Monthly Archives: February 2009

You belong: yes, you belong!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I can’t really believe I haven’t blogged about Hercules And Love Affair yet, particularly since I practically discovered them. Well, almost.

Way back in early September 2007, I decided, on a whim, to pay a visit to the DFA’s Myspace. Not being overly fond of Mr. Murdoch’s social networking empire, I did so warily, mainly in an attempt to see if my favourite label at the time had signed anyone interesting. Pretty much the first thing I heard upon navigating my way there was the sparse and beautiful “Roar”, by Hercules And Love Affair. I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but I knew profoundly from that moment that they were going to be big. There was something ethereal and elusive about the music: the way Antony Hegarty’s breathy moans were encircled by gurgling bass and whirring synths; the locked-in beat that was clearly emanating from a TR-909. It was instantly racy, sensual and, well, pretty gay.

In an interview with Pitchfork, the creative force of the whole escapade, Andy Butler, spoke of visiting a clothes store called Smylon Nylon, where the shopkeeper took great care in choosing the music played in the store. Upon meeting Butler, and noting his conscientious love of the music, he said, “Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!” It is this feeling of cultural history, and the undiscovered, supposedly tainted, history of gay culture in New York, which imbues virtually all of Hercules & Love Affair’s music. Their eponymous debut, released early last year, not only draws upon several decades of dance music history, but also succeeds in alluding to the societal concerns of Butler, and the scene he tries to represent. In the same interview, Butler recalled that “When making this record Antony always told me that I should draw from my experience and draw from who I am for the lyrics. He said that it’s important to be sincere”, and the thematic concerns in tracks like “Blind” and “Athene” certainly intrigue the listener on a greater level than just the precision and joy of the music. It is a truly important album, in that it brings an oft-forgotten tranche of music and history into a mainstream audience, and with an irresistable sensuality and sense of emotion.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch the band on their all-too-short tour last year (though, judging by their locations, it might not necessarily have been an comfortable experience for an impartial and thematically uninvolved fan). Luckily, they’ve recorded a fantastic session for Pitchfork.tv, which shows just how wonderfully the elastic grooves of the album have been translated into a live setting. With an eight-piece band in front of him (but sadly no appearances from Antony), Andy Butler’s music has taken on a renewed sense of euphoria and nostalgia, albeit at the expense of some of the haunting sorrow and emotional heartbreak that fills a good portion of the album. I can only hope this troupe of performers continues to make such brilliant music.

Tonight: five piece soul band!

Something that came up during my interview with Vivian Girls last night – yes, I will say more about it; no, I’m not just trying to hype it up mercilessly – was a discussion about what breeds a certain explosion in music creation. I contrasted the societal foibles that seem to inform British songwriters, with the predominantly positive artistic environment that catalyses American music-making. Primarily, I was comparing the canon of social commentators in British music (The Kinks, Blur, The Jam &c.), with the explosion of alternative and experimental music streaming out of Brooklyn (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls themselves).

This morning, while listening to Prinzhorn Dance School’s eponymous debut (released in 2007), it became clear to me that this tradition of commenting on the oddities of British society is still very much alive today. I like to think of Prinzhorn Dance School as being a recent band that time has already forgotten, for no good reason. The truth is, I regard them very highly, both musically and lyrically. There are clear links between their sparse, minimalist instrumentation and that of Shellac, and they also share that band’s taste in dark, violent humour. Their debut album was perhaps a tad long, but it boasted remarkably intricate song structures, and some of the best post-Albini production, courtesy of James Murphy, giving the whole work a wonderfully resonant, spacious sound. In Pitchfork’s review of the album, the critic wrote,

Only 70% or so of Prinzhorn Dance School’s debut album is made up of music. The rest is…well, it’s hard to say. What do you call the space in a song that lingers between the guitar parts, vocals, and beats?

And I really can’t put it much better myself. This lingering space fills the album with a sense of dread and anxiety, without resorting to melodramatic musical gimmicks. In the absence of trickery, the natural harmonics of guitar strings are allowed to float around unhindered. The almost militarily precise drums emit a kind of padded reverb. The bass sinks faster than the Titanic. The whole affair is rather industrial, like being inside a tightly packed machine that never slackens – a sensation depicted more visually in the video to “Crackerjack Docker”, above.

