Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Noise Made By People

TRISH KEENAN 1968-2011

I was deeply shocked when I returned to work after lunch on Friday to discover that Trish Keenan, singer with Birmingham's electronic aces Broadcast, had died in hospital a few hours earlier. For me, and many of my friends, Trish will always be the one who best personifies the more imaginative side of our local music scene.

Broadcast arrived at just the right time for me. When they released their first few singles in the mid-1990s, the Britpop era was just coming to an end but Birmingham's live music scene was still mainly populated by Oasis wannabes. I had just quit my regular DJ slot due to the rubbish I was expected to play. Although there were people in Birmingham with more varied tastes, they rarely seemed to come together in the same place. When Broadcast started to play live, it was just the boost we needed and a small scene soon developed. I have fond memories of the next five or six years and what became known as the "We Brought Our Friends" scene. There were a handful of local bands (Magnetophone, Avrocar, Novak etc.) regularly playing at the Jug of Ale and the Flapper & Firkin, and I seemed to be in one or the other of these venues at least twice a week. As well as the music, there was a great social atmosphere and I got to know many of the bands. Despite having no musical skills of my own, I felt like I was part of something important.

Although most of these bands were not widely known outside of the small venues where they played and have since disappeared, Broadcast went on to greater success. After early releases on labels such as Wurlitzer Jukebox, they signed to Warp and became one of the best-known Birmingham acts. But despite the attention they received from the music press, they did not abandon their experimental leanings, and their releases over the last 15 years have never been anything less than fascinating. Their use of vintage synths combined with Trish's haunting vocals brings to mind the soundtrack of a 1930s film while at the same time hinting at '60s psychedelia and the works of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

I'm guessing that most people reading this won't need me to describe Broadcast's sound, and certainly won't require any encouragement to listen to their records. But in case there is anyone out there who has not heard Broadcast before, the best place to start is probably with "Work and Non Work", which compiles the early singles. This showcases the band's most relaxing pieces, and could almost be described as "lounge music". This is the best way to ease yourself into the mysterious world of Broadcast. In particular, it includes the beautiful "Message From Home". Like many other songs that I've reviewed here, this piece has a personal meaning to me and seems to describe a specific moment from my past.

After that, there was a gap of three years before their first full-length album finally appeared, but they had spent the time painstakingly developing their sound, which they seemed to do to a certain extent with each subsequent release. The lyrics in particular get more surreal as their career progresses, and for many songs I believe they employed André Breton's technique of "automatic writing".

I strongly feel that everyone should listen to all of Broadcast's releases, but if I had to choose one album then it would be 2005's "Tender Buttons". I personally consider this to be one of the finest psychedelic records ever made. However, it may come as something of a shock after the lush textures of "Work and Non Work", so if you have time it may be better to build up to it by working through the intervening albums in sequence. By this stage, the band had been reduced to a duo of Trish and James Cargill so in many ways the sound was stripped down, whilst at the same time taking in some new influences. The real beauty of this record is the way it manages to combine sounds from a number of different eras into a cohesive whole and still not sound like anything that came before it. If I didn't know Broadcast and listened to this album blind, I doubt I would be able to make an accurate guess at the decade in which it was made.

This record reminds me of different aspects of Birmingham, but mainly in a psychogeographic way. As some of you may know, I have a nostalgic fascination with the old architecture of Birmingham, particularly from the late-1980s/early-1990s when I first lived here, and centred around the old Bull Ring, of which I have recently built up a large collection of photographs. "Tender Buttons" is the perfect soundtrack when browsing through these pictures. The harsh rhythms of the title track and "I Found The F" remind me of the maze of subways and the bleak grey stone landscape, the way many people who have never actually been here imagine the entire city to look.

The album also includes the moving "Tears In The Typing Pool", which acts as a wonderful contrast to the abrasiveness of the previous tracks.

