as part of the Brainwash festival. After that, the band are on a tour of Europe, so let's hope they return to the UK soon.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Australian Melodrama


This is not a new album; it's actually been out for almost 10 years but I only discovered it about a week ago. Rowland Stuart Howard, for the uninitiated, was the guitarist and occasional songwriter in 1980s Australian punks, The Birthday Party. After the band's split in 1983 (due to that old favourite, "creative differences" between Howard and main songwriter Nick Cave) he was far less prolific than his former bandmate. After a few collaborations with the likes of Lydia Lunch and ex-Swell Maps frontman Nikki Sudden, Howard formed a short-lived band called These Immortal Souls and then disappeared from the public eye in the mid-1990s.

He has recently released an excellent 7" called "Pop Crimes" (hopefully paving the way for a new album) and this led me to investigate what he's been doing for the past 15 years. Not much, it seems; when I discovered that, before the new single, he had only released one record since the demise of These Immortal Souls, I decided I should check it out immediately. I wasn't disappointed, as "Teenage Snuff Film" has barely left my turntable since it arrived.

Within seconds of the first song starting, it becomes apparent what a great voice Howard has. It is similar to Richard Hawley's deep crooning, but far more menacing. This is the first of several similarities with Hawley's new album. Both records are built around the recurring theme of a failed relationship, but while Hawley chooses to deal with his heartbreak in an adult fashion and settles for mellow reflection, Howard clearly has revenge in mind, with titles such as "I Burnt Your Clothes". When he spits out the line "My darling I never knew, how hard it was to get rid of you" in the song "Breakdown (and then...)" you suspect he's contemplating how to dispose of the body.

Another attraction is Howard's guitar playing. His role in The Birthday Party was to bury everything under layers of feedback, but his playing style has evolved and much of the guitar work here echoes the finest moments in Johnny Cash's back catalogue. To give you some idea of his talent, here he is playing the opening track from "Teenage Snuff Film" in a record shop in Melbourne last year:

I'm still kicking myself for missing out on this album for so long. If, in a few years' time, I decide to update the opening entry in this blog and list another five great albums that most people have never heard, "Teenage Snuff Film" is sure to be included.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Late Night Final


It's been a couple of months since I last posted anything here. This is down to a mixture of laziness and minor health problems. Over the past two weeks, I've gone slightly overboard with new music purchases so I now feel the need to share some of them with you. I have a pile of albums from Rowland S. Howard, At Swim Two Birds, Porcupine Tree and a few others waiting to be dealt with and I'll try to post a quick summary of some of these over the next few days, but I'm bound to run out of time. I should probably start with Richard Hawley, as this is the most high-profile release of the week.

I guess I don't need to give too much background information on Richard Hawley, and many of you will have heard at least one of his previous releases, unlike some of the more obscure artists I review here. Hawley had stated that the title of his last album, "Lady's Bridge", as well as being a location in Sheffield, referred to crossing a bridge in his personal life and his career. The music on that album displayed a definite change from earlier releases; he had discarded most of the blues and rockabilly elements and moved firmly into an area that had been hinted at previously, a world inhabited by the likes of Gene Pitney and The Everly Brothers. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed "Lady's Bridge", as the sound was reminiscent of something my mother would have listened to in her youth, and would probably still enjoy now. Back in the 1990s, when Hawley was a member of Britpop also-rans The Longpigs, it would have been hard to imagine him singing ballads in this style, or me and my fellow DJs at the time getting excited about it.

Hawley is now clearly on that side of the bridge, and on "Truelove's Gutter" he has developed the sound into something much darker. The instrumentation is slightly sparser than on "Lady's Bridge" and he appears to have been more experimental in his choice of instruments. The credits list such items as cristal baschet, glass harmonica, musical saw and waterphone. I'm not entirely sure what all of these things are, but I'm guessing they are responsible for the atmospheric textures found on many of the songs. Lyrically, it is also his bleakest work to date. Prior to its release, Hawley explained that the songs are based on the trials and tribulations of his own life. It could almost be described as a concept album, with each track seemingly narrated by the same character: a man reflecting on a broken relationship, blaming himself and pleading with his lover to return. I'm not sure how much of this actually comes from Hawley's life. As far as I'm aware, he has been happily married for some time, so maybe there are people from his distant past now listening to this album and wondering if it's about them.

The real beauty of Hawley's lyrics is the way he writes about real life in a way that makes it easy for any listener to relate to the songs. There are at least two songs here that seem to describe very clearly events from my own life. This was obviously quite unsettling the first time I played the album, but ultimately makes it a very rewarding listen. It somehow doesn't seem right for me to go into explicit detail about which songs struck a personal chord with me, so instead I will suggest that readers try to find connections with their own lives in Hawley's songs.

