Saturday, 30 November 2013

It's been a while - Jamie Lenman, of Montreal, Pavement, Young Knives and others

Since I last posted an age ago, I've been atrociously busy at uni, so I've not had time to write a blog. Technically, I don't really have time now, but music's so much better than essay-writing.

Exciting news - last month, I had the chance to interview Jamie Lenman again! My last interview was a rushed emailer in 2009, so it was exciting to actually get a phone call with him, during which he was achingly affable and a really good interviewee. Read the interview here if you want. As usual, I've had an atrocious and near-irrelevant title edited onto the article (I really should make the effort and write them myself), so please don't blame me for that. Jamie's new album is very good, especially the second half. Fans of metal may prefer the first half, but I don't think it really shows off Jamie's melodic and harmonic skills as well as the second - because he's split the album into 'Muscle' and 'Memory', the 'Muscle' half lacks the dynamic and contrasts which make tracks like 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' so beautiful. If you're a die-hard Reuben fan, by the way, and you want the full transcript of the interview which the article above is based on, comment and I'll send it to you - he says a lot more about Reuben and his solo stuff than I have the chance to mention in the article.

As well as interviewing Jamie, I've talked to the Young Knives this month, reviewed their album and been to their Oxford gig. Also since my last post, of Montreal have released an album - a great one. Lousy with Sylvianbriar is a departure for them in that it isn't as expansive and avant-garde as Paralytic Stalks, or as party-drugged and electronic as Skeletal Lamping. It's got quite a 60s vibe going on, actually, and it has some great album artwork too. I'll post a couple of tracks here.

She Ain't Speakin' Now by of Montreal on Grooveshark

'She Ain't Speaking Now' has a lot in common with earlier of Montreal material - 'Coquet Coquette' has a similar guitar-driven style, and the melodies and lyrics are recognisably Kevin Barnes' work. The chorus broaches great new territory though, and the production is a lot cleaner than on earlier records.

Belle Glade Missionaries by of Montreal on Grooveshark

'Belle Glade Missionaries' is Barnes at his wackiest and most incisive lyrically, but the tune has a jaunty Americana feel which hasn't been present on many of of Montreal's more recent releases. It's a long track but it's insanely catchy from beginning to end, and works with its fairly conventional bluesy chord progressions really innovatively. And it's fun.

Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit by of Montreal on Grooveshark

Finally, I'll post 'Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit'. Because of his way with melody, Kevin Barnes writes really great 'slow' songs - 'Touched Something's Hollow' is really addictive, and a lot of Hissing Fauna gets the haunting atmosphere spot-on too. Rebecca Cash's complementary backing vocals add a new layer of richness to the of Montreal sound, which really works on this track.

Besides these three, I've been listening to quite a bit of Pavement recently, so I just thought I'd post 'Embassy Row' without passing comment... other than to say it's fantastic and uplifting and great.

Embassy Row by Pavement on Grooveshark

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A reminder of how good Reuben were (and a bit of Biffy)

For proof of how brilliant Reuben could be in their genre, I've dug up the cover they did of Vex Red's 'Karin'. Vex Red were a fairly small band on the same sort of scene as Reuben in the early 00s, but they disappeared even sooner. 'Karin' is a decent piece of songwriting, but only ever made it to demo stage, so it's a bit sketchy and not particularly well padded-out. Reuben heard this:

And turned it into this:

Karin by Reuben on Grooveshark

I may be biased, but the energy and innovation in that cover, even with simpler rock instrumentation and the same riffs, is exceptional.

While we're on covers, I feel I should re-post the wackiest hard rock cover in existence. Ever heard Weezer's melodic gem 'Buddy Holly'? If not, or if it's just a faint memory, here's a reminder:

Buddy Holly by Weezer on Grooveshark

Now take everything you'd just heard, tear it up and listen to this:

Buddy Holly (Weezer cover) by Biffy Clyro on Grooveshark

"Suck on that!" as Simon Neil almost certainly said after recording that guitar part.

Monday, 23 September 2013

1/3 of Reuben return

This evening, I got an unanticipated, excitable call from my boyfriend. "JAMIE LENMAN'S RELEASING A NEW ALBUM". We like Reuben, the band Lenman fronted a few years ago, and any signs of life in the band members have excited us ever since. Reuben were amongst the hardcore bands to rise in the early 00s with Biffy Clyro, Hundred Reasons and Hell is for Heroes, and they were also one of those rare bands who break up but then don't stop gathering fans. My boyfriend and I nearly booked tickets to 2000 Trees festival this year because there were rumours Reuben would perform. It was unlikely, and as expected, it didn't happen. But now, news - on 4th November, their lead singer and main ego is releasing new music.

When I interviewed Jamie Lenman 4 years ago, he told readers to "Watch this space!" if they wanted to hear some solo material. Well, it's been a lot of watching, but today we've got what we were waiting for. The promotional bumf is extremely polished: Jamie's gone for the waxed-moustache look (I don't think that's a viable look, but he pulls it off - or rather, I wish he would); an album release on CD and vinyl is planned; a new website has already been rolled out, and the new video is seamlessly and stylishly directed. In other words, this hasn't come about sketchily. Fans have spent the last 5 years examining and debating every bale of tumbleweed passing through the desert Reuben left behind, watching that space with hawks' eyes, so this onslaught of information was a shock to the senses. Within half a day, the new video has been shared by over half of the people who've liked it on Facebook - there may not be millions of them, but these people are seriously dedicated.