"Tender Buttons" requires many plays before it reveals all of its hidden depths, but ultimately it's the Broadcast album that I keep returning to.

As I have already said in a separate online discussion this weekend with one of my regular readers, at times like this I am reminded that I am lucky to live in a city with so much innovative musical talent. The last month or so has been particularly tragic, as we have already lost Mick Karn, Captain Beefheart and Peter Christopherson. Let's hope that 2011 does not continue in the same way.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Expressway To Yr Skull

SONIC YOUTH / THE POP GROUP – Manchester Academy

And so for my final gig of the year, I’ve decided to head north and catch one of just two UK shows that Sonic Youth are playing. I’m starting to get concerned that the recent snow will prevent the New York noise merchants and their vast collection of guitars from getting here, but I needn’t have worried as they are clearly made of stronger stuff than us Brits. Even with NYC suffering its worst blizzard in 60 years, they manage to turn up on time with seemingly more equipment than ever. Certain UK public transport providers could learn a thing or two from these guys.

The show opens with recently reformed Bristol post-punks The Pop Group. 30 years ago, their abrasive punk with jazz tinges left them as true outsiders and I suspect this is the largest venue they’ve ever played. They have always been one of the least accessible bands in my collection, one that I’m always wary of lending to friends for fear of what it will do to their eardrums. Tonight, with their greying hair and smart white shirts, they look more like respectable middle-aged men or possibly professional jazz musicians than anarchist punks. A couple of the songs definitely feature virtuoso flourishes that might not have gone down too well in the seedy bars where they originally played. However, Mark Stewart is still a compelling frontman and behind the well-dressed exterior, they have retained all of the anger that made the band famous in their short-lived first incarnation.

When I first discovered The Pop Group, in my student days, I thought I was being rebellious just by listening to something so obviously unconventional. It was really just the sound that attracted me; I paid little attention to the lyrics or the philosophy behind them. It’s easy to say now that the band were very much of their time. They formed in an era when a Conservative government had just been elected and race riots were common in many of our big cities… so, not much different from today, really. With stories of corruption in government and big business never out of the news, songs such as “Forces of Oppression” and “We Are All Prostitutes” seem more relevant now than ever.

I can imagine how The Pop Group might have been an influence on Sonic Youth, who clearly have a lot of respect for them. They’ve been given an hour to play (quite a long time for a support act) but perhaps more surprisingly, they get an encore. They return to play “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”, possibly the one song that everyone has been waiting for. I’m not certain how long this reunion is intended to continue or if they have any plans for a new album, but I for one would be interested in some new songs as it would be good to hear their thoughts on the current state of the world.

I’ve seen Sonic Youth countless times over the last 20 years and, if I’m honest, I might not have headed all this way tonight if I hadn’t been curious to see The Pop Group. I know a few people who have said they can no longer be bothered with Sonic Youth shows, because they’ve seen them enough times already, and it can sometimes be a self-indulgent mess.

Tonight, I’m worried that this could turn into another of those shambolic nights, as it takes them a couple of songs to get into the swing. But by the time they get to “Tom Violence” (the third or fourth song, I’ve lost count by now) they are fully focussed and deliver one of the best sets I’ve seen them do in years. They play for almost two hours, completely ignoring the venue’s 11pm curfew, and never seem to slow down. This intensity, sometimes lacking in their live shows, is due in part to the presence of Pavement’s Mark Ibold, who has been added for the last couple of tours as a second bassist. This frees up Kim Gordon to handle vocals on more of the songs and also gives the band a fuller sound as Kim occasionally plays an extra guitar.

The band’s name seems more appropriate tonight than ever. It’s hard to believe we’re watching a group of people in their fifties. Kim in particular still looks amazing and displays a ridiculous amount of energy for someone who is 57. I will be grateful if I can jump around half as much when I am her age.