One thing that struck me as odd before I had even listened to the record is the way the lyrics are presented on the sleeve. Each song is displayed on a handwritten scroll, gradually becoming blurred towards the bottom of the page and partially obscured by old coins, pieces of jewellery, seashells etc. Initially I was irritated by this, as it made the lyrics hard to read, but it soon became apparent that this should just be treated as part of the cover art and not an actual lyric sheet. Hawley's voice is so clear that every word he sings can be heard without the need for printed lyrics. There are very few current artists about whom you could say that, so this is yet another reminder of the music of the 1950s. I'm sure all of us have had our taste in music criticised by our parents because "you can't hear the words".

I'm not sure if this is Hawley's best album, as many reviews have suggested. Lyrically he has certainly outshone previous efforts. However, the sound is perhaps a little too consistent, to the extent that when "Soldier On" explodes into its climactic ending, it comes as a relief just to have a little variety. This song displays the kind of drama that Nick Cave often injects into his ballads, and Hawley should consider incorporating more of this into his next album.

I am currently asking myself whether I need to see this album played live. Hawley is playing what is bound to be an expensive gig at the Town Hall in a couple of weeks. I saw him on his last tour and it was an enjoyable show but can I justify forking out to see him again? Psych-guitarist James Blackshaw is playing at another venue on the same night, probably for a quarter of the price, so I'm considering seeing him instead. Are any regular readers going to either of these gigs? I'm not sure if "Truelove's Gutter" will be so meaningful when heard in a large venue; it works better alone with the curtains drawn and a glass of whisky.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Agitate, Educate, Organize...

THAT PETROL EMOTION - Birmingham Academy

It was a rather poor turnout for the return of the Ulster/Seattle rockers, with the Academy 2 barely half-full. It was good to be one of the youngest people in the audience for once, as I found myself amidst a number of hardcore fans who had probably been following the band since 1985, with quite a few old, faded t-shirts from early tours on display. As with several gigs I've attended recently, I was hoping to relive part of my teenage years. I was particularly keen to see singer Steve Mack again, as for a brief period in 1987 I had been obsessed with him (in a purely heterosexual way, of course) after seeing this clip on Channel 4's "The Tube":

That performance made a lasting impression on my 16-year-old mind and for a while I thought he was the coolest person on the planet, although I ditched him as a style icon a few years later when he started to sport bleached dreadlocks.

I was wondering how the band would have survived the ravages of time. Obviously they look a little older now, but one of the O'Neill brothers (I'm not sure which one is which; the one with the glasses, anyway) was still quite fresh-faced and Steve Mack was in fine form. He certainly looks better now than in his dreadlocked phase and most importantly, he is still as energetic as he was 20 years ago and still performing the same dance moves that I first witnessed on "The Tube". He soon had most of the audience dancing but few of us had the stamina to keep up with him.

Although the performance was undeniably intense and it was a joy to see that Steve Mack has lost none of his charm over the last 20 years, the setlist was surprising and, I have to admit, a little disappointing. It was heavily biased in the direction of the last two albums (which I've never listened to that much) with a couple of songs from "Manic Pop Thrill" and just one song from "Babble" - I'm sure you can guess which song.

While I don't like bands to be predictable and just play the hits, it seems odd that what is, to many people, their best release has been sidelined like this. I heard several shouts for "Swamp" from people at the front, and a friend asked me if I thought we were likely to get any more tunes from "Babble" as this was the only one of their albums that he really knew. It may just be that in their old age, the band find that the more recent songs are still fresh in their minds, but I'm wondering if they have decided that "Babble" no longer fits in with the vibe that they want to create.

I've never consciously thought about this before, but "Babble" is very different from their other albums. It has a harder guitar sound, courtesy of producer Roli Mosimann (better known for his work with the likes of Swans and Foetus) and the overall feel of the album is much more serious than anything that TPE released before or after it. It is overtly political, both lyrically and in the newspaper headlines and slogans that emblazon the sleeve, making references to the situation in Northern Ireland at the time of recording. Many of their later songs, particularly the ones aired at this gig - "Sensitize", "Tingle", "Hey Venus" etc. - are lighter in their sound and subject matter. It seems TPE now prefer their shows to be about having a good time and forgetting about the problems in the world. Which is a shame, because with the current political and financial state of the UK, the songs from "Babble" have never been more relevant.

I'm not sure how permanent this reunion will be and if they plan to record new material; I didn't notice any new songs played during the show. I would love to see them again, as Steve Mack is still one of the best frontmen I've witnessed live, regardless of which songs are played. But next time if they could include, at the very least, "Swamp" and "Creeping To The Cross", then I'm sure many people would go home very happy indeed.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

And what costume shall the poor girl wear...