So can the new tracks impress fans who've waited 5 years for Jamie to put down his sketching pencils (he was an illustrator for the Guardian for a while) and pick up a guitar? Well, primarily, the surprise is the genre Lenman's chosen - or should that be genres? His new album appears to be half hardcore, half "jazz-folk", and the new video (below) showcases both styles to great effect. The wit on the second track, 'Pretty Please', is characteristic Lenman - with simple lyrics, a light-hearted edge and unabashed catchiness, it's more 'pop' than anything Lenman's released before, but anyone who listened to 'Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin' on the last album could have sensed something shifting. It's very different though. If we're to believe Jamie actually played as many instruments on the track as the video suggests, then he's branched out dramatically - from drummer, guitarist and vocalist to double-bass aficionado and trumpet player? Bravo.

The cry of the track is "validate me! Oh pretty please. Validate me, yeah." It's probably no coincidence that Xtra Mile & Jamie have chosen to release that particular song as a single. So far, the Youtube comments and wider response seem to validate him very nicely.

The track opening the video is a lot more like Jamie as manifested on Reuben tracks. The atmospheres of the two halves neatly represent the singer's seeming dual personality - he's brooding, dark and able to inject real anger into recordings, but (previously outside of the studio) also has an immense sense of humour and playfulness. See what you think, anyway. For me, Maggsy321 summarised the feelings of today perfectly: "The only thing that could ruin one of the happiest days of my life is the stupid fucking moustache."

Friday, 30 August 2013

David Byrne & St. Vincent @ Birmingham Symphony Hall, 28/08/13

This week, I took a trip down to the Birmingham Symphony Hall to see David Byrne play - since I've moved out to the countryside, every gig is a decent distance away, but that means that I get to go to a hotel and turn each gig night into an 'experience' - it's expensive, but it makes every event into something a bit more unique. Famed solo avant-guardian and lead singer of the '70s band Talking Heads, Byrne's currently touring a new record that he produced with St. Vincent (A.K.A. Annie Clark), an experimental artist in her own right.

A couple of years ago, I went with my friend to see This Must Be The Place, a rather aimless film starring Sean Penn and David Byrne. It launched my friend into a protracted obsession with Byrne, whose richly varied musical career is still delighting her now - from slightly unnerving punk track 'Psycho Killer' to chart-pop sensation 'Lazy', Byrne has written something in almost every genre in the Western world, so I can understand why he'd retain amazement for so long. On Love This Giant, his release with St. Vincent, he draws on jazz, funk, ska and old-school minimalism by employing a full brass band to play pop songs, and the result sounds a lot like this:

Who by David Byrne & St. Vincent on Grooveshark

The band, a choreographed team of brass and woodwind musicians alongside a drummer and a keyboard player, broke into 'Who' as soon as Byrne had made his first wisecrack of the night. The Symphony Hall can prove too huge for a lot of rock and pop, voices and subtleties lost in the huge space, but Byrne and Clark's big-band tracks filled the room without hassle. As they worked their way through a two hour set, not even needing support bands to get everyone going, the crowd became more and more enthused, calling them on for two separate encores at the end. Here's the setlist:

David Byrne & St. Vincent Setlist Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England 2013, Love This Giant

The instrumentation and songwriting on Love this Giant definitely leave David Byrne firmly in his old category as one of the established avant-garde, but that isn't necessarily a comfortable collocation. 'Avant-garde' is about newness, but also about rebellion and challenge to what's gone before. Seeing the album performed live, the level of choreography and onstage organisation made me yearn for spontaneity. On the one hand, David Byrne and St. Vincent make music which is genreless, music I couldn't really compare to anything else right now, yet the performance was all very establishment-friendly - it would never get a bad review in the Guardian, because it follows the rule book on "How to Break the Rules"; i.e., though it was musically thrilling and fresh, it was hosted at an elite venue, followed a rigidly traditional show structure, showcased new talent without challenging the supremacy of the "star", and accepted a formal set of dress codes for its line-up. From talking to people afterwards, it seemed that many people loved the show as much as the music, but I felt it could have been a little more surprising. Still, that's no reason to critique the show too heavily: it was brilliantly played, the musicians were likeable, the hall had perfect acoustics and it was nigh-on impossible to get bored.

My favourite tracks of the night were 'Burning Down the House' and 'Cheerleader', written by Byrne and Clark respectively. The former got the whole audience dancing in the aisles, with a grand cheer rising from the hall as soon as these opening chords rang out from the stage. The latter, 'Cheerleader', was excellently performed live, building up to an epic and memorable chorus which stuck in my mind long after the concert had ended.

It's great to hear David Byrne contributing new music to the world, but it was possibly even better to help my friend's dreams come true afterwards by (reluctantly) agreeing to stage-door the man himself. 90% of the crowd had come to the gig for David Byrne, but only about 1% turned up to meet him afterwards, and by the time he came out onto Broad Street (of all streets!), only about 0.5% remained. So we got a peremptory glance from David Byrne and a moment of his time. My friend was so excited that she did a little dance - our relationships with our heroes are unfathomable sometimes. Nevertheless, if you get the chance to see David Byrne or St. Vincent, they're really worth the trip out (and in my case, the grotty hotel).

Friday, 16 August 2013

The lonely festival experience

This year, I managed to get a ticket to the YNot festival in Derbyshire. It's an annual 'small' festival (with around 8,000 tickets) costing just under £80 for the weekend. When I was offered a ticket with the press, I searched far and wide for people to accompany me, visualising beautiful afternoons lounging in a campsite with six or seven of my favourite people, music playing in the background, the sky blue, etc. etc.. That scene was never to materialise - one by one, my friends either turned me down or dropped out after assessing their finances and schedules. Having promised an article to the Oxford Student newspaper, though, I realised I was going to have to go. Alone.

