Tuesday, 1 October 2019

My Ranting Days Are Over


Fans of live music, particularly in Birmingham but also at festivals around the country, will almost certainly have encountered Rhino And The Ranters with their unique brand of gospel cowpunk blues. Although best known for raucous live shows with the full band, frontman Ryan John Webb has been known to play the occasional solo gig. Indeed, one of my favourite performances of last year was his busking set on the streets of Kings Heath for Record Store Day. After ten frantic years the Ranters have finally called it a day, going out on a high with a farewell gig at the Hare & Hounds in August. They will be greatly missed but their manic singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is still very much in action with the imminent release of this four-track solo EP. 

Although retaining the blend of traditional styles and surreal stories for which he's known, the mood here is more introspective and this is apparent even before the music starts, simply from the artist's decision to rebrand himself. While "Rhino" was an evangelising preacher, always winning over the room with his fired-up sermons, the name R John Webb suggests a loner roaming the wild west. Having rejected his alter ego, the former preacher is on a quest to discover his true self.

The journey starts off in familiar territory with the gypsy-tinged "Guajira", a song that regularly featured in the band's live set. While still relatively upbeat, without the full band the sparse instrumentation means R John's voice takes on a plaintive tone, the sound of a man desperate to flee from his past but unsure where to run.

Next up comes something of a surprise in the form of "We Are The Subterraneans". A quick glance at the setlists I've picked up at recent shows suggests this is the only song here that I've not heard before. The jaunty piano is reminiscent of Bowie circa "Hunky Dory" and then the gravelly vocals kick in. This is the voice of an outcast, feeling at odds with society but at the same time taking comfort in the fact that there are other misfits who will outnumber and outlive the "normal" folk. The outsider theme continues on "Deadlands", a great slice of Americana that brings to mind the film "Deliverance".

Part of the beauty of this EP is the way the running order has been sequenced. There's a natural progression between the tracks that is the exact opposite of a Ranters gig. Unlike the live shows, which would build to a ferocious climax, over the course of four songs the mood gets gradually more maudlin and finishes on an emotional low (but musical peak) with "These Strings Of The Old Guitar". It opens with a lonesome harmonica, then the most impassioned vocals we have yet heard from our storyteller as he finally accepts that his past life and former friends are gone for good. As that harmonica draws the story to a close, we're left with a vague sense of hope that R John will now be able to turn his life around.

It goes without saying that this EP is a must for anyone who has enjoyed the Ranters' live shows. It will also be of interest to fans of Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, in fact songwriters from any decade of the 20th century. "The Bridge" is released on October 14th through iTunes, Spotify and other digital platforms. R John Webb plays at JW Evans Silver Factory in the Jewellery Quarter on October 10th with more shows planned later in the year. To keep up to date with his activities, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Best Of 2016

As we reach the end of another year, it hardly seems necessary for me to say that 2016 was a bad one for deaths and world events in general. This is reflected in the lyrical themes of some of the year's releases but what's more noticeable is that many of us have sought comfort in music and perhaps even used it to shut ourselves off from the horrors around us. I wouldn't have thought it possible this time last year but I've listened to even more new music than I did in 2015 and that has made compiling this year's listing an almost impossible task. I did consider making it a top 30 instead due to the large number of albums that didn't quite make the cut. For example, I expect many of you will be concerned by the absence of PJ Harvey. "The Hope Six Demolition Project" was in my first draft of the chart but then I realised that I'd left out Kristin Hersh so positions had to be shuffled, which meant that poor Polly Jean was bumped out of the top 20. To make us all feel better about it, let's consider her to be joint 20th, which just means she doesn't get her photo on the wall above.

Other notable omissions include Savages, the Besnard Lakes, the first album in over 15 years from the Violent Femmes, an excellent film soundtrack from Scott Walker and the last ever album (although Michael Gira has promised/threatened that more than once in the past) from Swans. As in previous years, an honourable mention should go to my good friend Steve Lawson, who misses out simply because he's released so much new music recently that it's difficult to pick one.

20 CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER - Void Beats/Invocation Trex
Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth collaborate with members of Deerhunter, Spacemen 3 and Mouse On Mars for a triple album that replicates the best of Stereolab with added sci-fi weirdness.

19 JENNY HVAL - Blood Bitch
The only artist from last year's chart who also features this year. While some might find an album about menstruation unnerving, the music is serene enough that you find yourself forgetting the overall theme and the lyrics could be interpreted as being about emotional loss, vampires or whatever you choose.

18 THOUGHT FORMS - Songs About Drowning
The Bristol trio have been getting some well-deserved press this year, with support slots for the likes of Bob Mould. Live, they blew me away with fury that called to mind early Sonic Youth. On record, their musical ability comes to the fore and with the more minimal approach on a couple of tracks it becomes apparent just how much vocalist Charlie Romijn sounds like Kim Gordon.

17 STEVE GUNN - Eyes On The Lines
It's easy to be fooled by Gunn's voice and think that you're in for an album of classic '70s rock but then you notice the technical intricacies of the playing. The best comparison I can come up with is a mix of Richard Thompson and recent Thurston Moore works, and I've tied my brain in knots trying to work out how many guitars are layered on top of each other.

