Monday, 26 January 2015

Floored Genius

JULIAN COPE - Birmingham Glee Club

Julian Cope, it has to be said, has committed some atrocities in the name of music. The former Teardrop Explodes frontman is an expert on obscure '60s and '70s rock, and has written several books on the topic. But sometimes these influences creep into his music, especially in recent years. This, along with his inclination for long meditative pieces, can lead to results that would have been best left in the studio bin. Brain Donor, his Kiss-inspired side project, is excruciatingly painful and I'm not entirely sure that it was meant to be ironic.

Now I have nothing against experimentation, indeed there is plenty of it in my record collection, but Cope is such an outstanding songwriter that he shouldn't need to rely on gimmicks. His live shows should always be approached with caution, but when he walks onstage with no backing band and just an acoustic guitar, as is the case tonight, you should be safe.

It soon becomes apparent what a constant presence Cope has been in my life since I bought his "Saint Julian" album back in 1987. He has been there watching over me for so long that I no longer notice. He's released seven albums just in this century and although I'm pretty certain I've bought them all, I don't think I could name them or recognise many of the songs. At least that's what I think until he launches into the opening number, "Living In The Room They Found Saddam In" - possibly one of the best songs he's penned in his solo career. I immediately remember what I was doing in 2005 when this came out. The same is true for the rest of the set; Cope has been so prolific that there is a section of his back catalogue intrinsically linked with pretty much every period of my life.

It's his early-90s releases that mean the most to me, particularly "Peggy Suicide" and "Jehovahkill", where he began to move away from the quirky pop of the earlier albums. The songs became slightly more complex without being overblown, but at the same time those records feature some beautiful stripped-down moments. The opening songs from these two albums, "Pristeen" and "Soul Desert" respectively, are similar in structure, with each one having just one very basic set of words repeated throughout. They remind me of the simpler times we lived in back then. The two songs are the highlights of tonight's set, and Cope remains more or less faithful to the simplicity of the originals, although he does attempt to turn the ending of "Soul Desert" into an all-out rocker. Well, as much as you can rock out with just an acoustic guitar anyway. He wisely brings the song to a close just as it starts to become comical.

His live sets often contain songs that are still in development or were written years ago but not recorded. There are song titles that are often mentioned on fansites but are probably apocryphal. Does a song called "I Could Strangle Pete Wylie" really exist? Cope's erstwhile Crucial Three colleague does get a mention tonight though. The title of Wylie's hit "Heart As Big As Liverpool" has been corrupted to give us a song about the perils of drinking, called "Liver As Big As Hartlepool". Another new (to me, anyway) song has a title that I won't repeat here in case there are any children reading, but Cope explains that it is intended to offend or at least confuse Americans, simply because they use the same four-letter words but in a different format.

It's not just the songs but also the anecdotes between that make for a memorable evening. He takes a self-deprecating look at his career and how the Teardrop Explodes failed to achieve their full potential, referring to himself as an "intuitive non-career mover". Sometimes it's not clear whether he's talking about his own experiences or those of an exaggerated cartoon character and even in his own mind the boundaries have become blurred; he took what he describes as a method actor approach when writing his first novel. During "Sunspots", he stops to tell us about the lyric insert that was required for the Japanese release. After a lengthy discourse about the part in the chorus that "sounds like a car going past" causing problems for the poor sod given the task of transcribing, he remembers that he still owes us the final verse and resumes the song. Few performers could get away with that.

When he returns for an encore, he tells us that the previous night, the crowd had shouted for "Robert Redford". He hasn't had time to write a song on that topic on the way to tonight's gig, so instead we have to make do with "Robert Mitchum". I suspect he tells the same story every night, but we will forgive him that little bit of artistic licence. Despite my reservations about some of his work, and some of the live sets I've seen him play, he has proved tonight that those minor blips only make up a small percentage of his career. I'm not sure what 2015 is going to bring for me but I hope he will provide me with some new songs as a soundtrack that I will still remember when I look back in 20 years' time.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

World In Motion

While I try to decide which band I'm going to write about next, here's a link for another blog that you might enjoy.