Last weekend's ATP festival in Minehead had over 40 artists performing. I only managed to catch a fraction of these, so I'll give a quick summary of the highlights. I half-heartedly watched a bit of Giant Sand after we arrived on Friday, but didn't really take much of it in. The first band I watched properly was Throwing Muses, who were the main reason I'd come to the festival. Now a trio with Kristin Hersh joined by Bernard Georges on bass and original drummer David Narcizo, the band have become more frenzied and at times during their performance the boundaries with Kristin's hardcore project 50 Foot Wave became blurred. The first part of the set was drawn mainly from the 2003 self-titled album and the mid-'90s releases "University" and "Limbo". Towards the end, the focus changed and we were treated to some older material such as "Bea" and "Vicky's Box" (the song I had most wanted to hear) before a frantic run through "Mania" closed the set. It seemed to be a cutdown version of the setlist from the video that Kristin recently sent out to fans. I have always preferred this kind of show, where a band doesn't have a new album to promote so they are free to choose material from all of their albums equally. But to be fair, the choice of songs wasn't that important to me; if Kristin had just stood there and read out her shopping list I would still have been entertained. If I have one complaint about the performance, it was a little too loud. At times the subtle aspects of Kristin's guitar playing were lost in the overall volume. This could be because I was standing too close to the speakers at the front; this clip of "Speed and Sleep" was shot by someone standing further back (at one point I think I can see the back of my head) and the sound is reasonably clear:

It's interesting to see the rapt expressions on the band members' faces in that clip. All three of them are locked into their own playing, yet they still manage to work together coherently. The problem with having Throwing Muses play so early in the weekend was that everything else was something of an anticlimax. It's a pity that Kristin didn't play a solo set as well, but then she is a working mum so I guess we shouldn't demand too much from her.

I didn't see much else of note on Friday, although I did quite enjoy Bon Iver's set. I'd written their album off as being pleasant but not as good as everyone has made it out to be, but I may revisit it in the light of this performance.

Saturday's proceedings kicked off with Wire. I wasn't sure what to expect, having been disappointed with their last album, but I needn't have worried, as even the songs from "Object 47" sounded more ferocious than anything else I heard all weekend. This suggests that it's the production that is to blame for the lacklustre sound of that album, rather than the songs. It still seems odd to see Wire without Bruce Gilbert, but Margaret Fiedler now looks more comfortable in her role and for the first time I thought of her as part of the band rather than just a stand-in. Colin Newman was more animated than ever and his refusal to act his age should be an inspiration to many of the younger performers on the bill. The setlist was similar to the Manchester show I reviewed this time last year, with the better tracks from "Send"/"Read and Burn" mixed up with classics such as "Pink Flag" and "12XU". I was pleased to hear a couple of songs that weren't played in Manchester, namely "Underwater Experiences" and "Silk Skin Paws". Despite my reservations, Wire turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival.

Teenage Fanclub, immediately afterwards, provided the perfect contrast to Wire's intensity, playing probably the most mellow set of the day. It's been years since I last listened to TFC, and I wasn't even sure if they still existed. It was great to hear "Starsign", "The Concept" and "Sparky's Dream" again, and there were two or three new songs which suggested that their forthcoming album will be an essential purchase for anyone who remembers them at their early '90s peak.

I think The Breeders have been getting more credit for the diversity of acts that they invited to play, rather than their own set. As with several other bands I saw, it was more the nostalgia that made it enjoyable than their musical skill or stage presence. They played nearly all of "Last Splash", four or five songs from "Pod", an Amps song, and I'm not sure what else as I've not really kept up with their recent releases. I think this was true of a lot of people in the crowd, given the more enthusiastic response to the older numbers. I was pleased to see that the Deal twins have considerately adopted different hairstyles to help me tell them apart.

The non-musical highlight of the day (which won't mean anything to readers who are not familiar with the occupants of my chalet) occurred during The Breeders' set, when Simon met his doppelgänger. For those of you who know him, see if you can spot the real Fox in this picture:

I didn't get to see Tricky, as his set clashed with The Breeders, and I'm sorry to have missed him, from the reports that I've heard from others. However, I did see him wandering around the site looking menacing several times during the weekend, and apparently he was picking fights with people at random. At one point security had a polite word with him, but I don't know why they didn't eject him from the premises, as they surely would have done if a member of the public had acted like this. It's a shame that he has to let the aggressive elements of his music spill over into his offstage persona, as his behaviour was completely at odds with the overall atmosphere of the weekend.