The lonely festival experience didn't really appeal to me. In fact, I was dreading it. I whittled my plans down so that I only had to go for one day, and I wrote some lines in my mind which I could use to approach, and then befriend, strangers. I climbed into the taxi which would take me to the site, feeling nervousness - I was going to conduct my first live, face-to-face, in-the-same-room interview. I also felt pre-emptive boredom though, seeing the day stretching out ahead of me like a desert of solitude.

When I turned up, the festival was muddier than Sonisphere and Hard Rock Calling put together - every walkway was two feet deep, and every step felt like walking on the moon. Zero gravity mud. If I stood still for too long, I'd sink to my ankles, so I kept moving, finding my way to different tents. I've talked about the music and the atmosphere and stuff in my article at the OxStu. The highlights of the smaller acts were the Anything Goes Orchestra, Emperor Chung and Elliott Morris, and disappointingly, there was no-one bad enough for me to use my cruel witticisms. "Never before have I heard a band so bad that the crowd were chanting 'less! less!' at the end of the show" had to stay in my head, where it probably deserves to be, until now.

Once I'd wandered round, I started to get that bored feeling I'd anticipated. Standing in the VIP press area was kind of intimidating - sure, I could see the Jarman brothers talking in the backstage area, and it was awesome, but amongst the cool swaggering thirty-year-old men who were probably all from the NME, I felt unable to grin and cry "IT'S GARY JARMAN". Instead, I had to lean back and pretend that I encountered my heroes every day. Or even better, pretend I had no heroes, like the cynical bastards that are seasoned music journalists. And even then, I got a funny look from someone sitting in a press tent with an Apple Mac and headphones. I repeated to myself the mantra, "cynicism is just defensiveness", then attempted to be defensively cynical enough to fit in.

The boredom and discomfort made me seek out something else to do (or drink), but I was also getting a headache. I had to make the choice between cider and aspirin - I chose, after a long deliberation, a small drink and then a load of painkillers. Luckily, the ginger beer I chose was foul, so I decided to give it away - that'd be a good way to make friends, right? Little did I realise how hard it is, as an individual, to approach groups of strangers. They're all having too good a time, or they're too busy, or too drunk. In the end, I fobbed it off on a woman waiting for her friends at the portaloos and ran off, still alone.

After an hour or so, the better bands started to assuage my feeling of isolation, and I realised that actually, I was having quite a good time. At most festivals, I spend a lot of time worrying that the people around me aren't having fun, or considering when to broach the "Can we leave now? I need the loo and these guys are shit" topic. Here, I was totally free to leave when I stopped enjoying bands. I valued that freedom, but not as much as the freedom to eat two lunches without being judged.

There was another hiccup to come yet, though. I went to watch Sky Larkin, content in the knowledge that I was meeting them for an interview at 4.30pm after they'd been onstage. At 4.20, I nipped into the press area, envisaging a quick turnaround. I should have known that nothing is that simple. At 4.30, I saw Katie Harkin, the lead singer, emerge from the vans and run across the band area, but she didn't then come to meet me. I started wandering about, feeling lost, intimidated by the NME-men, and not nearly drunk enough to relax. It took 45 minutes for them to finally emerge, and then I realised I was in a queue. Feeling like I'd probably been forgotten, I sat in a VIP sun-lounger and tried not to look like an amateur.

At last, Katie and Nestor, Sky Larkin's drummer, greeted me - their manager (who I think, but can't be sure, was Wichita's Gareth Dobson) shepherded them towards me in a paternal fashion, and I did the shaking of hands and smiling that I assumed I was meant to. We disappeared into a press "yurt" and had what turned out to be a very relaxed chat while sitting on the floor, which I wrote up into a proper interview here. After that, I got a lot more comfortable. I'd had some human contact, done what I'd set out to do, and all that was left was to enjoy The Cribs.

Ash gave a brilliant performance on the mainstage, playing and performing to a standard I hadn't expected (even if the lead singer does look like an Irish James Blunt), and then I waited for The Cribs, free to find my own favourite place in the crowd. As I wandered, searching for the best spot for combining jumping with a good sight-line, I was accosted by two incredibly drunk teenage boys. My mistake was humouring their attempts to dance around near me. A smile was too much encouragement. One of them approached me and asked "Who're you with?" I, not wanting to say, "Oh Lord I'm so alone", replied, "I'm with the press". Yes, I embraced nobbishness for a few seconds to raise myself above pity. Instead of the contempt I expected, he was so drunk he replied, "That's so cool", before falling over onto his friend and then attempting to turn the fall into a dance move.

I managed to back away behind someone with a beer belly dramatic enough to hide me (and/or shelter me if it rained). Human interaction, I'd decided, is overrated - I couldn't make friends in a few hours, and moreover, that was fine. Being alone was fine. I'd decided that when The Cribs came on and reminded me why I usually like human beings. They were fantastic - more cheerful than usual, beautifully discordant, as wild as they were ten years' ago, if not more so. Ryan's recent weightloss and depression have coloured his character: in his new diminutive form, he seems fragile, lending more meaning to tracks like 'Back to the Bolthole', and yet he's a more imposing figure for his new sharp, shadowy jawline and uninhibited screaming. The Cribs were always impressive, but ten years on, five studio albums in, their retention of the outsider spirit and the untamed sound is really admirable. The crowd loved them - they had people jumping and singing right back into the audience.

