Tag Archives: rock

RoarI’lllistentohearit

Small stakes leave Spoon with the maximum blues.

Some years ago, the Brighton-based band British Sea Power asked, “Do you like rock music?” Responding on an album entitled by the same question, they seemed to suggest that they did, but only when that music was enlarged, grandiose, and Arcade Fire-aping. On Friday, performing at the Kentish Town Forum, the nominally Texan band Spoon presented their own answer, making the case for rock music in a manner enhanced by various tricks, but still definitively in touch with, to use their own phrase, “small stakes”. Continue reading RoarI’lllistentohearit

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Spoon — Rent I Pay

It’s no understatement to write that Spoon‘s forthcoming eighth album, They Want My Soul, is an album I eagerly anticipate, and  from which I expect taut, muscular quality. From the contents of an All Songs Considered interview with the band’s Britt Daniel and Jim Eno which features snippets of new material, I also expect sweetness and light (“I Just Don’t Understand”), dreaminess and R&B (“Inside Out”), rawness and interference (“Knock Knock Knock”). Continue reading Spoon — Rent I Pay

Mahgeetah: rock music in America

A while back, I wrote of Spoon and My Morning Jacket, who have been busy keeping rock music alive in an era of laptops, turntables and synthesisers. But now that those bands have become deconstructionists and funk-explorers respectively, who fulfils the role of the revivalist? Continue reading Mahgeetah: rock music in America

Mahgeetah (Part I)

Backtracking: When you sit around pretending to study all day, there’s no time to appreciate the raw power of the guitar. Consequently, rhythm-based music has soundtracked much of the last five years of my life, with “rock” music relegated to weekend blowouts, when I just want to sit in front of the hi-fi, mouth agape at the rich overtones and natural harmonies of the humble axe.

There have been guitars, of course, but they were either in the post-rock vein, or they were being re-appropriated into dance music. Like I wrote previously, the post-punk revival happened.

In my downtime, the twin mainstays whose CDs always found their way into the stereo were Spoon and My Morning Jacket: two bands who keep the rock rolling. The former make taut, concise music that, at its most prosaic, resembles Pavement and Led Zeppelin, but, at its smartest, fashioned instantly familiar melodies out of white space and scrappy guitar. The latter write caterwauling, brawling songs, recorded in grain silos and made to be played in country discos, like the ones Dub Blood frequents in Annie Proulx‘s Postcards.

I have written in the past about the minimalism of Spoon; how they rarely eke out a song beyond its natural limit. But they also do maximalism, of a kind, as on their 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Unexpectedly embracing a poppier tone (in particular, that of rhythm and blues), the band sound less jittery and paranoid than on their other albums, and the songs take in rousing brass and leather-jacket swagger. Experimental moments persist, notably with “The Ghost Of You Lingers” and its urgent keys and desolate vocals, but the prevailing mood is one of accessible optimism, even when the songs’ protagonists are deadbeats or world-weary. “The Underdog”, which was produced by Jon Brion (of Late Registration fame), hurtles out of the starting block before settling into a jaunty shuffle. Over scraggly acoustic guitars we hear frontman Britt Daniel revelling in the band’s titular status; a faintly mariachi brass arrangement likes to cut in periodically. At the song’s close, brass and percussion whip up a ragged storm, before the whole thing implodes in on itself, which could be seen as a metaphor for the impermanence of the band’s popularity.

There are several references to Elvis Costello, circa-Get Happy!!, on the album. Most audibly, many of the songs bear a similar debt to the R&B and soul Costello was inspired by on his 1980 album. Additionally, a bonus disc supplied with some editions of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was entitled Get Nice!—if this is a coincidence, I’ll be damned. On this supplement, the band spell out the inner workings of the songs, and the processes by which they arrive at the final versions of songs. So we get a space-rock demo of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, only a fragment of which made it to the final cut, tacked on right at the end of the album version. Another song on the main disc which retains the stamp of a cut ‘n’ paste approach is the brash “Finer Feelings” (see above), which progresses in a familiar, canonical style (brittle guitars, intricate drums and percussion, the odd flourish of synth) until we get to where the bridge should be. Suddenly, the main arrangement peters out, to be replaced by an interpolation of Mikey Dread’s “Industrial Spy“. Distant samples of a cheering audience clash with it, creating a disorienting, dubby feel. And then, a few seconds later, the brittle guitar cuts back in and we are returned, safe and dry, to Spoonland. It’s this kind of abrupt yet comfortable experimentation that Spoon excel at weaving into what might otherwise be dubbed “dad rock”.

