Friday, 31 December 2010

Album Review: Northern Portrait - Criminal Art Lovers

[Matinee, 2010]

It's not all that hard to guess who Northern Portrait's main influence are. Smiths copyist bands have been ten-a-penny over the last 25 years, and on first listen Northern Portrait are no different to any of the ones that have gone before. Admittedly the situation may be slightly different in Denmark, where Northern Portrait hail from, but the lead singer seems to make a concerted effort to sound as much like Morrissey as he possibly can, without the charm and wit of the original. A lot of the lyrics sound like Smiths lyrics, but only in the sense of flippancy and introspection.

But I just love this kind of jangly, carefree, accessible indiepop. The songs are just of such high quality, especially the guitar playing, that the album manages to make you forget just how much of this kind of stuff has gone before. Indeed, I'd say it was a better album than either the Smith's debut or 'Meat is Murder'. After a few listens, the band starts to take on a personality of their own and move away from their forebears. A couple of the members of the band used to have another group, the Mirror Lounge, which sounds a lot less Smiths-y, but just doesn't sound as compelling. Sometimes, we need bands that are able to reinterpret older styles as well as Northern Portrait do. I can't see them ever being anyone's favourite band, but this is a really good, fun, personal album.

My Albums of 2010, Part 1 (10-5 & Near Misses)

Seeing as it's New Year's Eve, I thought the time was right to do a rundown of the albums I have enjoyed most this year. Here's the first half, and I'll put up my 5 top albums of the year probably tomorrow.

10 - Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

Of all the eagerly-anticipated albums this year, perhaps none had expectations so divided. Some people, fuelled by the couple of songs released on a B&S TV show a couple of months early, thought this had the potential to be a true return to their late-90s top form. Others, fuelled by the prospect of songs featuring Carey Mulligan and Norah Jones, thought it would be a further descent into the MOR, continuing along the lines of the second half of 2005's The Life Pursuit. In the end, they were probably both right. Some truly amazing indiepop is tempered by some dross, making for an album that is enjoyable but unmemorable. Hopefully they can get a couple more albums out over the next few years and re-find their stride.

9 - Wild Nothing - Gemini

In my review of Wild Nothing's neo-C86 debut, I said that it was a very good dreampop album with few ideas of its own. The couple of weeks since I wrote that review have slightly softened that position in my mind - it has improved even further with a few more listens, and I do now think that this is genuinely one of the best albums of the year. The accompanying Golden Haze EP is well worth picking up too. And, of course, I still love the cover art.

8 - Shrag - Life! Death! Prizes!

Previously much better live than on record, Shrag are one of those bands that seem to be able to churn out songs that feel like you've always known them. Post-punk (specifically post-X Ray Spex) in attitude but almost twee in melodies, they are the perfect band for a specific mood. This, their second record after they released a compilation of singles last year, is their first attempt at a proper long-player. It's just so fun - Tight in August is one of the year's angsty pop gems. Despite the lack of many potential singles, the like of which their previous record was stuffed with, I prefer this album, as it feels much more mature, without feeling like its anywhere near fulfilled the band's obviously massive potential. This makes me pretty excited for their follow-up, although I think it could be a while in coming as they cement their place in the London live music scene.

7 - Beach House - Teen Dream

Probably the biggest dream-pop album of the year, this record got pretty much universal acclaim form a variety of influential sources. I do think it is a genuinely stunning album. I can see how people might see it as slightly 'boring' and ineffectual, as it is not exactly imposing, but the melodies and harmonies gradually unfold and wrap themselves around you, in a similar way (although obviously not as powerfully) as 'Loveless'. Indeed, the more I listen to this album the more shoegazey I think it is, although with sweeter melodies and less abrasive noise than many albums of the genre - the most similar genuine oldschool shoegaze band would probably be Slowdive, but there are also a lot of other obvious influences among their contemporaries - I definitely think they've been listening to quite a lot of 'For Emma, Forever Ago'.