If anything, seeing my favourite band alone was better than seeing them with my friends. My relationship with The Cribs is too intense to share - it's a secular worship, the only worship I allow myself, and I always feel a little bit embarrassed to enjoy them wholeheartedly with friends watching. I want to jump and scream and yell and laugh, like a small child who's had too much sugar watching Disney. On my own, knowing that nobody judging me mattered, I had a great time, full of abandon. I realised as I walked into the night, searching for my taxi back, I'd actually enjoyed being alone. The lonely, sober festival experience had been... good. In fact, I think I recommend it.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Babyshambles release new (but all too familiar) material

A couple of days ago, Babyshambles put a track from their upcoming album onto Youtube, 'Farmer's Daughter' from September's Sequel to the Prequel. This followed the unveiling of the new single, 'Nothing Comes to Nothing', their first single since 'You Talk' reached UK chart #54*, their lowest chart hit to date. This observation may seem superfluous, but the song's chart position was indicative of its low popularity within Babyshambles' fanbase: 2007's Shotter's Nation, produced by Stephen Street (who produced the slick indie of acts such as Blur, Kaiser Chiefs and The Ordinary Boys), disappointed original fans because of its cleanness - to a lot of people, it just sounded uninspired. I liked the second album, but 2004's Down in Albion has lingered in my affections for longer, not for its rawness of sound but for its rawness of emotion, its lyrical brashness and the way that the scanty production allowed the crack(s) to show through. Album Two was certainly lacking in something, though great tracks like 'There She Goes' and 'Carry on Up the Morning' made up for it.

The Youtube commentariat have already cast their vote on 'Nothing Comes to Nothing', and it looks like the disappointment surrounding Shotter's Nation might be up for a renewal. A commenter named Jordan Schmidt announced, "they really nailed that Generic-Indie-Rock sound", whilst Keith Lennox wrote "meh, it's okay, nothing more than that". A more moderate commentator suggested that "the middle of the road is nothing to shy away from". Most fans were crueller. "The old, classic and messy Babyshambles sold out", Jack Davies claims, and one typical voice asked "Where are the bum notes and the passion of the off key vocals..." A lot of those claiming to like the song sound like apologists, one summarising: "fuck man doherty has to make a living somehow". Quite.

Apologism in the music industry is hard to avoid. People get deeply emotionally involved with their favourite bands, and it's hard to let go and admit that the band you've invested in have made a bad album. Some adjust themselves rather than losing the bands - Youtube user BreckRoadLover21, who is clearly familiar enough with The Libertines to name him/herself after one of their earliest records, probably identifies with the band enough to take to their new, cleaner sound. Those who think that the middle of the road is better than the 'Side of the Road' are probably later fans, or fans who've grown out of their old punk spirit, and they're the type of listener that the Angry Young Men of 2004's audience almost certainly reject - would the old Doherty, the one who yelled "THEY'LL NEVER PLAY THIS ON THE RADIO" over 'Fuck Forever', have expected to attract fans who hum 'Delivery' while doing the dishes?

'Farmer's Daughter' was perhaps a relief to more hard-line fans. Featuring Peter's stilted guitar playing - still slightly jarring to the unexpectant listener - the song is more like 'Carry on Up the Morning' than 'You Talk', but it's far from '8 Dead Boys' or 'La Belle et Le Bête'. Where are the reggae beats that hung behind 'Pentonville', or the disjointed guitars and uncoordinated vocals of 'Pipedown'? Some people are seeing this as Babyshambles' early decline. So many rock bands grow up and out of fame - rock 'n' roll was always a cult of youth, and stars like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop, as well as clearly being exceptions to the rule, seem farcical next to the young bands. Whether it's fair or not is another question, but old rock musicians have to pass through the 'mocking' stage before they reach the Hall of Fame. Most never get there.

I don't know - sometimes I think that even I'm an apologist of sorts. I loved The Libertines, and Babyshambles, and Dirty Pretty Things (Hell! Even Yeti!) but recently, neither Carl Barât nor Pete Doherty seem to have been writing quality songs, and I'm losing faith in Pete as a lyricist in recent years. Perhaps the missing link in the last two Babyshambles album has been a driving, idiosyncratic guitarist - Mik Whitnall is a strong player, but his style belongs more in Oasis than a lo-fi once-punk band.

As a fan, I'm going to give Sequel to the Prequel a try when it comes out in September. The Youtube commenter who suggested "singles are meant to be commercial" might have put his finger on the problem with 'Nothing Comes to Nothing' - as a piece of songwriting, it's kind of generic, but I thought that about 'Killamangiro'; maybe it's too soon to judge the album. Then again, I think a lot of fans are expecting Sequel to the Prequel to be a little bit like the Damien Hirst artwork which adorns its cover - suddenly accepted into the establishment, the canon, and less interesting for it.

*'Side of the Road', released for Record Store Day 2010, didn't chart at all, but it was only released as a limited edition 7" vinyl.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Kate Nash in 2013

It's six years since Kate Nash released Made of Bricks, an album which inspired many critics to ask, "Is Kate Nash copying Lily Allen or is Lily Allen copying Kate Nash!?!?" It mattered as little then as it does now, but at least people have stopped asking - and Kate Nash isn't making the girly piano-pop that first provoked the comparison. This year, she released Girl Talk, a punkier, self-consciously wilder album than either of her others. From my perspective as a vague follower of her now defunct relationship with Crib Ryan Jarman, it sounds very much like a break-up album. She's done away with the pretty melodies and piano jingles and replaced them with Riot Grrrl bass and Kim Gordon-esque moaning - much more likely to divide opinion than anything on her first release.