My Morning Jacket reached the apex of their rural rock on 2003’s It Still Moves. A few of the songs, like “Dancefloors” and “Easy Morning Rebel”, encourage innocent jiving, and conjure up the aforementioned country discos, in which minor fights break out, and belles are courted. But there are also more spacious and elegant songs, like the centrepiece “I Will Sing You Songs” and the yearning “Rollin’ Back” (see above), which allow frontman Jim James room to breathe. He still uses his distinctive howl on these songs, but more sparingly, as an embellishment, in collaboration with an elegant croon and gentle cooing, the likes of which would later be resurrected by Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. James’s voice is cloaked in reverb—not the pretentious kind used by the lo-fi crowd, but a more hushed variety which lingers in the air. Behind him, the instrumentation is less raucous, with muted chords and fragile arpeggios. It’s the kind of music that could soundtrack first dances in the backwoods of Kentucky, or Tennessee, in village halls and country clubs untouched by Jack Johnson and Snow Patrol.

But now my formal education is at an end, the open road beckons, and the time has come to merge on the freeway of rock. In the concluding part of “Mahgeetah”, I shall discuss the new inheritors of the rawk throne: Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs, Yuck. Until next time…

Grinderman – Heathen Child

Always good to see Nick Cave’s 9-to-5 office hours paying dividend, whichever outlet from which it may emerge. Grinderman’s eponymous first album was a lecherous riot and a blessed offering to Onan. This time round, the primates are out and the wolfman is in, as evidenced by artwork and lyrics currently doing the rounds.

None of this can prepare you, however, for the hungry, visceral power of lead single, “Heathen Child”, which is best heard in conjunction with its John Hillcoat-directed video. Warning: this video is nothing like The Road. Consistently hilarious in its lyrics (“She don’t care about Allah – she is the Allah”) and bursting with Warren Ellis’ typically squalling noisemakers, “Heathen Child” is a seething, slithering mountain of MENACE, and it’s out to get you, personally.

She’s sitting in the bathtub, sucking her thumb…

Oh, and did I mention there’s a special version of the song (entitled “Super Heathen Child”, because Nick Cave doesn’t care about looking ridiculous) engorged with a guitar solo from Mr. Robert Fripp?

The album, Grinderman 2, is out on September 13th. Prepare for a snarling monster of bluesy madness that makes Jack White’s chimerical side-projects look like Fisher Price nursery rhymes.

2010, Q1 – Album Update

Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.

Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.

1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.

2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.

3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.

4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.

5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!

6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.

7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.

Field Music — Scala (03/03/10)

Photos: Richard Gray

The Brewis brothers are clearly extremely gifted musicians, who write songs (under the banner of Field Music) which are intricately arranged, structurally complex, and traditionally evoke XTC, Steely Dan and the Beach Boys. None of this makes their music particularly easy to love – though their Geordie voices are thick with region, they rarely let their emotional guards down, hence why some critics have labelled their music cold and mechanical and knowingly tricksy.

None of this can prepare me for witnessing them live – an environment which accentuates their flaws as well as their virtues. Augmented by Ian Black and Kevin Dosdale on bass and guitar respectively, the band launch into Tones of Town opener, “Give It Lose It Take It” amidst found sound, glockenspiels, rousing piano and thoroughly excellent drumming. For a few songs at least, the playfulness is plain to see, and the predominantly Sunderland-bookish crowd rewards them with a whole lotta love.

When the band cut to newer material, taken from the recent Field Music (Measure) double-album, the response is notably muted, because the band have to an extent abandoned the bucolic textures of their earlier work, in favour of a more guitar-based aesthetic that owes much more to Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and, on occasion, Queen. However, bereft of the intense personality bestowed upon these progenitors, the songs sound strangely lurching and mathematical. Though Field Music are, individually, some of the funniest, warmest and most virtuosic musicians, the sum is sadly less than its constituent parts.