16 WYMOND MILES - Call By Night
The Fresh & Onlys' guitarist has released three solo records but I'd never encountered him until he cropped up on a Sacred Bones label sampler that came with Jenny Hval's album. Baroque pop that will appeal to fans of Scott Walker's '60s work.

15 LINDA GUILALA - Psiconáutica
Foreign language albums are difficult to get my head round if I'm not sure what the songs are about but this Spanish mix of swirling keyboards and shimmering guitars inspired me to put in a bit of effort. While many would have been content just to enjoy the ethereal melodies, I spent an evening running the lyrics through Google Translate and discovered that this is a concept album of sorts about someone going through various stages of addiction and psychological trauma.

14 THE WOLFHOUNDS - Untied Kingdom (...Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture)
Although usually lumped in with jangly C86 bands, from their second album onwards the Wolfhounds were more abrasive and socially aware, and "Untied Kingdom" picks up where 1990's "Attitude" left off. The lyrics, including racist jokes from the 1970s and mentions of "the stupid poor getting what they deserve", come uncomfortably close to the truth at times - an indie equivalent of Frankie Boyle.

13 KRISTIN HERSH - Wyatt At The Coyote Palace
Kristin Hersh rarely releases albums in a conventional format these days; this 24-song epic comes in a book with stories, poems and even a recipe. While the boundaries between her solo and Throwing Muses output have become increasingly blurred of late, many tracks here hark back to works such as 2001's "Sunny Border Blue".

12 PSYCHIC ILLS - Inner Journey Out
The third Sacred Bones release in this year's chart. The hazy melodies bring to mind Mazzy Star so it's no surprise that there is a guest appearance from Hope Sandoval, whose own album narrowly missed the top 20.

11 ANOHNI - Hopelessness
I was slow to catch on to the fact that Antony Hegarty was recording under a new name but snapped up this album as soon as I learned who it was. There are more electronic elements and a more political slant than on Antony And The Johnsons' releases, but the haunting voice is still unmistakable.

10 GONG - Rejoice! I'm Dead!
Purists will no doubt claim that Gong without Daevid Allen is unimaginable and with Kavus Torabi now at the helm, I must confess that on first listen this came across as a Knifeworld album. But on closer inspection, the underlying music comes closer to the classic jazzy Gong sound than anything they've released this century, particularly with Steve Hillage's contribution to the title track. Featuring lyrics written by Allen taking a self-deprecating look at his impending death, these songs provide some reassurance in a year when we've lost so many great artists.

9 SUEDE - Night Thoughts
Friends have expressed surprise that I listen to Suede as they were apparently a "Britpop" band - a scene I strove to avoid. I don't agree with them being categorised this way; let's not forget that "Dog Man Star" was one of the most complex albums of that period and 20 years later they have finally matched it with a record so sweepingly dramatic that it's almost prog at times. I still don't fully understand the accompanying film though.

8 BIRDEATSBABY - Tanta Furia
Despite several singles (including a Muse cover) suggesting Birdeatsbaby were developing a harder edge, this album features plenty of their trademark cabaret sound. The weekend I spent with Mishkin Fitzgerald was one of the high points of my year and after she bravely opened up in this article about her ongoing battle with depression, the introspective lyrics make perfect sense.

7 PIXIES - Head Carrier
Many fans had written them off after the departure of Kim Deal but we finally have a worthy successor to "Doolittle". Full review here.

6 PIANO MAGIC - Closure
Piano Magic, and also frontman Glen Johnson's other projects, have featured heavily in this blog since I started it and I think it's accurate to say that they are the one band who have provided a constant soundtrack for almost half of my life. So I'm saddened that they've decided to bring things to a close 20 years to the day since their first ever gig, but they go out in style with a final album that echoes the brooding melancholy of their 2005 masterpiece "Disaffected".

My greatest discovery of the year when I saw her at an excellent psych event in Manchester, coming across like Patti Smith fronting Suicide. I was worried that the album wouldn't live up to my expectations but it has exceeded them, with the drive of the live show augmented by hints of Silver Apples and Broadcast.

4 RADIOHEAD - A Moon Shaped Pool
This album has perplexed and even infuriated me - the grammatical error in the title, the inclusion of tracks that the band have been playing live for many years, the barely legible "secondary" lyrics on the vinyl packaging and most of all the release schedule, which meant I had to go against my usual instinct and listen to the download months before I had the physical release. But it's still Radiohead at their finest and hangs together more cohesively than previous effort "King Of Limbs".

3 NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - Skeleton Tree
A Nick Cave album is always an emotional experience and you can expect themes of death to crop up but after the untimely loss of his son, this one was bound to be unsettlingly realistic. On the first listen I assumed every song was written as a tribute but then Cave revealed that, amazingly, some of the lyrics were penned before the tragic event. Regardless of what he did/didn't intend the songs to be about, this is possibly the most moving release in his 30-plus years as an artist.

Many would have expected this to top my chart and if I'm honest, one of the reasons it didn't is simply that I've found it emotionally draining to revisit the album. In case you didn't read it, here's what I wrote at the time. I don't think there's any more that needs to be said.