When Nash released her second album, I was unimpressed. It was more Made of Bricks, only not as good. Listen to the first album's 'Shit Song', 'Dickhead', even the leading single 'Foundations', and you're faced with a barrage of beautifully targeted venom - though Made of Bricks was twee, it was also nicely bitter, and a breath of fresh air in amongst all 2007's sweet-as-pie female singer-songwriters who wouldn't swear for toffee. By contrast, 2010's My Best Friend is You was as subjectless as its title: she was happy, but her artistic bent seems to rely on a bit of anger. This year's album is definitely a testament to that.

Not only is Nash going round the world shouting the word 'feminist' from the rooftops (and no matter how problematic you think her feminism might be, the very use of the word in popular discourse gives it fresh power), she's also making really great music. I didn't expect to be won back over to Kate Nash, but Girl Talk has probably done it. It's angry, and 'feminist', and so bitter. The video above, I think, targets the album's two main bugbears: sexism and The Ex.

If I wanna talk, I’ll call,

but in the mean time thanks for all

the public displays of affection.

I know you’re tryna to get my attention.

Trashy, cheap talk magazines.

While I stay classy, you stain jeans.

You’re coming over all my friends.

Oh, thank Heavens it’s the end.

These aren't poésie, but who wants poésie in punk anyway (Doherty aside)? If she were talking about Jarman, and I'm just hypothesising here like a trashy cheap-talk magazine, then it would make sense - after all, Exclamation Pony, Jarman's new band (cofronted by Jen Turner, Nash's close friend), have been known to end raucous sets with onstage snogging, and Jarman does stain a lot of jeans.

Escaping the realm of gossip though, I think it's a brilliantly put-together song. It builds up gradually, developing its melodies and harmonies, and the production is first-rate: the guitar sound and dual vocal effect make it a real divergence from earlier albums.

Though Nash's move into the punk sound shouldn't distract us from bands who've done feminism much more violently and more punkily, bands like Bikini Kill, Hole, The Slits and Russia's Pussy Riot, I consider it a step in the right direction, both musically and lyrically. I'm sure there have been some critics (and will be more) who condemn Nash for trying to find a niche, trying to 'play' at being a rock star, to overstep the bounds of her formerly twee, sweet sound, but I'm going to ignore those critics. Judging from this excerpt from an interview, that's just what she's doing:

Interviewer: When you released some of your new work you got quite a strong reaction; is it hard not to take it personally when people are critical?

Kate Nash: Well I found it quite enjoyable actually this time round, it created such a stir when I released 'Underestimate the Girl', that was sort of the point - everyone plays it so safe and no-one wants to mess with the rules, and all the reactions kind of proved me right. So that was exciting to watch and just as an experiment - seeing how people react negatively when somebody does something different. I think its good to make people feel uncomfortable sometimes.

If it makes music like Girl Talk, it certainly is.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Early Blur acoustic

Here's a treat for you, ladies and gents, from the depths of Youtube. I've never seen an acoustic performance in front of such a huge audience.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Drew McConnell and some thoughts on covers

Okay, so I interviewed Drew McConnell of Babyshambles fame a few weeks ago. He is the mastermind behind Helsinki, the band I was raving about a few posts ago. Below is the link to it. He's a great guy.

Read the full interview here.

I've also recently reviewed Primal Scream's new album, which has reminded me how awesome Screamadelica is. The last two weeks has unfolded with the internal soundtrack of "I was blind, and now I see! You made a believer out of me!"

I've also been listening, in contrast, to jazz pianist Jamie Cullum. In the past, I've always seen him as a wasted talent, a really talented player with a good voice, working in a dynamic and interesting genre, yet still singing songs barely better than Michael Bublé's. However, his cover of Rihanna's 'Don't Stop the Music' from 2009 is awesome, and stumbling across it recently made me have a rethink.

I went on a Cullum marathon afterwards, still unsure of my feelings towards him more generally; it kind of renewed my former opinions of him. He's a real talent, but he often chooses to cover old jazz standards in a fairly conventional way. Still, the above video impressed me, and it got me thinking about how good Rihanna's song-writers are.

Rihanna's been accepted into the sphere of bland, hyper-sexualised chart pop, presenting the world with ever-more ephemeral dancefloor-fillers and pained ballads. I actually quite like her voice, but I think the way it's autotuned and produced makes the final tracks hard to enjoy. I'm also a bit awkward about her stage persona, and the lyrics and attitudes that go with it on tracks like 'S&M'. But consistently, when I hear her tracks covered, I love them: I was even enthused by the cheesy, country version of 'Cheers (Drink to That)' by the cast of Smash!.

At the risk of alienating any music afficionados (read: snobs), Rihanna's music is growing on me, but only if it's performed by someone else. I have the same issue, perhaps more unusually, with the Smiths.

Friday, 8 March 2013


Three years ago, I reviewed the single 'Real Live Flesh' by tUnE-yArDs, from the album BiRd-BrAiNs (using formatting that the website no longer supports, if you're wondering). I gave the song 7.5/10 - a decent but hardly ecstatic response. I then forgot about it, wrapped up in early 00s indie and post-punk, not enormously compatible with the afro-beat-style jazziness of tUnE-yArDs; I re-discovered them recently after finding 'Real Life Flesh' on Youtube coincidentally, and realising how great it was. Since their first album, tUnE-yArDs have released a second, whokill (a different, but comparable, affront to grammar). However much of a challenge it is to remember the stylised spelling of their releases, it's worth seeing past the indier-than-thou typography of tUnE-yArDs, because musically, they're brilliant.

whokill follows the same essential patterns as BiRd-BrAiNs, but they've developed the production and perhaps a slightly higher quality of songwriting since 2009. The stylish experimentalism and ingenuity of whokill is not to everyone's taste, but I think that they develop particularly strongly-attached fans. Tracks like 'My Country' are so vibrant that it's hard to respond to them unemotionally.

