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.