DJ Esperanto, or Jenny as we know her, is a fan of music from around the world, in many different styles but usually sung in a foreign language. She posts a vintage foreign language song on Twitter and Facebook each day and her new blog aims to archive all of those songs.

I think the term "world music" has fallen out of fashion to a certain extent but it was often used to describe the music popularised by Andy Kershaw, amongst others, on his radio show from the late 1980s onwards. Those artists seemed to be primarily from Africa and the Middle East so the name could be regarded as inappropriate. DJ Esperanto also posts tracks from European countries and as she goes beyond the confines of world music, perhaps we should term her choices "universal music".

You can follow the blog here:

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Whirlwind, Heat and Flash


I recently saw this NME article about albums that will be reaching an anniversary this year. It's a typical NME piece really, big pictures and not much going on in terms of content. It also seems rather arbitrary to celebrate a record just because it's been around for a number of years ending in 0 or 5. Does an album suddenly become more influential and meaningful after 25 years than it was after 24? However, it did make me want to dig out a few of them and maybe even recommend them to other people. Although these are classic albums, maybe some of my readers are (heaven forbid) not old enough to have heard them when they were released.

But surely I don't need to tell you about "Goo". Everyone knows this record, right? Although it's hip to claim that "Daydream Nation" is the best Sonic Youth album, 1990's "Goo" is the one that led most people of my generation to discover the band. So I listened to it again, for the first time in ages. Hmmm... I'd forgotten about that bit. And that bit. Maybe people don't know it backwards and inside out as I'd imagined. It's normally described as their major label debut and commercial crossover; even the NME piece calls it their most accessible. Sure, it was their first release on Geffen, but commercial? Seriously? Have these people listened to side 2?

Before we talk about the music, let's take a look at that iconic Raymond Pettibon artwork. This is one of the reasons that the album is so well known. Every student had this on a t-shirt or a poster at the time. Look at how much merchandise I still have now. I have since discovered the origins of the picture but when I first encountered it, I wondered if it was supposed to represent two members of the Velvet Underground. I didn't know which two, I was never even sure if the one holding the cigarette was male or female. This ambiguity certainly made my parents feel uncomfortable about me wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that I had stolen my sister's boyfriend. (Believe me, if you'd seen him then you'd realise how unlikely that is.)

For anyone who was born after 1990 and is wondering about the object on the right - it's a DVD. Just a different shape.

Now we've admired the artwork, let's put the record on. Side 1 has the songs that you've probably heard even if you don't have the album. "Dirty Boots" and especially the single, "Kool Thing" were indie dancefloor fillers at the time and would usually be played side by side with the Seattle bands who were just starting to break into the limelight. Between these sits the album's most prominent piece, "Tunic". It's not often that Kim Gordon takes the lead but when she does, the result is usually breathtaking. Here, her dreamy vocals depict Karen Carpenter looking down from heaven and speaking to her family. For many indie kids at this point, Karen was just someone in their parents' record collection and this was the first time they became aware of the genuine suffering that she went through. Athough "Tunic" is not as sonically brutal as some of the other tracks, it's certainly unsettling.

Things start to get freaky before we've even reached the end of side 1. "Mote", on the face of it, has a conventional song structure, although the processed vocals can be rather disconcerting if you're not familiar with Sonic Youth's earlier work and that of their peers. I have to admit that I had never read the lyrics until I revisited the album for this article. Lines such as "I am airless, a vacuum child" and "Words don't speak, just fall across the carpet" give a sense of feeling yourself disappear and perhaps questioning your own existence. There was a hint of this in the lyrics of "Tunic" and the theme continues throughout side 2. At the point when you think the song has ended, something happens. I'm not sure what but it will make you walk over to your turntable to check why it has suddenly started playing at the wrong speed. The band then seem to return to their No Wave roots with a repetitve bass riff that gives the feeling of being trapped underwater, and this goes on for four minutes. Anyone who calls this accessible is clearly crazy.

