Monthly Archives: March 2009

Therein lies the difference.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been assiduously listening to two recent post-Klaxons albums, nominally of the nu-rave stable: Late Of The Pier‘s Fantasy Black Channel, and Friendly Fires‘ eponymous debut. Though both albums hinge on the elision of rock and dance music, I’ve come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that, whereas the latter album benefits greatly on its commitment to sparkly pop music, the former eventually frazzles out on a wave of unwavering madness and sonic freakery that is just too much to handle.

Friendly Fires is a fascinating piece of work: only one song cross the 4-minute mark; everything is succinctly polished and pristine, and yet it was recorded in frontman Ed Macfarlane’s parents’ garage on a microphone gaffer-taped to a stand. The music is relentlessly energetic, but in a joyous, bubbly way – it never sounds comically overblown or hedonistic. The synth sweeps and throbs and kept in check by delightfully gushing vocals and beautiful guitar lines. It doesn’t feel brash, more plain confident. A particular highlight emerges at the tail-end of Lovesick, where the standard formula segues into the formative strains of a trance breakdown. Magically, after half a minute, it fades out again for a reprise of the original chorus. It’s this minimalism and concision that keeps the album consistently enjoyable and manageable.

The same can’t really be said of Fantasy Black Channel, which is, much like the title suggests, a lot of everything, crammed into stupendously complex song structures, and beaten over the head with Erol Alkan’s frequently disturbing synth gurgles. It’s enjoyable, but only in tiny doses, after which it quickly becomes grating, deafening and slightly ridiculous. It’s in the band’s worship of everything 80s, from Gary Numan to Van Halen, that in the end sounds superfluous and messy, as if instead of keeping distinct ideas to distinct songs, the band have instead elected to shove them all into one. There are definite high-points on the album, but they are more likely to be individual hooks or breakdowns, which are weighed down by a lot of searing synth flab and fat, which effectively fries the record, and possibly also the record player.

The 80s is set to dominate British musical output for the rest of the year, but it’s clear to me that only when bands keep the influences in check, and settle instead for that decade’s shininess and gloss does the idolatry succeed. When the camp, overblown excesses of the 80s drag the music into an abyss of dark matter, it just sounds a bit ridiculous.

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The Hazards of HMV

Today, on my first day back home from university, I ventured to the local shopping centre, in search of suitable gifts for my mother. As per usual, my travels took me to HMV where, having found two appropriate DVDs (Brief Encounter, The Last King Of Scotland), I had a scout around the rapidly dwindling music section, in search of some CDs. Predictably, I didn’t find what I was looking for, but it did stir in me the desire to list the next batch of new albums that I’m looking forward to gaining possession of – hopefully by fully legal means, in this new era of Spotify et al!

  • The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love. As I write this, I’m listening to the band performing this album, in its entirety, at SXSW, on a specially prepared NPR Podcast, and it sounds intriguing, ambitious and enthralling.
  • The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! Reviews for this seem to remark upon the band’s current flirting with slower, more electronic songs. For me, it’s the latest opportunity to hear an example of Dave Sitek’s mind-bending production methods.
  • Doves – Kingdom Of Rust. Right now, I have a fixation with the album-opener, Jetstream, which sounds like Krautrock crossed with Vangelis. This album could be absolutely tremendous, marking a change of fortunes for the three-piece in the same vein as the good luck that befell Elbow, last year.
  • Dan Deacon – Bromst. Having devoted half an hour to the recent Pitchfork.tv documentary about the making of this album, it sounds like a suspiciously important work, pushing Deacon’s compositional skills into a new arena of production values and live, organic orchestration.
  • Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan. I’ve never really got into Art Brut, believing them to be yet another punky British band like all the others that I despise. But the curiously admiring reviews their albums have received may persuade me to check out their third long-player in greater detail.
  • Sonic Youth – The Eternal. New Sonic Youth albums are never going to re-invent the wheel in the same manner as Daydream Nation, but the chances are that it’ll be a cohesive, engaging collection of songs that add further credence to my unerring belief in their brilliance and importance.

What goes around… comes around

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates. I’m afraid not all of us have eight-week terms, and the last few weeks have been criminally hectic.

Now, a lot of my friends have highlighted my lack of knowledge of recent pop music. It’s true that I don’t listen to what’s in the charts, and I’m sometimes surprised when I tune into the radio and hear something I never imagined would have entered the pop universe – M.I.A., for instance. I had no idea she had become so big. Scanning down a list of the current UK Top 40, I have never knowingly heard a song by The Saturdays, Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift, Akon, Alesha Dixon, James Morrison, Tinchy Stryder, Jason Mraz, Leona Lewis or Lemar. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother others.

