Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Boys Keep Swinging

LOUIS BARABBAS - Birmingham Tower of Song

As Louis Barabbas takes to the stage looking like he's just stepped out of "Peaky Blinders", I wonder how he came to be here. He is a man from another time and place. You could be forgiven for thinking that he's some retro hipster but it's soon clear that he is the real deal. Sure, the sound on his records with backing band the Bedlam Six - a mix of vintage swing and vaudeville cabaret - is not a million miles away from what certain other acts have done relatively recently. The Tiger Lillies are an obvious example. Add in the gypsy guitar that's prominent in his solo set tonight and older listeners might be reminded of Marc Almond's 1980s project, Marc and the Mambas. But while those artists borrowed from the past, you get the sense that Louis Barabbas was actually around during that era. By some strange freak of space-time, he seems to have influenced those acts who came before him.

Louis no doubt started out playing in a 1930s swing joint, but his glorious chaos would have been too much for the hepcats of the day. They went to those clubs to have fun and jive their cares away. They didn't want to hear about jealousy, revenge and a young child crucifying her pet cat. They would have chased him from the club with such anger that he had nowhere to run except into the 21st century, passing through 1977 to pick up a bit of punk spirit on the way.

And now he finds himself in an illicit backstreet whisky den playing to a small crowd who also feel at odds with the era in which they are living, so are more appreciative of his gritty tales. Despite the dark humour contained within, the music is upbeat and to call his performance energetic would be an understatement. The stage is too small to contain him and he expresses concern that his high kicks will knock over his drink. But that's the least of his worries. His jerky movements suggest a man who is constantly on edge, afraid that at any moment his nightmares are going to catch up with him.

There is a recurring theme of escape, particularly in the songs from the latest album, "Youth". During "The Debtor's Wife", he asks "Won’t nobody help me get out of this hole?" But ultimately we have to find our own way out, which becomes clear in standout song "Year Of The Bitch", where he talks of packing up his life and taking it to the tip. I'm sure you've often considered doing that but Louis has the courage to go through with it. And I suspect he has, judging from the song "Mother", where he confesses that "There’s a stranger in this mirror or is it just stained glass? I’ve changed my face so many times, I wish I could change the past." I feel that I must make the most of this fleeting display of genius before his past life kicks down the door and again causes him to flee.

Regular readers will know that here at Rebellious Jukebox we don't like to pigeonhole music. Louis is sympathetic to this. "Genres?" he asks, "What's that all about?" before announcing that he's going to play a soul song. By which he means that "Let Me Down Slow" is slower than the preceding numbers, but with more shouting to compensate. If he played this in a soul club then he would also be chased out. This is a one-man mission to smash the very concept of music genres. If you come away from this review none the wiser as to what he sounds like then he's obviously succeeded in his mission.

If the universe played by the rules then Louis Barabbas wouldn't exist in 2015. Thankfully, rules are there to be broken.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Papa Was A Rolling Stone


I've always found the music of Michigan songwriter Sufjan Stevens to be comforting but up until now I've never been sure why. His folk-pop albums, especially "Seven Swans", are beautiful but I've lost touch with him over the past few years as his work has gone off on a tangent. After two experimental records, Stevens has returned to his folk roots and his time in the electro-orchestral wilderness has strengthened him. "Carrie & Lowell" contains his most stripped-down sound to date with the plaintive guitar backed by a supporting cast, including Laura Viers, although their contributions can easily go unnoticed until the third or fourth listen. But in contrast to the fragility of the music, emotionally these are some of his most powerful songs and it suddenly becomes clear why I have always found such a feeling of warmth in his work.

Put simply, Sufjan Stevens reminds me of my dad and of his record collection that was a constant presence in our house during my childhood. Particular reference points are Simon and Garfunkel, or more delicate Beatles moments such as "Blackbird" or "Norwegian Wood". But most of all, these are the kind of songs that my dad would have written had he been a musician. On previous albums, Stevens has cunningly woven autobiographical elements into tales of fictional characters, and there was never a clear border between the two. Similarly my father would regale us with tales of his life, mostly untrue but the aim was to entertain rather than deceive. He clearly dreamed of being a performer and told us stories of his fictitious music career; he even convinced my sister that he had once been in the Beatles. In reality his musical ability was sadly limited, as is mine. So we have both had to settle for basing our writing and storytelling around the creativity of real performers.

Although there are moments here that are almost certainly fictional, Stevens has produced something that is rather more personal than previous efforts. The people in the title are his mother and stepfather; the album tells of the former, who left when Stevens was a child. He recounts memories of her but as his time with her was limited to the occasional holiday it's likely that many of these are pure fantasy, his idea of what a real childhood would be like. Again, I can imagine my father writing songs about the strained relationships with his own parents and siblings; the difference being that those songs would likely have been full of sarcastic humour (another trait he shared with me) while the songs on "Carrie & Lowell" display a touching sense of forgiveness. After seven albums, it seems that Stevens has finally found the confidence to be truly open with his audience.

The nakedness of the instrumentation here means that there is actually very little that I can say about it. Any attempt at a description would be similarly sparse so instead, I encourage you to listen to the album and, hopefully, purchase it. For me, there is nothing like unwrapping a physical album and reading the lyrics for the first time so I strive to avoid hearing new songs until the product is in my hands. Those of you who don't share my old-fashioned perspective might choose to listen to the full album stream that is available below. Whether you see parallels with your own upbringing or simply immerse yourself in the singer's own story, you cannot fail to be moved.