Combined with the sardonic and painfully unsettling lyrics, it makes for an uneasy listen. It’s not an example of my famous ‘scary music’, but it’s certainly pretty dark. In the song “Do You Know Your Butcher”, for example, the band reflect upon the unintentional scene of murder one might imagine –

If you go in for the counter,
There’s blood on the hands,
Fur on the floor
Meat.

An awful lot of it is about implied violence and enigma in the most innocuous of settings. It’s a bit like being in a Coen Brothers film. In “Don’t Talk To Strangers”, the pair deliver what seems like a public information film gone horribly wrong –

Don’t talk to strangers,
Just get into the car.
Don’t talk to strangers,
Or they’ll find out who you are.
Don’t talk to strangers,
I’ve got pills in a jar.

Just like their precursors, Prinzhorn Dance School are writing about the deep-rooted sense of dread in suburbia; the terror of doing nothing; the feeling of irrelevancy as we sit in cars, in traffic, our minds elsewhere. All this makes them one of more curious signings to James Murphy’s DFA label: I really hope the mixed reaction to their debut was a product of critical uncertainty about their pretensions, as opposed to a genuine dislike of their strange sense of humour. I could say, “but at least Pitchfork liked it,” but that would be missing the point. Pitchfork liked it because they can see beyond what could pass for being extremely pretentious. Pretentious is not what Prinzhorn Dance School are about. Yes, the music is certainly uncompromising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed – albeit with a wry smile on one’s face.

Riot Grrrls

In just under an hour’s time, I will be interviewing Brooklyn’s wave-making indie trio, Vivian Girls, before their gig at the Proud Galleries in Camden. My dictaphone is ready; my questions are laid out neatly in a notebook; even the regulation checked-shirt has made an appearance: in short, I am majorly charged up in anticipation of what will be my first ever band interview!

The interview and gig will be written up into a lead feature for the student newspaper, but you can rest assured that I’ll also be posting up some thoughts on the evening here on the blog – maybe a photo, if you’re lucky.

If you’ve never heard of Vivian Girls, which is perfectly understandable, they are an all-female band, making shoegazey and reverb-drenched sweet pop songs that have set critics’ eyes alight. They’ve just been touring around Europe, and will be returning to the US next week, continuing the support of their eponymous debut. It’s a good ‘un, and it’s only 25 minutes long! That’s enough for now – I have a train to catch.

Put the crazies on the street, give them guns and feed them meat

For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.

The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.

Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!

One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.

The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds, strewn out across a blue blanket

On a scale of one to inconceivable, how unlikely and incongruous is the presence of “Aqueous Transmission” in Incubus’ œuvre? The closing track to their 2001 album, Morning View, is serene and beautiful, employing tasteful use  of the Japanese Pipa, lent to the band by none other than Steve Vai. At 7:47 in length – which includes a final minute of croaking frogs – the song is bizarrely peaceful and uncomfortably refreshing when set against the context of Incubus’ other material.

That’s not to say that I disapprove of Incubus – indeed, at the age of twelve, they were one of the first modern rock groups I remember enjoying. In fact, I can still recall my first encounter with their music: we were on a school trip to London Zoo, and a friend, knowing that I didn’t approve particularly of his heavier rock, thrust his earphones into me and persuaded me to give Incubus a go. I’m fairly certain the song was “Redefine”, the opener of their 1997 LP, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and I was instantly impressed by their dazzling combination of funk; wildly effected guitar; turntable scratching and weird samples. Predictably, I went through a young teen phase of ‘living’ Incubus, ruthlessly working my way through their albums. Now I scour my iTunes after at least a year of having heard absolutely nothing by the band, it’s difficult not to be charmed by sensual, curiously experimental cuts like “Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song)”, with its jazzy aesthetic enhanced by a saxophone solo, and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, which features what I remember thinking at the time was the coolest bass-line ever invented. Looking back on it now, I’m still inclined to agree.

Despite all this nostalgia, however, I still wouldn’t go back on my original claim, stated at the beginning of this post, that none of their material ever showed the emotional maturity and out-and-out beauty and resolution of “Aqueous Transmission”. It’s a stunning composition, and I’m almost inclined to believe some greater force in songwriting was responsible for it. I’m such a pessimist sometimes.

