Saturday, 3 December 2011

Merry Christmas

Tidings of comfort and joy this yuletide.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Sonic Youth Split

Well, there goes seeing one of my favourite bands live. Leading band members Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore married in 1984, and 16 studio albums, countless tours and extensive critical acclaim later, they've broken up, and this probably leaves Sonic Youth unlikely to stay together. Sure, other bands have done it - Quasi, reputedly The White Stripes - but Sonic Youth have recently released an official compilation album, which indicates they might be packing up.

I love Sonic Youth, though their cacophonous early era is a bit too avant garde for mainstream consumption, with huge long tracts of 'arty' white noise. Their hardcore fans proudly proclaim their love for the sub-lo-fi Bad Moon Rising, but I think what Sonic Youth do (or did) best is the subtle melodic interplay on their later albums, Sonic Nurse, Murray Street, and even the 'poppy' Rather Ripped. However, there's just as much merit in the punkier, more grit-driven Dirty and the 1988 album widely recognised as their magnum opus, Daydream Nation.

Moore and Gordon were my second and third favourite members of the band respectively, though the defining members in many ways. My love was always reserved for the songs that Lee Ranaldo wrote. Honey-voiced poet Ranaldo is (was) always given a track or two on each album, and his songs are usually the most memorable and atmospheric. Some of them are haunting, discordant but still mellow, emotionally charged but subtle - it was all in his lyrics, his tone of voice and the harmonies at play behind his vocals. In 'Hoarfrost', below, you can hear winter creeping in through guitars; in 'Karen Koltrane', a tattered love story is gradually revealed, as much through the music as the words. The most harrowing track of those below is 'In the Kingdom #19', which follows the death of a man on a highway, caught in his confusion and yet rich with detailed imagery. Sometimes I hear the words from that track in my mind - "hard shoulder of the motorway"..."My eyes are blinded... I am in the darkness... that's it."

If it is goodbye, then it's farewell to an influential, life-changing band, who may have been overrated for individual albums, but who cannot be overrated for their varied and prolific back catalogue: there is something for almost everyone in there. If it is goodbye after this last Brazilian tour, then I hope they're not forgotten.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Darker Catalogue

Winter has fallen. Tonight is due to be this autumn's first night of frost in this part of England; the second blanket is on the bed, the coffee in the grinder for the morning, and it's time to put the darker catalogue onto the iPod playlist.

Whilst 'winter' does appear to be the theme of this post, it is totally coincidental that my favourite track at the moment is called 'If Winter Ends'. Damn Conor Oberst has got me again. I wish he'd stop reminding me that I love navel-gazing lo-fi, because I wasn't aware I was that much of a hipster.

(I'm not, I promise. I don't own a single piece of floral clothing, my hair's its natural colour and I've only seen Pete Doherty live one time. One time!)

Anyway, this post has the late-night intention of showing you how 'emotional' Conor can be, without implicating that I'm sitting here in a puddle of my own tears or anything, which I'm not, because that would be silly. So without further ado, here's the song:

Monday, 29 August 2011

New 405 Offering

It's been a while, but I have another 405 post up over at that wonderful website; this time, it's a review of Prince Edward Island, who I gave a staunch but not brilliant 7 for a staunch but not brilliant album.

Recently I've been listening to a lot of Canadian Mother Mother's old output. They're a really fantastic band. Even though you know they never do what you expect, you still don't expect what they do. (E.g. in the chorus of 'Legs Away', both the guitar and singer slide from a minor into a major key in a single bar.)

Below is 'Hay Loft', a great track from the catchier end of their repertoire, one with immediacy and punch (others take longer to warm up, but it's all killer, no filler in the end.) The video isn't the official one, because I feel like that doesn't do the song's atmosphere justice.

That's one of their more whimsical songs, taken from the 2008 album O My Heart. I'd recommend listening to 'O My Heart' and 'Wisdom' if you want to hear some variation within that era of Mother Mother. Either way, go and discover a brilliant band before winter creeps up and you have to open up the darker catalogue.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Kaiser Chiefs, Innovators?!