I was expecting Melt Banana on Sunday to be a bit too much to cope with, but I was surprised to find that their set was very entertaining. They took to the stage in darkness and shone torches into the crowd before finally revealing their faces. I have no idea if they were singing in Japanese or English, or if their high-pitched shrieking was even meant to mean anything. They included a cover of The Specials' "Monkey Man", which I probably wouldn't have recognised if someone hadn't pointed out to me what it was, and they leapt around the stage like demented children. I had imagined that they would use a drum machine, so I was impressed to find that they had a live drummer who could play that fast without his limbs falling off. However, they did eventually start to hurt my ears so I skipped the last couple of songs to go downstairs and check out Deerhunter. Their set had a few interesting moments, but was not as good as I had expected. Their material, particularly the long, repetitive numbers, would probably work better in an enclosed space and the sound just seemed to drift away into nothingness in the vast openness of the Pavilion. The most memorable part was when they were joined by Kim and Kelley Deal for yet another Amps song.

Gang Of Four were another band that I had decided in advance would be one of the highlights, and I guess they still were, despite not sounding quite how I'd expected. They were a lot rougher around the edges than the last time I saw them, with Jon King's voice in particular sounding very raw. From the way he was throwing himself around the stage, I suspect he'd had a drink or two before the start of their set. One of the more bizarre sights of the weekend occurred during "He'd Send In The Army", with King rhythmically beating a microwave with a baseball bat.

It's really the basslines, rather than King's voice, that define Gang Of Four's sound. I don't know what's happened to original bassist Dave Allen (I'm sure he was there for the reunion shows in 2004-5) or who the new guy is, but he did a reasonable job of reproducing Allen's trademark sound. The main problem with him is his rock star posturing. At times his mannerisms reminded me of Peter Hook, although he wasn't holding his bass quite so far down his body. Hooky could get away with it as it always seemed he was being ironic, but with this bloke it just looks a bit cheesy. Despite the sound not being quite as "angular" (what does that actually mean?) as usual, you couldn't really fault the setlist - "At Home He's A Tourist", "Anthrax", "We Live As We Dream, Alone", "Damaged Goods", "What We All Want", "I Love A Man In Uniform" etc. - and it's easy to see why their back catalogue has been mercilessly raided by the likes of Franz Ferdinand.

I've never really bothered with Shellac before. I remember listening to one of their albums many years ago, deciding it wasn't as interesting as Steve Albini's previous band, Big Black, and then forgetting about them. I didn't need to watch much of their performance at ATP before I realised I'd been missing out. The sound was slow and crushing, and at times reminded me of the early works of Swans or Sonic Youth. Two long-haired types standing near me were headbanging in slow motion, either unaware of or not caring how ridiculous they looked. The standout song was called, I think, "The End Of Radio" and featured bassist Bob Weston repeatedly playing a single note while Albini menacingly intoned lyrics that had been lifted directly from Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner". The result was how I imagine Richman's single would sound if you played it at 33rpm. Despite the foreboding nature of the music, Steve Albini is an engaging frontman and there were many humorous moments in the show. The band ran around the stage pretending to be aeroplanes, and the set finished with Steve and Bob dismantling Todd Trainer's drumkit while he was still attempting to play it, before carrying off Todd himself. Shellac were the perfect way to end the weekend, and the only act I saw who inspired me to check out music that I don't already own.

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Short History Of Almost Something

Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer celebrates her 33rd birthday this week. In her latest mailout, she seems a little depressed that some people, such as Jesus and John Lennon, had already done their best work by the time they reached 33. She also asks those of us on her mailing list to do something for her:

"i am going to actually ask, for the first time in my life, for a gift. from you. my people. here is what i'd like for my birthday:
please take this moment in time and think about one person, any person, who you think might like my music and my art. someone who doesn't know it. someone who does not have amanda fucking palmer in their life and might like her there. this does not have to be a peer. it could be a child, a mother, an ex, an uncle, an befriended
enemy, a co-worker, a long-lost friend, a whatever. ANYONE.
picture them in your mind. picture if their life might possibly be made better if you brought some afp into it.
please send/get to them either of the following (in any format your lifestyle or computer literacy allows for) (and explain why you are sending this. explain why you like this artist. explain that it's her birthday and she's asked you, as a favor to her, to do this. the worst they will do is delete your email, tell you to fuck off, or disown you)

either 1 - a copy of WHO KILLED AMANDA PALMER. if you don't think they have the attention span for the whole album, send them a track. i cannot tell you how proud i am of this record i made. you may have heard the songs on youtube or live, but if you haven't heard the actual record, YOU HAVE NO IDEA. ben folds and i slaved over it for MONTHS. it's awesome. i know. i've heard it 1,392 times and it's still not boring.

or 2 - a youtube clip of one of your favorite AFP videos."

