Sunday, 14 November 2010

When everything's dark, keeps us from the stark reality



THE DARK RETREAT - Home recordings

The Dark Retreat are a duo consisting of Kaytee DeWolfe and Wayne Page, who were two-fifths of the now-defunct Birmingham act Bi-Polar Baby. They are currently unsigned and have nothing that you can buy, but they have created their own page on the Bandcamp website with ten songs available to listen to - only streaming, I'm afraid, and not downloadable. Kaytee and Wayne recorded these songs in their mini-studio at home, but the quality is better than a lot of music that's recorded in a professional environment. The number of songs may well have increased by the time you check the website; their recent work rate has been quite impressive, particularly when you consider that they've just had their first child in between recording all these songs.

Perhaps the best way to describe the band is to use their own preferred term of "rock noir". Although The Dark Retreat don't exactly sound like these acts, I'm sure their music will appeal to fans of P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave and the like. A couple of the tracks feature intricate guitar lines that sound, to me at least, like they could have come from a classic goth hit from around 1983. I also picked up a very subtle undercurrent of Depeche Mode, but it's nowhere near as prominent as I would have expected given that Kaytee has the DM logo tattooed on her arm. The Dark Retreat have been influenced not so much by Depeche Mode's sound as their attitude to songwriting. Listening to all ten tracks on offer, you will notice that the style changes from one song to the next in the same way that a DM gig easily switches from an all-out rocker to a Martin Gore ballad.

The songs themselves feature some very moving lyrics, which are thankfully displayed on the website. Most of them are sung by Kaytee and at times she hits such high notes that I need the printed copy to work out every word she sings. Perhaps the strangest in terms of subject matter is "Angel of Soho", a tribute of sorts to the recently-deceased artist Sebastian Horsley. You may recall that I saw him at a Current 93 gig earlier this year, not long before his untimely death, so I was surprised to find that anyone else had even heard of him, let alone written a song about him.

My favourite two tracks deal with more personal subject matter. "Infatuation", in particular, refers to a topic that will be familiar to many of us, and reading the lyrics, we will probably all try to tell ourselves that we're now too old and wise to get ourselves into that kind of mess. As Kaytee so accurately puts it at the end of the song, "The hardest thing's the walking away", which leads us nicely into the next track, "The Silence". I see this as the sequel to "Infatuation", as it deals with the unfortunate situation that arises when you do manage to walk away. This one is sung by Wayne, proving that he's more that just a great instrumentalist. The atmosphere created here reminds me of the Richard Hawley album I reviewed last year. It's something to be listened to alone, late at night, as you reflect on your past mistakes. As with some of Richard Hawley's songs, "The Silence" can be a difficult listen because it comes a little too close to a real-life experience of my own.

I'm aware that on these pages I have a tendency to write about music that is (a) made by my friends and (b) difficult to get hold of. I find it heartening that some of the best music I've found recently is written by people I know, who are doing it for their own enjoyment rather than for profit. I have already nagged the band about these songs being available in some format other than just streaming. I realise that I'm rapidly becoming a minority with my love of physical products, but perhaps if I can get a few more people interested then it will convince Kaytee and Wayne at least to make the songs downloadable. I'm assuming that the Bandcamp site provides some form of listening statistics to the people who uploaded the songs, so please get yourselves over there now and play a few of these tracks, so we can prove to The Dark Retreat that they have a bigger audience than they thought.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Black-Eyed Susan



PANDA SU - Sticks and Bricks EP
For me, the most enjoyable sets at the Moseley Folk Festival tend to be not the headline acts, who can at times be embarrassing, but the smaller artists who play earlier in the day. The best bands can often be found away from the main stage, in Ben Calvert's Bohemian Jukebox tent. Ben always invites a number of local songwriters, many of whom I know personally, so it's a pleasant place to relax in the middle of the day. He also manages to find one or two performers from further afield, and on the final day of this year's festival, Ben's excellent judgement introduced me to what has become my favourite new artist of 2010.
Panda Su is the project of Su Shaw, a young lady from Fife who started her musical career playing drums in a death metal band, if the biography in the folk festival programme is to be believed. There is no evidence of her satanic leanings in the delicate melodies that she served up at Moseley and also on this EP. She has been compared to freak folk acts such as CocoRosie and Diane Cluck, but I am particularly reminded of Cat Power. Many of you will be aware that I have pretty much abandoned Cat Power in recent years, as I find her more soulful, full band sound hard to relate to. Panda Su manages to capture the sparse sound of Cat Power's much-ignored earlier albums.

Su seems to have something of a panda fixation, and for her live show she often uses black and white make-up to transform herself into one of the giant bears. Older rock fans amongst you might also suggest that she looks like a member of the classic line-up of Kiss, but I don't think that's intentional. Listening closely to the four songs on offer here, I can see the relevance of the panda. Many people consider a panda to be cute and fluffy, but it actually has sharp teeth and would rip you to shreds if you tried to stroke it. Su's fragile tunes seem similarly pretty at first, but dig beneath the surface and there is a constant dark theme of self-doubt and dwelling on past events. Su seems particularly concerned with former friends and lovers, and I think it's likely that if she ever runs into one of these people who mistreated her then she will also rip them apart with her panda-like teeth.

Although very different in sound, I can't help thinking of the Richard Hawley record that I reviewed about a year ago. Just as with Hawley's lyrics, Su has a knack of writing about real life with amazing honesty but also manages to be just vague enough that any listener could apply it to their own experiences. One of the most poignant lines comes on "Moviegoer", where Su mourns that "the problem with myself is that I long to be someone else". This sums up many people's problems and perhaps explains why we all bury ourselves in music to escape from the stressful things in life. It also makes it clear that Su, and everyone else, has just the same problems as me, so there's really not much point in dwelling on recent events, wishing things had turned out differently or longing to be someone else. I think anyone listening to the EP will be able to relate to that general point while also applying some of the other lyrics to very specific aspects of their own lives.