6 - Allo Darlin' - Allo Darlin'

I got fairly obsessed with this album back in the Spring. They, as with many bands this year, are incredibly open in their influences - in this case, 90s K and Sarah bands. 'Dreaming', the opening song, takes all the best elements of this scene - the boy-girl interplay vocals are straight out of 'C is the Heavenly Option' - and packages it with a ukulele. Some of the songs are weaker than others - I don't normally skip songs, but even I find 'Heartbeat Chilli' virtually unlistenable - but they seem to be able to put their mind to most things in the indiepop spectrum with a remarkable degree of success, and you can't help but be utterly charmed by the album as a whole. I think I definitely overplayed it, as I haven't listened to it much at all over the last couple of months, but there is no way I wouldn't put it up as my favourite British indiepop album of 2010, and there is some very strong competition.

Here are some other albums I heartily recommend from this year, but that didn't make the final top 10.

11 - Sufjan Stevens - The Age Of Adz
12 - Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
13 - Avi Buffalo - Avi Buffalo
14 - Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
15 - James Blackshaw - All Is Falling
16 - Freelance Whales - Weathervanes
17 - Math And Physics Club - I Shouldn't Look As Good As I Do
18 - The Arcade Fire - Suburbs
19 - Free Energy - Stuck On Nothing
20 - Delorean - Subiza
21 - Standard Fare - The Noyelle Beat
22 - Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
23 - Thee Silver Mt. Zion & Tra-La-La Band - Kollaps Tradixionales
24 - Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Let It Sway
25 - Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Bootleg Review: The Velvet Underground - Live at the Gymnasium

A relatively recently unearthed live recording of the Velvet Underground at their 1967 peak, 'Live at the Gymnasium' features performances of a few album tracks and a couple of rarities. The quality isn't great, but passable compared to some other 60s live recordings - I'd put it as comparable to the officially released live album, 'Live at Max's Kansas City'. In quite a lot of the recording as a whole, it is fairly difficult to tell whether John Cale is actually playing or not, as he gets drowned out by the walls of feedback and the clear, piercing vocals. The first song, 'I'm Not A Young Man Any More', is a pretty good rocker, of the kind that would have fitted well on the first side of 'The Velvet Underground and Nico', and 'Guess I'm Falling In Love' is a poppier, early Beatles-y romp, which, while very obviously a Velvets track, is much brighter than some of the stuff they were recording in this period.

'I'm Waiting For The Man' feels a lot more guitar driven than the version on the album, with less of a chugging bassline, and begins to outstay its welcome well before the end of its 5-minute runtime. The sound quality is probably worst on this track, with the middle sections feeling very muddy and the levels fluctuating throughout. 'Run Run Run' strays slightly from the album blueprint, with a good improvised section, but again the sound quality detracts, and I can't envisage a scenario where I'd rather listen to this than the officially released studio version. 'Sister Ray', which was apparently debuted at this show, is stunning as ever, but is very little different to the version that was eventually released on White Light/White Heat.

This recording does show just how different and forward-thinking the Velvets were, however. A use of feedback an experimental effects that would not be out of place in some of the more experimental bands around today is breathtaking, when you consider this was recorded getting on for 50 years ago. They are clearly a band that are still very relevant to new music today, in a way that many of their contemporaries just aren't. Barring the Beatles, who will always spawn near-copyists by the dozen, it is hard to think of a sixties band that could be part of today's music scene and produce exactly the same music as they originally did. Which goes some way to explaining why they weren't received more warmly at the time, I suppose.

I'd say this was a good live performance, showcasing the more experimental end of the Velvets' discography, and it is indeed the only 1967 performance by Lou Reed & co. in circulation, but the recording is definitely only one for fans who are willing to put up with the questionable quality. I'll give you a download link anyway.

The Velvet Underground - Live at the Gymnasium

Bootleg Review: Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (New York Sessions)

I'm going to start a new section on reviews of bootlegs I've been listening to. I think a good starting point is one of the most well-known studio bootlegs there is, by the artist who has probably been bootlegged more often, and who has a bigger bootleg-consuming following, than any other, Bob Dylan. I think I can put up a download link, but I'm not sure on legalities. If anyone has any problem with this, let me know.

Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (New York Sessions)

Blood On The Tracks is widely regarded as one of the finest ever albums. Written against the backdrop of a messy divorce in 1974, the songs are pretty much all about either anger ('Idiot Wind') or loneliness ('If You See Her, Say Hello'). After the initial sessions, Dylan decided to re-record much of the album, including all the more personal songs, giving them a more produced sheen. Some of the songs gain from this, some lose something. The sound is very different, firstly - the final release had gone through a lot of noise reduction, and some of the personality of Dylan's voice and of the guitar parts had been lost. This is restored, for better or worse, and the changes are noticeable from the very beginning of 'Tangled Up In Blue'. This version is a lot less immediately catchy than the officially released version, which went on to be one of the better-recieved singles of Dylan's later career, but I think it manages to get across Dylan's feelings about the song much more effectively. I also find the New York versions in general flow a lot better into each other, making for a more cohesive album. Admittedly, the version of 'Idiot Wind' here seems a lot less angry, which means the deprecating lyrics fall a bit flat, and 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' is definitely a bit over-long, but the version of 'If You See Her, Say Hello' seems much more heartfelt and genuine. Fundamentally, after having listened to this version, I think the official release just seems to fall a bit flat.

Having said that, though, anyone who has even a vague interest in Bob Dylan, or in acoustic-based guitar music in general, should hear both the official and bootleg releases of this album. They're both absolutely essential releases, each with good points compared to the other, and it is just a question of your own particular tastes. The argument over which is 'better' has raged for 35 years already, and shows no sign of stopping.

My Gigs of 2010

Here is a quick run-down of some of my favourite gigs I went to this year, in chronological order. There were a few near misses, such as seeing the National at the Royal Albert Hall on election night, which would doubtless have made the final list had I not only been able to get a ticket for the balcony, right up in the top of the venue surrounded by the famous acoustic mushrooms. Overall though I think this selection gives a fairly good representation of what was an excellent year of live music for me.

Pavement @ the Brixton Academy, 13th May

Pavement's unashamedly money-focused reunion had the potential to be fairly dull and pedestrian. Luckly, however, they'd lost none of their slacker charm, and they played a hit-filled set at the Brixton Academy, probably my favourite larger venue. They managed to fill the massive space (partly with sound, partly with massive inflatables), with Bob Nostanovich as crazy as 10 years ago and Malkmus showing that he really is a genuinely top-notch guitarist, despite seeming completely detached from his instrument. Even the weaker stuff from the later albums went down very well, and 'Here' provided one of my favourite live performaces of the year.

Indietracks Festival, 23rd-25th July

Aah, Indietracks. Probably the nicest place I've been all year. A collection of a couple of thousand twee-sters in a steam train depot in rural Nottinghamshire, with sets from some of the biggest and best indiepop bands of modern times (POBPAH, the Smittens, Ballboy, Allo Darlin') and the late 80s-early 90s heyday (the Pooh Sticks, the Orchids, the Primitives). Really felt like a proper community, in a way that bigger (worse) festivals can only dream ofThis was maybe due to the fact that such a high proportion of the people there were in bands, and enjoyed talking about themselves and about music in general, even if they happened to be queueing for an ice cream (Max from the Smittens is apparently a lecturer in Geography at Leeds University! Who knew?). Will definitely be going back for the foreseeable future.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart @ the Buffalo Bar, 1st August
‘Asked to describe their sound lead singer Chip said “USA! USA! USA! Touch my dong!” before falling over sideways.’
At the end of their UK stay, also encompassing a headlining slot at Indietracks and a London gig at Heaven, which was frankly slightly disappointing, POBPAH played a secret gig at a half-full Buffalo Bar under the name 'George Washington's Penis'. They played us a set crammed with both new songs and old favourites. Gave a sighting of that rarest of beasts, the indiepop moshpit, inches from Kip's microphone.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ the Troxy, 13th December

Outlined on this blog already. I'd been waiting for this gig for ages, and it really didn't disappoint. Definitely one of the most impressive live shows I've ever seen, despite the understandable lack of crowd interaction. Everything was exceptional, from the slightly quirky venue to the images projected behind the band. From a high-brow point of view, definitely my gig of the year.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Live Review: The National @ the Brixton Academy, 30/11/2010

I'd seen the National a few times before this gig, the most recent being at the Royal Albert Hall in May. The release of their most recent album, High Violet, seems to have catapulted them, if not into the mainstream, at least into much larger venues. This was the second of three sold-out nights at the Brixton Academy, one of the largest venues in London, showing that there is a massive market for the National's brand of introspective baritone indie rock.

