Friday, 25 December 2009

My Favourite Releases This Decade

I haven't really had time to consider whether these are my definitive favourites of the decade - turns out being busy doesn't rest at Christmas. However, these are the very favourite releases I came up with, the ones that have weathered best over time in my CD collection.

The Libertines - The Libertines (2004)

The Libertines - The Libertines

I have often said that Up the Bracket (2002) was the better Libertines album. I still agree with myself there, because it shows the Libertines for all the potential they had, all the pace and energy and raw talent they had as young men, where the eponymous second album is more a window to the fractured romance and the imminent collapse of the band. For all that, there is something lasting, something honest and original about The Libertines. While the chords are recycled from 60s beat pop and later punk, the words are decidedly more intelligent than much of the pointless punk-rock released in the early 00s. Amidst many others, wry references to Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, old classic comedy series The Likely Lads and Rudyard Kipling novels, show The Libertines' very British heritage, and literary intelligence. Opener 'Can't Stand Me Now' is one of the most hailed and beloved post-punk gems of this decade, tearing open and bearing to the world the tethered hearts of frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barât. Their tale is not only perfect fanfiction material, but also much more serious, warning of the dangers of hard drugs and the risks of a friendship as frenzied and intense as theirs was. The Libertines tells the final chapter of the story so perfectly, it just cannot be ignored. Aside from being a romantic historical record, The Libertines is more importantly a collection of really good punk rock songs, with the stylish guitar playing of Carl Barât, the unusual voice of Peter Doherty and the skilled and powerful rhythm section of John Hassall and Gary Powell forcing the music along. This is an album to be young to, no excuses, and one I have sought solace and escape in for many years.

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse (2004)

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse

2004 looks to have been a good year for music. 20 years into their career, Sonic Youth were still releasing amazing albums. Sonic Nurse is one of their most atmospheric releases, though all their albums have an atmosphere of their own. The artwork of Sonic Nurse sums up the atmosphere very well - warm and dark, ambiguous and slightly disturbing. 'Pattern Recognition' is textured and intense, with Sonic Youth's traditional noise guitar in the background. The feel changes at track two though, with a much more mellow and rich sound coming through, lyrics considered and melancholy. The threat of an explosion of Sonic Noise never leaves though, with gently pounding guitar and drums insistent throughout the album, briefly losing control in shrieky 'Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream', and then coming to beautiful and unsettling fruition in the not-to-be-listened-to-late-at-night thriller 'Paper Cup Exit'. Throughout the album, the listener feels as if they are caught in some perfect balance, which could be tipped at any point, as brittle as it is expansive and all-consuming. This mood could be created by the very rich timbre of the guitars, the threatening lyrics or the precise use of silences and dynamics. Whatever it is, I chose Sonic Nurse over excellent predecessor Murray Street (2002) and more radio-friendly but brilliant follow-up Rather Ripped (2006) because I can get lost in Sonic Nurse and never find anything I'd want to change, or skip, and the atmosphere is so wonderfully crafted.

Babyshambles - The Blinding EP (2006)

Babyshambles - The Blinding

Every track on The Blinding is... blinding, if that is excusable. The lo-fi rambling and ranting that makes up endearing first album Down in Albion (2005) is nowhere to be seen on the EP that followed, being replaced by eclectic and polished indie delights. Every track is worth mentioning. Sexually charged 'The Blinding' is probably about heroin, and it's power to make you 'happier than you've ever been'. The song's angry but captivating chords can only be played loud; the sultry bassline teases you, walking you gradually but decisively to the police car of the chorus: there the chords are more subdued, worried, as the questions come into the lyrics. "What will you do if she runs out of time for you?" But no! You run and escape, with a scream and a guitar solo that sounds like scrapyard metal being torn through rust, but tunefully. And so the cycle repeats, straight into the unexpected richness and tenderness of 'Love You But You're Green'. The lyrics are wonderful, talking of angered imaginary lovers in a fuzzy past. 'I Wish' changes the mood again, the ska-reggae impossibly bouncy and summery, boasting the fabulous, stubborn Pete Doherty line "It's not the same old story. It's new to me." which is, despite protestations, a very good point. 'I Wish' openly admits to the writer's smoking crack, his empty wallet, his lacklustre approach to life on drugs. But it's unbelievably happy with it, and summery because of the offbeat major chords. 'Beg, Steal or Borrow' is like a preview of the second Babyshambles album, but still has its place on The Blinding, upbeat and uplifting, yet with a melancholy tint to the lyrics. Finally: ah, 'Sedative'. From start to finish, 'Sedative' is a work of art, the chords perfectly rounded, the voice perfectly off-key, the tempo ideal, the gently undulating guitar an escape I could only have dreamt of before hearing this song. I've gone on too much about this EP. You get it.

Blur - Think Tank (2004)

Blur - Think Tank

The last album Blur recorded together, I have probably summarised Think Tank pretty well in my Rough Guide to Blur at The 405 (plug plug), so I shall try and explain why I chose it as one of my favourite releases of the decade instead. This album manages to be summery and uplifting as well as sad, in almost every song. That juxtaposition of emotions seems to be what I look for in music: I like it when you can rise above being miserable and look in on it, escape it, rather than wallowing in it, which is what typically sadder music offers. Think Tank is definitely about more than introspection though. 'Crazy Beat' is a crazy beast, a dancefloor filler and a rocker. 'We've Got a File On You' is an unexpected bit of shouting to wake you up, 'Brothers and Sisters' a quirky, sultry commentary on the State of Things, and several of Blur's best beautiful tender love songs are on this album. Maybe I love Think Tank because it never fails to make me feel like the sun's shining.

I can see that's a very mainstream top 4. The Libertines are generally regarded as a typical knocking-on-the-door-of-twenty-year-old's favourite band, Blur sell to adoring millions all over the world, Sonic Youth have their lower portions firmly on the thrones of revolutionary rock royalty, and Babyshambles are famous for dubious Dohertian reasons. The point is, these bands are big because they deserve it. There are plenty big bands who don't: I'm not plugging Coldplay or U2. I genuinely believe that these are amazing albums, and I'm not giving my decade's favourites to some little band just because no-one's heard it, so no-one can argue. No, these albums are fantastic, if a little quieter than I expected my favourites to be, on average.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Babyshambles @ Birmingham Academy, 19/12/09

If I was expecting some kind of Christmas theme (and I was), then the only Christmassy thing about yesterday night was the freezing cold. Despite this, the queue was twenty strong half way through the afternoon, but I chose not to join it because I wanted to be able to move by the time it came to go into the gig...

Amidst a few Santa hats and a lot of good cheer in the crowd, the first band on were The Scuzzies: a bad band name for a bad band. Four chords, strung together under a pair of average voices, in the typical way of indie punk at the moment, and perhaps always. Not impressed. The second support was a band called Gaoler's Daughter, which features 'ex-members of Larrikin Love, Littl'ans, No Picasso and Letters From London', and so makes up a collective of faces you know-you-ought-to-remember-but-don't. They were much better than the first band, with some juicy chords and interesting rhythms. They released an album recently, and it sounds like it might be quite good.

Babyshambles took their time, the crowd doing what they always do given a late Babyshambles arrival: asking fraught unanswerable questions. "Is he here? How much longer? Is he still on the drugs?" When they did come out, Pete seemed compos mentis, and it seemed they had a much better time than in March. The review I gave the 25th March Peter Doherty solo gig was mainly a review on the drunken masses in the crowd, but last night there were no such problems where I was standing, middle back. Everyone enjoyed themselves and sang along.

The highlights for me were: Stranger in my Own Skin, a new one previewed on Pete Doherty's Youtube channel which the crowd responded well to; Pipedown, with grittiness and bitterness and loud, angry chords enough to fill the decade; I Wish, because the crowd ordered it with their familiar shouting of the riff, and then it was played with great crowd participation (of course); Albion, because Peter knew almost every suburb and town outside Birmingham and listed them, to the crowd's immense appreciation, and finally, the glorious Fuck Forever, still played with all the anthemic soul which defined it in 2005.

Sedative was a let-down live, being one of my favourite Shambles songs and a beautiful little masterpiece all round. It lost some of its warmth and tenderness live, and the harmonica didn't work, I thought. That was the only song I was disappointed by, and the whole gig was just so much better than Peter Doherty in March. I think everyone on stage had a better time too, and they were decidedly not a shambles, to add to the overuse of the bad pun. It ended on curfew at ten (Babyshambles being so hardcore they don't conform to non-conformity), and the crowd poured out of the new Academy to snow.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year all round - thus ends my first year of music blogging.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Christmas: the Death of Music

Why do Christmas songs have to be cheesy and bad? There's no law about it, surely? And why can't we play new Christmas music every year, like we do all the rest of the year round? Yet again this year we're dreaming of a white Christmas, having a merry little Christmas, and Lord save us all, rockin' around the Christmas tree. The more traditional of us are dinging and donging merrily on high, decking the halls with boughs of holly, and coming a-wassailing (what even is that? I can't be bothered to Google it, or watch the Christmas special of QI).