Amanda's solo album "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" was one of my favourite releases of last year, it's such a good record that I'm prepared to overlook the lack of punctuation in its title. But there might be copyright issues if I made the whole thing available for download here, so I guess I should go for option 2 and include a few videos.

We should probably start with "Oasis". I know some people reading this are not particularly keen on the Dresden Dolls (I can think of one person who hates them with a passion and has berated me on several occasions for wearing a Dolls t-shirt) but I don't think anyone could deny that this is one of the best pop songs of recent years. The video was apparently banned in the UK; it seems that many people can't cope with the topic of abortion. Amanda justifies the song's apparently flippant handling of a controversial subject: "When you cannot joke about the darkness of life, that's when the darkness takes over."

"Leeds United", also released as a single, is similarly catchy:

As well as these poppy numbers, the album contains some of Amanda's best piano ballads, in particular "Ampersand":

This final one is not included on the album, but it might interest the Radiohead fans who I know will be reading this:

Hopefully at least one person who reads this will now feel inspired to check out the album, and Amanda can stop worrying about not having achieved enough in her 33 years.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Know Who You Are At Every Age

LONEY, DEAR / SNOWBIRD - Birmingham Glee Club

I had come to the Glee Club mainly to see Loney, Dear but this turned out to be one of those rare shows where the support act outshines the headliners. Snowbird are fronted by Stephanie Dosen, whom I have never encountered before, but it seems she has put out a couple of records under her own name and, if her website is to be believed, she grew up on a peacock farm where she had a swan and a fox as pets. (She gives no details about how she prevented one pet from eating the other.) She resembles a young Courtney Love, but minus the aggression. In fact, Stephanie turns out to be one of the most twee people you could hope to meet. Her beautiful voice and haunting songs put me in mind of Marissa Nadler (who is also playing at the Glee Club in the coming weeks) and she soon has everyone spellbound with the stories she tells between the songs, particularly when she explains that one song was inspired by getting insects caught in her false eyelashes. These surreal anecdotes remind me why Kristin Hersh's solo gigs are such an endearing experience, and anyone who knows me will probably be aware that comparing someone to Kristin is not something I would do lightly.

Stephanie is backed by a nondescript middle-aged man playing keyboards. He seems to be content to sit at the back of the stage and let her take the limelight, and it's only halfway through the set when I glance at the venue's flyer left on my seat that I discover he is in fact... Simon Raymonde! Some of you probably know that amongst my various visual and physical awareness problems, I struggle with facial recognition and often identify people by their hair. Despite his prominence over the last few years with his Bella Union label, I don't think I've seen a recent picture of Simon and the image I will always have of him is from the photos of the classic Cocteau Twins line-up of the 1980s. In those days, he had quite recognisable hair, but obviously not much of that remains 25 years later. I feel rather ashamed when it becomes apparent that for about 30 minutes I've been watching a man who made a major contribution to my record collection, without actually realising who he is.

Whilst chatting to Stephanie and Simon later at the merchandise stall, I decide that it might be best not to tell him that I didn't recognise him now that he's old and bald. Is anyone spotting a recurring theme developing here, where I comment on the hair of middle-aged performers I've watched? I guess I should try to stop this, in case anybody thinks I'm a shallow teenager, choosing the acts I like on the strength of their hairstyles...

After the intermission, what we get from Loney, Dear is perhaps the worst kind of show as far as writing a review is concerned. It's pleasant enough but doesn't really inspire me to say anything good or bad about it. In fact, if it hadn't been for the opening act and the shock of seeing Simon Raymonde, I probably wouldn't be writing this at all. Loney, Dear is the project of Emil Svanängen from Sweden. I first saw him at the Iceland Airwaves festival a couple of years ago and enjoyed his set so I bought the album he had out at the time, "Loney, Noir". This album featured a number of sparse folk songs, reminiscent in places of Simon and Garfunkel. (I realise it's probably never been cool to like Simon and Garfunkel, but my dad was a big fan so they played a part in my musical upbringing.) I've listened to his latest release, "Dear John", a few times prior to the show, but it's made little impression on me. In fact if I'm honest, I wouldn't have bothered with the gig if the venue hadn't been offering free tickets. The set gets off to a reasonable start with "I Was Only Going Out", the most memorable song from the new album, sounding a bit like fellow Swede Jens Lekman. However, much of what follows just blurs into one and I find that I can't remember many of the songs within ten minutes of leaving the show. This may be down to the use of a full band; the drums in particular seem to dominate, making it hard to focus on Emil's singing. This is highlighted during a couple of rare delicate moments, particularly during one song that Emil performs without the band or even a microphone, relying on just his naked voice. The final encore of "Sinister In A State Of Hope" (perhaps the best song from the "Loney, Noir" album), where the band tone down their contribution, is also very effective and this leads me to the conclusion that the songs on the new album would be better if they were stripped down and played with just an acoustic guitar.