The openers, Phosphorescent, were enjoyable, but didn't seem to go down very well, with many of the audience talking throughout. Although a standard problem at gigs of this size, I don't think they did anything to help themselves, with the set seeming to fall half way between enjoyable indie pop and introspective folk - it didn't really succeed at either, and long drawn out guitar solos are never going to go down that well at a National gig. Still, good enough for me to want to track down an album or two for a more involved listen.

Starting with 'Runaway', they played a set that drew on each of their last 4 albums. All the new stuff was performed and received exactly as you would expect, with big singalongs on the singles and chin-stroking on 'Terrible Love' and 'Lemonworld'. Matt Berninger's voice was in fine fettle, despite him saying he had a sore throat, with his voice very high in the mix. The Dessners and Devendorfs were also obviously on top form, not least in their bantering with Berninger. The Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry guested on guitar on many of the new songs, continuing the run of special guests started by Sufjan Stevens the night before. The band gradually built the crowd up through the gig, with the majority of their slow-burning classics such as 'Slow Show' and 'Secret Meeting' played early on in the evening. After the raw, shouty interlude of 'Abel', from 'Alligator', the opening arpeggios of 'England' rang out (a song that, according to Berninger, has now been renamed 'France') into the void above our heads - I think High Violet was written to be performed in arenas like this, and none of the new songs struggled to fill the space. Fake Empire, possibly the National's most famous song following its use in Barack Obama's campaign material, closed the main set superbly.

The encore kicked off with a very nice surprise. 'Lucky You', the closer from their second album, 'Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers', is one of my favourite National songs, yet is rarely played live. As soon as the opening piano chords kicked in, a lovely hush came down over the room. Or, rather, over the whole room except one guy, standing right behind me, who told his friends that he 'didn't know this one' and started chattering away. He was hushed by his friends, but he, and others in the crowd, definitely took away some of the magic of seeing the National live. The advantages of a big gig were shown in the next song, however - Berninger launched himself into the crowd, racing like a pro (see what I did there?) to the very back of the auditorium, without even the luxury of a radio microphone. He continued this through the next song, Terrible Love, before returning to the stage and, with the Dessners, closing the gig by leading the whole 5000-strong crowd in a completely unplugged, unamplified version of 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks'. With this original and stunning finish still hanging in the atmosphere, we walked out into a Dickensian snowstorm on the streets of Brixton, which seemed incredibly fitting.

The Brixton Academy is surprisingly intimate for its size, but I think it's pretty unfortunate the National will probably never play the smaller venues in London again. With their star continuing to rise, the bad points of this gig might even be further magnified in the future. Despite these niggles, though, this was a truly triumphant gig, one of my best live experiences of the year.

Live Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ the Troxy, 13/12/2010

Until the last few weeks, GY!BE hadn't played live or, indeed, done anything as a band for about 7 years. So far, it isn't clear what the members want from this reunion - whether there'll soon be a new album in the works, or a more extensive tour, or whether they'll just go back to their own disparate projects, the most famous of which over the last few years has been A Silver Mt. Zion. They've been keeping their hands close to their chest, with a period of 'introspection' to follow these gigs. Basically, however, the 3 London gigs at the Troxy this week represented the best chance for me to ensure that I got to see the post-rock pioneers live, in case this was going to be the last opportunity.

The opening band, Dead Rat Orchestra, only got about a 12-minute-long set, due to the sound-check overrunning, but I thought they were pretty interesting. It was basically experimental woodblock-and-hacksaw-based percussion, a wailing fiddler and a guy who just 'played' various objects, including a record player, creating a hypnotic Deep South chain gang-style folk. I really enjoyed it, although a full-length set might have been a bit wearing.