Why? Just...why?

Having said that, Christmas number one is reserved for winners of The X Factor only, a new kind (and level) of cruelty that isn't even about Jesus. Maybe the many Facebook groups will persuade the General Public to buy the Rage Against the Machine track instead of the Leona Alexandra Jackson-Ward single, but still, the monopoly of crap will still own the charts that week.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to deny that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without crooners singing old tunes on Radio 1. It's the charm of it, the heart-warming mindlessness of the repetition. It's cheerful, and communal, and comfortable.

Now listen to a screamo parody and shake yourself free of all that nostalgia.

Edit: Website The 405 have agreed with me on this one, and put together a playlist of 100 indie Christmas songs for your dilectation, so to avoid bleeding ears this cheery season (or lose respect for all your favourite artists), go and check that article out.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Cribs @ Birmingham Academy, 2/12/09

The New Academy opened its doors just a few months ago, and this is the first gig I've been to there. It's further out of Birmingham's centre, and the underpass you have to go through to get to it from town would be a pretty scary place to spend any amount of time. Across the road is a shop with juxtapositional 'Kwality' in the name, and an Adult Shop - all a little intimidating. The Dome is a building of strange architecture, the main entrance overhung by the upper floors, but the door to the usual venue out along one side of the building, looking more like a side entrance. The building itself on the outside is brown, dirty enough to rival the old Academy, and it came pre-adorned with lumps of chewing gum and damp drippy patches under each window.

Inside it's a different story - they have decorated it and arranged it in a similar way to the other Academy, only the balconies are seated now and it's much cleaner and more plush inside. All in all, despite the rather exposed and scuzzy outside for queueing, which wasn't much better at the old venue, this Academy gets the seal of approval.

The first band on at The Cribs was a three-piece punk/indie band called Sky Larkin. They were charming, the female frontperson with stage presence and real talent, for singing and the guitar, although she missed a few notes vocally here and there. She was definitely in it for the music, confused wolf whistlers eyeing up the female roadie and then realising she was in the band. I like that, there's everything right with it, but I liked their music even more - angular, punky but thoughtful rock music. A lot of good noise for three people too, and the drummer was fabulous to watch for the funny faces. The second band on were the much-hyped Los Campesinos!, who had about eight band members on stage at once, give or take an instrumentalist. They had a violinist, an unusual feature, and a flotist-keyboard player. If only they had someone who could properly sing. It was all trying a little too hard, though the sounds they made were quite nice, like a cross between something left-field indie with Hadouken!

The Cribs came on at about twenty to ten. They opened with The Wrong Way to Be, often a closer, but good to hear either way. Ryan asked the crowd if they were 'old-school fans', and then rather sarcastically asked what we counted as old school, third album or before? Obviously the crowd didn't like that, and all cheered for album number one, whether they knew it or not.

The whole evening was a Wichita party, with all three bands signed to the indie label that nudged The Cribs into the limelight, and Gary proclaiming "Fuck the meehjurs" half way through the gig. The Cribs played a very good set, and Tweeted later that 132 people had gone over the barrier in that gig, crowdsurfers or otherwise. (Ryan's asking-fer-it "where have all the crowdsurfers gone?" obviously sparked some ideas in slightly drunk lads' heads.)

Anyway, the set lasted just over an hour, containing highlights of the slower B-side Get Your Hands Out of My Grave, one I never thought I'd see live, and I actually worked out the words, Be Safe with Lee Ranaldo on the projection screen which will never fail to entertain me, City of Bugs because it was at the end and the twins did the extremely appealing "ramming the guitars up the amps" thing for our dilectation. Other songs in the set were Another Number, Direction, Cheat on Me, We Were Aborted, Hari Kari, Emasculate Me, Ignore the Ignorant, Save Your Secrets, Nothing, Our Bovine Public, Men's Needs, I'm a Realist, Hey Scenesters! and Mirror Kissers.

Very good, but because I was pushed further and further to the right of the barrier (my fault for where I stood) and because there seemed to be energy lacking in the performance (don't know why), it wasn't as good as the Leamington Spa gig in October.


Monday, 23 November 2009

R.I.P. Reuben

Exploration of Biffy Clyro's similar artists on the wonderful (now sponsoring a 405 event or two, hurrah) a few years ago lead me to Reuben, a band of young members with much talent, and the antithesis of summery indie pop.

Recently, as usual just a few months after they split up, I've really been getting into them: they're very angry, but in a focussed, intelligent way, unlike many screamo bands who seem to be angry without a purpose.

Reuben's purpose is usually singer Jamie Lenman's girlfriends, it appears, and during making the last album, their third effort In Nothing We Trust, there was clearly a severe lack of irritating exes, because the lyrics lose their love and break-up emphasis, and to be honest some of their charm. Still, I like the album - it's more anthemic, more singalong and varied, and spawned the beautiful 'Good Luck' and 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', which can only be described as life-affirming.

The second album has been my favourite at the moment, along with their most recent release of all their B-sides and re-records, We Should Have Gone To University. All Reuben releases have on them Jamie's fantastic voice, which can pretty much do anything he wants it to, from tender whispers to huge screaming passages. The lyrics, despite being all 'emotional', are poetry to say the least, even when they're having a go at someone. The guitars, backing vocals and drums never miss brilliance either, and have a distinctive sound which encapsulates Reuben.

This is a post to say: please check this band out - even though I'm generally a punk and indie gal, if that's even a genre, a bit of modern rock in the form of Reuben tickles my fancy, simply because they're just so good. R.I.P. Reuben, and I, for once, hope you do the band sell-out thing of getting back together to tour the world, just for me.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Kasabian @ Birmingham NIA, 19/11/09

What could you expect of a Kasabian gig? I'd have said last week, lighters aloft singalongs, a sprinkling of girls at the barrier Serge-side and a Hell of a lot of testosterone.

I wasn't wrong. The crowd was extremely male, but I stayed out of the crowd of stags at the front anyway, at least when Kasabian came on. Supporting them were Reverend and the Makers, of 'Heavyweight Champion of the World' fame. I like the Rev, but he was full of male bravado and his keyboard player (and wife, I believe?) was gyrating and wiggling around in a roll-eyes-provoking manner. They were okay, but it was all a bit chauvinist and repetitive, despite the Reverend's nice opinions on war and politics (see Love Music Hate Racism and Instigate Debate).

Kasabian put on a proper show, even before they set foot on stage. On big screens either side of the stage, disturbing stories of lunatics (from album West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum) were played, and then a siren rang out, accompanied by a pulsating red light above the stage. All the roadies wore white coats reading 'SANE', so it was quite eerie when a man wearing a 'WEST RYDER' stamped coat wandered on, swinging an incense burner, before a countdown to the show. It was all very atmospheric.

From the back of the standing area, the music was the perfect volume to get under your skin, the bass sending sound vibrations through your feet, but no destruction of your eardrums (usually my favourite part of a gig, but it was nice to end without ringing ears for once.) The show was a real show, lighters aloft during The Doberman, a proper set behind the band, and massive confetti showers at the end. Never have I seen so many butch men dancing.

They played all the hits, though doesn't have the list of what they played yet. There was a while in the middle where they were playing 'bar songs', a little flood of bored people going to get beer, but that was possibly the only flat part of the evening, with everyone streaming out of the gig at the end singing the L.S.F. riff at full volume through Birmingham.



Sunday, 25 October 2009

Franz Ferdinand @ Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 19/10/09

Growing up in the Midlands, if I spend any amount of time in a local town at all, I leave disappointed. The Midlands is the county of litter, obesity and unemployment. Wolverhampton, however, has escaped the fate of being Just Another Horrible Image in my Youth through its three popular music venues: The Civic Hall, The Wulfrun Hall and The Little Civic (RIP, you were one of my favourites.) Last Monday saw another great gig at The Civic Hall - Franz Ferdinand.

The band spent time before the gig wandering round Wolves, being stalked by my mildly obsessive friend, and airing the bands' families. Doors opened at 7, and support came on at about 8. Music Go Music, they were called - a band name considerably worse than their music. They launched into a revamp of the classical classic 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' by Grieg (a song which soundtracked my two-year-old nightmares, and is more commonly known as 'that Alton Towers music'.) Everyone wanted to know more by then, hyped up by amusement, and a stick-thin female singer appeared onstage. Their next few tracks were well-played, well-sung, up-tempo pop tunes, with a rock edge. It was retro, but with a modern edge: I liked it very much, though it got a little samey throughout.