All the more infuriating is just how playful and quick-witted the band seem in between songs, where they deal with all manner of obstacles, from troublesome electricals to the bassist’s Hawaiian shirt. The Prince-meets-Sunderland funk of “Let’s Write A Book” is very much the exception to this disappointing revelation – for once, the groove is remarkably simple, and it evinces the band’s personality. For the middle chunk of the performance, songs like “Something Familiar” and “Each Time Is A New Time” are dispatched with maximum skill (replete with tasteful bluesy guitar licks) but less-than satisfactory enjoyment.

I have really loved Field Music for far too long, championing them to my friends when their chips were down. Now, after a three-year hiatus, I find it hard to empathise with their new direction which, though on record comes across as lovingly crafted and “makes sense”, doesn’t work that well on stage. Though the band pad out the pure Field Music work with excerpts from their solo albums, I left with mixed opinions of a band who I thought I had really figured out.

Spoon — Electric Ballroom (16/02/10)

Spoon‘s 1997 EP was entitled Soft Effects; its opener, “Mountain To Sound”, was an almost robotic splurge of chunky guitar chords over a barren expanse of tape. Thirteen years on, Spoon trade in far subtler terms on record – the psychoanalytically titled Transference possesses compositions of nuanced yet ragged beauty, replete with lovingly painted washes of droning synths and bizarre vocal, yes, effects. Going in to my first Spoon gig, what I wanted to know was how this meticulously arranged chaos that the band have mastered in the studio plays out in a live setting, where everything is instantaneous and nothing can be rearranged or meddled with later on.

Impressively, and perhaps this is a rationale for why so much of Transference stems from live demo tracks, the band pulls off the performance with passionate and anthemic aplomb. From the get go, they are unafraid of playing with our conceptions of how their songs, whether new or old, sound and develop. Opener “Don’t Make Me A Target” is suitably slow-building, rising to a brutal peak as frontman Britt Daniel conjures the same vocal trickery used in their newer material. Throughout the gig, two things remain constant: the entire band’s sonic tapestry-weaving, and drummer Jim Eno’s delightedly precise and virtuosic rhythms, which manage to fulfil the same manifesto as opening band White Rabbits’ arsenal of percussionsists with considerably more economy and considerably less showiness.

A few songs later, when translating another Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga gem, “The Ghost Of You Lingers”, the band once again engage in direct combat with the material, with Britt Daniel’s characteristic gravelly bark gradually overwhelmed by feedback, reverb-drenched keyboards, and bliss-nearing slabs of white noise. From a band that usually trades in rock qua rock, in a minimalist style, this is an unexpected gesture that revels in their playful, emotionally raw experimental side.

The setlist is culled almost exclusively from the band’s last four albums (alas, despite numerous calls from the crowd, “Fitted Shirt” is absent, along with anything else from Girls Can Tell and its predecessors), but to be honest, many of the songs are melded into the aesthetic favoured on recent release Transference – in particular, “My Mathematical Mind” and “They Never Got You” are subsumed into effects-heavy motorik grooves, much to their advantage. Britt Daniel looks like he’s having a riot of a time mucking around with his voice, and it’s just as well that the crowd adoringly lap up his playfulness. This is evidenced further by the band’s mesmerising cover of The Damned’s 1979 single, “Love Song”, which ditches the original’s clattering punk in favour of the same droney keyboards that underpin “Before Destruction”.

Nevertheless, when it’s time to rock out, Spoon prove they’re no slouches, with “Rhthm & Soul” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” dispatched with great vigour and sparkle. Kill The Moonlight-era fare, meanwhile, is represented by the classic pairing of “Small Stakes” and “The Way We Get By”, and encore closer “Jonathan Fisk”, which is delivered with the maximum conveyance of end-of-tether anxiety.

As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, it’s a crying shame that Spoon aren’t bigger fish here in the UK – particularly telling is the fact that on the same night, on the other side of London, bright young things Vampire Weekend were busy playing to a sell-out crowd at Brixton Academy. On the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to see such masters of their art at close quarters, and in this respect, the Electric Ballroom can’t be beaten. Taken in combination with probably the best live mix/engineering I’ve witnessed at a gig (we can thank the perfectionist Jim Eno for that, I suspect, and not just because the drums were notably crisp), this was a really tremendous performance, with a set of songs cherrypicked from a career full of cult classics. Spoon rarely bring their concise breed of art rock to Britain; this was an unmissable opportunity to see them weave their magic over a rainy and miserable London.