Godspeed came out punctually at 8:30, setting us up for a marathon set. As the various band members got settled, and the projectionist started crafting some of the backdrops for the rest of the set, they started out with 15 minutes of drone. This can be wearing (as it was at the recent Swans gig I went to), but here it served to set the ambience for the rest of the evening, and just made the beginning of Gathering Storm (the first movement of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, in my opinion their best full-length album) all the more powerful when it finally arrived. From this, they progressed through tracks from every one of their major releases, with an emphasis seemingly on those from Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, with barely a break - as on their albums, the ideas all mashed together into one glorious whole, with it being difficult to discern where ideas and builds ended or began. After 2 and a half hours, they finally brought the set to an end with the tour de force that is BBF3, from their Slow Riot EP. At the end, they left with barely a wave, let alone an encore, with only guitarist Efrim staying around onstage to mould the shards of feedback that closed the gig.

All the members of the group distinguished themselves. The least obvious, but perhaps the most effective, was the projectionist, working towards the back of the room. He created an on-the-fly set of low-key images that perfectly captured the senses of the music being performed, from transfixing sequences of numbers and letters, through to atmospheric shots of a claw-like crane working in the shadow of a huge bridge somewhere in small-town America, to shots that made it look as though the band were flying through the sky or racing through the hills. There was some very experimental playing - the use of a double bass bow on a hi-hat was something I had never seen before, and a lot of screwdrivers were used on all 3 guitars almost constantly from very early on in the performance.

None of the members of the band sang, or even said, a word during the performance. They used occasional vocal samples, such as the one in BBF3, that were, as far as I could tell, identical to the ones used in the album recordings. These gave some structure to the music, and served to heighten the sense of dread and dissatisfaction, but were also in a way beautiful - indeed, Chart #3, featuring little else but the violin and a voice sample, was one of the most affecting passages of the night.

A minor disappointment was the lack of many additional instrumentalists - Gathering Storm just doesn't have the same effect when the initial blaring of the horn section is played on a glockenspiel, and the lack of a cello was possibly responsible for my favourite track, Moya, being left out completely - but after a while you began to forget about the recorded versions and were just taken with them in their beautiful, breathtaking builds. This was a brilliant show, in every respect, and GY!BE truly are a step above any of the other bands trying to do similar things at the moment. We can just hope that they will be back, either with more shows or new releases, at some time in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Album Review: Free Energy - Stuck On Nothing

[DFA, 2010]

I heard about this album from a article on artists' favourite albums of the year. Everyone else just gave the usual two lines on how Beach House's album had 'beautiful harmonies' or whatever, but Patrick Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus, turned in a screen-long summary of why he loved this record, showering it with praise, saying that it is "the sort of album you will put on ten years later and be amazed that you still know all the words". I had to have a listen, obviously. The first track jumped out at me - as bands like POBPAH and Talulah Gosh well know, if you have a song with the same name as the band, it has to be bloody good. And this is. You can definitely see why Stickles likes it - it has a very Titus-y feel, especially for the first few songs. The backing is tight, the tunes are solid. After about 3 plays through I can already say that I love this album, although whether I'll still know all the words in 10 years is another story....

To be honest, I can't better Patrick Stickles' review above. Go to the link, then go to Spotify and find the album. You're in for a treat.

I wish I had been to Bowlie this weekend.

Belle & Sebastian, the Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, Isobel Campbell, the New Pornographers, Best Coast, Camera Obscura. A veritable Who's Who of both modern-day and classic indiepop. And I wasn't there.

Damn my lack of available holiday. But there's always YouTube!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Album Review: Wild Nothing - Gemini

[Captured Tracks, 2010]

I've been pretty slow at getting into Wild Nothing, a band led by a man called Jack Tatum from Blacksburg, Virginia, who play luscious, dreamy lo-fi indiepop. Along with contemporaries such as Beach House and Avi Buffalo, they've been part of what has been quite an interesting year for American indie rock, but have a much more poppy slant than either of these two bands. Wild Nothing have much more in common with old-school British C86 bands like the Field Mice than with much of the rest of the modern American music scene, bar some of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart's more dreamy moments. They manage to blend this with a touch of what sounds to me like electro of the early New Order type, making a very enjoyable album from start to finish, albeit one with more than a hint of 'background music' about it. Some of this album, such as the second track, Summer Holiday, gets pretty close to the quality of the very best of its forebears. Nothing very original, but it is hard not to make an enjoyable album with influences like these, and Wild Nothing succeed surprisingly well. The fact it boasts my favourite artwork of the year is a bonus.