I did like the moment when someone shouted something undoubtedly sexist from the crowd, more than a pet peeve of mine, and the lead singer, apparently called 'Gala Bell', said "I'm sorry, what was that?", and another man called "You don't wanna know." Thumbs up, whoever you were.

Anyway, Franz Ferdinand only have one support it seems, so the band we were waiting for was on at about five past nine, playing a visual, energetic set, with covers and past B-sides, until ten. They went through their very entertaining art-school moves, even after all these years seeming to be enjoying themselves more than the crowd. The encore was quite long, started with Paul the drummer slinging his shirt off like a man possessed, the band finishing their onstage glasses of wine, and Alex giving the crowd even more sultry eyes than usual, through his new fringe.

Here's what they played:

Franz Ferdinand Setlist Wolverhampton Civic Hall, Wolverhampton, England 2009, Live Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Don't ask me what The Scottish Song was. I have no idea.

Again, a great gig, though I got a little bored during the last two songs. Despite their brilliance, both of the extended endings went on a little long - one of the two tracks would have been better. The throwing of the drumsticks was a ritual made more fun though - Alex leaned forward and threw it to my friend, who he knew is an Excitable Fan, but she didn't get it; on seeing this, he threw the second one specifically at her too, which she did get. He has her hooked for life now, no escape.

Because of my friend, we hung around for a while afterwards, but they'd apparently left the moment the gig had finished, so there was no meeting them. I just wanted to get home at that point though, despite how much fun I'd had in the gig. Singing along to Franz turbo riffs is tiring work, especially when they stick 'Ulysses', 'Bite Hard' and 'Michael' one after the other.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Cribs @ Leamington Spa Assembly, 8/10/09

Selling signed vinyls and limited edition CDs before a gig is such a Cribs thing to do. Every step of the way, the Cribs have been a live band in touch with what their fans want - amps turned 'up to 11', good music and lots and lots of memorabilia. I got myself a signed CD and a Cribs shirt, and then nestled into the young crowd at the front, taking in the awesome OTT decoration of The Assembly at Leamington Spa - golden orgies of cherubs against massive blue walls next to classical balustrades and art deco stained-glass windows. A very atmospheric and original venue to say the least, although impossible to get out of due to millions of flights of stairs.

The first band on were the Cribs' compatriots and friends Shrag. I liked them - they really did resemble Comet Gain - but the female singers had broken glass voices which began to get on the nerves after few songs. The music behind them was repetitive but enjoyable pop-noise. If that makes any sense at all.

Adam Green was next. What a riot. Whatever Adam Green was on, be it ecstasy, red bull or just life, it made him manic, running about and dancing, and therefore impossible to photograph. He came into the crowd... five times? And each time he threw himself in and got carried so far back that no more arms were available to carry him. The music was better than I'd expected - lots of guitar noise, super-speed drumming and hilarious lyrics. Adam Green. Perfect support, he got us all laughing and clapping along, and dedicated Superstar Blues to Queen Victoria.

The Cribs. Kate Nash watched from the sidelines, and the supports were lured out to the sides to join her as the noise started up. They played a selection from all of their albums, although the two most recent had the most focus. Setlist:

The Cribs Setlist The Assembly, Leamington Spa, England 2009, Ignore The Ignorant

The highlights of the night for me were: Hey Scenesters! because it's always a mass sing-along, mass bop-along track; Another Number for the most singable riff in history, and the fact that it's such a classic, not a person in the venue wasn't soaring on its simplicity by the end; Be Safe because Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth was speaking his wonderful monologue on a projection on the back wall, and because it's Be Safe; and City of Bugs, the final song, which ended in a cacophony of noise with all four members of the Cribs doing something detrimental to their instruments, and Adam Green dancing at the side.

Great gig - it's a shame that Cribs don't do encores but that's the way it is. Nice venue, good crowd, wonderful music. It's the best way to spend an evening.


Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Article on Album Art and Other News

I've done a short article slash synopsis on the relevance of album art, on The 405. I was quite proud of it, although I appear to have constructive criticism already...onwards and upwards I suppose. I can only get better.

(Or worse. But shush.)

Now, onto music. The Cribs have a favourite band, namely Comet Gain, and as a devoted Cribs fan who usually respects their musical opinion, I searched them out. I realised Cribs are extremely like them - more similar than 'influenced'.

Listen to these two, even only for a little while, and play spot the difference. Well, they're not that alike, but there are very clear similarities. They both start with one of those repetitive rhythmic guitar intro riffs, and then the lyrics come in - simple and based around the naïve concept of innocent platonic love. They both totter along to about 3/4 of the way through with simple chorus/verse structure, pretty but loose vocal harmonies, and come to a mildly sketchy but contrasting section, which peters out to an ending with lots of echo and feedback, fading out.

See what I mean? Either way, it's irrelevant, I like them both. Though not specifically those songs: try I Close My Eyes To Think of God by Comet Gain (which is not Goddy) and compare with We Share the Same Skies by The Cribs. Not as similar, but both better tracks.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

'Ignore the Ignorant', The Cribs

I've been waiting on this review, because the general feeling about this album and my opinion were so entirely different when it first came out. The general feeling was disappointment. I was wondering if I was overrating the album, because I'd met The Cribs a few days before.

After a fortnight, I don't think I was. This album is a great one, sounding maturer than The Cribs' three previous albums, with Johnny's guitar adding a new, more practised layer to the music, which also gives Ignore the Ignorant longevity in the CD player.

After catchy opener, but possible weak point, 'Cheat On Me', Ignore the Ignorant only gets better. 'We Were Aborted' is a more political track, the lyrics a real step forward from albums before, and Johnny's guitar adding interest. How anyone can say that Johnny's guitar stifles proceedings, I don't understand, because Ryan Jarman's raw guitar style still shines despite the addition of a glossier, more precise guitar. In fact, I think the two sounds complement each other better than most bands' guitars do, sharing and harmonising rather than squabbling for space in the mix.

I heard the word 'filler' being thrown around with this album. I wouldn't class any of the album as filler - every track has its moments, and its place on the album. My favourites include 'Emasculate Me', a track in which the sudden chorus and powerful but unusual lyrics combine for something nearing perfection, 'Save Your Secrets', a very tender and harmony-based song which comes as a welcome burst of calm, and the very Sonic Youth influenced 'City of Bugs', packed with noise and intense sound, carried by Ryan's sing-song voice and abstract lyrics.

The third track is possibly my favourite: 'We Share the Same Skies' reminds a little of earlier EP B-side 'Kind Words From The Broken-Hearted', supported by a wonderful opening riff, the sound of synthesised organ (which goes so well in contrast with rock guitars) and a soaring chorus.

Maybe there are fans too indie for the indie - fans who don't like the idea of famous Marr's inclusion, and so search for bad points. He hasn't made them sound like The Smiths. Maybe that's me being cynical about their cynicism. Whatever it is, I think The Cribs grown up lyrically, musically and emotionally, and the transition has been great. Getting better with age.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Cribs @ Kerrang! Radio, 3/09/09

2 years. I've been waiting to see The Cribs, manic indie-punk Yorkshiremen, for 2 years. They've always evaded me, somehow; my first Cribs experience was definitely worth the wait.

At just past 1 o' clock, 50 people were gathered in Kerrang! Radio's Birmingham studio, having won a competition (we had to guess what song was played backwards, and it was, as it always is, Men's Needs.) 'Johnny Marrman and the Jarmans' took to the tiny tiny stage to a wave of cheers from a mixed crowd - some of us were Cribs fans, and others generic competition winners.

The setlist was short and sweet. The brothers Jarman and their esteemed colleague kicked off with excellent We Were Aborted, the first song they ever wrote together. The second song was We Share The Same Skies, a rather tender track (for the Jarmans) with added Marr twinkle. Hari Kari was next, another faster number, and then City Of Bugs, a track with lots of distortion that sounds a little like Be Safe from the third album Men's Needs, Women's Needs Whatever (2007), minus Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth, who guested on Be Safe). Finally, they ended with current single, and probably weakest track, Cheat On Me.

The playing was a Hell of a lot less shambolic than I expected; I think Johnny keeps the band together musically, and adds depth and shine that covers up the Jarmans' sometimes messy playing styles. The atmosphere was unusual with there being only 50 people, but not bad. The band spoke a few times, once to say they'd been out in Birmingham the night before, so it was 'too early' for them, and once to sardonically say we'd probably all illegally downloaded these 'unheard tracks' anyway.