This is one of those rare releases where I can't pick a favourite song because I love all of them equally. Here are several of the tracks from the EP performed live - you'll need to turn the sound up, for the second one in particular, as these are quiet recordings:





This EP is quite hard to track down, but you can get it from Su directly via her MySpace page. There were several songs in her live set that are not included on the EP, so I hope it won't be long before her next release. Until then, I'm going to keep playing these four tracks until my neighbours are sick of hearing them.

Monday, 30 August 2010

It's hard to be engaging when the things you love keep changing



THE WEDDING PRESENT - Holmfirth Picturedrome

It may be a coincidence, but The Wedding Present are playing in Holmfirth in the same week that the final episode of "Last Of The Summer Wine" (which is filmed here) is being broadcast. I can't imagine many Wedding Present followers, or David Gedge himself, being fans of the show, but it is possible to draw comparisons between the band and your grandma's favourite sitcom. Both have been around for an impressive length of time with roughly the same fanbase for their entire existence, both have lost nearly all of their original members and even hardcore fans would probably admit that neither are as good as they used to be.

This is the first time I've visited Holmfirth and you may be surprised to hear that despite the sleepy image depicted on TV, it has a decent-sized music venue with a variety of punk and indie bands playing every week. The Picturedrome, as the name suggests, is a beautiful old cinema. As it was designed for showing films, the view of the stage is good wherever you stand in the venue. However, perhaps the best aspect of the Picturedrome is the unlimited supply of meat pies given away free at the bar.

Before The Wedding Present take to the stage, we are treated to the support band, which is none other than… Cinerama, David Gedge's other project. I'm not certain of the regular line-up of Cinerama, but for tonight at least, it contains exactly the same people as The Wedding Present, although a couple of them swap positions between the support and headline slots. This suggests that Gedge was either trying to save money by not paying a second act, or it got to the day of the gig and he realised he'd forgotten to book a support band at all. I've not really listened to Cinerama beyond their first album, but I suppose what they play tonight could be classed as "Wedding Present lite". It's pleasant enough to get us in the mood for the main act, without any of the songs sticking in my head after they've finished.

The Wedding Present are here to mark the 20th anniversary of their "Bizarro" album by playing it in its entirety, just as they did with "George Best" three years ago. "Bizarro" was the band's major label debut, but despite this, contained some of their noisiest moments, and there has always been a close battle between this and "George Best" to qualify as the fans' favourite.

As with the "George Best" tour, the featured album is left until the end of the show, with a handful of (slightly) newer numbers first. The set opens with "Corduroy" and "Dare", both from the following album "Seamonsters". The next two or three songs make little impression on me. One of them, I'm fairly certain, was the mid-1990s song "Go Man Go" and I'm guessing the others were either new or from the last two albums, which I have but never listen to.

The contrast between new and old Wedding Present is apparent as soon as they kick into "Brassneck", the opening number from "Bizarro". The band were always known for Gedge's trademark 100mph guitar thrashing, but there has been little scope for that on the last three or four albums. Tonight, he shows he still has it in him and at times, he seems to be playing even faster than on the original record. The highlights for me are the songs that are perhaps my favourites from that album anyway; "Brassneck", "Take Me", where his guitar playing makes up about 90% of the song, and "Bewitched", where he shows that he can play a slow song and make it interesting.




The set ends, as expected, with "Be Honest" and then Gedge informs those who didn't know already that "we don't do encores." I have no problem with this; I prefer it if the band get to the point and then go, rather than keeping us hanging around wondering if they're coming back for the third time. I also feel tonight that any other songs played after the "Bizarro" material would be a bit of an anti-climax.

So instead, I'm left to reflect on The Wedding Present's role in my life. While the last 40 minutes of tonight's show were excellent, I've also been reminded how I don't really need any Wedding Present material from the past 10 years or so. While I would obviously not expect Gedge to have remained in the same place since 1990, the problem from my point of view is that he has mellowed just a bit too much. This is apparent in both his writing and his delivery. The early Wedding Present releases were filled with anger and bitterness, and provided the soundtrack to every failed relationship I've had. It seemed that Gedge wrote most of these songs about his own experiences. Now that he's older and happily married with a house in California, it's probably not reasonable to expect him to continue writing about betrayal and teenage angst. Unfortunately, many of his newer songs don't seem to be about much at all. It's as if he has picked words that sound nice together without worrying about how the listener will relate to them. Thankfully there are not many of those songs tonight, but I'm reminded that I have three Wedding Present albums too many at home.

This is always something of a dilemma for me: just what should I expect from long-running bands? As always, I'd welcome any readers' thoughts on this. Would you prefer your favourite band to make one or two classic albums then disappear and leave you with the memories? Or to continue turning out a constant stream of releases that never come up to the standard of the first few? Perhaps some of the people in Holmfirth tonight have matured with Gedge and are at a similar place in their lives, so they can relate to his newer songs more easily than I can. I'm aware that I have a tendency to cling on to an artist's early material, which I guess they're not especially keen for me to do or they wouldn't bother writing the new songs. As Gedge says himself in "Brassneck", "it was different then and that's all in the past."