I can see this album making many end-of-year lists, not least my own, but find it hard to imagine that I'll still be listening to it regularly 5 years down the line. The onus is on Wild Nothing to push forward this potential and write a second album with which they can definitively state that they have something new to offer to the dreampop world.

Here's a video for my favourite song on the album, Summer Holiday.

Some lesser-known Christmas songs that are actually good

This time of year, Christmas music become pretty much ubiquitous. All the shops seem to be playing Slade, Wham! and whoever else will sell them the most scarves/toys/whatever. But there are actually some genuinely good Christmas songs, and here are some YouTube videos for them.

Big Star's overtly religious pop classic. The only thing that could possibly be holding this back from public affection is the slightly experimental opening. It has everything else needed for wider acceptance as a Christmas song - bells jingling, a catchy chorus and a solo by an instrument I can't for the life of me recognise. OK, maybe that last one isn't completely necessary for mass success.

Galaxie 500's Dean Wareham playing his old band's cover of Yoko Ono's Listen, The Snow Is Falling. Beautiful, and a perfect choice of cover - they have made it their own, in my opinion.

Yo La Tengo go easy on the feedback and heavy on the seasonal goodwill on this 2002 rarity from a Christmas EP.

To finish us off, a ridiculous rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas by Stuart Murdoch and friends, recorded for a John Peel Christmas Party session. It descends into Alan-Partridge-esque animal sound effects and laughter. Which is always a good thing.

Merry Christmas (for 2 weeks time)!

Why I'm looking forward to the Pains' new album

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are one of my very favourite bands. I got their eponymous EP what seems like an aeon ago now, picking it up on a whim in Rough Trade East after listening to the first minute or so of the first 3 tracks on the CD player they provide. It got a few listens and then just sat in my CD collection for 18 months or so, until I started hearing more about them during the long build-up to their debut proper. Yes, they blatantly rip off a variety of bands, the most obvious among them Rocketship and early MBV. This isn't a bad thing though. For their first album, they wrote some of the best tunes in the modern indiepop scene, washed them in lovely warm fuzz, and then stuck a couple of songs of proper shoegaze in there for balance. This made it by some considerable distance my record of 2009.

In March, their second album, Belong, will be released. I'm ludicrously excited already. I've seen them live a few times in the last few months, and they've played varying amounts of new stuff. The songs are beginning to creep out to the internet, and some of them are absolute crackers. Heart In Your Heartbreak was the first single from the album (I think - I'm pretty sure Say No To Love was just a standalone single, as it was released about a year ago), and although not particularly subtle showed they haven't lost any of their songwriting talents. Maybe a step away from the American fuzzy Black Tambourine-y indiepop and towards a more clean, upbeat British sound, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing (although we're unlikely to get any songs similar in style to my long-burning favourite of the last album, Stay Alive). Heaven's Gonna Happen Now is probably going to be the next single, as it is the only other new song that is a mainstay of the live set, and is currently only available as an even-more-fuzzy-than-normal video on YouTube. Many of the other songs, the names of which I don't know, were played at a secret gig I went to in August, and so I have a vague idea of what the new album will be like, but this only serves to heighten my anticipation.

Here are videos for a couple of those choice cuts to get you excited too:

Album Review: Absentee - Victory Shorts

[Memphis Industries, 2008]

London band Absentee have built up a loyal live following in the Capital with their twee indie alt.folk, featuring the twin vocals of the fey, angelic Melinda Bronstein and the dark, brooding baritone of Dan Michaelson. The wide variety of backing instruments, including such things as glockenspiels, vibraphones and melodicas, gives a bright summery sense of novelty to some of the songs, only slightly diminished by the ‘trampish’ drawl of Michaelson. The heavier songs, such as Boy, Did She Teach You Nothing?, quicken the tempo slightly and keep the album from becoming tedious, while the slower songs, such as They Do It These Days, give the album its quirky character. 