My band when I was 13 were Kaiser Chiefs. My first gig ever was Kaiser Chiefs at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. Unfortunately, I am not 13 anymore, and therefore do not hear them with such excitement; indeed, the vague attachment to them I still feel is tempered with shame, because of the misery I put friends through with this Ricky quote and that Ricky quote, and because of their abomination of a filler track, 'Tomato in the Rain'.

Mostly, Kaiser Chiefs have not survived the test of time in my record collection because everybody rejects the thing they loved after a violently obsessive phase; it becomes tied to one's past flaws. But also, the lyrics. Four albums in and they seem to have forgotten why songwriters who aren't natural poets use rhyme - because it feels like they've at least tried. Here is a sample of a lyric from this album:

"Bless my heart and everything will be explained
In the diaries especially the latter part
I’ll be a somebody, I found an empty glass today at home
Give me ability turn up the pedal away from his hand"


I may not be impressed by the words, but The Chiefs have at least done something innovative fourth time round: follow the link below, and you can create your own makeshift album from twenty songs they've recorded. But are B-sides B-sides for a reason? Doesn't it take all the craftsmanship out of an album? It's a novel idea, anyway.

Go and hear the tracks.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Bright Eyes @ HMV Institute Birmingham, 8th July 2011

Okay, it's no secret that I love Bright Eyes. Bright Eyes fans, particularly in America, have a reputation for being hipsters, for posting on forums that Conor Oberst is "sooo cute and fragile". I don't buy into the cute and fragile thing, I think it's a bit of a façade, but there's no doubt that he is a very productive, talented and versatile songwriter.

Last week I spurned the Big 4 at Sonisphere to see Bright Eyes live, on the balcony at the HMV Institute. The band were supported by Jenny and Johnny, a melodic duo who were interesting for several songs, but faded into the background pretty quickly. Bright Eyes came on and the crowd, kind of Bohemian and only sparsely dotted with obligatory drunks, instantly cheered. It was a supportive crowd - through 'Land-Locked Blues', one of the highlights of the evening, there was cheering and intensity at every relevant pause.

Bright Eyes Setlist HMV Institute, Birmingham, England 2011, The People's Key

They played the above set, with songs from a range of his best albums. However, I've never known how to feel about the emotional content of Bright Eyes lyrics, and by the third or fourth song, I was pretty much decided that I didn't like it. Conor Oberst was a lot more extroverted than I expected, a lot less of a folky, the music heavier. I liked it, but the gentle persona in the singer's lyrics and the almost arrogant persona onstage seemed to contradict one another, and gave the package an aura of falseness.

By the end, though, I had changed my mind. It was one of the first times I've seen a band that really seem to feel their songs live. Conor's miming may be silly sometimes, but there isn't a syllable he sings on autopilot - he's very involved with his songs, and that makes the whole thing really dynamic. At the end, they played 'One For You, One For Me', not one of the best from The People's Key, but incredible live: Conor managed to preach peace and love without sounding like a nu-hippy, and when he hugged that front row, it really felt like he was hugging the whole audience. The artist/audience connection was electric.

If his onstage/offstage personality dichotomy is anything to go by, he is a good actor, but it still felt real. And that's the illusion of live music, live theatre, isn't it? You don't have to be completely honest to make your point.

Musically, they were fantastic, as I knew they would be, and the trumpet really added something, particularly in 'Lover I Don't Have To Love', which is one of my favourite songs. It added a lot of atmosphere, as if the gig needed more.

This was one of the best gigs I've been to in a while, mostly because it was intense and yet full of energy and passion. I may not be into the whole fragility thing that Conor Oberst has going, but I can see that he writes and sings in gold most of the time, and Bright Eyes is one of the best of his brilliant projects, bolstered by fantastic musicians and personalities in the rest of the band.