I don't want to write Loney, Dear off completely and I will persevere with the album to see if I can uncover the true heart of the songs beneath their excessive instrumentation. But if you want to check out Emil Svanängen's work then I suggest ignoring "Dear John" and getting "Loney, Noir" instead.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

I Came To Your Party Dressed As A Shadow


At first it seemed odd that Glen Johnson has chosen to release an album under his own name, as he already has his Textile Ranch solo project, and many people consider him to be synonymous with Piano Magic. His explanation for the release is that he had a number of new songs ready to record but Piano Magic were on a break and he couldn't wait for the band to get back together. I'm not sure if I believe this, given that regular Piano Magic contributors Jerome Tcherneyan and Angèle David-Guillou feature on "Details Not Recorded". After studying the lyrics and, in particular, the album's artwork, it seems more likely that Johnson is having a minor mid-life crisis and wants to forge an identity for himself separate from the Piano Magic brand.
Themes of identity and self-image run through the album. The cover painting, by Chicago artist Julia Haw, suggests someone who has lost his sense of individuality to the extent that his head has become invisible, and the inner sleeve depicts a man (presumably Johnson) with his face hidden by bandages. This theme continues throughout the lyrics. One song in particular, "My Horror Mask", suggests at first someone who is uncomfortable with their own physical appearance, and images of "The Elephant Man" come to mind. Closer reading of the lyrics reveals that the song's narrator feels constrained by his public persona and that nobody is aware of his true character due to the disguise he feels compelled to use. This idea is repeated on "I Know You Know My Name", where Johnson suggests that "few have seen my face" and "my words are but an act". In several songs, I thought I spotted lyrics that make oblique references to Piano Magic songs - for example, the opening line of "Save Me" is nearly identical to that of "Vacancies" from last year's "Dark Horses" EP. This may not have been intentional, or perhaps Johnson is hinting that he will never be completely free of that group.
For this album, Johnson has moved away from the harsh post-punk guitars of recent work, but not from the Piano Magic sound completely. Much of the album has a fragile, intimate feel reminiscent of 1999's "Low Birth Weight" (the first Piano Magic album that I owned) but with a few unexpected additions. There are frequent folk touches, courtesy of Willard Grant Conspiracy's Josh Hillman. At first this didn't seem like an obvious choice, as I have always considered Piano Magic to be a very English band and far removed from this kind of rural Americana. However, Hillman's strings provide a nice contrast to Johnson's electronics, and also reinforce the air of melancholy that permeates the album.
Regular readers may recall that after a recent gig, I felt that many of Piano Magic's songs offer an accurate depiction of my adult life. You are no doubt also aware that I often read the lyrics of a new release to see if I can relate them to my own experiences. I have been trying hard not to do that with "Details Not Recorded", as it would just be too depressing if I found that I resembled the character depicted in these songs. The entire album seems to be narrated by a man ill at ease with his own self-image, cut off from his friends and family but still obsessed with someone from his past. If the songs are autobiographical then I fear for Glen Johnson's emotional wellbeing. (And I hope that he didn't read my recent comments about his hair...)
Despite the unrelenting bleakness, I'm certain that "Details Not Recorded" will make it into my top 10 albums of 2009, which probably says more about me than it does about the music. Even if Johnson had intended this to be viewed as something separate from Piano Magic, I will still see it as part of their back catalogue; one of their best releases, in fact. For Piano Magic fans, this is an essential purchase, and for those not familiar with their work, this would be as good a place to start as any.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sound Of Confusion

SPECTRUM - Birmingham Hare & Hounds

Spacemen 3 founder Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember is currently undertaking a tour of the UK. I've yet to find any reviews of the other gigs, but I'd be interested to hear how the rest of the tour is going. I'd like to think that the shambolic mess I witnessed on Friday night was a one-off but I fear that may not be the case. The first question that enters my mind as Sonic wanders onto the stage is "Does he ever age?"; his hair is shorter than I remember but he looks more like a gawky teenager than ever. I then start to wonder whether the show will ever start, as it's almost 11pm and he has already spent an inordinate amount of time setting up his keyboards.