Though an exploration of their other material uncovers some similar gems, 'Real Live Flesh' is still one of my favourite tracks of all time. One of its main charms is its self-deprecating lyrics.

I'm not your fantasy girl.

I'm not your fantasy love.

I'm not your fantasy flesh

That fits you like a tight glove.

Real Live Flesh by tUnE-YaRdS on Grooveshark

The song is about sex; in that sense, it doesn't challenge any norms. However, when was the last time you heard a woman singing a sexy song in which she's not deemed perfect, gorgeous or beautiful? Flesh is taboo; fat is demonised. In the real world, the world beyond simulacra, people can respond sexually to non-fantasy bodies; non-porn bodies; bodies which aren't 'perfect'. I see 'Real Live Flesh' as a song about accepting deficiency and yet still feeling empowered to enjoy sex - not being an ideal, yet still having the sexual confidence to suggest you'll be good in bed. The woman in 'Real Live Flesh' is definitely female (she doesn't take on a 'male' role or anything like that) but she takes the initiative; she makes offering sex an act of self-assurance, not submission. It's almost unique - songs about female sexuality tend to be much more passive than this - "LOOK AT ME" songs, or "TOUCH ME" songs. Alternatively, they're about self-esteem more generally, about trying to find your own beauty - 'Born This Way' (Gaga) or 'Ugly' (Sugababes), for instance. In my opinion, trying to get people without symmetrical faces to think they're pretty is not the most useful response to mass beauty culture; we need to offer ways to transcend physical attractiveness as the core criterion of value. 'Real Live Flesh' is what I listen to when I want to remind myself of the possibilities of escaping the "beauty=worth" trap.

If you like that track, here's a great live session showcasing a few tracks from whokill - with visuals this time!

One annoying type of response to tUnE-yArDs is a response to the appearance of the lead singer. People always defend her against such ignorance, which is nice - after all, her voice is exceptional; she clearly has her preferences the right way round. But I still come up against something, even while trying to forget appearances. When a woman self-consciously avoids presenting herself like a pop-star, choosing not even to wear make-up onstage, then do you mention it? What's more, what if she doesn't dress up, lose weight, dance in a feminine way? I have a problem here because to normalise something, you have to try and make a point of ignoring it. I'd love it if women felt they didn't have to do these things to be musicians. Then again, I am endlessly intrigued by Garbus' reception in the real world, by fans, by her record company. Is she making a statement, or does she genuinely not feel affected by the same pressures as other musicians? Are pressures increasing as she gets more famous and popular? How would she react to a full make-over for a photo shoot (something which is accepted practice in the music industry, which you'd really have to work to refuse)? Basically, what is it like being a woman that doesn't follow some of the implicit rules about being stereotypically appealing?

When I ask these questions, and want to find the answers, I face a barrier: if she doesn't raise it, it can't be raised, because to ask the question would be akin to asking, "So, why don't you try to be attractive?" And even when it's deliberate, and lots of people notice she isn't complying with the usual rules, the question is inappropriate, and would come over petty, sniping, ignorant. I hope that one day someone has the tenacity and moderation to ask the questions in a friendly, comfortable way - or that she offers a response herself. As you can infer from this interview, she'd probably have a well-worded answer.

Monday, 4 March 2013

This month's round-up

I haven't been around to post whimsy this month, so here's a round-up of the music I'm proffering for your enjoyment.

1) Django Django

Yep, I know Django Django are getting to be irritating: whilst not exactly 'old' news, they are 'particularly-hyped-news-that-we've-heard-enough-about' at the moment. If you haven't heard them, Django Django make playful pop-rock laced with nice harmonies, and it's youthful in a way that's hard to pin down.

2) Radiohead

Another band you've heard too much from - Radiohead have been the object of sustained hype for two decades now. When will they run out of steam? We just can't know. King of Limbs is an awesome an album as In Rainbows, and in my opinion, both of them are improvements on their 90s prog-indie. Over the last few releases, they've perfected the no-mood musical nihilism that puts all the world into perspective; you don't have to be miserable to listen to Radiohead anymore.

(I tried to find you a nice proper video but the only live ones didn't have anything on the album version.)

3) Neutral Milk Hotel

Another 90s band I'm late to add to this blog, but an awesome one worth writing about anyway. I've been entranced by 'Oh Comely'; it has a beautiful suspension in the chord progression, simple and elegant, and it grows into something wondrous.

(By contrast, I think this does the song perfect justice.)

Friday, 18 January 2013

Julian Casablancas Whimsy

I know I'm always criticising over-production, but I want to make it clear with a simple example how important I think production is. Lovely as Julian Casablancas is, I am SO glad that this:

Turned into this:

And while we're on Jules whimsy, doesn't Adam Green look like Julian Casablancas' underachieving little bro?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

I have something lovely for you

Writing about Pete Doherty for the last post got me thinking about Babyshambles, which got me thinking about whether Drew McConnell, the Babyshambassist, was making any music of his own again yet. And he is! If I haven't mentioned it often enough, Drew's in a small project called Helsinki, a band which has recorded tracks for Love Music Hate Racism amongst other things, and played a few gigs here and there too. Below is the director's interviews for the track 'Ampersand', a 2010 obsession of mine.

