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.