After what seems like an eternity of dithering, we are finally treated to a set made up almost entirely of Spacemen 3 songs, or cover versions that used to feature in the Spacemen live set, such as "When Tomorrow Hits" and "Transparent Radiation". The only "new" song is "How You Satisfy Me", which is possibly Sonic's best post-Spacemen effort, but even that is 17 years old. From a nostalgic viewpoint, it's great to hear these songs played live, "Transparent Radiation" in particular, as Spacemen 3 were a permanent fixture on my turntable during my student days. But it's also apparent that Sonic relies too heavily on his old material, and he should maybe take some time out to write new songs. It's obvious why, in the post-Spacemen wars, Spiritualized are more popular. Jason Pierce may include one or two Spacemen songs in his live set but he could never be accused of living off past glories and has produced a large amount of quality material of his own since his infamous break-up with Sonic Boom during the recording of "Recurring".

I would have been prepared to forgive the unbalanced setlist, and probably even been excited to hear all those Spacemen 3 songs, if Sonic had noticed that there was a crowd there to see him, rather than just treating the gig like a rehearsal. He has become obsessed with quality control in a way that Kevin Shields could only dream of, and is constantly wandering around the stage tweaking the equipment. Perhaps the most irritating thing he does is to address the soundman over the microphone mid-song whenever he wants the bass turned up or down. This is not something I expect from someone who has been performing for over 20 years. The rest of band look embarrassed by his onstage behaviour.

As the set progresses, the gaps between the songs become longer than the songs themselves. Half the crowd have left already and Sonic has lost the attention of the ones who remain; they are now just chatting amongst themselves, uncertain whether he is actually going to play another song. After "Revolution", I decide to call it a night rather than risk missing the last bus. I don't like leaving a gig before the end but in this case Sonic was doing nothing to convince me I should stay. Maybe he played for another hour after I left and included some new songs, but I'm guessing that by this stage he was almost out of time anyway. I hate to sound so negative about someone I once admired, but this could easily have been a very enjoyable gig if Sonic had been more relaxed about the finer points of the sound and had just let things happen naturally. I guess Sonic no longer knows or cares what Jason is doing, but maybe he needs to watch a Spiritualized gig to see how it should be done.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

An Oblique View Of An Irrationally Happy Time


"The Wetherbeat Scene" is a 36-track compilation released by 555 Recordings, formerly of Leeds, now based in Flagstaff, Arizona. It documents the small scene that developed in the Yorkshire town of Wetherby, leading eventually to the founding of 555. I was initially attracted to this release because it features some early tracks by Hood, although it's difficult to reconcile the chaotic, Pavement-like racket with the atmospherics that Hood have released in the last few years. (They are one of the few bands where I actually think their later music is better.) If you're familiar with Hood's early releases such as "Cabled Linear Traction" or the singles compiled on "Structured Disasters" then you should have some idea of what to expect, but the tracks featured here are more shambolic still and I think it's safe to assume that most of them were recorded in somebody's bedroom.

As you'd expect with a 555 compilation, there are a number of Boyracer tracks, including a hilarious take on Run DMC's "It's Tricky", which appears as the final, unlisted track on the CD. I always find Boyracer enjoyable, but I'm not sure if I really need any more of their songs. I already own something in the region of 200 Boyracer tracks and I'd probably struggle to identify at least half of them if they were played to me blind. One day I'll find time to sit down and listen to their entire back catalogue properly.

Apart from Hood and Boyracer, I hadn't actually heard of any of the other bands on the CD and I suspect most of them never went on to record anything else. The most prolific band on the CD, with 10 songs, is Baby Doll Lounge, whose members later formed Boyracer. Their music is typical light-hearted late-'80s indiepop, and if their song titles are anything to go by, they were influenced by The Wedding Present. You can easily imagine titles like "You Don't Have To Say Yes" or "Why Should I Communicate With You?" appearing on an early Wedding Present release, and just in case we haven't got the message already, they also have a song called "I Stood Next To David Gedge In Jumbo Records". However, their cover of Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl" seems unnecessary, as it is barely distinguishable, to my ears at least, from the original. Other bands on the CD include The Liddles, The Harbour Pilots and The Paisley Springtime. I can tell you very little about any of these bands, and Google only comes back with, respectively, a medical disorder, maritime job vacancies and some curtain material.

The CD comes with a 40-page book. Well, to call it a book might be a little generous. It has a nice glossy cover, but the inside resembles a cheaply-photocopied fanzine. Not that I'm knocking cheaply-photocopied fanzines; I've contributed to a few in my time and the presentation of this one fits perfectly with the music on the CD and the era it is documenting. It harks back to a simpler time, before the internet, when music was traded on cassette and interest in new bands was generated by word of mouth. The booklet features a few interviews with people who were involved with the bands (many of whom were still attending Wetherby High School when they recorded the songs included on the CD) as well as reproductions of gig flyers and, best of all, photos of fresh-faced youths with floppy fringes and paisley shirts:

That, in case you're wondering, is an early shot of Richard and Chris Adams of Hood. I find that picture particularly touching, because when I was at school in the late '80s, everyone I knew looked like that.