Afterwards, they signed and chatted and took photographs with friendliness. Ross was talkative, Johnny Marr was highly sought after for signatures, and the twins differed considerably in the strength of their handshakes. I asked Johnny "Do you sign things you weren't on", producing The Cribs album, to which he replied "Yeah, if it's good I'll sign it. The Beatles, Nirvana...". Gary (looking tanned and a little exceptional) mentioned my Sonic Youth shirt, at which I remarked I loved Lee on Be Safe. Ryan signed The Cribs and told me it was 'well old school', and then I got the photo below. Very very nice day.


Saturday, 29 August 2009

10 songs I love right now (8) - 28/08/09

Belle and Sebastian - Act of the Apostle II

The sound of the summer. Along with Song for Sunshine, this song has taken the credit for all the happiness recently. With wonderfully sardonic self-critical lyrics, it bounces along with upbeat piano chords and gentle dual vocals, until the original tune of Act of the Apostle returns, seamlessly, and the softness of edgy melancholy returns. Very pretty, but multi-layered.

Helsinki - Cheer Up Goth Kid

The title of this song is quite ironic, with this being one of the most emotionally tense and 'black' tracks Drew McConnell has ever aired. Surprisingly Biffy Clyro-esque in lots of ways (instrumentation, vocal layering, dynamics, the 'aaaaaah' section towards the end), Cheer Up Goth Kid sums up an emotion perfectly, I think. When he sings "December", I actually feel for him, deeply. Ask me if you want this track, I can send it, I know it's pretty rare.

Louise Attaque - J't'emmène au vent

This French song came to my attention via a Helsinki live cover, and it's very upbeat and lively. The lyrics are charming but uninspiring end-of-relationship lyrics when translated from French, but it's the fun folk-rock backing with fiddles, and the novelty of the strong French voice, which make this song great for me.

Reuben - Stealing Is Easy

From the new rarities album We Should Have Gone To University, Stealing is Easy has soundtracked a difficult little patch of my existence with its unsympathetic-yet-empathetic lyrics and loud guitar parts. Thanks Reuben.

Sonic Youth - Shadow of a Doubt

I am glad Kim Gordon is in Sonic Youth for this track alone. Usually, her breathy vocals and simple lyrics seem to add nothing to records, but on EVOL, she stands out more, and with better results. This track in particular is made superbly atmospheric and unusual by her sighs and whispers and yelps, and the simplicity of the lyrics describing the strange scene on a train. I love it - percussive sounds and an oriental edge perfect what is already very enthralling.

Belle and Sebastian - We Are the Sleepyheads

We Are the Sleepyheads encapsulates what Belle and Sebastian do so well: put melancholy and bitter lyrics over upbeat and uplifting music. Because of the relentless guitar strumming and cheery rhythms and harmonies, the line "We've been in this town so long we may as well be dead" actually brings a smile to the face. You can think 'so true!' without it bringing you down.

Amy Winehouse - Me & Mr. Jones

I wasn't impressed with this track when the album Back to Black came out, but I've come to realise it's a good song. It showcases Amy's voice and her talent as a songwriter: it's angry, witty, sarcastic and flirtatious all at the same time. Like a strong woman - like Amy Winehouse minus media image.

The Libertines - Dilly Boys

If you don't particularly like the idea of Pete Doherty dressed as a rent boy ("hands on hips, pout on lips") then don't worry, this song has much more to offer. An uplifting chorus that has you smiling along, and then a soft, tender bit at the end, and rather poetic lyrics in the verses which withstand some, if not too much, thinking about.

Reuben - Ways of Staying Pure

Opening with Jamie Lenman's terrific voice singing, rather sexily, "Yesterday was quite a day, and I've been a bad boy", this song is killer, no filler, all the way through. As if I'm not hooked in already, it's packed with loud/quiet sections, a 'big' guitar sound, brittle yet rich harmonies and a wonderful gentle part past half way through with a round of "Oh-ooh-oh-ooh" and then screaming! Excellent! For similar brilliance (with more 'emo' tendencies, however), see Words From Reuben.

Bright Eyes - Coat Check Dream Song

I'm not as impressed by Bright Eyes as I'm told I should be, but I like this track. More atmospheric and more enticingly sung, it is my favourite on the album, and also the most experimental (less Bob Dylan copying, in other words.).

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

New Reuben Review at The 405

I have officially posted my first ever 9 out of 10 on The 405. Reuben's new album, a B-sides and rarities release, is definitely the best album I've ever got for free! I made my love clear here at The 405.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Other Language Music

I don't listen to a huge amount of overseas music, mainly because I only speak other languages poorly, but I do have recommendations if you feel like branching out.

The first is a band gained from my mother, a German punk band called Ton Steine Scherben. Their message was decidedly anti-establishment, and if you speak German or fancy a day on Google translator, you can hear a million and one topical references of the time. I haven't translated every song, but I still enjoy them for their punk energy and the different sound of German vocals.

The Tropicália movement stands out next. Originating in South America, it was a 1960s Latin/Rock fusion movement, as well as an Art movement, again very against the dictatorial governments of the time. It's exciting because it was so disallowed, so new and fresh. Virtuoso musicians play Beatles-and-Stones-esque rock over Latin beats, with some really poetic Portugese lyrics (they even sound poetic.) Probably my favourite of the artists is Caetano Veloso: his music just stands out to me as the best, and he also sings in English from time to time.

A more recent one now: Louise Attaque. They're a French folk/rock band who write lovely little ditties. I like their late nineties music particularly, eespecially the wonderful track J't'emmène au Vent. The lyrics of that are repetitive enough to pick up as well.

Lastly, I'm going to give you a free download. I don't think Drew McConnell would mind so much - it's a testament to his brilliant Spanish. This is Helsinki - Lagrimas de Oro (Golden Tears), live. Love it.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Sound of the Summer

Undoubtedly, some artists have a talent for making music for the summer. I was only ever a casual Zutons fan, but they are just made for soundtracking the sun and the picnics and the joy of summer days out. I also feel that about The Coral (don't tell me you haven't smiled from cheek to cheek listening to In The Morning on the radio), The Holloways and the fantastic Yeti. There are others, but those sound like pure summer to my ears.

This year, it appears Belle and Sebastian are going to take the credit for the sunshine. I am several years late (again), but if you haven't heard them, I'd really recommend giving them a listen, while the sky's still blue and evenings are still light. They're 'harmless', if you want to be condescending...but I don't. They're indie pop at its most charming, lively and summery.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A Rough Guide to Blur

Having finally bought 13, I decided I could probably kick off my Rough Guides with A Rough Guide: Blur. Blur were/are: Damon Albarn: lead vocals, keyboards, some guitar. Graham Coxon: lead guitar, backing vocals. Alex James: bass, occasional vocals. Dave Rowntree: drums.

For most British indie fans, Blur defined the 1990s. Though Oasis too were at the top of the game, they just sounded like the 1960s on ecstasy (instead of LSD), so I don't think they deserve the legacy. Blur do. Starting off as Circus, then Seymour, the band changed its name to Blur on the advice of Food, the record label it signed to. Blur were a leading band in the movement Britpop, but developed over time into a more experimental, arty band - this may have alienated lo-fi punk guitarist Graham Coxon and caused him to leave in about 2000, which eventually triggered their split, after 2003 effort Think Tank. Blur influenced scores of modern bands, as well as spawning Damon Albarn's Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen and Graham Coxon as a solo artist. Back together again after 10 years, Blur may release another album, but recent media reports suggest that this comeback was just a nostalgia trip, and will finish as suddenly as it started.

Leisure (1991)
Blur made six albums. What? They made seven, you say? No, no. It was definitely six.

Blur - Leisure

Leisure is the forgotten Blur album. It is forgotten by choice rather than careless error. Blur, who kicked off and lead the masses in Britpop later on, strolled onto the music scene with this repetitive, slightly lazy album. It sounds like The Stone Roses or The Happy Mondays, though it doesn't have the charm of being new and original. The world was still trapped in the indie dance confines of Madchester, and 'baggy', and Blur did nothing to combat this.

This is in retrospect. At the time, listeners weren't to know of Damon Albarn's later lyrical prowess, and Graham Coxon's later guitar brilliance, so they enjoyed the wholesome, innocent pop of She's So High and There's No Other Way without disappointment. Undoubtedly, There's No Other Way was an anthemic gem, and parts of Leisure showcased Damon's sultry vocals to full effect, and showed Blur's ability to inject emotion into tracks which other bands would fail miserably with (Wear Me Down, Sing, High Cool).