1 KNIFEWORLD - Bottled Out Of Eden
If you've read this far then you're probably wondering a couple of things: Just who is this Kavus Torabi guy and why is he so special that not only does he get into the top 10 twice but also snatch the number one spot from odds-on favourite Bowie? And if the album is so great, why has a full review not appeared in this blog already? It's amazing that between taking on the unenviable task of fronting Gong and co-hosting a radio show with Steve "Interesting" Davis, Kavus has found time to create something that's alternately uplifting and poignant. But while the man himself gets most of the writing credits, let's not forget the other seven members who contribute elements such as clarinet, sax and bassoon to give the record such a frenetic sound. As for the lack of a review when it came out - well, I've started to write about it several times but it's such a diverse record that it's impossible to describe it accurately. To call it "prog" or "psych" is just lazy. I still haven't reached a full interpretation of what this album means to me on a personal level but the idea of leaving Eden for hell sums up the past year. Add to that the repeated theme of dreams and I get the feeling that this album is not intended to be understood, and that's what has kept me hooked. I would like to think that in 10, 20 years' time, if I'm asked to name a record that has stuck with me then "Bottled Out Of Eden" will be one of the first that comes to mind.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Death Disco

VICTORIES AT SEA - Birmingham Sunflower Lounge

When you go to a gig, what do you expect from it? Do you just want the band to replicate the sound of the record note for note? Many fans would be perplexed if they saw a band live for the first time and got something different from what they're used to. But to a regular gig-goer it can seem pointless if the live show is totally predictable. However, I admit that I sometimes find myself in the reverse situation - coming away from a gig with a record only to discover that it doesn't capture the live sound. This was the case with Birmingham band Victories At Sea and their album "Everything Forever", released on Static Caravan in 2015. I bought the album after seeing them support Moon Duo back in July and on first listen it seemed to be dominated by synths, its polished production a million miles from the intensity of the live shows I'd seen from them up to that point.

Closer inspection revealed that live and on record, the same influences prevail - most notably early Factory Records bands and other electronic post-punk acts. It's just that Victories Of Sea use different aspects of those influences depending on the situation. Most reviews I've seen of the record make reference to New Order and if asked which album in particular springs to mind when I hear "Everything Forever", it would have to be the disco hedonism of "Technique". But there is nothing about Victories At Sea's live set that comes anywhere close to disco. Occasional nods to New Order can still be spotted but it's to their earlier, more introverted work. There are also hints at Section 25's debut LP and even abrasive textures reminiscent of early Cabaret Voltaire.

I've recently written about how the style in which a song is delivered can change the listener's interpretation. Although the lyrics could relate to a recent heartbreak, the overall feel of the album is one of optimism. Many of the songs suggest picking yourself up, making the most of the good things in life to help you move on. The lead track "Bloom", with its refrain of "So hold on..." and advice to "bury yourself in good times", could be played while getting ready for a night out with a group of friends who have convinced you that a spot of clubbing is what you need to lift your spirits. But when heard live, secondary lyrics such as "Keeping up appearances but falling down" dominate, highlighting the distinctions between expectation and reality - in relationships or life in general.

This theme crops up again on the Depeche Mode-like "Up". Opening line "Just give me air, the rush, the beat, the sound" suggests the joys of clubbing, but live there is something more menacing about it. I suddenly notice the "cruelty, despair, with no one else around", a reminder of how claustrophobic the nightclub experience can actually be. Everyone seems to be having a good time except you, it's too loud to have a meaningful conversation and you wish you'd stayed at home to work on your blog instead. This outsider feeling, the reluctance to conform with what is considered a "good night out" radiates from the band's onstage demeanour. It's clear that a lot of planning went into the record to get all the components to fit together neatly but free of the confines of the studio, the band members all seem keen to do their own thing. They barely acknowledge each other during the set and it seems that just by sheer chance the three elements coalesce to form a glorious chaotic whole. It's difficult for the audience to decide which of the musicians to focus on but at first, all attention is on frontman John-Paul White. For the majority of the set he is thrashing all flavours of hell out of his guitar, a guitar that barely gets a look-in under the slick production of the record. It also becomes clear what a powerful voice he has, sometimes hitting high notes that suggest traumas a man of his youthful age should not have experienced. His melodious delivery on the album reminds me of Stockholm Monsters' early singles on Factory but on stage there is more than a hint of Mark Burgess of The Chameleons.

The credits on the album don't make it clear who plays what and you could be forgiven for thinking that the beats are from a drum machine, or whatever the equivalent technology is called these days. But extra intensity is generated by having live percussion alongside programmed rhythms. With their regular drummer on holiday, Martin Cleveley has been drafted in from a band called Repeat Of Last Week, another act I clearly need to check out. Martin's energy reminds me of a young Stephen Morris and his performance in the classic "Transmission" video in particular.

Steven Edgehill's simultaneous handling of bass and synths has a feel of other current post-punk/disco hybrids such as Factory Floor, but also recalls much earlier innovators. This is most apparent in the pulsing krautrock rhythms of "Swim", the song on the album that has always struck me as coming closest to the live sound. Up to this point the lyrical themes could be linked to personal relationships, but there is now a realisation that much worse things are happening to the world as a whole. Although written two years ago, "We are the people lost at sea, we are the people who have lost our way" seems to have foretold the current state of both the UK and US. With society itself falling apart, attempts at either repairing or moving on from a failed relationship seem trivial and I suspect Victories At Sea may soon move into this darker territory on record as well as live.