If they keep to their recent touring pattern, I expect The Wedding Present to be back in 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Seamonsters". That may well be the last time I ever see them live.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

1966 And All That

THE DECLINING WINTER - Official World Cup Theme 2010

It can't have escaped your attention that we're in the middle of some kind of international football tournament. Although I have no interest in any of the games, I am aware that these competitions are normally accompanied by hideous crimes against music, which are then sold to the gullible residents of the country in the name of patriotism. I'm old enough to remember the full horror of the 1982 England World Cup squad's double-A-sided single, and more recent efforts, despite involving professional musicians, have not been much better. I expect I'm in a minority here, but I would have to rate "Three Lions" as one of the most cringeworthy songs of all time. I have to turn off the radio whenever it comes on. The trend for inviting established performers to write the team's official anthem can be traced back to "World In Motion", which shares the two conflicting honours of being perhaps the first credible football song and also, without doubt, the worst thing that New Order ever recorded.

This year, we seem to be lacking a high-profile team anthem, but Richard Adams of ethereal Leeds popsters Hood has filled the void at the last minute with his side-project, The Declining Winter. Despite its title, the song has no official links to the tournament, and it's only very loosely about football. The lyrics display a sense of nostalgia, hinting that the world may have been a better place when England last won the World Cup, and Richard manages to squeeze in a reference to global warming. The best thing about this record is that it does not feature any footballers attempting to sing.

If England make it past the first round (unlikely, I know) then maybe we should start a Facebook group to get this single into the top 10.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Some Soft Black Stars Seen Over London

CURRENT 93 - Kentish Town Forum
To mark his 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the first Current 93 album, David Tibet has arranged two shows at the Forum, which he promises will feature a variety of guests and completely different setlists on each night. I will give a brief summary of the support acts from both nights before moving onto Current 93's two performances.

The ambitious event kicks off on Friday with Simon Finn. This little-known songwriter recorded one album in 1970 and then disappeared without trace. That album has been a major influence on the recent works of David Tibet, who has covered two of Finn's songs and coaxed him out of retirement. Over the last couple of years he has recorded several new works, which have been released through Tibet's Durtro label. Tonight, backed by sometime Current 93 members Joolie Wood and Maja Elliott, he treats us to a mix of old and new songs. It's easy to see how he has informed the sound of Current 93, and I think it would be fair to say that his original album defined what we now know as "apocalyptic folk". I'm also surprised that someone who has been recording for 40 years looks so young; I guess he couldn't have been any more that 17 when he made that first record. It's a shame that, due to poor organisation by the venue, his set is constantly interrupted by people looking for their seats. I don't think the Forum is usually a seated venue and none of the rows are labelled; not even the staff are sure where anybody should be sitting. Thankfully this is fixed by the second evening, as some hastily-painted numbers have appeared at the end of each row.

I'm not quite sure what to expect from Nurse With Wound, who rarely play live. A table is set up in the middle of the stage, where three gentlemen (two of whom I suspect are Colin Potter and Andrew Liles) tinker with electronics and occasionally play real instruments. Main man Steven Stapleton sits off to the side with a guitar, which he plays with a bow. The overall effect is similar to the recent Cluster show, but with a more menacing atmosphere. This is enhanced by the nightmarish video being shown at either side of the stage, depicting a house that is slowly melting and has blood seeping from its walls. Eventually the house catches fire, while the occupants calmly sit there as if nothing is happening, occasionally patting out the flames if they get too close. The minimalist nature of NWW's music is such that it is hard to identify specific pieces, but I think a lot of tonight's set is drawn from the recent album, "The Surveillance Lounge". It is so hypnotic that I find myself drifting in and out of consciousness. When I am snapped back to reality by the sudden change of style for the final number, I'm not sure if any of it (particularly the film clips) had actually happened or if it was just a bizarre dream. The set ends with "Rock 'n' Roll Station", perhaps the closest Stapleton has ever come to a conventional song structure, and he moves to the front of the stage to entertain us with his attempts at rapping.