Popscene (1992)

Popscene- Blur

Although only a one-track release, Popscene was definitely a musical turning point for Blur. It was a dramatic change, unlike their later slow evolution. Popscene featured a fanfare, stylish guitar ornamentation, and a shout-it-out chorus, drawing on influences like The Kinks, but also with strains of British punk. It seemed to be part of a calculated effort to be more 'English', after a destructive and unrewarding American tour. Popscene was Blur's first piece of Britpop, and arguably, the start of Britpop as a genre. It remains a fantastic track, angrier than anything from Leisure, and revealing Damon's first go at social commentary: 'Everyone is a clever clone, a chrome covered clone am I, and in the absence of a way of life, just repeat this again and again.'

Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)

Modern Life Is Rubbish - Blur

This is the first Britpop album Blur made: it combines social commentary with great music seamlessly. They slid out of the confines of repetitive trance indie and embraced unusual chords, a lo-fi sound and the first of Damon Albarn's very eloquent lyrics. For Tomorrow has it all: the detached melancholy which Blur became known for shines through beneath a perfect pop song, with a 'la la la' chorus but some fine observations on modern England in there too.

Other great tracks on the album include sensitive song Blue Jeans, about Damon's girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica, upbeat but disdainful Villa Rosie and Sunday Sunday, and a lot of interesting, miserably loveable characters in various other tracks, including Colin Zeal, the uptight man caught in the rat race, the disillusioned Miss America, and the bitter Julian with pressure mounting on him. A moment of historical importance on the album is Star Shaped, a more personal track describing Blur snapping out of recent discontent and getting their dreams together: their career was to take off from there, giving the song meaningful resonance.

Parklife (1994)

Parklife - Blur

Album number three exceeded all expectations. After a slow start to their career, and a sudden reinvention, could Blur escape the negative press they'd had from not being Nirvana copyists? Parklife silenced the doubters. Often hailed as Blur's best album, Parklife certainly contains fantastic pop songs: the famous tongue-twister Girls & Boys stands next to title track Parklife, and possibly their most beloved and beautiful song, This Is A Low. The album is more electronic than their previous effort, though it retains its deliberate Englishness: This Is A Low is a whistle-stop tour around Britain, Clover Over Dover a melancholy reference to the famous Dover cliffs, Bank Holiday celebrating the typical British tradition of...celebrating.

Though the most remembered effort, and certainly the one that catapulted Blur to fame, I don't find Parklife as fulfilling a listen as I'm told I should. The merry-go-round electronics are lost on me, Graham Coxon's distinctive guitar sound stifled under unnecessary polish in places. However, there is beauty in the innocence of this album. After Parklife, after a lot of bright lights came into the equation, Blur lost the youthful simplicity in Parklife and previous albums. I'd say it's an essential Blur album, either way: it marked their rise to fame, contains some of their best and most popular songs, and definitely defines what most people think of as Blur.

The Great Escape (1995)

The Great Escape - Blur

Maybe the fame went to their heads. Maybe Blur felt under pressure to recreate the success which surrounded Parklife, but whatever possessed them, it made them write The Great Escape. There are some good songs on this album, but it sounds like it hates itself. Not clear enough? The songs are sung without Damon's usual soul, and the social commentary almost parodies itself in places: Dan Abnormal and Ernold Same are amongst the many tired descriptions of tired characters.

Even then, Blur cannot stray from writing catchy tunes. Graham Coxon's guitar skills are brought to the fore, and there are some moments which are a lot of fun: the risqué middle section of Mr Robinson's Quango ("I'm wearing black French knickers under my suit, got stockings and suspenders on, I'm feeling rather loose"), the punk madness of Globe Alone and the uplifting quirkiness of It Could Be You. Country House made a commercial splash. Also, of course, this album bred The Universal, somehow infinitely sad and infinitely uplifting at the same time, and destined to be the background music on adverts for decades to come.

Offering the opposite perspective, some people love The Great Escape - they like the classic tunes without getting bogged down in the 'soul' or the subjective charm of the album. And I can't have disliked it at first: it got me into Blur.

Blur (1997)

Blur - Blur

Perhaps The Great Escape was the last Britpop album Blur made. Speculation as to why this album is self-titled usually leads back round to the fact that this is a much more personal album, with less commentary and more reflective lyrics: see Beetlebum, You're So Great and Look Inside America. If the previous album sounded tired and like it was retreading old ground, this sounded like a rejuvenation of Blur, but still with a lot of darkness between the lines. Beetlebum is said by some to be about Justine Frischmann's heroin addiction, the fast punk of Song 2 (probably their most famous and successful song) is lined with anger, and lots of the middle tracks are slower and more morose than ever before.

This album uses electronics in a different way to those before it, the slurping sounds in I'm Just A Killer For Your Love a good example: they are less merry-go-round and childish than earlier in their career. Essex Dogs was a pointer as to where they were going next, musically. Blur bridges a gap between the light-hearted but lethargic Britpop of The Great Escape and the new directions of13, rather than standing out as a great album in its own right. However, it did spawn Song 2, Blur's first major US hit, live favourite Beetlebum and Graham's first lead vocal track You're So Great (charming in its boyishness, but somehow lacking, like much of Graham's later solo material.)

13 (1999)

13 - Blur

To end the nineties, and end Blur as we knew it, they released 13. To me, 13 sounds like Damon's album, with Graham fighting for the lead where he used to share it so well. 13 is experimental and by no means Britpop. It uses those more adult electronics glimpsed in the self-titled, but much more, and with much more precision. Graham's punk guitar (which defined Chinese Bombs, Song 2 and Movin' On on the previous album) is in competition with Damon's preference for distorted electronic sounds and strange new auditory experiments. The new Blur sounds like it has four different directions, four people pulling four different ways. This was probably true: the band was made up of a politician and family man, a pilot and farmer, a world music buff, and probably most worringly, a hopeful solo artist in Graham.

I really like 13. It doesn't have as many singalong moments or big choruses as Blur would usually have (minus famous break-up singalong song Tender), but it has a gritty quality and an intensity they've never had before. It could be because there is so much going on in every track: they have all really learnt to play, loudly, and with electronics and distortion layered over the top, the texture is forever changing and drawing you in. The lyrics are almost entirely abstract or reflective, leaving behind social commentary. Graham's only lead vocal track, Coffee & TV, reveals that underneath all Damon's new direction, Graham is stifled and wanting to get out.

Get out is exactly what he did. By 2000, Blur and Graham Coxon were two separate artists. The band played some shows as a threesome, with Damon Albarn expermenting (albeit not with flair) on a guitar, and Alex James and Dave Rowntree just ploughing on - the band went to record Think Tank in South America and Morocco and Graham never turned up. Alex James was the closest to Graham in the band since he and Damon's friendship had become tense, and he remembers feeling that the band's balance was in jeopardy.

Think Tank (2003)

Think Tank - Blur

Think Tank is Damon Albarn's album for ideas, and Alex James' and Dave Rowntree's album for form. The bassist and drummer had got very good by then, but were always in the shadow of unwilling star Graham Coxon for talent. Now, Alex's eloquence on the bass and Dave's precision as a drummer (on the tracks he plays on) can be heard through the mix.

Without the aggression and tension on previous albums, the thing which Damon excels at can be heard best: the lyrics. Damon's lyrical skill is sometimes elusive, because he doesn't use florid language or heavy metaphors, he writes eloquently and simply and sets the words to the exact melody they need. There are hints of his politics on Think Tank in Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club and We've Got A File On You and, between softer numbers, electro punk rock to sustain your interest: We've Got A File On You and Crazy Beat, which is a perfect indie dance-floor classic. Sultry Brothers & Sisters commenting on drug use (which Blur had been very familiar with in the past) is a highlight.

What am I saying? Think Tank is one long highlight, in my opinion. It sounds like Damon breaking free of Graham, a very miserable notion which leads to a great sound, and at the same time it sounds complete. It's made for the summer, every chord evoking the beautiful scenery in which it was made (especially Out of Time, which has taken on South America, in the background noise and the music itself). Blur were at the end of the road though. Alex was right: a band is a very careful equilibrium, and this couldn't work for more than one album.

Blur didn't explode in a public supernova argument, band members didn't die suddenly, and the public didn't knock them from their podium after a bad album. Blur just fizzled out. The drink and merriment had been deserted, because though it had once bound them together, it now tore them apart. Blur gave way to new projects, including cheese-making and law school and folk music and Chinese opera. Over the next few years, Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn slowly reconciled, and they had a triumphant return this year. Lyrics bounced back from exalting crowds, roofs were raised, cheers reverberated around venues, and then the trees of Hyde Park. They headlined Glastonbury. Maybe there is a future for Blur, maybe there isn't, but it's certain that their legacy is now undeniable.