It is hard to understand why Absentee are not much bigger than they are, as they have memorable hooks and choruses far better and more accessible than a lot of the bands regularly played on the radio, as well as a large side-helping of cynicism to win over the critics. It is hard to work out whether their almost uniformly positive world view is tongue-in-cheek or not; even though the lyrics deal with heavy subjects such as heartbreak and rejection, the music and vocals try to make light of this and point to an undiminished sense of childish hope. Although not an album to listen to every day, this is a very solid collection of songs that immediately fasten themselves in your brain which, although not always good, is definitely a plus point in this case. It makes for a genuinely enjoyable album, which never really threatens to turn into anything more.

Live Review: Teenage Fanclub @ the Electric Ballroom, 08/12/2010

On Wednesday I went along to Camden to see Teenage Fanclub play at the Electric Ballroom, at a show that had apparently been moved from the Forum in Kentish Town due to a lack of ticket sales. This is criminal - such an influential, well-loved band should be playing much bigger stages, and indeed in my opinion should be a mainstay of radio, a status that their far less consistent fellow ex-Glasgow C86 scene progenies Primal Scream have enjoyed during their recent renaissance. 

That said, any band with as many albums as Teenage Fanclub are going to have had lulls during their career. Not having seen them before, I was apprehensive as to how many of the songs I would recognise - since their classic  early-to-mid-1990s run of albums culminating in 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, they have released 4 albums, only the latest of which has gripped me even momentarily. 

Support was provided by Yuck, a band tipped as London's 'next big thing' by quite a few people recently. I had seen them before, supporting the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart at Heaven in August, and hadn't thought much of them. Indeed, I thought that time they were pretty much what I expected from the members of Cajun Dance Party, darlings of the Bernard Butler 'indie' set, trying to 'go Sonic Youth'. Here, however, they were completely different - the superior sound system allowed even the noisiest of their songs to be appreciated, with the song that seemed to be about milkshake (I'm not sure what it's called) a particular highlight, and I definitely now think the hype has at least some basis.

Even when Teenage Fanclub came out on stage, I was still fairly apprehensive - with them clearly having entered middle age, I didn't know whether it would be a gig with enough energy to live up to my expectations. This was dispelled immediately when they fired into Start Again, one of their best songs, with a surprising intensity. The classic songs kept coming, with the setlist pretty much just drawing on the older albums and the better songs from this year's Shadows, with some of the onstage banter being genuinely hilarious, a rarity for such an established band. Baby Lee, the lead single from the new album, held its own next to my personal favourite TF song, Don't Look Back. Despite a few notable absences (especially Neil Jung), I'm not sure they could have put on a show more perfect for their (mostly slightly ageing) audience.

Here's a YouTube video of the opener, Start Again (sorry for the lack of visual quality, the sound isn't too bad though)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Album Review: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Beware

[Drag City, 2009]

The brooding face of a middle-aged man stares out from the cover of Beware. Will Oldham, under his many monikers, has been producing albums of almost uniform quality since the early 90s, with the odd flash of utter greatness (I See a Darkness, his 1999 release, is a shoo-in to be in the top 5 albums of that decade). However, his previous album Lie Down in the Light was a disappointment, without being genuinely bad. Lazy songwriting and a distinct lack of decent tunes, coupled with a marked turn towards that much-maligned genre, country, compromised Will Oldham’s undisputed talents. It also featured one of the worst album covers ever – it appeared to have been scrawled by a pretentious toddler. Beware was Oldham’s biggest album in a very long time, with a great deal of press coverage, and he had to make amends.

He has done, to a certain extent. The country flavours are still very much present, although not as stark and unwelcome in the context of much better-written songs. Oldham’s lyrics are yet to return to their mid-90s peak, but they are still very serviceable, with songs that seem to be trying to impart advice to his listeners, a natural progression for an aging songwriter. He seems to be recognising that he is now one of the ‘wise old men’ of the American indie scene, despite the fact he is still in his 30s. Beware is fairly pleasant, but too many of the songs just drift by without any moments of real interest. Each song seems to be built round a single idea, relying on far too much improvisation for a writer of Oldham’s calibre. He should think about cutting down his amazing productivity and start putting genuine work into his songs, and then he might come up with more albums that fulfil his potential to be one of the best songwriters around.