Saturday's show opens with Rameses III whom I have not encountered before. For some reason, I am expecting them to play alt-folk in the style of Devendra Banhart or Vetiver. Instead, they produce minimal drones from a couple of guitars. It is very relaxing but the sound does not vary enough to make for an interesting set. They play for less than 30 minutes, which is probably about the right length; any longer and I think the crowd would have got restless. They would probably benefit from some visual elements; with nothing to look at, I find myself watching one of the guitarists and trying to work out what he's doing. At one point, he seems to be stretching a shoelace, or maybe even a piece of chewed gum, across the strings of his guitar. With the right visual accompaniment this could have been a better set, but I can't imagine myself listening to one of their records at home.
Comus are another early-1970s folk act whose name I had known for many years before I finally heard them, due to David Tibet regularly citing them as an influence. I have seen them once before, at the Moseley Folk Festival, but I get more from their set tonight now that I am familiar with some of their songs. They have traditional folk instruments such as flute and viola, but the driving bass and fantasy elements in the lyrics sometimes take them into prog rock territory. All of the recordings from their original incarnation are available on a double-CD set, but tonight there are also a few new songs, which we are promised will be released soon. As with Simon Finn, it's great to see innovative artists from the past still producing interesting new music.
I was surprised to discover that These New Puritans were a last-minute addition to the bill. I've never heard their music but I've seen them categorised as "new rave" (whatever that means) so I'm expecting a bunch of teenagers with sideways haircuts and cheap plastic sunglasses. They are indeed very young, but their sound is slightly more experimental than I was expecting. With two woodwind players and two drummers, one of whom also plays keyboards, it reminds me of the recent show by Efterklang. However, while Efterklang's sound is uplifting, These New Puritans are somewhat darker and I can see, at a push, why David Tibet might have invited them to play. They are let down by their singer, who has a rather weak voice and cannot be heard over the twin drum attack. Therefore I have no idea what any of their songs are about. I'm considering checking out a few of their tracks online before forking out for any of their releases, as I often find that bands who are very rhythmic live do not come across so well on record.
On both nights, Current 93 are introduced by the controversial artist Sebastian Horsley, who describes them as "the ultimate hallucinatory supergroup". This is perhaps a better description than I could have come up with myself, and with so many luminaries in the live band, I can think of no better example of a supergroup. Many of the players accompanying David Tibet at these two shows have achieved success in their own right, in particular James Blackshaw, Keith Wood of Hush Arbors, Michael Cashmore and the godlike pianist Baby Dee. There is even room in the line-up for former novelty rock star Andrew W.K. (is anybody prepared to admit that they remember him?) who is now trying to make a name for himself as a serious performer. Current 93 could possibly be seen as a breeding ground for underground stars, who often go on to achieve acclaim while C93 remain in the shadows. Let us not forget that it was David Tibet who launched Antony and the Johnsons on the path to Mercury-winning stardom.
The setlists on the two nights are almost completely different, with "Not Because The Fox Barks" the only song to be aired at both shows. Recent C93 releases have moved away slightly from Tibet's trademark folk sound and started to incorporate more doom-rock elements. This harder sound is very apparent for the first part of Friday's show, and I can understand why Tibet needs so many musicians onstage with him. Things start to quieten down towards the end of the set, with some of the band leaving the stage during the more delicate numbers. Saturday's show is, on the whole, a more restrained affair, with many of the songs relying on just Michael Cashmore's guitar and Baby Dee's piano.
Both sets feature several songs from the new album, which is on sale for the first time at these shows so this is the first chance anyone has had to hear the new material. In a live situation, I usually enjoy the songs with which I am most familiar but some of the standout songs here come from the new release. I think it's safe to say that some long-standing fans had been disenchanted by the harder rock sound on the last two albums. The new songs do not sound quite so angry, and suggest that Tibet is once again at peace with the world. This is particularly apparent on one number that features a circus-style organ courtesy of Baby Dee. If the recorded versions are anything like the live renditions then this has the potential to be a classic C93 release.
With the full use of strings on many of the songs, I'm reminded of a recent show by A Silver Mt Zion. But while ASMZ's songs deal mainly with political themes, Tibet's lyrics are otherworldly in comparison. The religious references in his songs have become more obscure of late, and the characters "Aleph" and "Baalstorm" repeatedly appear. I've no idea where these names originate or if they refer to the ancient texts of which Tibet is so fond, but within the context of his music they seem to represent alternate sides to his character, and perhaps spirits within him that he wants to exorcise.
Tibet's performance is never anything less than intense. At times he comes across like a manic street preacher; one of those found on street corners reading from the bible, that is, rather than James Dean Bradfield and his chums. But because of the emotion that he exudes, instead of writing him off as a madman you could easily start to believe that the world really is about to end. His jerking movements are similar to those of Ian Curtis, but he also dances around the stage like a gleeful child, as if he is genuinely thrilled with everything he has achieved over the last 25 years. Friday's set ends with "Niemandswasser", from the 2000 album "Sleep Has His House" that was recorded as a tribute to his late father. When he collapses to the floor at the end of the song, he seems totally drained.



Some would argue that Tibet goes over the top with his histrionic displays. However, I find it heartening to see a 50-year-old who still puts so much energy into his work, while others of a similar age can clearly no longer be bothered. (I'm talking to you, Mark E. Smith.)

But despite Tibet's crazed performance for much of the set, the highlights for many people are undoubtedly the more restrained pieces. I was pleased to hear several songs from "Soft Black Stars", which is rapidly becoming my favourite C93 release. Anyone who witnessed Tibet's rendition of "The Signs In The Stars" and did not shed a tear is probably already dead.



In contrast to the apocalyptic mood of many of his compositions, Tibet displays a sense of humour (we're talking about a man who once made a record dedicated to Noddy) and is keen to dispel some of the stereotypes that have dogged him for much of his career. He is clearly aware that Current 93 are portrayed in the press as an act that appeal mainly to goths, although very few of the audience tonight display any of the fashion traits that you would expect. "A Gothic Love Song", despite its sombre tone, is an ironic critique of this (relatively small) section of his fanbase.



Towards the end of Saturday's set, a surprise guest is invited onstage; Bill Fay, another early 1970s songwriter dragged from retirement to release an album on the Durtro label. Tibet introduces him as "the greatest living songwriter", which might be stretching things a bit, but his brief performance is certainly bewitching. Fay performs one song, "My Eyes Open" from his recent album. He is backed by Michael Cashmore on guitar, while the rest of the band watch in awe. Even though this is David Tibet's celebration, he is prepared to take a backseat from time to time to give his heroes a chance to shine.
I came home from the event with a vinyl copy of the new album, but I have yet to play it. These two shows were so triumphant that I feel I should give myself a few days to take it all in before immersing myself in any new material. On the second night, when I was closer to the front, I noticed someone with what looked to be a professional video camera filming the performance. Perhaps this was simply the source of the YouTube clips I have included here, but I'm hoping that the recordings may be intended for a DVD release. It's rare to see two shows with such varied and emotive performances, so a permanent document of the event would be well-received by many of those who attended.





Sunday, 28 March 2010

How Do You Find My Sister?



EVELYN EVELYN - EVELYN EVELYN

This is one of the strangest records that I've bought for quite some time. I don't actually have a physical copy yet; this review is based on the download version that was made available to those who pre-ordered the album. Evelyn Evelyn is the project of a pair of conjoined twin sisters, both of whom are called Evelyn Neville. The twins were born in Kansas in 1985, and share between them three legs and two arms. Their mother died giving birth to them and their father was killed in a tragic accident soon afterwards.