Flipping over to side 2, there's a brief respite with "My Friend Goo", which is rather silly and could even be deemed irritating, but make the most of the light-hearted interlude before the terror recommences. The songs continue to make us doubt what we'd taken for granted until now and there might even be a UFO abduction but by this point the lyrics have stopped making any kind of sense. Things come to a head with "Mildred Pierce". It starts with a spoken voice repeatedly intoning the title over a dominant bassline and some trademark Sonic Youth guitar but then it explodes into a death metal racket. I'm not sure if there are any actual words - Thurston Moore is credited with screams rather than vocals on this one - but I think I would prefer not to know the lyrics anyway.

If I try to list the songs on the album without looking at the sleeve, I always forget "Cinderella's Big Score", although there's no reason why it should be forgotten. It starts with more of the droning No Wave sound that will have become familiar if you've made it this far but after two minutes it does turn into a song, albeit one that sounds like it came from an earlier album such as "Evol" or "Sister". With a slight change to the arrangement, this could have been a catchy tune, maybe even a single. But why they would want to do that? Even if they're on a major label now, they don't have to prove anything.

The album closes with "Titanium Exposé", which re-assures us that everything we've experienced was a dream or something we saw on TV. But do they mean just the last 45 minutes? Or my entire life? I'm confused. This is not how I was expecting to feel after a "commercial crossover" album. I set out with the aim of recommending "Goo" as a starting point for newcomers to Sonic Youth, but now I concede that maybe "Daydream Nation" has more tunes after all. So get that one instead then move onto "Goo" - perhaps stopping to get yourself a t-shirt along the way. I've also come to realise that I have many albums that sit neglected on my shelves because I just take them for granted. But if this experience is anything to go by, I don't know them anything like as well as I imagine I do.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Call It What You Want

Before we get back to the important matter of writing about specific records, let's pause for a moment and consider the multitude of labels that we apply to our music nowadays. While discussing my last blog post in a local hostelry, a friend commented that my top 10 of 2014 and indeed my record collection are rather lacking in classical music. I responded that I also have no soul (insert your own joke here) and there are probably a few other genres missing. This led to a debate about what exactly is in my collection; my friend wanted to categorise it all as post-punk but I don't think that really does it justice, as anyone who has set foot in my frankly terrifying music room will testify.

There are many artists whose sound I would struggle to sum up in one or two words. With modern musicians often mixing elements from a variety of styles, are music genres now obsolete? I find it particularly vexatious when record shops and especially record fairs split their stock into very specialised genres. Their categories are arbitrary and at a record fair they will vary from stall to stall. If I'm looking for a particular record then I have no idea which crate I'm likely to find it in. My own collection is ordered alphabetically by artist and I don't feel the need to impose any other kind of segregation. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and Johnny Cash, for example, play very different styles but happily sit side by side without any risk of Carter trying to rugby-tackle Johnny or Johnny shooting Carter just to watch them die.

OK, I know what you're thinking. Just last week, you witnessed me using terms such as prog and drone metal on these very pages. It can be useful to have a few categories that will give a very rough idea of what to expect from an artist. If I'm talking to a fellow muso and describe a new band as shoegaze, they will immediately know what I mean. The problem comes when a work colleague, knowing I go to a lot of gigs, asks what kind of music I listen to. I don't want to respond with a condescending "stuff you won't have heard of" but would I just get blank looks if I said psychobilly or no wave or gloom-pop or krautrock?

So, over to you, my three loyal readers. Do you classify your music by genre and how do you describe your favourite bands to anyone foolish enough to ask?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Ten Songs For Another World

Best of 2014

If I'm planning to do more writing in 2015 then a good place to start would be a review of last year. I wasn't sure whether to compile my favourite albums, as I often do, or my favourite songs. I've gone for the latter, as many of these are stand-alone songs rather than being on an album. They are probably, although I'm not quite so obsessive that I've counted, the songs that I've played the most.

If I'd gone for albums instead then are of course many from artists who don't feature here - Swans, Einstellung, War On Drugs... I could go on, but you would rapidly lose interest. Due to the sheer amount of music consumed this year, those who made it into the top ten - and I hope some of you are reading - should feel very proud.