What does frustrate me is the terribly low expectations of pop listeners. Why does it require a trailer for a bad stoner comedy to get people listening to M.I.A.? There’s nothing excessively pretentious about her music; it’s hugely entertaining; random sonic effects bounce out of speakers – put simply, there’s no excuse not to go and listen to her songs. I’m incredibly glad that she’s now receiving some mainstream love, but of course there are countless other artists whose music would be perfectly palatable for a pop-loving audience, but who have never received that big break. Music critics often talk of a band writing “great pop songs”, without mentioning that the pop breakthrough has so far eluded the band in question.

Here, then, are some artists who I would sorely love to see gain more exposure in the wider community, because there’s nothing unreasonably difficult about their music, and because they write great pop songs. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of most of these bands. But go and tell your pop-loving friends about them, in the hope that they too will come to appreciate better, more intelligent pop music.

My Morning Jacket – prone to lengthy jams in live shows, their studio albums have got progressively more pop, without really sacrificing on the quality. Often, it’s just straight up rock and roll, with a smattering of reverb, and some alt.country flavourings. It never fails to lift my mood. (Download now: Wordless Chorus, Gideon)

Belle & Sebastian – this Scottish troupe have been around for years, never making any great inroads at mainstream success, despite the fact that they write beautifully charming, witty, unpretentious songs that reference everything from folk, to electronica, to Motown and soul. Once again, it’s truly uplifting, engaging music that doesn’t make a great show of its intelligence. (Download now: Step Into My Office Baby, The Blues Are Still Blue)

Calexico – who doesn’t want to hear mariachi-tinged Americana that takes in elements from dub, folk, krautrock and popular indie rock? Over the course of their career, they’ve made some of my favourite, and most consistently enjoyable, albums, which are packed full of diverse ranging songs that evoke a singular image of the deserts of California and Arizona. (Download now: Writer’s Minor Holiday, Dub Latina)

The Decemberists – like MMJ, they can get quite progressive, but when they write sweet, romantic ditties, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get played on the radio. No one can fail to love “Summersong” on the first listen. (Download now: Summersong, The Perfect Crime #2)

Deerhunter – Their earlier work was aggressively ambient and shoegazy, but their recent album, Microcastle, is a triumph of pop melodies, inflected with tortuously beautiful guitar fuzz. In Bradford Cox, they have one of the most beautiful, troubling and haunting voices in music, but when he harmonises with the rest of the band, the result is sublime. (Download now: Heatherwood, Agoraphobia)

Field Music – I feel like I’ve extolled this Sunderland three-piece’s virtues way too many times. They no longer make music under that name, but their second album in particular is a masterpiece of indie pop, with strange vibes of Genesis and 80s prog rock, but all contained in three minute songs. (Download now: A House Is Not A Home, She Can Do What She Wants)

The National – framed with beautiful orchestral flourishes, this band’s genre-less music is wonderfully evocative, employing tasteful U2-isms and Springsteen-isms with the dark brooding mood of Interpol. (Download now: Fake Empire, Secret Meeting)

The Shins – darlings of the indie world, but why has nobody else heard their musically diverse, exceptionally well-written pop songs? They even had their music sprinkled through the film Garden State. (Download now: Kissing The Lipless, Phantom Limb, Sea Legs)

Spoon – what more can I write? Their music is beautifully sparse and minimalist; no song ever carries on where it’s not necessary; the lyrics are funny and insightful; even their albums are strangely brief. They’re just the complete band. Their music was featured in The O.C., as I discovered when I played an album to some friends. But why didn’t anyone follow it up? (Download now: Don’t You Evah, The Way We Get By, Stay Don’t Go)

There’s simply no reason not to spread the word of the gospel.

Quicken The Heart

Sorry for the duet of posts in rapid succession, but I felt it necessary to inform you that Maxïmo Park are releasing a taster of their third album, Quicken The Heart, in the form of a free downloadable single, entitled “Wraithlike”. On first impression, it’s certainly a fun, enjoyable and brief encounter, and it definitely doesn’t contain the MOR boredom found on their second album, but it does also lack the immediacy of their earlier singles.

Find me in the matinée!