My thoughts on post rock

Tomorrow, I'm going to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor live. I'm pretty excited. I've been a fan of theirs (although not a hardcore one, some people can get very worked up on the subject of post rock) for a while now, and I'd definitely put Lift Your Skinny Fists and Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada in my John Peel-style box of records I couldn't do without. I've been listening to some of their other stuff as 'revision' for the gig, and I just can't seem to click with it. I've no idea why really - F#A#∞ has just as good reviews from all the usual fairly-reputable sources, and quite a few people cite is as better than LYSF. I really don't understand why. There is far less musical development during the songs that on their later stuff, which is fairly unforgivable when you're asking a listener to give up the best part of half an hour to listen to a single track.

Bardo Pond are another one. They're meant to be one of the quintessential space-y post rock bands, but I just don't feel anything when I listen to the music. It's all very well to put a drone over a wall of feedback, add some hushly spoken samples as vocals and stretch it out for 15 minutes or more - indeed, this is what GY!BE do best - but there needs to either be some musical development during the song or the inital idea needs to be capable of being stretched out for a long period of time. It can't just be a noise-fest. Any feedback added should be a bonus, not just a substitute for tunes or feeling. I'd say Explosions In The Sky were one of my favourite post rock bands because, despite not having as interesting ideas as some of their contemporaries, they write songs with structure that hold up on their own right, without having to drench it in feedback.

Fundamentally, post rock can be truly sublime, and there are certain moods where nothing else will do, but there is far too much self-indulgent uninteresting stuff out there.

Here's a video of one of my favourite post rock tracks, Moya by GY!BE. Make sure you listen through proper speakers - headphones are allowable, but computer speakers just won't do it justice.

Album Review: The National - Boxer

[Beggar's Banquet, 2007]

In 2005, the National quit their day jobs as city bankers in New York and dedicated themselves to the recording of their third album, Alligator. Although generally received well, it was not heralded by the critics or the public as an instant classic. The album gradually built up a massive listenership, and found its way onto many critics’ end-of-year favourite lists. It was a difficult album to get in to, but once you managed it, it was a difficult album not to love, synonymous with the term ‘grower’. The literate, melancholy lyrics, sung by vocalist Matt Berninger in a rich voice sounding like a cheekier version of Leonard Cohen, as well as the incredibly musical drumming of Bryan Devendorf, made Boxer one of the most eagerly awaited albums of the year. With it, they have further honed and controlled what made Alligator so great and produced an album that has both the intensity and depth of their last album and also a more accessible, tuneful sheen.

There are so many things I love about this album. Many of Berninger’s dryly comic vocals, such as  ‘Fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands/ You’re shooting up the ladder’, from Racing Like A Pro, and ‘You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/ When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights’, from single Mistaken For Strangers, reference his previous life as a white-collar worker. His satirical edge is also turned to the current political situation, with songs such as Fake Empire perfectly capturing his sense of dissatisfaction with America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Despite this, Boxer is an intensely personal album, with lines such as ‘You know I dreamt about you for 29 years before I saw you’, from the magnificent album centrepiece Slow Show, coming across as genuinely romantic and winning over even the most hardened cynics. Indeed, this blog's name comes from the lyrics to this, andI would say that Slow Show is probably my favourite song of recent times.

The music is somehow both epic and intimate, fitting Berninger’s vocals perfectly. As on Alligator, Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is a key part of this. The intricate, delicate rhythms of his drum kit somehow manage to sound like the main melody, backed by the interlocking guitars of the Dessner brothers. This all builds up into a warm, angry glow, which gradually dissipates during the more stripped-down last couple of tracks, a much more satisfying and complete ending than just gradually building up to an explosion of anger, as they did on Alligator.

All these elements go some way to describing how truly exceptional Boxer is, but the real glory is that all these different aspects of the music blend into each other, creating a seamless album that encapsulates the band’s insecurity, be it with the modern world or their own personal lives. Boxer is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the my favourite albums of the 2000s so far, and therefore an excellent way to kick this blog off.

Here's a link to the video for the single Slow Show.