10. KNIFEWORLD - The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes
So, a song with the word "skulls" in the title and the opening line "When I awoke this morning it was raining, just like the previous 2000 days." Hands up if you weren't expecting this to feature in my top ten? The man behind Knifeworld, Kavus Torabi, was in the most recent line-up of one of my favourite bands, Cardiacs. Their sound was described as "pronk" - a combination of prog and punk - but with Knifeworld most of the punk element has been cast aside to leave something resembling the bands from the original Canterbury scene.
Tying in with this, Kavus has also been playing with the latest incarnation of Gong. I'm ashamed to say I only have one of their albums - the obvious one - so perhaps my first New Year's resolution should be to give a bit more attention to Gong and their contemporaries.

9. HOOKWORMS - The Impasse
These Leeds psych-rockers are rather mysterious. There is minimal information on the record sleeve and the band are only credited by the initials MB, MJ, JN, SS and JW. I believe MJ is the singer but I'm not even 100% certain about that. The music features repetitive riffs, reminiscent of my old favourites Spacemen 3, combined with hints of Krautrock but it's the Robert Plant-inspired vocals that really make this work. This is very welcome as I had already been giving my old Led Zep LPs a serious re-visit when this came out.
It's certainly been a year of music that draws from the past but this doesn't mean that artists are running out of ideas. Mixing elements from existing genres can often create something fresh and if records such as this inspire younger listeners to check out bands from before they were born then this can only be a good thing.


8. GOAT - Talk To God
I took far too long getting round to checking out Goat. Their first album completely passed me by and I finally bought "Commune" when I saw a lovely splatter vinyl copy in a local record shop. That might seem a rather shallow reason for a purchase but in this case the blurred patterns spinning around perfectly complement the glorious racket contained within the grooves. The real beauty of this is that I haven't a bloody clue what's going on. I have no idea if the chanting is in English, Swedish or some made-up mystical tongue. I have no idea which instruments are being played; there are some words, which I believe to be Swedish, on the sleeve but I've not yet consulted Google Translate to determine whether these are the musician credits or a witch doctor's incantation. I'm not even sure if the back story is true - allegedly the band have existed in some form or another for over 30 years, living in a small voodoo community where their music is part of the local tradition. If you know the answers then please don't tell me and spoil the mystery.

7. BEN CALVERT & THE SWIFTS - The Sea, The Sea
Ben is a good friend and is highly respected in Birmingham and beyond, so I was pleased to see him return - even if he did only play one gig and write one new song. Although it does feature his backing band, this ghostly number bears the hallmarks of his early, stripped-down solo work. The song is inspired by an Iris Murdoch novel, which I have admittedly never read but it seems to be the tale of a playwright who becomes withdrawn from the real world after quitting the theatre. This is fitting as Ben's day job is as an actor.
My only complaint is the availability. In the past Ben has sold music through Bandcamp where the download comes with a physical object such as a set of juggling balls or a condom. This time he has committed the heinous crime of releasing the song through iTunes. I will have to nag him about putting it somewhere without the risk of infestation from the deadly U2 virus.

6. SHE MAKES WAR - Drown Me Out
I might be cheating by including this song as it hasn't actually been released yet, but I could hardly leave out She Makes War, could I? Laura Kidd describes her sound as gloom-pop, so I was obviously drawn in from the start. I discovered her by chance at a gig put on by a friend of a friend, and it's no secret that I've since become just a tiny bit smitten with her - something that even the lady herself can't have failed to notice.
Her Pledge-funded third album is being recorded as we speak and the songs previewed live have shown a move from her previous fragile sound into PJ Harvey territory. Whether the recorded versions will maintain this level of fury remains to be seen, but it's certain that "Direction Of Travel" will get a mention when I compile my list of albums this time next year.