After seven songs from "Everything Forever" and two from the EP "In Memory Of..." JP announces that this will be the band's last show for a while as they are heading back to the studio. They close the set with a new number, shown as "Aldous" on the set list. This is, I'm sure, a reference to "Brave New World" - a book I imagine to have a very bleak outlook but I must confess to never having read it. It's always a bold move to end on a new song, doubly so in this case when it's different from everything that has preceded it. "Aldous" sounds as desolate as anything on Joy Division's final album but with another 36 years of suffering thrown in.

Having seen the band live several times then listened closely to the lyrics on the album, the live set makes more sense this time around. When I mention this to JP after the show, he thanks me for reading the words as many people don't bother to do this. I know this should not come as a surprise and I realise that everyone appreciates music in their own way but with a band such as Victories At Sea, it's vital to become familiar with their many facets to get the full effect of the songs. With downloads and streaming making music so disposable, many consumers don't take the time to find the full story and I feel they are missing out. Things come full circle when I get home and play the album again, and notice that some of the anger witnessed tonight is actually present within its grooves and the guitars are actually there if you listen out for them. I only see this now the optimistic bubble has been burst. With 2016 having been such a terrible year for us all, I'm eager to see how this will inspire Victories At Sea's next set of recordings. Based on tonight's performance and the tone of the new song, I'm not expecting their second album to be a cheery affair but I'm sure it will be stunning nevertheless.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

In My Motorcycle Mirror I Think About The Life I've Led


I've been a little slow off the mark writing about this album. I've had it for a month and by now, those of you with any interest in the Pixies will have played it to death and formed your own opinions. Then there are those who have made a conscious decision to avoid it. I understand your reasons for doing that and I doubt that anything I say will persuade you otherwise.

For a lot of music fans, once they hit their mid-30s their listening will be based around nostalgia to a greater or lesser extent. Even for those such as myself who still consume a huge amount of new music, we often claim that the most important bands are those we listened to in our formative years. We all have songs that are tied in with key moments in our past and as we get older we experience fewer life changes, making it harder to find something in our minds to attach the music to. So if a favourite band reforms, we approach with trepidation, especially if there is new material that's likely to trample all over their legacy. But if we're honest, maybe we also want to leave the classic songs in the past. If we hear them played live now, we might have to admit that we're in a different place in our lives and the music will lose the meaning it once held.

There are also acts who have what is considered a classic line-up and if a reformation is lacking just one original member then fans will not think of it as the same band. The 21st century version of the Pixies has fallen foul of all the issues described here, with many listeners turned off by the awkward mess found on the three EPs that made up 2014's "Indie Cindy". Add to that the departure of iconic bassist Kim Deal and the result is apathy from much of their original fan base. "No Kim, no deal" as one friend put it when I asked if he would be going to any of the forthcoming live shows.

It will take a lot to win back my faith after "Indie Cindy" but as this is the Pixies, I'm willing to give them a chance. It's clear from the outset that they've learnt from recent mistakes. Black Francis opens the album with his trademark barked vocals, reminiscent of 1989's "Tame", and new bassist Paz Lenchantin proves that she's a more than adequate replacement for Kim Deal. This might lose me a few friends but I don't agree with those who say that the bass is an integral part of the Pixies' style. Although Deal undoubtedly provided a solid backbone for the songs, I've always felt that their classic sound was built around a contrast of melody and ferocity, with the savage vocals set against Joey Santiago's surf guitar. That balance was lacking on "Indie Cindy" and it took its cues from "Trompe Le Monde", their last and weakest album of the '90s. But with the guitar back at the forefront, this album has the feel of summer that I always associated with the band. Something else that the last album lacked was memorable songs, but here we see a return to the accessible yet still edgy style of "Doolittle" and after just one play, "Oona", "Classic Masher" and "Might As Well Be Gone" are already stuck in my head. Although the overall vibe picks up where "Doolittle" left off, there are also hints at the first mini-LP "Come On Pilgrim". The standout track is ‘Um Chagga Lagga’, effortlessly tearing the last 20-odd years to shreds and coming across like the bastard son of "Nimrod's Son". (Which I guess makes it "Nimrod's Grandson".)

When listening to a record for the first time, I pay great attention to the lyrics. Those who have read my album reviews might say that I put too much effort into finding meanings that were not intended by the artist or twisting the lyrical themes to fit whichever personal trauma I'm having on the day of writing. But with the Pixies' songs, I've never been able to do this. In my mind, the band have always been inextricably linked with David Lynch although as far as I'm aware the only connection is that they once covered the song "In Heaven" from "Eraserhead". I like to think that their albums have several stories going on beneath the surface, interlocked in a way that we can never hope to understand. The back cover artwork of "Head Carrier" includes a list of characters and places, most of which feature in the lyrics although some are only referred to obliquely. This could easily be the cast list of a Lynch movie. Be honest, can anyone really explain the plot of "Mulholland Drive"? This record is equally unfathomable and much of the enjoyment is based around convincing yourself that there is something happening just out of sight. I imagine the "head carrier" or "cephalaphore" of the title to be something like the otherworldly Bob in "Twin Peaks" and with a new series of that show imminent, the timing couldn't have been better for this release.