How to Buy Blur

If you are planning on buying/downloading all of the albums, I wouldn't suggest you take them out of order. They track a steady development (even more so than long standing bands like Sonic Youth) and all have some great moments on. However if you just want the general Blur 'thing', I'd suggest you buy Parklife and Modern Life is Rubbish, as well as 13 and Think Tank because they are great albums despite not being Britpop as such. The Great Escape and Blur are optional, though both have classic tracks on them. Leisure - well it's up to you, but it's no real loss if you miss it out. In my opinion.

Best of Blur

Not content with their six albums, Blur released their Best Of with unheard track Music Is My Radar in 2000. It lacks simply because they made a great seventh album in 2003 and it's not represented. If you want a compliation album, this year's Midlife: A Beginner's Guide to Blur is probably the CD to go for: they have chosen the tracks and it is definitely a greater compliation. It also contains Popscene, which is quite hard to find otherwise.


There is a well-publicised Damon Albarn biography - Gorillaz and other fables or something - but I don't recommend it. I got about thirty pages in, and despite being very interested in Damon's life, I couldn't get any further. It was dry and dull, packed with facts which you couldn't possibly remember all of, and very little analysis or style. If you were writing an essay on Bohemian upbringing, maybe you'd like it. After reading it, you can quote facts about what his music teacher thought of him for the rest of time, but it's not a fun read.

Alex James – Bit of a Blur

Bit of a Blur by Alex James, on the other hand, is a fantastic read. It doesn't fill you in on the technicals of the music in depth, but it does give you a few hundred page analysis of various types of alcohol, and girls, and it does so with wit and humour and charm. You may think he's an arrogant git, and you may well be right, but I've read this twice and it still makes me laugh and come out with gooey motherly 'awwww's every few minutes. It is history as well, remember. There are still facts (when he can remember them).

Any other Blur books are uncharted territory for me. By all means explore. There is a world of Blur at your fingertips, and I hope I've made it a little more accessible in this colossal block of heartfelt writing.

Monday, 6 July 2009

10 Songs I Love Right Now - 6/07/09

Blur - Caravan

Caravan wasn't the standout song when I first heard Think Tank: Crazy Beat and Brothers and Sisters were my instant favourites, but Caravan is a grower and I've had it on repeat lately. Beautiful simplistic melodies gently chug along over sprinklings of keyboard, and typically eloquent Damon Albarn lyrics sung in a heavy, faraway voice make this song perfect for drifting away into.

Sucioperro - Liquids

The recent Sucioperro album, Pain Agency, is a proper experimental rock album, pulling out the stops on instrumental skill and raw emotion. Liquids is the opener and it has it all: riffs that Sucioperro will be offered serious money for by whoever makes Guitar Hero, angsty lyrics, little quiet sections with really weird guitar runs in, a melodic section at the end, aggressive drumming. Played back to back with Conception Territory's strange cowbell solos, you're going to go on some serious trip.

Ali M Forbes - Under Her Sails

So, Envy & Other Sins split up this week, to the great disappointment of their fans, who are a lot more sympathetic than their ex-record company. Ali's first demo is this song, as yet unreleased, but a lovely ditty with xylophone and acoustic instruments. It's pretty. Hear it here.

Sonic Youth - Walking Blue

I was always a fan of Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, and I tend to love his songs best on their recent albums. He writes intense lyrics and sings them in rich, deep tones. This song is the same, with gorgeous percussion (I think it's a metal thing you scrape?) and nice chord progressions. Also a fan of What We Know, similar, but driven more by bass.

Stiff Little Fingers - Doesn't Make it All Right

Laid-back punk-ska track, made good by the fiddly bass part and the vocals - anti-prejudice lyrics are sung with a mixture of anger, disdain and exasperation, until it builds up into a percussion-and-mantra-powered punk song at the end.

Dirty Pretty Things - The Weekenders

A Dirty Pretty Things B-side, this track is just a daft Didz Hammond-ish retelling of the end of a relationship ("I showed you nearly all my heart and you showed me the door"), but it's done with nice guitar parts and upbeat chords. And Carl Barât's voice in the chorus is delicious. But that's just a given.

Blur - Popscene

It's deservedly on their new getting-back-together-and-making-a-lot-of-cash CD, Midlife, deservedly because it's a fantastically mad track, padded out with a brass section. This track is credited with giving birth to Britpop. It's certainly a lot of fun, I'll give it that.

The Coral - Who's Gonna Find Me

The Coral are fantastic at vocal harmonies, and that's what I love about this track: that and the slightly Hawaiian slides on the guitar. Pretty simple in structure and lyrics, this track is nothing to get excited about, really, but it's the sound of (a slightly angsty) summer and I'm temporarily addicted to it.

Yeti - Till The Weekend Comes

My favourite from 2008 album The Legend Of Yeti Gonzales so far, Till the Weekend Comes is a relaxed and slightly melancholy pop tune. Four-part harmonies and a day off: it's about as free as I ever feel these days. Don't Go Back To The One You Love is my second favourite, with cinematic lyrics describing some kind of thrilling escapade through the wilds of America, as well as containing Yeti's usual precise harmonies. There's a nomad in his mustang and everything.

The Specials - Ghost Town

The Specials are back together! The Specials! Despite a patchy Glastonbury performance, The Specials are back in full force, most still jumping round that stage, Terry Hall still staring intently into the crowd with an intimidating expression on his face. This song doesn't need justifying. It's fucking ace.

Leave me a comment if you'd like, if you agree or disagree with the above. Always open to debate.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Blur @ Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 24/06/09

It took me a while to register that this was actually happening when four of my idols sauntered onstage last week. I haven't recovered from the initial shock. There had been a complicated preshow bar system with all sorts of inside-queueing and confusion, so when I got to the front and saw four brilliant people all together on one stage, it was dreamlike. It was the best place to be to witness the brilliance of a Blur reunion first hand.

Two supports, local band Tukazon and Klaxons-esque electro-rock band The Magistrates, had kicked it off. Neither were exceptional, but neither got boring as they only had twenty minute sets. Blur came on at the early time of quarter to nine, to frenetic pogoing as the opening chords of She's So High rang out in the 5000-capacity venue. The crowd were fantastic: stadium-worthy singalongs and mass jumping ensued.

Alex James stood like a prize on the right hand side of the stage, posing coyly for photographs, flicking his hair and moving his hips. They'd all lost weight for the tour and looked at their youngest and best for years. Damon Albarn's energy was contagious; after the subdued poise of The Good, The Bad & The Queen, suits and hats aplenty, he seemed pleased and relieved to be back on a stage where he could charge around, stage dive and berate the crowd for not singing loudly enough. At one point he changed shoes because he was slipping around everywhere, to a crowd chant of "Damon! Damon!" that soon turned into a round of all the band members' names.

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The setlist was vaguely chronological, with tracks from the shunned first album Leisure, the underrated second album Modern Life Is Rubbish and the famed third album Parklife played near the beginning. The first pause for breath came during Badhead, the crowd surprisingly nonchalant considering the song's delicate charm. The full setlist can be found here, two encores and all. Highlights of the night for me were Beetlebum, which was epic live, especially with that sultry bassline, Sunday Sunday with its manic second half, Parklife, which was sped up to a ridiculous tempo and punkified beyond recognition (Phil Daniels never turned up, sadly), Tender for the crowd participation, This Is A Low for the pure rapture, and of course, The Universal.

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The Universal was just superb. It was the final song of the night, after Blur playing almost 2 hours, and the band buzzed with the most amazing positive vibe: they got a standing ovation on the balcony, and at the end, the whole band just stood without their instruments, grinning and lapping up the applause they fully deserved. It was fifteen years ago again, four men youthful and vibrant (despite the thinning hair and wedding rings), four kindred spirits, back together to have another go at it. Thank fuck.

I got a plectrum and Dave's signature afterwards, though teetotallers Alex James and Graham Coxon left early, and Damon rushed out, rightfully shattered after a fantastic gig. Really worth the wait, considering I never thought it would happen. I hope for a bright and Blurry future.


Monday, 15 June 2009

'The Eternal', Sonic Youth

Though releasing their 16th studio album, Sonic Youth have managed to slip under the radar of the mainstream for most of their long and fruitful career, flirting with fame (outside of the indie community, in which they are worshipped) only when Incinerate, taken from 2006's Rather Ripped, recieved a good amount of radio airplay, and Superstar got into the soundtrack of the hit film Juno.

When first listening to this album, it feels like Sonic Youth have regressed more than progressed. It could be that their indie vehicle has veered too close to the mainstream for their liking, or for their fans' liking, so they have deliberately headed back to the early 2000s sounds of Murray Street and Sonic Nurse; it could just as easily be an unconscious returning to that sound, or it may be something that only I have perceived. However, The Eternal does remind me of those albums, less mellow than Rather Ripped, and with generally longer and more noise-filled songs.