Again, I could be bending the rules here. There was certainly an album from Birdeatsbaby this year but I have a sneaking suspicion that this solo effort from their orange-haired-vegan-piano-warrior (her description) might have come out in 2013. I discovered the band through or some other automated recommendation site - "You listened to the Dresden Dolls so you might like this..." They were right in saying I would like it, but it's a rather lazy comparison. Sure, they use pianos and have something of a cabaret feel but Birdeatsbaby (and Mishkin) have a more expansive, orchestral sound and the lyrics deal with more personal issues compared with the Dolls' tales of fictional characters.
At first I wasn't aware of the connection with my other new favourite artist - Laura appears on this album and Mishkin has just recorded her contribution to "Direction Of Travel". Each of them has their own distinct sound so any crossover is bound to be fascinating.

The buzz around this collaboration between the drone metallers and the world's most reclusive songwriter was so intense that some were bound to be left disappointed. There were certainly comments from a few listeners that it was not what they were expecting, but Scott being Scott, I had no idea what to expect.
The contribution from Sunn O))) is very different from the sound of their own records but the vocals are so dominant that it takes a few plays before you notice what's going on beneath. As always with Scott's lyrics, you will spend the duration of the album wondering what it could all possibly mean but this song does contain two of my favourite lines of the year: "Woke nailed to cross, could not give toss" and "Leaping like a Riverdancer's nuts".
I don't often do this but I made a special trip to buy this on the day of release, rather than waiting until the weekend or ordering online. The first time I played it, I turned out all the lights. Perhaps not the best idea, given the dreams I had afterwards.

3. MAZZY STAR - I'm Less Here
Mazzy Star could hardly be called prolific; they've released just four albums since 1990. This song has featured in their live set under several different names but the 7", released for Record Store Day, is the first recorded version to be made available. The minimal nature, with Hope Sandoval's vocals backed by David Roback's gentle strumming, does suggest that the song dates to the same period as their classic "So Tonight That I Might See" album.
Hope's voice can reduce me to tears, even though her delivery often makes the words hard to discern. The lyrics that can be made out here suggest a longing for a time gone by. But then her words become indistinct and we're made to feel that perhaps even our memories of that time have become blurred. The saddest song of the year.

2. PSYCHIC TV - After You're Dead, She Said
You never know what you're going to get with a PTV album, and that exciting unpredictability is one of the reasons I've stuck with them through the ups and downs. They've spanned an impressive range of genres and if I'm honest their series of live albums, including the ones reissued for Record Store Day this year, can be unlistenable at times even by my standards.
The latest album, "Snakes", features a combination of psychedelia and melodies, something you might not expect from the founder of Throbbing Gristle. This song contains echoes of their best-known hit, "Godstar", and despite the morbid title it's an uplifting piece. You might be surprised that I listen to uplifting songs but this one never fails to raise my spirits.

Far and away the best song I've heard all year. It has pretty much everything you could ask for: short and to the point, a guitar sound harking back to the golden age of indie, striking verse/chorus contrast and lyrics that are precise while at the same time being open to interpretation for your personal circumstances. Plus how magnificent does Simon look in this video? It almost, but not quite, makes me want to try eyeliner. I bet he even goes out to buy a pint of milk looking like that.
Their debut album will be with us any second now and my only concern is whether the new songs will be able to match the splendour of this one. Somehow I doubt that I have anything to worry about.

Welcome back, my friends...

If you're reading this then you've probably noticed that this blog has been neglected for a shocking amount of time. In fact many people, myself included, had assumed it had been written off for good. The lack of activity is partly due to lack of time. In the past, I would go to a gig or buy a record and then spend Sunday afternoon writing about it. But lately I've been seeing two or more bands a week and buying several records at once, which makes it difficult to focus on just one of them and come up with something interesting to say.

But the main cause is simply that Facebook and Twitter lead you into laziness. Why spend several hours writing a review that you can't be certain anyone will read when you can just come home from a gig, upload a photo of a setlist and write two sentences telling your friends very little apart from the name of the band you saw?

I've decided that I need to start writing more just to stop my brain from stagnating. I can't promise that I'll be posting articles as frequently as before but if you're kind enough to check back from time to time then you should be rewarded with something to read. I'm going to start by listing my favourite releases from the past year, which will hopefully be here for your enjoyment within the next day or two...