The house lights are off…

Here in the UK a lot of people feel very lucky to still have the BBC. Though I’m aware that they seem to be caught up in a fresh scandal every week, one really can’t doubt the unmatchable quality of a vast quantity of their output. Which other broadcaster has given us such quality creations as Spooks, Hustle, Life On Mars and Bleak House in recent years? Which other channel pumps out consistently entertaining comedy rivalling the likes of Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, and Armstrong And Miller? Certainly not ITV, that’s for sure. I would readily admit that I only watch programmes on the BBC, with the exception of Champions’ League football. Whether it’s drama, comedy or factual, the I’m proud to say that the BBC still maintains intellectual standards in an era when other channels are quite content to devote the entirety of their schedules to dumbed-down reality TV with not an ounce of originality or value. Of course the BBC produces its share of trash, but even their reality TV efforts aren’t always bad – The Apprentice, anyone?

On the radio front, again, the BBC is still willing to sacrifice a degree of populist interest in the hope of maintaining standards. Key to this strategy is the output of BBC 6 Music and Radio 4, which is never less than excellent. Yes, all things considered, we have it pretty good over here.

Which is why I’m always encouraged to hear what’s being broadcast across the pond on NPR, which I believe to be America’s closest equivalent to BBC Radio. More specifically, NPR’s music content is thoroughly worthwhile, none more so than the perennial All Songs Considered arm, which covers everything from music news, through reviews, to live concert broadcasts. The latter in particular was how I first came across NPR, and, several years after I first started tuning in, the quality of output is still very present. In Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered has the perfect host: Boilen is witty, erudite and eloquent, and never fails to display his passion for the music.

What is really incredible is the sheer quantity of concerts that are not only aired live, but are then uploaded onto the internet as a downloadable podcast, of the same name, which I cannot recommend enough. A cursory glance at my iTunes lists entire sets from the likes of Radiohead, Tom Waits, Fleet Foxes, Spoon, Low, Iron & Wine, The National and Arcade Fire. These are some of my favourite artists and bands, at the top of their game. The content available is really spectacular. The audio is usually pristine; the songs are all there; crowd noise doesn’t impede on the on-stage performance. It’s like a bootleg, without all the inconvenient problems of a bootleg. These concert recordings really are the next best thing to actually being there, and I can’t encourage you enough to check them out. The Radiohead gig in particular, recorded at their Santa Barbara Bowl performance over the summer, is a true testament to the transformative power of the live experience. Though we cannot relive the excitement of the moment, just hearing a recording of it is enough to evoke considerable emotion and enjoyment.

You’re bringing me down

I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:

  • Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
  • Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
  • Blur – 13
  • Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  • Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
  • Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
  • Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
  • Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
  • LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
  • Low – Drums And Guns
  • M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
  • Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
  • Portishead – Third
  • Pulp – We Love Life
  • Radiohead – OK Computer
  • Radiohead – Kid A
  • The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
  • TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.

This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.

Serious funk

I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.

What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.

The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.

Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.

Good weather for airstrikes!

I can think of pretty much my ideal album for the snowy weather that’s hitting Britain today. It comes from the land of glaciers and geysers, and it’s also the album I associate the most with the natural environment. Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun, released in 1999, was the record that launched their international career, and quite rightly too, because it’s utterly stunning. Yesterday I wrote about music that’s good because it’s frightening – the first time I put this record on, I thought aliens were arriving on Earth. I was petrified of the other-ness of the band’s sound, based around the guttural, explosive power of Jón Þór Birgisson’s cello-bowed guitar, and all manner of strings, percussion and sonic trickery. Their later work resembles more the sound of glaciers, moving slowly through the Icelandic landscape, but in Ágætis byrjun, the extraterrestrial force is strong.

How does this relate to snow? I can’t really explain it using words. Just listen to the thing and, in particular, the album’s 10-minute long opener, “Svefn-g-englar”, which emerges from “Echoes”-style keyboard pings before opening out into a soaring, emotionally draining epic with guitars from the end of the universe. On record, it’s pretty satiating; when performed live, it’s like a new galaxy is being born.