Despite the Lynchian mystery, there are some moments of personal reflection and self-analysis, more so than on any previous Pixies release. I see these as being like the romantic relationships that attempt to add some semblance of normality to a Lynch film. I can't be alone in thinking that Francis is referring to the whole of the previous album when he sings the line "What a waste of talent", and this is emphasised by Santiago letting rip immediately afterwards with possibly his greatest solo ever, just to highlight what was missing. Not surprisingly, there is some reminiscing about the original incarnation of the band. "Might As Well Be Gone" seems to lament a failed attempt to recreate past glories, while the most unsettling moment comes in the form of "All I Think About Now", a song which seems somehow out of place with the rest of the album. I can't quite get to grips with Paz Lenchantin singing words that were apparently written by Black Francis as a thank you/apology to Kim Deal. Up to this point everything has seemed natural but suddenly they seem to be trying too hard to sound like the "old" Pixies, and the result is a bit too close to "Where Is My Mind?" for comfort. The song, particularly the line "I try to think about tomorrow but I always think about the past", leaves a feeling of intense sadness. I can't decide whether this is simply disappointment at the song's blatant attempt to ape past triumphs, or because it reminds me of my own past - leaving school and the life decisions I had to make at the time "Doolittle" came out. Despite being in two minds over whether the album would be better without it, I find myself going back to this song more than the others, in the same way that I churn over past events in my head. "If I could go to the beginning, then for sure I would be another way."
I imagine that at some point in the near future there will be more new material but I actually feel that "Head Carrier" would be the ideal point to put the Pixies into retirement and leave their legacy intact. Apart from the minor misgivings over one or two songs, on the whole I feel they have produced a worthy follow-up to "Doolittle", finally paid off the 25-year debt. In early December I will keep my side of the bargain and finally see them live for the first time. Then maybe we can all move on with our lives.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Some Dumb Rock Star Truly Loves You

AMANDA PALMER - Liverpool Central Library
After the previous evening's psych extravaganza, our weekend in the Northwest continues and I realise that staying up drinking until 3am might not have been the wisest of moves. I discover that we need to leave our hotel (seemingly staffed entirely by robots) by 10am and there are a few local attractions to take in before heading over to Liverpool for the day's main event.

If you'll allow me a digression from the primary topic of this review, I must say a few words about the iconic Salford Lads' Club. With an hour or two to kill, we decide to take a brief detour with the aim of simply seeing the outside of the building and recreating the classic promo photo from "The Queen Is Dead" - something that has probably been done by every music fan visiting Greater Manchester. I wasn't expecting the building to be open on a Sunday morning, I wasn't expecting to see an impressive array of Smiths memorabilia and above all, I wasn't expecting to be given a tour and detailed history of the club from a gentleman whose knowledge and enthusiasm was startling. If you're in the area then a visit is essential.

Having said goodbye to the rest of our group, we finally reach Liverpool with a bit of time to see robots and William Blake at the Tate before taking in a beautiful sunset over the Mersey. On a whim, we tweet Amanda Palmer to ask if she wants to meet for a drink before the gig, but sadly she doesn't respond. It's been said that I'm rather obsessed with Amanda and I don't suppose there's any point in me denying that. She was one of the first artists I wrote about when I started this blog and my love for her has in no way diminished in the intervening years. But she inspires this passion in all who meet her, fans of Amanda do not do anything in half measures. These great photos from Andrew AB Photography show how Amanda is happy to spend time with each of us after her set, comforting those who need it. The emotion on some of those faces is striking.

When this intimate event, part of the Get It Loud In Libraries scheme, was announced, it sold out immediately and I still can't believe I managed to score two tickets. We arrive shortly before the show begins and find that most of the audience are already seated on the floor so I'm doubtful of finding a spot with a clear view. However, despite the show being in such demand the library seem to have put a limit on numbers so we can all spread out comfortably. We choose the best spot available although it's not that close to the stage. But it turns out we couldn't have chosen better as completely unannounced, Amanda strolls through the room and walks right past us before being helped onto a bookcase right in front of us. She begins to strum her ukulele and opens the show with "In My Mind". If I had to compile a "Top 5 AFP songs that move me to tears" then this would definitely be in there and as I'm already quite emotional from lack of sleep and the day's hectic activities, I wonder if I'll be able to keep it together throughout the set.