Realising that they would never be able to live conventional lives like the girls around them, the twins soon turned to music and became proficient in a number of instruments. On this album, they play ukulele, piano, guitar and accordion. This gives the record a kind of Vaudeville cabaret feel, and it's not really like anything else in my collection. The only comparison I can make is with some of the early works of Momus, in particular his album "The Ultraconformist". However, with Momus I always get the impression that it is the work of a man who painstakingly uses his technical skills and modern instruments to create a very precise imitation of an old-fashioned sound. Evelyn and Evelyn's work feels more natural, as if this is the only sound they know and they have no idea what modern music sounds like.

The content of the album is entirely autobiographical, depicting the horrors of their birth and early upbringing. There are many unsettling moments as the girls describe the different forms of abuse they suffered from children their own age and also the various adults who were charged with taking care of them. In their adult life, their main problem seems to be how difficult it would be for either of them to have a sexual relationship. This becomes clear on the country-tinged "You Only Want Me 'Cause You Want My Sister". However, elsewhere on the album there are hints that one sister is more promiscuous. On "Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?" I can almost imagine that one of the twins is constantly having to look the other way, or perhaps even mentally block out what is happening, as her sister flirts with every man she meets.

The album ends with a cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart". The song takes on a new meaning, as the girls seem to be debating whether their sisterly bond would be damaged or strengthened if they were surgically separated so that they could lead individual lives.



If you've read this far, you might be starting to question the plausibility of this story. In case you haven't guessed already, Evelyn and Evelyn are fictional characters. They were created by Amanda Palmer, who plays all the songs on the album, with the help of producer Jason Webley. Amanda first mentioned this project more than a year ago, explaining how she had "discovered" the twins and would be helping them to record an album. By the time the release date was announced, most fans had worked out that Evelyn and Evelyn were not real, but another of Amanda's alter egos. To begin with, when people still believed the twins to exist, I saw a lot of comments praising Amanda for the way she was supporting the girls in a genuine way when it would have been easy for her just to exploit them for financial gain. But once the truth became known, posts began to appear on a number of discussion forums, complaining that the "tasteless" background story had spoiled a project that was very interesting musically. In particular, there is an ongoing debate on Amanda's own blog. Amanda has been accused of "ableism" and perpetuating the stereotype that anyone who is different is a "freak".
When I first heard about the project, it didn't occur to me that anyone would consider it offensive. I just thought it was another example of Amanda's wonderful imagination. Even after following the controversy for the last few weeks, I can't really see why so many people have a problem with it. I can think of many disabled characters in works of fiction. For example, I don't remember complaints about Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of a man with autism in "Rain Man". Then there is Katherine Dunn's novel "Geek Love", which I read recently. I am now wondering if this book was an inspiration to Amanda when creating Evelyn Evelyn. "Geek Love" was not criticised for its depiction of a family of circus freaks, including a pair of conjoined twins, so I'm not sure why Evelyn Evelyn has received such a negative response. Amanda does not seem to be mocking conjoined twins. The story shows how people with disabilities still suffer discrimination and abuse, but in this case, Evelyn and Evelyn overcome their hardships to become expert musicians, and clearly the most important thing in their lives is their love for each other. It could therefore be held up as a positive example to real conjoined twins, or anyone else with a disability. I'm wondering whether what has upset some people, although they probably wouldn't admit it, is simply the way Amanda tried to pass the twins off as real. I wouldn't be surprised if some fans are aggrieved that they fell for the trick, and are now accusing Amanda of bad taste to make up for how gullible they feel.
The project has, however, made me question my own attitudes. For a short time after I first heard about the controversy, I felt slightly guilty and wondered whether I should have spotted that there was something tasteless in the story without others having to point it out to me. I've now realised that I can sometimes be hypocritical when it comes to offensive material. It's not often that I am personally offended by the content of any form of art, but when everybody else is offended, I sometimes feel that I should be too, just to protect my own reputation. A good illustration of this would be the works of Momus, whom I mentioned earlier. Momus also creates fictional characters in his songs, and much of his work is centred around explicit sexual themes, depicting his bizarre fetishes. In his entire back catalogue, there is one song that makes me feel uneasy. I perhaps shouldn't go into details, but some of you will know which song I mean as I have discussed it with a few people in the past. Because the topic covered in the song is one that provokes intense public opinion, but mainly due to the graphic way in which Momus describes the actions of the song's central character, I don't feel comfortable listening to it. But if I am honest, I am probably just concerned about how people would view me if they found that I was listening to something of this nature. While writing this article, I've realised that I need to suppress this hypocritical attitude and be more honest. So just for once, I'm going to stick my neck out and say I don't think there's anything wrong with Evelyn Evelyn, no matter what the rest of Amanda Palmer's fans say.
More information, including a link to the twins' MySpace page containing songs from the album, can be found at http://www.evelynevelyn.com/
I would be interested to hear what other people think and whether anybody else considers this project to be in poor taste.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Broadcasts For Autumn Term

I seem to have too much new music to listen to at the moment, and not enough time to write about it. So while I work my way through the new releases from the last few weeks, here is something for the rest of you to listen to. I've mentioned the label Make Mine Music before, so I was pleased to discover that they have added a podcast to their website. I'm not sure if this is going to be a regular feature, but even if it's just a one-off, it makes for a pleasant hour's listening. It includes tracks from bands I've reviewed in the past, such as Piano Magic and July Skies, and also some music that's new to me. I was particularly impressed with the tracks by Manual and James Brewster, both of whom have albums coming out on MMM in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast online or download it from the MMM website:
http://www.makeminemusic.co.uk/viewNews.php?id=17

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Guitar And Other Machines - Part 2

Just before Christmas, I posted an article on the music of Portal, which had been made available for free download. I commented at the time that there only seemed to be 94 tracks, rather than the 100 that had been promised. It turned out that this was because a handful of tracks had been discarded, either because the sound quality wasn't great or, in the case of a John Peel session, the copyright belongs to the BBC. Scott Sinfield has now added some unreleased tracks to the archive to bring the total up to 100. So if any readers downloaded the entire archive after my first post, you can now head back to Scott's blog to download these extra tracks:
portal-archive.blogspot.com/2010/02/slight-return.html