Steve Shelley is the youngest member, only by a couple of years, and his intense drumming for the whole of the set should be held up as an example to anyone wanting to learn the drums today. Lee Ranaldo is perhaps the only one who looks his age, coming across as quite dignified with his grey hair. But he is probably the least conventional in terms of music, providing many short bursts of improvised noise throughout the set.

I’m not really sure what I can say about Thurston Moore. I know I have often been accused of looking (and dressing) much younger than I am, but here we have a 52-year-old who could still pass as a 20-year-old student. He does not seem to have aged (or bought any new clothes!) since I first saw him live when I was a student. I would like to know what his secret is, as I am now determined to continue looking youthful until I’m at least as old as he is now. I guess that most people regard Thurston as the band’s figurehead, and he also offers a fair amount of improvised guitar abuse tonight, but from where I’m standing at least, it seems to be Lee who takes the lead in this.

The set, as is often the case with Sonic Youth shows, is centred around the latest album - by the end of the night, we’ve had ten of the twelve songs from “The Eternal”. I bought the vinyl version of this, with its bonus MP3s for early purchasers, but that was months ago and I’ve forgotten half of the tracks already. I needn’t have worried, as it all comes back to me as soon as each song starts up and I notice, for the first time in many cases, that there are actually a few potential SY classics on this album. “What We Know” sounds amazing, and could easily have been a dancefloor favourite if this record had been out when I was still DJing regularly. Dedicating “Antenna” (with its refrain of “radios play nothing when she's far away…”) to Ari Up is particularly touching, and will forever change what this song means to me.

Although this is largely about my re-acquaintance with “The Eternal”, it’s also satisfying to hear a few older songs. As well as the aforementioned “Tom Violence”, the main set features two songs (“Catholic Block” and “Stereo Sanctity”) from 1987’s “Sister”. This was the album that brought the band to my attention, and is still probably my favourite SY album today. It came out at a time when I couldn’t afford to buy records at the rate I do now and I mainly discovered new music via illicit tapes passed to me by a friend at school. “Sister”, along with JAMC’s “Psychocandy”, introduced me to the idea that noise and melody could be combined in the same song, and my tastes have never been the same since.

I imagine that many of the crowd (which mainly seems to consist of 30-something males) would probably choose “Daydream Nation” rather than “Sister” as their favourite album, if the constant shouts for “Teen Age Riot” and “Silver Rocket” are anything to go on. The band would perhaps not play anything that obvious, but they do meet us halfway by giving us “The Sprawl” and “’Cross The Breeze” for the first encore. This is the only time I’ve seen the audience erupt into anything resembling the front few rows of a traditional rock concert. Until this point, the band have been far more energetic than the crowd.

For the second encore, there is another “Sister” track (“White Cross”) before the thrilling chaos of “Death Valley ‘69” reminds us of their No Wave roots. This climaxes in a tremendous wall of noise, with Lee attacking his guitar strings using god-knows-what. By the end, his instrument is almost certainly in an unusable state so I don’t think anybody will be expecting another encore.

This was actually one of my favourite types of set, although I may not have admitted it before the show, where rather than playing the songs I want, they play a set I never would have chosen (such as the whole of the latest record) but it leads me to discover hidden joys in those songs. Often the best way to appreciate or rediscover a neglected album is to hear it played live. I had “The Eternal” on my iPod all the way back from Manchester and wondered why I didn’t listen to it more when it came out. OK, I expect you all know the answer to that – probably because of the huge number of other records I would have bought in the same week.

The main thing I have realised from this show is just how important Sonic Youth are but also how much I take them for granted. They have always been there, never really changing, and many of their albums were soundtracks to important moments in my life, bringing back memories if I play them now. Yet they would probably not be one of the first bands that spring to mind if asked to compile a list of my favourite acts. If I make one new year’s resolution, it should perhaps be that even while I continue to investigate new music, I should not neglect the old friends who helped to develop my tastes. I hope I can watch Sonic Youth play another set like this in another ten or twenty years.