Saturday, 18 June 2011


If you want to know how Conor Oberst feels about politics and all sorts of other Big Questions (which let's face it, you all do...), don't look to Bright Eyes or his solo stuff, because that's mostly love and darkness, and don't look to Monsters of Folk, because that's mostly co-written. Look to Desaparecidos - ten years old now, but recently reformed for a one off show, so I understand. Even their name means 'people who have been disappeared', simply - victims of politically motivated imprisonment or murder.

Oberst is quite versatile, it seems: he's done stuff that others have called 'emo', as well as folk, soul, rock. I'd call Desaparecidos rather raucous punk. Have a video.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Some Old New Music

Last night, I was listening to my Recommendations, which are stunningly accurate, and found Vex Red. ( draws a picture of me so dangerously close to the reality that I hope it's not possible to do that with things like my purchases, or I'll be a sucker for targeted advertising for the rest of my life.)

Vex Red are a hardcore/electronica band from Aldershot. Or should I say, they were. Just before I had my ear properly in music, a whole wave of '-core' suffix bands were around, before the '-core' suffixing got silly ('Christian crunkcore'?! 'Happy hardcore'?!). In their wake surfaced the recent pop-punk scene. My problem with most of it was that it was over-polished and slick, and almost unfalteringly self-pitying. The singers in pop-punk drawl and cry, and it's unlistenable. The sound of that 00s misery is inseparable in my mind from MySpace and eyeliner and pictures of fringed kids with '<3's in their names, taken from above.

Anyway, that's getting off track - basically, I could stomach only a few of those bands, but some revolutionised my listening habits. Reuben are the most notable, because I still love them - instead of the usual slick production and wailing, they were versatile, particularly in the vocals. Vex Red have the same advantage. Although Terry Abbott doesn't quite have Jamie Lenman's voice, they have a raw edge which gives two fingers to the studio gloss of Madina-Lake-type groups.

But yes, they're gone. Like most music, they're yesterday's news, and they only made a couple of albums. Terry Abbott formed another band, Septembre, in 2002, who soon went on hiatus after the bass player was involved in a car crash. Septembre are also pretty awesome. I've made you a nice widget so you can have a listen and see what I mean about this songwriter, who, if it weren't for, would probably be only a memory, and definitely not one of mine.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Young Knives @ Birmingham Academy 2, 19th May 2011

It's been ages since I went to a proper gig. Too long. The last concert I went to was Kerry Ellis and Brian May at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was planning to write it up on here, but it was so self-indulgent, I couldn't get complimentary words together. Not that it wasn't well-played, well put together... but it began with an hour of songs from musical theatre (?!), and it was for charity, meaning that the unpaid performers tried to drop their own names in often enough to make up, in self-promotion, for their lack of earning that night. Brian May was legendary, Kerry Ellis was talented, but it all felt a little too glamorous to be a gig. It was a concert.

So, a proper gig. Compared to the ornate ostentatiousness of the Royal Albert Hall, the momentousness of 100 mile motorway drives and £50, this ten pound gig could have been seen as a 'step down', but it really wasn't for me. Opening it were some hipsters from London, dancing around as if to a much bigger audience, but I guess you have to start somewhere. (Perhaps it's wiser to start by publicising your name, but okay.)

Following these were The Neat, a band from Hull who sounded like Sonic Youth in all but their vocals, which were more like Vampire Weekend's caws and calls. It wasn't unpleasant, but repetitive, and oddly out of place opening for Young Knives. When finally they did come on, it was to a small crowd of generally geeky early twenties blokes, all of whom clearly identify with their future selves on stage.

Young Knives were hilarious, as well as captivating in their performance. I found myself maniacally smiling throughout most of the songs, caught by every witty turn of phrase in their lyrics, with their between-song jokes lingering in my memory as they churned out the energetic, angular riffs they're famous for.

Well, I say famous. As Henry said, "Here's our last single 'Love My Name', which we hoped would make us incredibly rich. We thought it could rival the Kings of Leons and Coldplays of this world."

"I want a sports car," House of Lords added.

"Yes, unfortunately we discovered that to get that big, you have to be really boring."