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

It hurts too much to be where you are


THE TELESCOPES / JESUS DELUXE / EINSTELLUNG / ONE UNIQUE SIGNAL - Birmingham Victoria

After the grandeur of the Town Hall, I find myself back in the more confined surroundings of the Victoria for an evening put on by local promoters Sound of Confusion. They specialise in noisy psychedelia, particularly the kind that was briefly popular in the late '80s/early '90s and made up a large proportion of my listening during my student days. First up is London act One Unique Signal, kicking in with some heavy, repetitive guitar riffs of the kind that dominated the works of Loop, who were one of my favourite acts in this genre. There is nothing particularly original going on here, in fact I'm even wondering at first if they are playing a cover of a Loop song, but I'm pleased to find that someone is still making this kind of music. It's all going fine until the guitarist opts to sing on one of the numbers, and does so in a rather bizarre growl. I'm not sure if this is down to his own efforts or if his voice is going through some kind of distortion effect, but the impression this creates is one of a slightly comical death metal band. The rest of the set is instrumental and I would advise them to keep it this way, or try some different vocal effects. They only play a short set, but this is not the last we will see of One Unique Signal tonight.

I'm surprised that Einstellung are on next as I would have expected them to be higher up the bill, especially now that they get invited to play venues such as the Town Hall. Watching them for the second time in just a few days, in some ways it feels comforting and familiar to see them back in the kind of venue they are used to playing. Now I've seen them in a large venue, they do look kind of cramped on the Victoria's small stage but this obviously doesn't bother them. They give it everything they've got, still managing to create an infernal racket from a much smaller sound system. The set is pretty much the same as Thursday night's, again focused on the new album, with the same film playing behind them. The only difference seems to be that due to time constraints, the amusingly titled "Neu Ist Der Neue Neu" has been omitted. The Town Hall show has given me a deeper appreciation of the way their music is structured, and now even seeing them on a small stage again I notice minute details that I would probably have overlooked before. Their two shows this week remind me that it's great to have a band who can always give an exciting performance in any environment. There's not really much more to say that I haven't already said about the first show, except that anyone who hasn't heard them yet should head to their MySpace page or their manager's Krautcast radio site and check out the sounds available there.



Jesus Deluxe don't really seem to fit with the overall mood of the evening. I can see why the promoters might have picked them to play as their fuzzy guitars sometimes hint at the poppy psychedelia of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. However, the singer, in both his vocal style and general appearance, reminds me of countless mediocre local indie bands who performed at the Flapper and the Jug of Ale in the mid-'90s. After a couple of songs, all I can think of is Verve (before they became The Verve). This is an evening of nostalgia, but Jesus Deluxe hark back to a period of indie history that I would rather forget. Even the band's name suggests bland, NME-approved indie. The atmosphere during the set is also rather unsettling. It soon transpires that it is the singer's stag night and he has brought with him a bunch of drunken friends, who stand at the front and chant like football fans. This is probably what it's like to be at an Oasis gig, but thankfully I have no first-hand experience of that. I'm relieved when the set finishes and the singer hurriedly leaves the room, taking his intoxicated rabble with him.

When noisy, pre-Britpop indie is discussed, The Telescopes seem to be overlooked in favour of their contemporaries such as My Bloody Valentine, but of all the bands from that era, it is their recordings that I return to most often. They have gone through a number of changes in the past two decades, and the last time I saw them live they treated us to a set of minimal electronic drones, so far removed from their early work it was hard to believe it was the same band. Having been absent for a few years, The Telescopes name has been resurrected but singer Stephen Lawrie is now the only original member remaining. Tonight we have been promised a full band set concentrating on early material, but I'm uncertain if these classics will retain the power of the original recordings or if the songs, and the singer, will have mellowed with age. The backing band that Stephen has assembled tonight is actually made up of the members of One Unique Signal, and it soon becomes obvious that there will be nothing mellow or ambient about tonight's set. Within moments of them walking onstage, I forget where I am and what year it is as they launch into "There Is No Floor". This is one of the most ferocious songs The Telescopes recorded in their first incarnation. I love the sense of mystery surrounding the song's central character, who lives on a non-existent floor, and also how it is really called "There Is No 13th Floor" but due to some unexplained superstitious belief the number 13 is never printed in the song's title or on the lyric sheet. The Telescopes manage to outdo even Einstellung in getting the maximum output from the small sound system, and immediately I'm hit by a tidal wave of noise, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. One Unique Signal do a fine job of reproducing the power of the original Telescopes line-up, and their performance here seems much more consistent than when they were playing their own material. The set is made up of most of the tracks from the "Taste" album, plus the two singles "To Kill A Slow Girl Walking" and "Precious Little". There is nothing post-1990, when the band entered their mellow, dreamy phase. This leads to a debate on whether Stephen should be so reliant on songs he wrote 20 years ago. I'm well aware that I criticised Sonic Boom for doing the same thing at a gig last year. For me, the main difference is that I never saw the Telescopes in their early years so it's the first time I've seen most of these songs performed live. You could argue that it's me, rather than Stephen Lawrie, who needs to move on from the music of the past, but I'm just happy that, for one evening at least, he is willing to indulge me in my musical fantasies.