You may notice, I am not raving about this album, yet. With Sonic Youth, the music recorded in the last 10 years is very different to their original trademark sound, but in each era, they record a lot of similar music. It feels like Sonic Youth are retreading old ground here. Admittedly, it is ground that they paved (or should that be broke?), but movement forward is slow and...a little boring.

Having said all that, looking at The Eternal out of context, this is a great album of good songs. Opening with the unnerving chords of Sacred Trickster, it matches the standard of any of the young bands around today. Sonic Youth will not be left behind. They are on a platform of their own - listen to the cryptic lyrics of Anti-Orgasm, the rocking 'woah-woah's of Thunderclap, the beautiful timbre of the guitars in Walking Blue or the profound lyrics and gorgeous bassline of What We Know for proof.

You could compare Sonic Youth to Jane Austen. Yes, she basically wrote the same book loads of times, but they're all classics, aren't they? They're all praised, and they all epitomise their genre. Well there you go. Sonic Youth have done it again.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Peter Doherty arrested.

For drink driving, and driving without a license. In possession of class A drugs. Again.

Hopes of an imminent Libertines reunion are dashed; Carl Barât said he would get back together with Pete if Pete could stay off the drugs. And Pete agreed, as he always does - but they were false promises, as they always are. I was naïve to think it would turn out any other way - I was so hopeful for a Libertines reunion, tour, and then new material (which I am detemined would be good enough to sustain their legacy, even if it wasn't as youthful and invigorated as it was ten years ago).

What that man does with his life is his choice, but I know many fans will be disappointed now. I don't like it when Pete gets dragged through the tabloids, ends up in prison, has his musical creativity put on pause by the law and the media. I don't think any fans do.

Like he once sang:
"My boy who will believe your lies? Noone's going to sell you any alibis."

Saturday, 6 June 2009

'West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum', Kasabian

The last thing I expected was for Kasabian to mature and develop before their third album. I'd gone off Kasabian recently, with their masculine bravado and Oasis-worshipping, but I decided to listen to West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum anyway, just to see if I could rekindle the fire that burnt when I first heard the empowering swagger of Empire, or the anthemic simplicity of L.S.F., from their eponymous debut.

Underdog, the first track on the album, rekindled the fire instantly. Where most of the British rock bands have swung with the times recently and made electro-inspired albums (see Franz Ferdinand, Maxïmo Park, Marmaduke Duke), Kasabian have kept a gritty guitar sound, not overdosing the synths which have defined them in the past. However, the synths and electronics are still there, hidden in the mix, perfectly integrated. The production is great, managing to get the album sounding rich and clean without smothering the raw edge which makes Kasabian...dare I say, Kasabian.

Kasabian have matured. The lyrics still don't matter too much, more chosen for auditory aesthetic effect than literary quality, but the music has matured: they are experimenting a lot more with new sounds, textures and structure, while still retaining catchiness and dance-worthy beats.

Kasabian seem to have been listening to different music during the making of West Ryder to that they were inspired by during their previous two. Obviously, there are echoes of Beatles/Oasis in everything, but Thick As Thieves has a bit of the Carl-Barât-ballad about it, Secret Alphabets is surprisingly minimalistic, Swarfiga sounds like late The Fall, Fire reminds of 60s-psychedelia, but with a Kylie bassline, and West Ryder Silver Bullet has an 'Age Of The Understatement' Last Shadow Puppets feel to it. And yet all of the tracks work - even the tracks I like least (Take Aim, Happiness and Thick As Thieves) have their good qualities. Kasabian have escaped the shadow of Oasis, and I believe it's further into the sun from here.

Now, anyone got a spare ticket for one of the gigs?


Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Libertines: Reasons For Speculation

Is there a man who wears a leather jacket better than Carl Barât?

That is barely relevant, but I felt a need to pay a homage to the man who has taught me the ALT code for the letter â (ALT 131 of course), especially in such good times.

The Libertines reunited, briefly, last week, for a gig to pay tribute to the deceased owner of the Rhythm Factory in London. Carl, Pete and Gary are all scheduled to play Camden Rocks festival in early June too, and wouldn't it just be torture for them all to be at a festival and then not play together? And if a show happens, with Carl, Pete and Gary, followed by more little gigs like that...well a full Libertines reunion is on the cards, like we've been told. Pete & Carl have said they would record together next year, a promise which set fans' blood racing; definitely mine.

My worries are about John's decision. It is no secret that Peter has wanted to reform The Libs for a very long time. Carl is making positive noises now, and Gary seems to be going along with Carl. But John? John Hassall is busy with Yeti, a lower velocity group with seemingly a lot of mileage: things are on his terms and he doesn't have egos and drugs to compete with, he can stretch his musical muscle, make the sound he wants to. There are other bassists (cue Drew McConnell, enter stage left) but John was always the bassist for the job, with his fast fingers, his image, and his ability to fade into the background to let Pete & Carl take centre stage, while still being a strong presence. In the Libs book, it was said, "John is the only bassist." Perhaps he is. A Libs reunion would not be the same without him.

All the same, it is a good time to be a Libertines fan. Not as good a time as 2001 and 2002, waiting for an unscheduled gig on the dishevelled pavement of the Camden Road, or logging onto back in its hayday. No, it's not as good a time as that, but it certainly feels like there is a future, regardless of your opinions on their reformation. There is unfinished business between the boys in the band, and I for one am waiting for the saga to continue.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Maxïmo Park @ Birmingham Academy, 19/05/09

I left this gig high, with the impression that the crowd had loved the show almost as much as I had, from the cheering and calling Maxïmo back on for an extended encore. However, all I overheard on the journey home were comments about how average it had been.

So that's my 'taking-other-people's-opinions-into-account' quota met. Personally, I thought they were pretty good. While putting up posters before the gig with my friend (who works at the Academy) I saw Lukas Wooller eating his dinner in the Academy canteen. I feigned nonchalance, as my friend could lose his job for approaching band members, it's against the rules...but Lukas could see from my Maxïmo Park shirt and vaguely starstruck expression that I had noticed him. We also saw Duncan Lloyd wandering rather aimlessly around on the balcony, exploring the venue maybe, or just lost. It was a little dreamlike, but I'm not usually one to 'freak out' on seeing my favourite musicians. An uttered 'God, it's Duncan as well' sufficed.

The support acts were both average. Stricken City up first sounded a little like Florence & The Machine, and the songs were okay but repetitive. I wasn't struck (pun intended). The second support were Bombay Bicycle Club, a band I've heard of and have been told I should like. I wasn't too impressed though, they could play their guitars but they chose not to in many tracks; the lead singer looked like he was on some kind of hallucinagenic stimulant and the bassist looked like he was on some kind of sedative. The crowd seemed to like it though, there were chants of "BBC!" and cheering.

Maxïmo Park launched into The Coast Is Always Changing at about half past nine, and the crowd were having a good time. I was about 2 rows back, but the front row were unusually tall so I couldn't see much. All the same, I could see Paul Smith with his dramatic facial expressions and Lukas with his rigid dancing behind the keyboard. (Sometimes I think Paul's just in a band so he can dance like a man possessed: he'd probably get chucked out of a club for scaring the clientele, but he's allowed to do it when he's the frontman of a band.) They're the personalities onstage. Archis Tiku just stood at the back, Duncan got on with playing his guitar, and Tom English played drums rather regally, haloed by pink and purple lights every time I looked.

I can't recall the full order of the setlist, but these are the songs they played as far as I can remember: The Coast Is Always Changing, The Penultimate Clinch, Girls Who Play Guitars, Going Missing, Our Velocity, Let's Get Clinical, Tanned, Nosebleed, Overland West Of Suez, By The Monument, Questing Not Coasting, I Want You To Stay, Books From Boxes, Postcard Of A Painting, Roller Disco Dreams, Limassol, Wraithlike, The Kids Are Sick Again, and then the encore: I Haven't Seen Her In Ages, Graffiti and Apply Some Pressure. Graffiti they added because the crowd were being 'very kind' (hence my suprise at the abundance of negativity from people afterwards). A group of girls and I shouted for Graffiti, so I want to believe they played it because of us, but it's probably not true. I'd forgotten how amazing surround sound is for Maxïmo Park songs, with the textural interplay between keyboards, bass and guitar being panned across the room.


Sunday, 17 May 2009

10 Songs I Love Right Now (6) - 17/05/09

The Libertines - I Got Sweets

Libertines are my favourite band, and I Got Sweets is my favourite B-side at the moment, along with Half-Cocked Boy with its sumptuous chords in the chorus. I love I Got Sweets because it is jazzy, breaking into a walking bassline and instrumental solos in the middle. It's proper music, this, and Carl's voice couldn't be more attractive. I've been over-listening to Eight Days A Week (Beatles Cover) too. Let's hope this reunion happens, which their gig in London last night seemed to make more imminent.