And no post on Helsinki would be complete without posting this frankly unmissable track's video. 'Ribtickling' is, oddly, my most ever played track on Ever. Somehow, it's beating everything by Sonic Youth, Bright Eyes, Reuben, The Libertines... I don't know how I racked up so many plays, but see if you can tell why.

Drew has a good voice, idiosyncratic, and if you've ever wondered who's keeping Pete's vocals on track with perfectly sung backing vocals on any of Babyshambles' material, well, it's Drew McConnell. Drew's now releasing some tracks he recorded after a bad accident which broke a few of his bones last year. He's running it alongside a little art project, but the best bit about it is, of course, the music. Tender, reserved, unassuming acoustic music as it is, he's releasing some really nice songs which I strongly recommend. The most recent is this one, 'The Last Boy Alive', which I think has a really subtly gorgeous melody and a touch of that familiar bitter-sweetness I so love.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Best Pete Doherty Lyrics

"Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." If the saying holds water, then Pete Doherty is the best of artists - from his lyrics to the stuff in his bandmate's flat, Doherty has been a nicker all his working life. Sources state he got offered a place doing English at Oxford Uni, others say the University of London, but either way, it would explain his penchant for putting literary references into his songs - 'A'rébours', Blake's 'Albion', 'Love on the Dole' etc. Recently, he's stolen someone else's career choices. He's made a film, as if to try and out-do Carl Barât in the world of cinema. The two performances (Barât's in Telstar and Doherty's in new film Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle) have little between them as far as terrible delivery of lines is concerned; the key difference is that Pete attempts a leading role. The reviews have ranged from confused to distraught. Watch the trailer below and see if you can work out what it's about.

In a recent interview for The Guardian, Pete Doherty confessed to possibly falling for his own mythology back when he was doing drugs in Camden. Isn't the past tense a bit bold there? Making a French film?! 'What a waster', the world says, except for a few little voices cooing 'he's a sweetie really!', because as this video from when he was released from prison in 2008 demonstrates, the sweetie is sweet from time to time. Look at his little face when he asks the nazi paparazzi if they want to see his journals!

Cruel nasty journalist (mockingly): What does it contain?

Sweetie Petey: Forts... drorins...

... (Pete shows the world a 'Segregation Unit Certificate')

Anyway, I digress. What with his stealing and his strange recent past, Doherty's excellent song-writing can sometimes become lost in the throes of speculation and judgment. Several years ago, I knew him as a 'tabloid whipping-boy' well before I'd heard his voice - a voice which is not the strong point of his music, but idiosyncratic to say the least. What's important is often what that voice is saying. Not many musicians bother writing poetry, whether it's heavily influenced by someone else or not. Here's a run-down of my top five gems.

'Up the Bracket'

Now, it should be mentioned that pretty much all of these tracks were co-written. But, if you compare the lyrics of The Libertines, Doherty and Barât's project, to those of Barât's solo lyrics, it seems clear that most of the good stuff should be attributed to Pete. Since he put pen to paper, Pete's been penning good songs - sometimes. He has definite off-days, but the day he wrote 'Up the Bracket' was not one of them. The title track of their first album, it showcases a little anecdote about Pete being chased by a couple of serious baddies for a friend's address.

I saw two shadow men on the Vallance Road

said they'd pay me for your address.

Oh I was so bold...

In three lines, he sets up all the suspense a good story needs. What did he do? What did he do?

I said "you see these two cold fingers?

These crooked fingers?

They'll show you the way" -

to mean 'no'.

It's great. We get the recounting of an 'oh so bold' reply, of weedy Pete giving them the sign - the sign they should fuck off. The story goes on though, with warm anecdotal flair,

Well they didn't like that much I can tell you,

said "sunshine, I wouldn't wanna be in your shoes".

They chased me up two flights of stairs,

caught me in the lift. I sighed and said

"Hello", but you're impossible.

This little scene is perfectly imaginable. Not quite sure what he means by the final lines, but they're expressed with a suitable sigh of futility. It's a good track because, let's face it, we've all heard more love songs than we'd like to shake a stick at, and this is romanticised but totally different from the boring generic love songs constantly played elsewhere.

'Can't Stand Me Now'

Up the Bracket was The Libertines' first album, and all the peace and joy went downhill from there. The light-hearted punk-rock gave way by the time their self-titled second release was made - to self-absorption and harrowing suffering, mostly. Tracks like 'Narcissist' are attempts at recreating the fast-paced carelessness of album number one, but the album gets its fame from the heartache it clearly represents - and discusses, in raw and often very painful detail. 'Can't Stand Me Now' is one of The Libs' most famous tracks, and its lyrics were penned in France when Carl and Pete reunited after Peter's first spell in prison. The first verses are golden:

An ending fitting for the start,

you twist and tore our love apart.

Your light fingers through the dark

shattered the lamp, into darkness you cast us.

The first question - is the song about Carl and Pete themselves? It's a question loaded with significance, because the key to the second Libs album for a lot of people is its romance, the way it bares its heart to the world - raw emotion usually so detached and unfamiliar in songs is thrust into the light by the fact we know the story. The magic of these lyrics in particular is that they open the album, with 'an ending', looking back, prophesying the band's untimely break-up. Barât appears to be singing to Doherty, attacking him, blaming him for shattering the lamp of their lives, casting them into darkness. It's traditional imagery but it's well-phrased.

But lo, Pete replies:

No, you've got it the wrong way round,

you shut me up and blamed it on the brown.

Cornered, the boy kicked out at the world...

the world kicked back, a lot fuckin' harder now.