Another big difference between this and the Sonic Boom show is the relentless energy that Stephen injects into his performance. He is in no way a conventional frontman, and his onstage demeanour is just as I imagine it would have been 20 years ago. Perhaps in a deliberate homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain, he performs "Silent Water" with his back to the crowd. With a space at the front now vacated by the Jesus Deluxe stag party, Stephen is free to leave the stage and stumble around, dragging the mikestand behind him and colliding with anyone foolish enough to stand too close. He curls up in a foetal ball or rolls around the floor, frequently getting tangled up in his microphone cable. The anger, fear and frustration that he exudes can be uncomfortable in such a small room. Watching him up close, I'm not sure that this is just an act. Stephen looks genuinely tormented and I believe this is his way of dealing with traumatic events in his life. I have not seen a performance this cathartic since Michael Gira fronting Swans. As the final song, "Suicide", heads towards its ear-splitting climax, I begin to wonder what Stephen has in mind to finish the set. He picks up a bottle and I'm worried that he is going to do himself some serious harm, but instead he calmly leaves the room and sits alone outside to finish his drink, while the noise inside gradually diminishes to a single piece of feedback. This may seem like an anti-climax, but much of the excitement here comes not from Stephen's actions themselves but the tension of not knowing what he will do next. It reminds me that there was a time when gigs were often confrontational, and dangerous for both audience and performer. Today's live shows are often very safe in comparison and it makes me wonder how I would have coped seeing some of my favourite acts the first time round, for example the notorious JAMC gigs.

Despite a couple of minor failures, overall this was a memorable night and I'm glad that Sound of Confusion share my enthusiasm for great music of the past. They usually put on a gig once a month. For info on their upcoming events, and to see the wonderful op art posters they create for each show, check out their MySpace page.

Krautrocksampler


CLUSTER / EINSTELLUNG - Birmingham Town Hall

Even by their usual high standards, those wonderful people at Capsule have excelled themselves with this show. Tonight they have laid on for us two hours of the finest Krautrock, in one of Birmingham's best venues. The night kicks off with one of my favourite local acts, who prove that you don't need to be German to play Krautrock. I've been meaning to write something about Einstellung for a while now, and their outstanding performance tonight has finally given me the incentive to do so. I have seen them live many times, but usually in small venues. To witness them playing the Town Hall, with the powerful sound system that their music deserves, is a real treat for me, and I suspect for them as well.

Einstellung's sound is based on the driving rhythms of 1970s Krautrock, Neu! in particular, but they also remain true to their Birmingham roots by incorporating solid metal riffs that could have come straight from an early Black Sabbath album. This heavier aspect is partly due to the members' history in a number of local bands, in particular Steve Hough's involvement with Cable Regime and Godflesh. Einstellung's debut album, "Wings of Desire", would surely have made it into Julian Cope's top 50 Krautrock records, had it been available when he compiled the list. Their second album is due soon and tonight we get a sneak preview as they play a set consisting mostly of these new numbers. The only piece that is familiar to me is the opening number, "Und Die Ruhe Ist Donner", which also appeared on the recent Audioscope charity compilation.

The first thing that becomes apparent as they begin their set is that their music, which I had always considered to be one of the most powerful live experiences anyway, is so much more effective when played through a big set of speakers. It's so loud that I actually need to remove my hearing aid as it's starting to generate feedback. They also benefit from having a larger stage on which they can move around, and I find I can watch each member in turn, giving me more of a feel for who is responsible for each of the individual elements in their sound. Most of the heavy riffs seem to be provided by Andrew Parker, while Andrew Smart adds more subtle melodic elements on top, although I have a feeling they sometimes swap roles when I'm not paying attention. The twin guitars are underpinned by Steve Hough's bass, which contributes directly to the Neu! feel. It's easy to forget Si Rider sitting at the back, but his solid drumming keeps the whole thing on track and stops it from descending into a messy free-for-all. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their live show is how they work together and everyone instinctively knows when to change tempo or move into the next phase of a song, without giving each other any visual cues. Their shows often feature a film projected behind them, which tonight seems to be "Scott of the Antarctic", and a lot of the sudden musical shifts seem to occur at the same time as scene changes in the film. That they manage to do this without looking at each other or the screen is incredible to me, as a non-musician.

All of the song titles are in German, and the band recently explained that, as instrumentals, the songs aren't really about anything at all so there is no point giving them titles in English that might impose an interpretation that was never intended. So for once, I don't feel the need to look for hidden meanings in the songs and instead I can just sit back and let the sound wash over me. The predominant sensation that I get from any Einstellung song is a solid rush of adrenalin that lasts for the song's entire length, which often exceeds ten minutes. This is how I imagine it feels to take hard drugs. I am grateful to Einstellung for providing this experience in a legal format and without any lasting ill effects on my health.

I could happily watch Einstellung all night, but eventually they have to wind down so they can vacate the stage for Cluster. The duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius have been making music together since 1971 and as they wander onto the stage it occurs to me that they are possibly the oldest performers I've seen live. Roedelius is well into his seventies, while Moebius is, I think, slightly younger. They prove that age is no barrier to creativity as they generate haunting sounds every bit as imaginative as their early albums. The music they offer us tonight is the complete opposite to that of Einstellung and also the perfect antidote. I still haven't quite come down from the buzz of the first set, so Cluster's gentle, drifting sounds help me to unwind. While Einstellung could be said to represent a high-speed motorway drive across Germany, with Cluster I feel I have reached my destination and am now relaxing by the pool.

I haven't kept up with all of their releases over the last 40 years so I can't begin to suggest what the setlist might have been. I believe some of it came from their most recent album, "Qua", but I suspect large parts of the show were improvised. They play from behind a wooden table and the equipment they have at their disposal is hidden from those of us sitting near the front, due the relatively high position of the stage. I'm not sure if they are using synthesisers, laptops, tapes or CDs. I would guess that most of their gadgets are modern, but it is possible that they have retained some of the vintage machinery that would have been up-to-date when they started out. However, it matters not what tools they use, as the effects are mesmerising however they are created.