"The Wetherbeat Scene" is limited to 200 copies, so as soon as I heard about it, I ordered one directly from 555's website. I later found out that there are some copies for sale in the UK, so if you want one then it might be better to try Norman Records first before ordering it from the US. I'm not sure if paying for it in dollars cost me any more, but it did mean I had to wait an extra week for it to arrive. Having said that, if you do buy it from the label, you get a nice handwritten note from 555/Boyracer founder Stewart Anderson:

Although much of the music included is rather amateur in both style and recording quality, it has a certain endearing nature and, combined with the book, it makes a great historical artefact. Fans of Sarah Records and the like, or modern-day tweecore such as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, will certainly enjoy the youthful enthusiasm found here.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Mojo Man From Mars

LUX INTERIOR 1946 - 2009

Whilst browsing the headlines over breakfast yesterday morning, I came across the sad news that Erick Lee Purkhiser, a.k.a. Lux Interior, has died at the age of 62. As frontman of The Cramps since the mid-1970s, he has been responsible for some of the sleaziest music in my collection and was famed for his intense live performances. The Cramps are also one of the few bands I can think of who have stuck to the same musical style for over 30 years. Now you may think that shows a lack of ambition, but you know what you're getting with a Cramps record and they never disappoint. Their music was a blend of primal rock 'n' roll and surf guitar, infused with a perverse sense of humour. The lyrics generally focused on trashy 1950s Americana and horror movies, and this fascination with the weirder aspects of life spilled over into other areas of their career. The band famously played a free concert for the inmates of Napa State Mental Hospital, and also appeared in a Halloween special of "Beverly Hills 90210". Lux Interior allegedly took his stage name from a car advert.

Apart from his great stage presence, my lasting memory of Lux Interior will be of a stylish dresser, particularly in his latter years when he wasn't made up like a zombie. I hope when I'm in my sixties I can carry off the kind of vintage suits that he wore.

For those of you who, like me, sadly never got to see them live, sit back and enjoy "Thee Most Exalted Potentate Of Love":

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Fear of a Blank Planet


I received this album as a Christmas present and it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get my head round it. It had been recommended by a friend who said I would like it, and I can’t decide whether that means this particular friend knows my music tastes inside out or just regards me as warped enough to enjoy this sort of thing…

I can’t give you much background info on Blank Dogs. From the little snippets I’ve managed to find, it seems to be the work of just one man, but I don’t know his name or what he looks like. He doesn’t reveal his identity on his webpage or in the credits of the album, and he covers his face with scarves and blankets in publicity photos. I think he may be American, as the only tour dates I’ve seen listed are in the US.

The sound is also difficult to pin down. Before I’ve actually played the album, I’m already thinking of The Residents, another act who keep their true identities hidden, but this turns out to be a physical rather than musical similarity as Blank Dogs sound much darker than The Residents’ high-pitched cartoon vocals. A more accurate comparison would be the late-1970s work of This Heat, with perhaps a hint of Swell Maps. Most of the songs also contain a vintage synth sound that could have come from The Cure’s darkest albums, “Pornography”, “Faith” and “Seventeen Seconds”. However, “On Two Sides” could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as a “goth” record. By the second or third play, it becomes apparent that there are catchy melodies buried beneath the fuzzy layers of distortion; I even found myself humming some of the tunes a few hours later. The contradiction between the initial bleak atmosphere and what could almost be described as pop songs can be very disorientating.

I have no idea what the songs are about, as the lyrics are impossible to make out, but there is a general air of paranoia and claustrophobia, despite the underlying pop melodies. Following on from my recent review of July Skies, this album also has a psychogeographic feel. But in contrast to July Skies’ depictions of outdoor environments, Blank Dogs remind me of being trapped in an enclosed space. The music also puts me in mind of the confusion I sometimes feel when I find myself in a new physical environment; as many of you will know, I have problems with spatial awareness and navigating around three-dimensional space, and the disorientating sound of this album seems to reflect that problem perfectly.

Part of me would like to know what he is actually singing about, but I suspect Mr Blank Dog probably wants to keep the lyrics secret along with his identity. If you’re not already totally confused by my conflicting descriptions of his music, you can experience the wonderful and frightening world of Blank Dogs at his MySpace page where he regularly makes new songs available.