Just a quick prelude before the meat of the matter a bit later on. I’ve literally just walked in from having gone to see Franz Ferdinand at the Hammersmith Apollo (now inexplicably re-christened the HMV Apollo). It were brilliant! The band were, unsurprisingly, very tight, and enjoyed a great rapport with the crowd. Songs new and old received a warm reception, the new ones in particular benefiting from the energy of the live environment. My goodness do they have a mighty rhythm section, capable of buoying those killer hooks for mass crowd singalongs.

The money shot

Some songs are impressive throughout, while others ramp up the tension and build-up before unleashing a climactic killer moment. Sometimes, I yearn for a particular song just to hear that singular moment, when all the individual units of the track coalesce and lock in to reach an apex. Occasionally, I’ll even get this craving while listening to another song – in these instances, I am liable to forget what the desired song was by the time the previous one has finished, and I then spend several minutes scrolling through my library, in search of the elusive high.

About 3:20 into !!!’s Heart Of Hearts, the synced-up groove of whirring guitars, groaning keys and raw, ecstatic vocals lock into a repeated cry of “For a heart of, heart of, heart of, heart of hearts”, set to a snappy motorik beat and astonishingly pulsating bass. Suddenly, the whole contraption comes to a dramatic, pounding halt. A second later, all hell breaks loose, sonically, as the instruments bounce back in, but with ten times the soul and vigour. It’s a pretty spectacular event.

Elbow’s stunning Crawling With Idiot begins in a very low-key manner, with Guy Garvey’s breathy, sensual vocals set to a trickling piano chord sequence and a delicate guitar figure, alongside a subtle waltz time signature. Gradually, electronic burbles and coo-ing backing harmonies enter the fray, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic tone. Finally, at 2:45, a jarringly harsh guitar line drones in, gradually, bringing the song to a wonderfully chilling climax, as the sweetness of the vocals contrasts with triumphant organ and that unsettling guitar. And then the song ebbs away, gently, into bleak nothingness.

Far from being one of the characteristically long epics on the TNT album, Tortoise’s The Equator is an under-four-minute long diversion, travelling along languid guitar work and a fidgety, twitching beat. Halfway through, at about 2:00, a yearning, soaring guitar figure is cut across by a supernova of a whooshing sound, which leads into a gorgeous segment of the song, where the soothing synth wash in the background is complemented by finger-lickingly funky guitar strumming.

The Coral have a cunning habit of letting 60s-sounding psychedelic pop songs wander into spazzed-out freakouts, and Come Home is a prime example. A jazzy groove is strumming along fairly ordinarily; the vocalist is singing sweetly about magic and myths and sitting by the fire, when suddenly, a reverb-heavy guitar breakdown segues into a organ-led vamp. Gothic sounding vocals loom forebodingly; the jerky guitar piledrives in angrily; the drums get more chaotic; a searing lead synth whistles dissonantly. How very romantic.

4:00 into Blur’s epic album closer, Essex Dogs, after a passage of portentous reminiscence and messing around with a whammy pedal, emerges a torrent of freeform noise rock experimentation and some of Coxon’s finest guitar work. It’s a visceral, guttural thrill that can’t easily be topped.

Brash, overblown and amazing

I realise there’s a lot of Damon Albarn-loving on this blog, but I really do have to say this. Despite the fact that The Great Escape is a predominantly messy, archly pretentious, deeply worrying album, I have a strange addiction right now to its opening track, “Stereotypes”. Everything about it is surprisingly enjoyable – it’s a huge guilty pleasure, but strangely loveable too. From the first hit of chords, played simultaneously on naff organ/synth and ridiculous guitar, to the comedy false end halfway through, it’s utter genius, and it sets up the ridiculous nature of the album perfectly.

In spite of all that, I realise that on another level, it’s a really horrible song. Go figure.

The Egyptian Elvis

Jonny Greenwood likes his music obscure and global; informed by a long-standing respect for other cultures, many of which are not even recognised as legitimate alternatives to Western culture. Thankfully, he’s also started using Spotify – documented in this Dead Air Space post – as a result of which I’ve been made aware of a certain Abdel Halim Hafez, who was apparently one of the four great Egyptians musicians of the last century. Greenwood has in fact shared a small treasure trove of Arabic music, which I would highly recommend for cultural enlightenment.

Anyway, suffice to say that I find it intriguing how certain figureheads of other cultures never make the jump into mainstream success across the globe. So I only know about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan through Jeff Buckley’s love of him. So I’ve only heard of Gulzar because he wrote the lyrics for Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire. Frankly, it’s a bit alarming, and I don’t think it can be explained away under the reasoning that ‘We can’t understand what they’re saying’. Music from China and music from the Arabic world are based on entirely different scales and structures from our own, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it just as much as we do our own cultural icons. I’m gladdened to see the inroads African music is making – witness the comparative success of Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam, and even Konono N°1 – but we still have so far to go. Let’s hope Jonny Greenwood keeps us updated with his latest office playlists.