This clearly refers to Barât, destroying the mystery; Barât had Doherty sent to prison in 2004 for breaking into his flat. Pete suggests that it was Carl's fault - 'you shut me up' - and then that Carl tried to shrug the blame by saying it was Pete's drug use causing the problems. The way they immortalise the deadlock of their disagreement is brave - to air their dirty laundry is either a blatant cashing-in on the romance of their story, or songwriting which breaks down the usual boundaries between private and public, the personal lives of the artists and the analytical gaze of the outside world. (Only your personal feeling about the band will determine which angle you take on that.) Doherty turns to some poetic phrasing to give his verse oomph: 'cornered', he begins, placing himself as the passive victim where Barât's verse had been so accusatory. But then he confesses - he did kick, and he got a suitably colloquial kick back. These verses capture both his victim complex and a wry understanding of the way everyone else sees it. As well as being as catchy as Hell, 'Can't Stand Me Now' is a lyrical corpse preserved in formaldehyde, a neat description of the cataclysmic fatal domestic.

'8 Dead Boys'

After The Libertines broke up for what seemed like it would be forever, Pete ran off and wrote some blisteringly mean songs about Barât. The first Babyshambles album is a constant two fingers at Carlos; "Shoop d'lang d'lang", Pete echoes from 'What Katie Did', parodying the innocent friendliness of that Libertines track; "Don't look back into the motherfucking sun" he cries on 'Sticks & Stones', a more obvious reference; one of the songs is even called 'What Katy Did Next', using the convenient literary sequence to move on from The Libs - to open the next book.

'8 Dead Boys' is a particularly vicious track, a masterpiece in sparse punk - here's a great live version.

My favourite lines are at the start of the second verse, and go

If you stop your moaning then they'll give you a taster

They'll give you a line and then call you a waster.


You say you will then you won't.

Either you do or you don't - do or you don't.

It's true that the painful, gut-wrenching screams of the song nail home its mood, but these lines encapsulate it too. That taster/waster couplet is another example of Pete placing blame for his way of life on someone else. Pete addresses the audience - it could happen to you, you my friend, that if you go to 'them', whoever they are (we assume his old band, with whom his drug-taking got real), they'll offer you drugs and then accuse you of being the waster. Yes, friends, you. The 'don't' is Doherty's final remark on the matter; he then switches. The 'you' is no longer a cover for himself, an attempt to pull the audience into sympathy; the 'you' assumes the role of the 'they', I think - he addresses his drug-providing pals - don't, because you're unreliable, you lie, and this is your last chance. It's partly appealing because of its rhymes, but I also like its vagueness; he wrote these in a journal or on a scrap piece of paper and they've stayed in tact. That's how it feels. Then he yells, "When it suits you you're a friend of mine", implying that when it doesn't suit them, they're not. Accusatory, angry, powerfully raw - it's what punk used to be about, only more... self-centred.

Shotter's Nation

Album number two brought a much less bitter and more stable range of lyrics into Babyshambles' fans' lives. Personally, I think the album, whilst it is beautifully produced and has some lovely tracks on it, lacks lyrically. It has a few good lines on though, like 'Carry on Up the Morning''s

In the morning where does all the pain go?

Same place the fame goes - straight to your head

which is gorgeously easy to empathise with, and witty to boot. Then, there's 'Delivery', with
I'm fucked, forlorn, frozen beneath the summer.

Don't sing along or you'll get what I got

a grim warning to his fans, telling them off for going to see him play in a cage, which the whole world calls a stage. And then perhaps the denaturalised cliché of 'There She Goes':

How could I let go?

Since I caught a glimpse of your white plimsoles

twisting and turning to Northern Soul.

Just one glance, everybody knows.

I love these, and this album, but like sub-plots in a novel, they don't seem to stick to the story of Pete's life. He has every right to write songs which are about things other than his mighty rise and fall, of course, and he writes great tracks nevertheless, supported by a strong band (even if walk-out guitarist Pat of the first album was a more individual player than this album's Mik).

'New Love Grows on Trees'

And finally, Doherty's solo album. Soft and delicate, it's possibly called 'growing up', only as with most maturing, the lyrics get duller, less impassioned... nostalgic, self-consciously 'British', lots of these songs are sweet and about nothing. Last of the English Roses has a few little crackers in it - "Round the snooker table, you dance the Frutti-Tutti. She almost spilled her lager toasting girls of great beauty" is a nice rhyme, for example, if a little laboured. The magic comes in a song he wrote years before. It is summoned for this release, possibly because its warm reminiscing fits with the character of the album. Peter gently sings,

Are you still talking to

all of those dead film stars, like you used to?

And are you still thinking of

all of those pretty rhymes and perfect crimes

like you used to?

I don't know why I love these lyrics so much - they just seem to conjure up appealing images, especially of the talking to dead film stars, an endearing quirk in the person the song is written for, whoever it may be. The simple internal rhyme of 'rhymes' and 'crimes' is nice too, just aesthetically. Though the lyrics are very simple, they have an undercurrent of something a bit darker - it's that repetition of 'like you used to' that does it, like a cruel reference to better times, or times when the pair were better acquainted. It's also impatient; as he later says, if you are still doing these things, "you really don't have to".

The album version is absolutely gorgeous, but it seems appropriate to post this vid, what with its array of pictures of the guy I've spent a good thousand words talking about, so enjoy.

I just hope Pete can recover his writing talent and release some new material, be it with the Babyshambles team or alone. 'Genius' is too strong a word, in my opinion, as perhaps even is 'poet', but Pete Doherty has released some invigorating and wonderful tracks in his time, and some superb lyrics. And he isn't cut out for acting - hopefully the reviews will drive him back into the studio.