The Kinks - Sunny Afternoon

The film The Boat That Rocked brought this song back to my attention. I've always loved it, however simple the chord progressions are. The lyrics about the taxman 'taking all my dough' work in the recession - it's a very miserable song lyrically, but it's so relaxed and manages to be uplifting at the same time.

Sonic Youth - Paper Cup Exit

Paper Cup Exit starts quietly, with repetitive drums and then a soft guitar riff. It seems like a 'skip' track until the unnerving verse comes in, with slightly discordant guitar chords against Lee Ranaldo's severly underrated, rich voice. After the crypic lyrics 'I don't mind if you sing a different song, just as long as you sing along', it drops to an edgy, almost scary riff. From there, it gets more and more tense. This track is haunting, but in the most amazing way.

Carcrashlander - Coast To Coast

On CarCrashLander's album Mountains On Our Backs, this wasn't a standout track to me, at first. I loved Quoting Dead Comedians and Capillary Webs. They're still good, but this proved to be a more elusive gem, with catchy lyrics and melodies that got trapped in my head, but were subtle enough not to get on my nerves.

Babyshambles - Wolfman

Wolfmaaaan! You're giving me the hump, maaaan! I don't know why this track is quite so memorable, or catchy, or sexy, but it is. There is a long drum solo at the end too that sounds almost like African fusion - it's a great track, and I can see why it was a live favourite back in the Down in Albion days.

Blur - On the Way to the Club

This is a track filled with such sincere-sounding tenderness, with such well-chosen words, it is impossible not to fall in love with it. Building up slowly from a simple drum beat, through soft sprinklings of guitar, to the soaring chorus, 'I just want to be, darling, with you', it is intoxicating. And it helps me sleep, which for once, is not damning.

Django Reinhardt - Minor Swing

If you can spell his name, Django is a brilliant find - I found him because he is said to have influenced Carl Barât's guitar playing style very much, which I can see. So surprised was I to hear a song from the soundtrack to the Johnny Depp film Chocolat, that I went and downloaded it straight away. Minor Swing is exciting, jazzy, displays musical virtuosity and reminds me of Johnny Depp, which has to be good.

Pavement - Stereo

After getting over the inital shock of hearing my stereo singing 'Oh! Listen to me! I'm on the stereo!' I found this to be a great song. The vocals are very American, which would usually put me off, but this time added to the lilting feeling of the song, with its lo-fi but uplifting edge.

Graham Coxon - Sorrow's Army

The first thing I thought when I heard this was 'Man, he can play guitar!' Graham has mastered the fine art of finger picking here, or at least showcases it to its full advantage for the first time. It's a great track, very simple and repetitive rhythmically, but energetic, well-played and very danceable (it may not be in the dictionary, but you know what I mean, right?)

Marmaduke Duke - Je Suis Un Funky Homme

The album (Duke Pandemonium) is thrilling enough before this track comes on, but this comes like the cherry on a particularly delicious cake. Daft and excellent in equal measure, Je Suis Un Funky Homme is a wonderful slice of experimental dance pop - that high-pitched organ and those mad's a musical delight.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A 405 Update and Other Bits & Pieces

My first ever very positive review has gone up on The 405, a review of the CarCrashLander album Mountains On Our Backs. I decided to give it 8/10, for reasons you can find out if you read the review. That 'job' is going quite well, I've reviewed quite a few things already, and I'm about to submit a Graham Coxon single review, which is also very positive. I must be mellowing with age, or I've just been inundated with great music.

While on the topic of Graham Coxon, can anyone actually translate his Twitter updates for me? He has so many injokes with himself I can barely understand a word of it. That doesn't matter though, really. What matters is that he's got even more fantastic at the guitar for this current album The Spinning Top, which is out now. I reckon he's picked up an acoustic tenderness from Peter Doherty, judging by the single. If I had the money, I'd buy it. However, I've spent that money on going to see Blur in Wolverhampton; at least he profits.

I heard a snatch of Frank Zappa yesterday, one of the artists I really should know about and listen to, but don't. A few weeks ago I reviewed Marmaduke Duke's new album, saying I'd never heard anything like it. Well, now I have, and Frank Zappa did that stuff decades ago, so I'd like to mention that in retrospect. The nod for originality I gave Marmaduke is not quite so deserved, especially as if Zappa did experimental electronics in that style, someone else probably did too. My fault entirely for being too young to know Zappa first hand.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Levellers @ Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 1/05/09

Idols to a whole range of skanky people, annoyers of the authorities and long-standing folk-rock legends Levellers played the Wulfrun last night. If you're not familiar with them, you've probably never been a student or an anarchist or been to the Hippy parts of a festival. You've probably also had a wholesome life. Wherever Levellers go, they and their fans leave a trail of drunken destruction, littered with used swearwords and anarchy/peace symbols. But don't think I'm criticising.

They are excellent live. Supporting them, they had chosen two very different bands, one a skunk band ("it's skiffle/punk, nothing to do with what we smoke or the way we smell") called Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs, who came out and played remarkable homemade instruments in true skiffle style, including a washboard and a wobble-board sounding instrument made from a branch and some elastic. They covered The Clash and Green Day amongst others, got a roadie on stage, and sang a song for "our Prime Minister, who's doing a wonderful job" *makes tosser gesture*, Gordon Is A Moron. They were hilarious, from the facial expressions and in-song dialogue to the 'Mine's a whiskey' taped onto the back of the guitar. The second band were a ska or reggae outfit, Pama International. Think The Specials with a soul singer. It went on a bit long, even though it was decent.

Levellers came on, starting with A Life Less Ordinary, and the crowd went mad. The trouble seemed to be started by a whole host of short bald men. I don't know why it was bald men in particular, but it was, and they were all shorter than me. From the very start, people were drinking huge amounts, so when drunken fighting and shoving ensued, I had been expecting it. The music was ideal for it though - Levellers chose all of their most thumping tracks to play. As well as A Life Less Ordinary, they played One Way, Carry Me, World Freak Show, Behold A Pale Rider, The Riverflow, Beautiful Day, Barrel Of The Gun, Death Loves Youth,The Cholera Well, Before The End, Eyes Wide and probably some more. They did 2 encores, playing right up to the curfew.

At one point the lights went and the room was plunged into darkness, but Levellers played on ('we're willing if you're willing'). A highlight was the merch stall man coming out in full fluorescent make-up and a blue mask, in a skirt, pratting about with his huge digeridoo (no pun intended). A sick bastard did decide to feel up all the girls on the second row, including myself. I think he got a slap once, I elbowed him, and he finally got his comeuppence when he decided to touch up a girl in the very centre, and he got caught in a lot of sweaty blokes moshing and shoving him about, without a girl in sight. I laughed.

It was a good night. I'd definitely say Levellers are one of the best live bands I've seen, though they chose their most similar songs to play. Still, brilliant playing, brilliant songwriting, wonderful lyrics - an example of a band that have stayed outside of the system, and stayed good. Go see them.


Thursday, 16 April 2009

'Duke Pandemonium', Marmaduke Duke

Marmaduke Duke is the side project of Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro (The Atmosphere) and J P Reid from Sucioperro (The Dragon), and their first album The Magnificent Duke was a mad conceptual screamo-meets-noise-rock 18-track explosion of sound. Even if you decided to give up trying to dissect the album for its various 'concepts', it was a musical masterpiece which left you feeling bemused, emotionally tired and mildly enlightened.

On first listening, Duke Pandemonium could have been made by a different band to The Magnificent Duke. It is electronic synth-and-drum-machine-based pop, but it's amazing. I listened to it first on the bus, finding it hard to control my shocked facial expressions, especially in the breathtaking, muted soaring guitars in Erotic Robotic, and during the very weird Skin The Mofo Alive, in which there is every type of percussion you can dream of, including tropical drums and...spoons? I can definitely hear pots and pans being hit elsewhere. Tracks like Skin The Mofo Alive border on parody, though what it would be a parody of, I do not know; this is by no means a bad thing. In fact, it's genius.

This is what side projects should be like. In Plato's world of ideals, this would be the archetypal side project. It's exciting, always changing; all of the Biffy and Sucioperro ideas that were just too daft or mad to use have been rolled together to make this, and skilfully. Highlights include the seven minute extravaganza Pandemonium, sexy and lyrically amusing Erotic Robotic, and the ridiculous but sublime Je Suis Un Funky Homme. Anything here could be a dancefloor classic, but each track deserves more listening to that.

Have I ever heard anything like it before? No way. Is it too daft? Maybe for some. Do I like daft music? Hell yeah. Marmaduke put the 'mental' back into experimental.