Watching electronic music played live can often be a strange experience, particularly to someone like me whose formative gigging years were spent watching the traditional rock band format. It often seems pointless watching someone lean over a laptop and not engage with the crowd at all, and I find that electronica is usually something I choose to listen to at home rather that see live. While Cluster's performance doesn't feel like the live gigs I am used to, it's still a rewarding experience. I feel privileged to be here because at times it seems like I am intruding on a very private moment. It is as if I have stumbled into the laboratory of two reclusive scientists and witnessed their secret experiments. They occasionally exchange comments that are inaudible to the audience (there are no microphones) and smile at each other, as if they have discovered, by chance, the exact combination of sounds that they have been searching for. It is obvious that they are enjoying the performance every bit as much as we are.

Cluster are perhaps better known for their wide-reaching influence than their own music. Watching them tonight, I am constantly reminded of more recent music in my collection that owes a huge debt to Roedelius and Moebius, whether that is their releases as a duo or their groundbreaking work with Brian Eno. A recent show by Murcof that I attended at the Hare and Hounds, the works of Portal that I reviewed at the end of last year, and more underground acts such as Coil or Psychic TV are the most obvious examples to me. Even the shoegazing bands of the early 1990s, despite relying mainly on guitars rather than electronics, have something of Cluster in their swirling textures. Music fans who listen to anything that is remotely "experimental", even relatively mainstream acts such as Radiohead, will find plenty that is familiar to them here. By the end of the show, I am nothing short of amazed at how much these two elderly men have shaped modern music, while remaining relatively unknown themselves.

The two sets tonight demonstrate the wide range of music that can be filed under the general heading of Krautrock. If asked to define the genre, most people would probably mention the so-called "motorik" rhythm favoured by Neu! However, there are many bands that fall into the Krautrock category without coming anywhere near this recognisable sound, Cluster in particular. If I had been played a few tracks by each of tonight's bands without being told who they were, and then asked to pick which one I thought was from Germany, I would almost certainly have chosen Einstellung. Cluster prove that Krautrock is as much about having an innovative approach as it is about fitting into a pre-defined sound. Capsule made an excellent choice tonight by putting on two bands who are very different in style, but have similar attitudes towards performing and complement each other perfectly.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Salford Harmonics



THE DURUTTI COLUMN - A PAEAN TO WILSON

I have mentioned The Durutti Column a few times in the past and it has occurred to me that some readers may only know them as a reference point I use when reviewing other artists and may not have heard their music first-hand. Although they are usually referred to as a band and there are a number of regular contributors, it is essentially the long-term project of Manchester guitarist Vini Reilly. The Durutti Column were one of the first acts to sign to Factory Records and this album is a tribute to the label's founder, Anthony H. Wilson, who died in 2007. Vini has released a constant stream of albums under the Durutti Column name and while I must admit that it is perhaps not essential to own all of them, "A Paean To Wilson" is his most consistent and rewarding record in almost 30 years.

The album opens with a looped sample of Tony Wilson's voice asking "Is this an art form?", which cultured listeners will no doubt compare to the sound collages of Steve Reich, but I was reminded of "Limb", the recent compilation of JG Thirwell's early experiments. Just as it starts to become annoying, the sample gives way to a gentle layer of reverb as Vini launches into his trademark guitar playing. As always, Vini's guitar is at the heart of each track, but each time it is backed by a second instrument, such as piano, viola or trumpet, as well as some electronic interventions. These additional elements give each track a different feel; one piece is quite trippy, like something that may have been played at The Ha├žienda during its early-'90s peak, and at one point there is something that almost sounds like an Irish jig. While this is not something you would at first expect on a Durutti Column record, it serves to highlight the range of Tony Wilson's tastes and the wide variety of bands that he brought to the fore through his record label and TV show.

As a final mark of respect, the album is mostly instrumental. Tony was always trying to discourage Vini from singing, and while I do enjoy some of the vocal pieces from his earlier works, it has to be said that he does have a weak voice, particularly when you compare it to his skill as a musician. There are some occasional female vocals here, which I think may be in a foreign language, and the only discernible lyrics have been lifted directly from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On". It is probably apparent from some of my previous articles that when listening to a new album, I often concentrate on the lyrics to determine what the songs are about or what they mean to me. This is obviously not so easy with instrumental pieces and with a lot of Vini's work I find myself thinking about specific places or times that are conjured up by the sounds. In this case, the overall meaning of the album is apparent from the title and Vini's explanatory notes, and I was wondering if it would turn out to be quite morbid, with a focus on death. The Marvin Gaye line that is used repeatedly ("There's too many of you dying") certainly fits in with this, and Vini's playing can be mournful at times. However, the overall sound is joyous and rather than lamenting Tony's death, it suggests we should celebrate his life and everything he contributed to the music scene. The album left me feeling grateful not just to Tony Wilson, but to others who are sadly no longer around but have left a lasting impression on my music tastes, in particular John Peel and my father.

I was pleased to see that in a rare display of good taste from the BBC, The Durutti Column were invited to appear on "The Review Show" earlier this week. I'm sure the clip will appear on YouTube in the near future, but if you're quick then you can catch it on iPlayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00qg7pp/The_Review_Show_29_01_2010/
If you don't want to watch the whole show then scroll to the end. At about 41 minutes in, you will find Vini and Poppy Morgan performing the album's centrepiece, "Duet With Piano". It's a shame that it's cut short after just two minutes, but this brief clip should be enough to convince you that Vini is one of the best guitarists this country has produced. For anyone inspired to check out the work of The Durutti Column, "A Paean To Wilson" is a good place to start. To those already familiar with Vini's work, this is an essential addition to his back catalogue and something I can even imagine being played at my own funeral.