“We didn’t want to be a hardcore band…”

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s currently an explosion of noisy, reverb-drenched music, paying equal parts homage to My Bloody Valentine as the Shangri-La’s, emanating from New York City. One such exponent, currently reaping the effects of critical acclaim, are Vivian Girls, an all-girl trio based in Brooklyn, who have recently hopped across the pond for a jaunt of gigs at clubs and bars across Europe. The Proud Galleries in Camden was the ideally trendy setting for my encounter with the band.

Though the band have only recently found an audience in Europe, it is immediately clear that they love being on the road. Talkative guitarist Cassie Ramone confirms that they’re “all pretty big fans of travelling”, adding that touring around Europe has been “an amazing experience… tour promoters in Europe are very hospitable.” So much for the food and drink they’re blagging on their travels; what of the crowds’ reaction to their music? The band’s bassist, Kickball Katy, is quick to temper their enthusiasm by noting that “in some cities, it’s been amazing, others it’s been so-so.” Despite this temporary dampener, it is clear that Vivian Girls are a band very much of the moment, whose music should surely find a receptive audience.

What immediately strikes me about their music is the irresistible sense of melody underlying the sometimes chaotic swells of distortion and reverb, and the band are quick to concur: Cassie suggests that “When we first started out, we wanted to be a band that had melodic songs, but they were really fast, and they were also really reverb-heavy.” Comparisons with My Bloody Valentine and C86 bands aside, Vivian Girls are also keen to point out their hardcore roots. Cassie adds that her childhood listening habits featured “A lot of The Wipers, and Dead Moon. But we were also really influenced by hardcore: we just wanted our songs to be really fast.” When I point out that virtually every teenage band starts out wanting to be a hardcore band, and that these roots have never really materialised in their music, which displays considerably more innocence and optimism than the likes of Fugazi or Minor Threat, she explains that “We didn’t want to be a hardcore band, like Minor Threat or anything, but we just wanted to be really fast.” Their eponymous debut, released last year, is a riotous affair, with strangely loping, lilting harmonies bouncing between typically breakneck drumming and shimmering, wall-of-sound guitars.

Inevitably, their sonic palette makes for an appealing live proposition. When I query the band as to their thoughts on playing live, they become wildly enthusiastic. Katy is keen to point out that “it’s really not about recreating the sound on your record. You can interact with the audience, and we’re in that learning-process stage.” The band’s drummer, Ali Koehler, puts forward the idea that “it’s about taking what people feel about the record, and translating that energy into the live experience,” adding that “I don’t think anyone wants to go to a show and just hear a CD – it has to be something else.” When we discuss their downtime interests, it is unsurprising to learn that all three are avid gig-goers, choosing to spend their January off going to “virtually a show every other day.” With their taste for under-the-radar indie bands, like The Beats and Pissed Jeans, one can almost pinpoint Vivian Girls’ geographical location on a map. Says Katy, “We’re all from New Jersey, but me and Cassie live in Brooklyn.” When one considers the wealth of musical talent emerging from Brooklyn neighbourhoods like Williamsburg, it is interesting to hear the actual opinions of the artists as to why the borough has developed such a reputation. Cassie suggests that “New York City is such a diverse, cultural place, that people who are interested in the arts, and different ways of life, just kind of blossom out of one place.”

Just like their neighbours TV On The Radio (whom Katy describes as “awesome live”), Vivian Girls came together in a communal loft environment. Cassie elaborates, “I was living in Brooklyn, and I was hanging out with this group of people, like, my friends. They were living in this warehouse loft space, and I would go there four times a week, and Frankie [the band’s original drummer] lived there too.” Moreover, as she explains, a set of fortuitous circumstances led to all three of the band’s current members colliding together. “My old band had just gone on hiatus, and Frankie didn’t have a band, and she asked me if I wanted to start a band. I was like, yeah, sure! We still needed a bass player, and Katie’s band had gone on hiatus too… and then we just started to play together.” The manner in which all three of the Girls’ sentences trail off at the end is indicative of a misty-eyed joy at the fortune that has befallen them. When founding member Frankie decided to commit to the Crystal Stilts, again, serendipity dealt Vivian Girls an ideal hand: Cassie explains that “The band I’d been on hiatus with was a band with Ali, so when we needed a new drummer, Ali was the first obvious choice.”