Still perched atop the bookcase, Amanda asks an audience member to pick out a children's book. It feels like we're back at school as we sit cross-legged on the floor while she reads us a story about vegetables, although I have a suspicion that the expletives she uses are not in the original text. Once the story is over, she moves to the piano at the front of the room but everyone remains seated on the floor so we still have a perfect view. In a recent email, Amanda asked fans to suggest songs for this tour so she can rehearse them beforehand - "sharpen the songs and have them in the quiver", as she puts it. Once in front of the piano she confesses that she's not had time to add as many songs to the quiver as she would have liked. Nevertheless she is happy to build a set spontaneously and the classroom atmosphere is maintained as we're asked to raise our hands if we have requests. She launches straight into the first request, "Astronaut", without delay although she does seem slightly hesitant about some of the songs that we suggest. She can't remember which key one song should be played in and when a fan offers the answer, she light-heartedly calls them a nerd. We're treated to "Trout Heart Replica", "Delilah", "The Jeep Song" and also more upbeat moments in the form of "Leeds United" and "Coin-Operated Boy".
(Photo - Kaytee)

Amanda is known for her cover versions and is often criticised for not showing due respect to the original artists. Many claimed that her tributes to Bowie and Prince, for example, came too soon after the artists' deaths. But as we're in Liverpool, no one is going to begrudge her a Beatles number. As we're in a library, it seems fitting to choose one with a literary theme. Although everyone who has ever picked up a musical instrument must at some point have played a Beatles tune, "Paperback Writer" is not one that I've often heard covered. It's amazing how the manner in which a song is played can totally alter its meaning. The original, with its distinctive guitar riff, has always struck me as a cheery song with McCartney talking optimistically about his creative aspirations. But with the guitar replaced by piano, it becomes poignant, as if a would-be writer is lamenting their lack of inspiration. It strikes me that this is how I feel in the presence of one such as Amanda, but also that my musician friends must tire of me saying how I envy their skills. I'm constantly told to stop undermining my own abilities, to stop making excuses for not pursuing my writing. This new interpretation of "Paperback Writer" makes me determined to get several articles written this week.

The show seems to fly by and I lose track of exactly long we have been sitting captivated; I would estimate that it's the best part of two hours. The beauty of Amanda's lyrics is that she is open about her own failings and makes it clear she is just like each of us. Each audience member will have their own favourite moments of the night, their personal reasons for relating to specific songs. But we are suddenly drawn together by the bare-bones sorrow of "Bigger On The Inside", delivered with just ukulele and no amplification. After just two lines, I can no longer hold it in and I gently rest my head on my companion's shoulder, letting the tears flow. By now everyone in the room is in the same state, and Amanda herself needs to be handed a tissue at the end.

This is one of her most personal songs, with its reference to friends dying of cancer, so it's clear why she struggles to get through it. On the long journey home I ponder why I've been moved by it more than usual on this occasion. 2016 has not been a good year for personal and collective loss, but being in Liverpool has also reminded me of my own musical upbringing. Many of you will know that my interest in music was triggered by my dad playing me his copy of "Sgt. Pepper", and I'm sure he would have loved to visit here and the Beatles museum in particular. I'm sure he would also have enjoyed Amanda's music, as honest songwriting was very important to his musical tastes. As I finally climb into bed at 2am on Sunday night/Monday morning, I'm grateful for such a diverse weekend. I make a note that we should return to Liverpool soon to take the full Beatles tour, and I also vow to do my dad and Amanda proud by taking my writing more seriously. Let's hope that I can keep at least one, if not both of those promises.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Gathering Of Ancient Tribes

GOAT - Manchester Albert Hall

Psychedelia has seen a huge resurgence of late, to the extent that I've struggled to keep track of all the new bands. I've seen a fair few small gigs in Birmingham but the full extent of the psych revival only becomes clear to me when we decide to spend what will turn out to be a very emotional weekend in the Northwest. I'm here primarily to see Goat and Hookworms, and it's only when we arrive in Manchester and I check the running order that I realise what we're attending is effectively a psych mini-festival, with five acts for the bargain price of £22. You would typically pay more than that for just two bands in a venue of this size.

This is the first time I've visited the Albert Hall and it turns out to be just as grand as its London namesake. The venue is an old Methodist church built in the early 20th century, and its Baroque architecture and stained glass windows remain intact. There are very few people in the main hall when we arrive so we have a bit of time to marvel at the surroundings. Even to the most hardened atheist, the room has an air of spirituality and this gives an indication of how the evening is going to pan out.

(Photo - Kaytee)

Weekend gigs seem to be starting earlier than ever these days and I usually find myself missing the opening act. With so many bands on the bill, a 6.30pm start is justifiable on this occasion and I'm glad we've made the effort to get here in time for Swedish act Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, who kick off the proceedings in style. I've not come across this artist before and a bit of post-gig research suggests that latest album "Mirage" is quite atmospheric but tonight's show is built around driving guitars that set the tone for what is going to be a very full-on night. Josefin herself has a very commanding stage presence, bringing to mind Patti Smith in both appearance and demeanour. She is my new discovery of the weekend and I make a mental note to add both of her albums to my Christmas list.

Mugstar are up next and I'm surprised I haven't encountered them before as they have apparently been around for the best part of 10 years and have released several LPs and a crazy number of 7"s, including a split with Mudhoney. They're the kind of band who would play our own Supersonic festival but I can find no evidence of them in my diary. They are without doubt the heaviest band of the evening and their obvious Krautrock influences are interspersed with some classic hard rock riffs, at times reminiscent of Black Sabbath. Their visuals are also the most unnerving, particularly the bizarre mutant horse, and the display reaches a climax with explosions that could be either the beginning or end of the universe.