It's true. There was never a dull moment, never dull enough to melt into the background that so many people seem resigned to being part of anyway. The highlight was definitely 'Hot Summer (Weekends and Bleak Days)', partly because they were so chuffed to play it ("this is our favourite song to play, because it reminds us of when we were young. And handsome.") and because we were chuffed to hear it ("thank you. We're glad you like that one. We really need you.")

A good night was had by all, I reckon, even if the new Academy 2 is a bit generic.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

New Bright Eyes album

Whilst I agree with The 405 that the new Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, isn't an instant classic, I disagree with the rest of the review - the lyrics are amazing, and I like the juxtapositioning of their profundity against, essentially, indie pop music. I think it makes depth more palatable - especially if dirges are the usual backdrops for lyrical darkness or intensity.

My favourite track by a mile is 'Approximate Sunlight', at the moment. It's minimalist, interjections of sound and a metronome-beat ticking holding the background together, but the lyrics the masterpiece. It's a social comment, an introspective poem, a song about disillusion and the worn-out incessance of time. I really think Conor Oberst does the meaningful, slow tracks better than ever before these days (listen to Cassadaga's 'Lime Tree' for confirmation, although Fevers and Mirrors still rules OK with 'Arienette'.)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A Couple of Realisations

I googled J Mascis a few days ago, when I received his new album to review, to see if I could find out a little bit about him. I did: I found his website, which, being a lazy soul, I skim-read without clicking away from the home page. And so I started reviewing. Reviewing blind.

Taken by the eloquence and simple honesty of the album, I had a closer look at his website tonight. Not until I clicked "Bio" did I realise I was reviewing the lead singer of world-reknowned early US indie band Dinosaur Jr., one of those bands of which I know I should have a broader knowledge.

It was one of those moments that proves, rather cruelly, that I listen to critically acclaimed artists differently. Because that inoffensive Americana became a Hell of a lot more interesting the moment I'd read the name 'Dinosaur Jr'. I don't know why: perhaps it's natural to bow to the status, to the greater knowledge of aged critics who have a consensus on a band's brilliance. Perhaps. Or perhaps it's respect for someone who has stayed in the business, a success story. I don't like the idea that my views are affected by fame, because it messes with objectivity, but what can you do except not read Bio pages? And you'd be criticised for that. It's the same with massive bands like Radiohead - how can you listen to that impartially?

Also, incidentally, I walked past John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols yesterday in Birmingham. Flanked by two men in black suits, he looked utterly silly in a mustard-ish beige get-up; I looked remiss at his costume before I realised I was staring at the lead singer of a band who have 89 plays in my library...

It strikes me that the only thing that prevents these stars from being 'real' people, unrecognisable in the street, is that they so often try to attract attention - ridiculous yellow outfit and bodyguards? It seems desperate to me. Not to offend massive Lydon fans; he's just difficult to respect for his clawing to be in the spotlight.

I said to my boyfriend, "We just walked past Johnny Rotten."
Jozef, hardly a fan, replied, "Oh, was that who he was?"

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Brett Domino, AKA Rocco La Bête

I'm sure I could write a much longer article on the brilliance of the Youtube phenomenon Brett Domino, but I think that will inevitably follow the release of his album in March, so I'll leave it until then to discuss such things.

For now, I think you should all read the hilarious interview I did with him around Christmas, found below on The 405, and enjoy the wonders of a pop-parody act that can truly do it all.

Rocco La Bête Interview

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Thin Lizzy (R.I.P. Gary Moore)

Twenty-five years ago, Phil Lynott, the lead singer of hard rock band Thin Lizzy and a proud Irishman (even if he was born in West Bromwich), died. Drink and drugs, the usual story. I can't say I was there from the beginning, I wasn't born. However, I was there from last year, and I have to say, now their ex-guitarist Gary Moore has died too, it seems to be a good time to write something about them. Something for them.