Far from being hipster layabouts, Vivian Girls are the spirit of progressive feminism personified (in a good way). All three graduated at exactly the same time, and, though they hold degrees in subjects as varied as German, Physics and Art, the allure of the road was too thrilling to forgo. Cassie admits that “It really was just a lucky timing thing. We started the band when I was a junior at college. And then we were working really hard at it, for like, a year or so, and then when we graduated, it was just like, diving straight into music the whole time.” In spite of their clear intellectual prowess, however, not even the prospect of steady jobs will derail Vivian Girls from their artistic ambitions. “We are going to tour a lot more,” says Katy, “we’re then going to record our second album in March. We’re aiming to release it in September. And then we’re just going to tour, tour and record, tour and record, a lot more. We’re just going to keep going forever!” Ali adds that “We also have our own record label now, so maybe in the future, if we end up touring less, we’re going to put out our best records on it.” When I inquire as to what their future musical directions might be, the responses are somewhat conflicting; nevertheless, they shed light on their deep vein of songwriting talent. Though they are firmly committed to the shimmering guitars and clattering drums of their forebears, Katy also notes that “A lot of people say that there’s more energy live, and we might like to capture that. It might be nice to be more sparse.” Their lyrics, meanwhile, will continue to be about “Relationships, and when they fail,” at which point the band break into peals of laughter. Clearly, their relentless energy doesn’t detract from the undercurrent of teenage angst in their lyrical themes. They also remain fiercely committed to independent ideals: Cassie explains that “it’s like one of our integral moral codes [to stay independent],” adding that “We started out playing punk shows in living rooms,” suggesting that, with their Bikini Kill tattoos, Vivian Girls remain attached to their Riot Grrrl roots, and are fairly unlikely to transform themselves into the next Lady GaGa. When I finish my conversation by asking them their opinions of this new wave of female electro-pop acts, it becomes clear that the pop music is something of an alien world for them. Though they argue that “Anything that gets girls involved with music is good,” Ali concedes that “Lady GaGa’s image is pretty over-sexualised,” the implicit conclusion being that for Vivian Girls, artistic integrity remains paramount.

In the gig that follows our interview, Vivian Girls hold true to their promises, indulging in some jams on several songs, while consistently projecting a raw energy lacking in many of their peers. Throughout, what impresses me most about them is that sweet, wry smile in the corner of all their songs’ mouths – no matter how unorthodox Cassie Ramone’s guitar sound is, she refuses to let it obstruct the band’s essential, primal joy at being young women, forging an independent life in music, thrilled at the prospect of the open road.

In the shadows of Salford…

Doves make music that’s very soulful and stirring, but whenever I think of their albums in the abstract i.e. without actually listening to them, I always feel like they’re strangely hollow, as if all the bluster is just for dramatic effect, without actually meaning anything. Luckily, when I put the record on, my fears are put to rest. Not only is their sonic palette diverse yet consistently moody, but their lyrics are also deeply ingrained in their roots – Manchester, Britain, nostalgia, industry. As their career has progressed, these lyrical themes have become more and more personal and intimate, as has the music – I can’t quite imagine them writing another “There Goes The Fear”. Their previous album, Some Cities, gained unusually high levels of popularity owing to the catchy Motown-esque lead single, “Black And White  Town”, and, on the evidence of their new single, “Kingdom Of Rust”, taken from the forthcoming album of the same name, I’m hoping they can repeat their previous success, and hopefully gain more of a respected position. Their fans adore them, but I can’t think why they don’t capture a wider audience. Songs like “Snowden” and “Friday’s Dust” may be somewhat mournful and echoey, but they speak volumes of the thematic context and – interestingly – their hooks pervade.

This new album has been gestating for a considerable length of time, and the band have reportedly taken on Krautrock influences, alongside possibly more of a country tinge. While their songwriting capability is never doubted, I just hope the lyrics don’t get more *universal*, and that they remain attached to a particular geographical landscape that has given so much to England, and yet has also suffered greatly in terms of social breakdown and industrial decay. Doves write such elegiac tributes to their hometown. For sure, the album opener “Jetstream”, released in January as a free taster, packs in a lot of varied musical flourishes – think Vangelis meets Elbow! – but I’m hoping that, on deeper inspection, it reveals similarly thought-provoking lyrical details. I’m definitely very excited about Kingdom Of Rust. I’ll be even more excited come April 6.