Jane Weaver is the first act tonight that I'm in any way familiar with and my initial thought is that her style will be at odds with the rest of the bill. Her early releases were deeply rooted in folk but I believe she has incorporated more psych influences into her output of late, although I can't say this with any conviction as she is another artist whose work I've failed to keep up with. Her set tonight consists mainly of hypnotic electronica and at times the sound, and her voice in particular, bring to mind Broadcast. It's a nice reminder of home during this weekend away and provides a refreshing breather between the louder acts.

I've wanted to see Hookworms for a long time, and I am perhaps more excited about them tonight than I am about the headliners. Of the new breed of psych acts, they are the one whose work I have followed most avidly and their most recent album "The Hum" was one of my favourites of 2014. As it's only 9pm, the venue is just beginning to fill up and we're still standing very near the front. A friend who has seen the band before warns me that it's going to be loud, which doesn't faze me as I've also seen Swans on a recent trip to Manchester so I'm accustomed to volume. But he also implies that even those who know the band's recorded work inside out usually have trouble recognising what's being played live. This turns out to be true for a large proportion of the set and I'm pretty sure there are at least three new numbers in there. Those that I do recognise are from "The Hum", in particular album closer "Retreat". The relentless sonic onslaught reminds me of my first experience of a loud gig, Loop in 1990 - a tale which many of you will have heard before. This time I manage to watch the entire set without retiring to the safety of the bar and my stamina is rewarded. With the addition of overpowering strobes, I can't help but think of that classic period of pre-shoegaze psych drone bands. It's how I imagine Spacemen 3 would have been at their most intense although there are more electronic elements than I had expected and the overall effect calls to mind the kind of Suicide gig that would have ended in a riot. My only criticism is that the Robert Plant-esque vocals, one of the aspects that first drew me to the band, are not as prominent beneath the wall of noise as they are on record. That's a minor quibble however, as I'm left intoxicated by the overall sonic and visual assault. If I'm correct about there being new songs, I can't wait for them to be committed to vinyl.

(Photo - Kaytee)

The night ends, as it began, with another Swedish act - suggesting that Scandinavia is the place to be right now if you want the full psych experience. Although Goat were my main reason for buying a ticket when the gig was first announced, I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive since hearing the new album "Requiem".  I've said many times that it's unreasonable to expect a band to stick to the same style indefinitely and after two albums full of tribal rhythms, it's understandable that Goat wanted to diversify. However, the more folky style and in particular the inclusion of panpipes on the first half of the album has been too much of a change for some fans to take in during the two weeks the record has been available. I'm told that I need to persevere with "Requiem" and I would have appreciated a bit more time to get to grips with it before tonight's gig. However, my concerns prove unwarranted as tonight's performance is compelling from start to finish and even the pipes (restricted to just two songs) fit the atmosphere much better than when listening at home. Goat are the only act of the night who don't use a projected backdrop, and they don't need one as their outlandish costumes speak for themselves. I've previously stated that I would love their back story to be true - that they have been making music for 30 years as part of the traditional rituals of their tiny village in the remotest part of Sweden. The mythology that has sprung up around them is much like that of the Residents and I suspect that, as with the eyeball-headed weirdos, Goat's line-up is somewhat fluid and it's never the same people behind the masks. It seems unlikely that their identities will ever be revealed and everyone in the crowd tonight would prefer them to keep the mystique intact.

It's slightly disconcerting to experience their entrancing grooves in an enclosed space as the vibe is more one of an outdoor festival. In fact at times it's not so much a music festival as the pagan festivities depicted in "The Wicker Man". I start to fear that someone is going to be sacrificed so I hide myself amongst the dancing revellers to reduce the risk of the two masked priestesses singling me out for the climax of the celebrations. The dancing has already reached epic levels, more so than any of the other acts managed to inspire, but set closer "Talk To God" and encore "Goatman" bring on an eruption in the crowd that forces us towards the back of the room. From this position of safety I actually get a better view of the band and now that I can take in the full glory of their outfits I feel that my terror was truly justified. When the encore finally comes to an end, some 30 minutes later, I sense an air of relief in the room. In reality it's simply that we're all exhausted but part of me wants to believe that it's because none of us have been offered up to the gods.

(Photo - Kaytee)

I swear I read somewhere that "Requiem" is intended as their final album but when researching for this article I could find no evidence to back this up so I'm wondering if it came to me in a post-gig dream. Perhaps tonight's hypnotic visuals and voodoo mysticism had conspired to convince my subconscious that after this it would be possible to go no further. In the sober light of day it seems hard to believe that they would want to end it now, but at the same time it seems unlikely that such a gig would have happened at all. Like all good psychedelic music, it's left me questioning what is real. I'm intrigued to see which direction Goat will take in the future, but if it really is the end then I'm grateful to have had what was essentially a religious experience in such an ideal setting.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

A White Dove Among The Vultures

MISHKIN FITZGERALD - Birmingham Tower Of Song

I regularly mention Brighton orchestral dark cabaret weirdos Birdeatsbaby on other social media platforms so it's surprising that apart from a brief mention in my round-up of 2014, I haven't written about them in detail here. They are a prime example of a band who use social media to its full potential and they give regular webcasts to preview new songs. An offhand online comment I made during one of these sessions has somehow resulted in frontwoman Mishkin Fitzgerald being booked by my friend Lobelia Lawson to play at one of her intimate Sunday night events. I've not seen the band or any of its members live before and despite feeling that I know her well, I've never met Mishkin face to face until the night before the gig when I find her at my front door, laden with bottles of gin. This sets the tone for the rest of the weekend.