Phil Lynott was not only a great songwriter ('Dancing in the Moonlight', anyone?), he was also a stunningly expressive singer. Thin Lizzy's biggest hit, 'The Boys Are Back in Town', is not the best show of Lynott's mesmerising vocals, but their 13 album back catalogue contains plenty of documentation of his talent. Then the guitarists, of course. Gary Moore, though only with Thin Lizzy in patches, played breathtaking solos which guitarists have aspired to for decades. He died a few days ago from a heart attack in a hotel room, a haunt where so many stars die.

From the BBC4 documentary I saw on the band, they were a shambles, band members leaving and joining, each of them chaotically slipping in and out of consciousness... paralysis... The creative process came irritatingly naturally to them, whether they were shackled by their addictions or not. They were infamously good live, loved for their performances' energy and crowd interaction.

I've selected a few favourite tracks below.

It's a little disconcerting to think that the leading figures of youthful movements like the early hard rock movement are of an age to be dying now. When they were young, it seemed natural that these stars could live forever. A rockstar is not a person, it is an idol and a symbol: the power of revolution, exuberant change, like Che Guevara on a T-shirt. So it hits hard when they start dying. It makes me feel more mortal, and I'm sure it makes the original fans, never natural Saga Radio listeners, feel like their youth is disappearing behind them.

R.I.P. Gary Moore.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

What Makes Us Love Stealing Music?

Walking through a crowd of people a few weeks ago, my friend and I were discussing illegal downloading. "It is a crime!" she cried, far too loudly, and a couple of gatherings of people turned to eye us curiously. "You may not like it, but it's stealing, like going into a shop and taking a CD, but people don't care because there aren't the same consequences."

I nodded despondently. Faced with such an argument, it's very hard to disagree that illegal downloading is a bad thing. And for most of us, it isn't just about consequences: there is a moral framework in place in most of our minds which tells us stealing is wrong, according to principles of property ownership that we live by. So why does downloading music for free not feel particularly wrong?

Maybe it's because it counts to us among the many services that the internet offers: we can read The Guardian online without paying for a hard copy, same with most newspapers; we can watch music on Youtube, so what's the difference between that and having it on our hard drive? It's a blurry line, definitely. Especially when we go on to love the music, to listen to it all the time: we have a feeling of warmth towards the artist, and respect them, which feels like a kind of payment for the albums.

Then there's the idea that most of an artist's money comes from the gigs anyway. I'm sure it's true that they're one of the most profitable sections of a big band's income, but it would be wrong to think that this renders paying for albums and singles obsolete.

Of course, we also see bands like Radiohead distributing digital copies of their albums for free and we think, "see, it can't be that important for artists to get paid for MP3s!" But Radiohead have, as it stands, 259,682,938 plays on - they're one of the most listened to bands in the world. The story is not the same for smaller artists.

"But I don't have the money," we whine. Or, "HMV doesn't stock it." "My iTunes is playing up!" "I can't be arsed to go out and get it." "Oh, I'll go and get it next week, after I've sampled it... by downloading it..."

We can all see from the shrinking music sections of what are, traditionally, CD shops, and the vast numbers of torrent and free MP3 sites that music isn't dying, it's just moved. It's not a shrinking business, it's just a failing one: what would happen if a huge free chocolate stall set up shop outside Thornton's? Music is getting freer, easier to access, and that's amazing - but in the end, it might just kill itself, because that band that sell half the number of albums they could have can't afford to make their next album. Reuben are a brilliant example - "dropped by their label 'cause they can't pay it back".

Reuben - 'Return of the Jedi'

"I'd like a job in which I'm able,
To put shoes on my feet, and food on my table,
Those nine-to-fivers, they look pretty stable,
But I get my wages from my record label."

One final aside: someone is benefitting from all this illegal downloading. The illegal downloading sites' owners, who get paid for advertising and some even for subscriptions. So, not only are you 'stealing', as my friend would insist, you're also funding criminals.

It would be great if music, as a source of joy and passion, could be free. But it isn't. And until then, the onus is on us to pay for it, or feel guilty - I think I can predict which one most of us will choose.