I've written before about making a distinction between an artist's work and the artist as a person. In some cases you even need to distance yourself from the individual in order to enjoy the music; this is the case for me with Morrissey in particular. It's much easier to draw that dividing line when you get to know an artist personally. Mishkin's easy-going day-to-day persona is very different from the gloomy character portrayed in her lyrics, although I should add that I have no reason to distance myself from either as they each appeal to a different side of my own nature. She can be self-effacing and alternately refers to herself as an "orange-haired vegan piano warrior" and a "dweeb". I get to know the latter during an afternoon's drinking and forget that this dweeb will later transform into the piano warrior with a quick change of outfit.

Mishkin is known on social media for her vegan lifestyle and animal rights campaigning but it's interesting how subtle she is about this. She is not at all preachy about her beliefs and there is little direct reference to them in her lyrics, although there are general themes of compassion and suffering. That aforementioned bequiffed individual could learn a lot here; if he were to be a little less bombastic then perhaps more people would be prepared to listen to his opinions.

I often pick up a setlist as a souvenir of a gig but rarely think about how the sets are planned; for example, are the same songs played every night of the tour? With an hour to go before show time, Mishkin pulls out a list of around 30 possible songs and, with a bit of help/interference from me, selects 11 to be played tonight. The songs are then shuffled into a satisfactory sequence, reminding me of the effort that goes into compiling a mix CD. First of all you need to select a suitable opening and closing number, then finding a stylistic flow between the intervening songs is the hard part. But making a mix CD is nothing compared with this. What's impressive is that any of those 30 songs could have been played spontaneously even though the day has been spent drinking rather than rehearsing.

The mark of good songwriting is that the work can be played in a number of different styles and remain meaningful; the mark of a good performer is that they can play any songs (their own or those of another writer) and make them fit the mood. Although there are differences in style between Mishkin's solo work and the more expansive sound of Birdeatsbaby on record, tonight I genuinely can't remember which songs come from which project as what we get is a consistent flow of beauty from start to finish. When I get home I check the setlist against the CDs to confirm the origins of each song. The set contains five songs from the new EP "Seraphim", two from the previous solo release "Present Company" and three Birdeatsbaby numbers, including one from an album to be released later this year. There is also a song by a band called The Devil Makes Three, labelled simply as "DM3" on the setlist so I'm not sure of its title. Although the fact is no doubt mentioned during the show, I fail to notice that it's a cover as it fits seamlessly into the set. I'm always intrigued when an artist has favourites or influences I've never heard of so I make a mental note to investigate The Devil Makes Three further.

I'm far from being a musician so find it fascinating to watch performers' movements closely and marvel at the technical skill, particularly when I have no real understanding of how the sounds are produced. When she's not performing, Mishkin works as a piano teacher, with the parents of Brighton queuing up to book lessons for their offspring and it's clear why she's in such hot demand. As someone who struggles to co-ordinate different parts of my body simultaneously, it's frightening to see how flexible her hands are. Dear lord, surely the thumb and index finger were never designed to be stretched that far apart?! The fact that she can do all this and sing at the same time is astounding enough but this is more than just singing, she has a truly amazing voice. The short a cappella piece "Deep In The Water" leaves the crowd with jaws on the floor but before we have time to take in what has just happened, she's back at the piano for the EP's title track, subtitled "Leaving Me Out". This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching song I've heard this year and it's possible I might have shed a tear but we put that down to the gin.

The only way to end the set is with "Rosary", with some of Birdeatsbaby's most disturbing lyrics promising that "you'll be so sorry when they find my body" - another example of the distinction between her on- and offstage characters. Knowing of her happy home life, I can't imagine the "real" Mishkin having thoughts of that kind although she mentioned earlier that someone was worried about her state of mind after seeing the gruesome cover of the new EP.

After the show, several people thank me for allowing them to see such an amazing performance but I don't feel I should take the credit here. All I did was suggest that I would like to see one of my favourite performers and then hand it over to Lobelia and tour promoter Simon to do all the hard work. However this does show that many artists welcome suggestions from their audience and any input, however small, can lead to great things happening. Even if, like me, you mostly feel like a bystander in your local music scene, you should still do whatever you can to get involved.

A tour with the full Birdeatsbaby line-up is on the cards for the end of the year and I look forward to another gin-fuelled weekend although we agree that bassist Garry Mitchell will be consigned to sleeping in the shed. The EP "Seraphim" is available in a five-track format now, with an expanded ten-track version coming at some point in the future. I already have the subscribers' download copy with all ten tracks so I'm not actually sure which of tonight's songs are on the current version. If you want all the songs now your best bet is to subscribe to Birdeatsbaby's Patreon programme. This will give you early access to all new material, at whatever price you can afford to pay, and also regular opportunities to interact with the band.