Spoon played:

Don’t Make Me A Target
The Mystery Zone
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
My Mathematical Mind
The Ghost of You Lingers
Is Love Forever?
Don’t You Evah
Small Stakes
Love Song (The Damned cover)
Written In Reverse
Who Makes Your Money
The Way We Get By
You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
They Never Got You
I Summon You
Rhthm & Soul
Got Nuffin
Black Like Me

Encore

The Underdog
Nobody Gets Me But You
I Turn My Camera On
Jonathon Fisk

Spoon – Written In Reverse

I wish I had grown up listening to Spoon. I’ve written on several occasions about the way their precision-engineered intelligent pop music gets to the point in just the right length of time, with witty, insightful and intellectualised lyrics coupled to hooks and grooves that are sparse, but catchy as anything. I defy anyone to listen to “I Turn My Camera On” or “Don’t You Evah” and not have their hips swinging within the first thirty seconds.

And my, how they’ve grown. It’s startling to think that the same band that produced a work of such brooding melancholy as Kill The Moonlight has since gone on to create a sparkling gem of a pop song as The Underdog, laden with parping brass arranged by Jon Brion. Their 2007 LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was a masterpiece of concision and emotion. In January, they will bestow upon their adoring fans a new creation, which will be called Transference – possibly in honour of the psychoanalytical phenomenon involving the unconscious redirection of emotion from person to person.

In anticipation of this, Spoon have treated us to an early indulgence, in the form of a new single, entitled “Written In Reverse”, which hits digital retailers tomorrow, but can be streamed from NPR Music right now. Unsurprisingly, I’ve already given it a spin on your behalf. It’s an interesting beast, somehow more reminiscent of their Gimme Fiction-era work, riding in on parlour-room piano and an almost criminally lazy drum beat. The bass is throbbing and occasional; Britt Daniel’s vocals are sandpaper-hoarse and multi-tracked like a choir of Tom Waits clones. Unlike some of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s best surprises, there’s a return to the wandering, night-time feeling that characterised the two albums before it. 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, you think there might a dose of levity in a surprising chord change on the keys, but the respite is fleeting, instead leading into an exquisite interplay between piano triplets and gurning, insistent guitar moves. The protracted false ending could be another comedy gesture, were it not for the claustrophobia that envelops the actual ending.

“Written In Reverse” is expansive and sophisticated, and certainly the song I predicted would follow sneak-preview single “Got Nuffin'”, released earlier on in the year in a three-song EP. That song had a quick-limbed motorik groove; this song is more lumbering and sleazy. Which is no bad thing, because no band this side of The National does reflected sleaze and grease better than Spoon – the way Britt Daniel can paint a character’s portrait is wonderfully enriching. It’s a grower of a track, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being etched into my brain before long, like so many of the band’s previous creative apogees. For sure, I expect Transference to be nothing short of a magnum opus.

Free Energy!

I feel like a whole week of music news passed me by, and only now have I realised the gravity of the announcements that I missed first time round. The first stroke of good news was the return of Field Music, which I discussed a a few days ago. Now, I absolutely have to get off my chest just how excited I am about a band/project/against-all-odds-miracle called Free Energy.

When indie-rock also-rans Hockey Night shut up shop a few years ago, no one could have predicted that members of the band would someday wind up sharing a studio with James Murphy and Pat Mahoney (of electronic/disco production powerhouse the DFA) under a new guise. And yet, somehow, that’s exactly what’s happened, and the fruits of this unlikely match-up’s labours are now being revealed song by song.

When news of this collaboration began being whispered about in hushed tones what seems like at least two years ago, I wasn’t actually hugely surprised. I always guessed there might be a love of FM rock and power pop lurking away in James Murphy’s heart, and it would appear that this guilty pleasure of his has finally found an outlet in the joyous riot of a party that is Free Energy. Their songs bounce around on chunks of guitar chords that have ridden straight out of a 1970s cabriolet. The drums are crisp and fills come tumbling out of the sky like confetti. The lyrics, delivered in an excited tone that suggests years of waiting for fame, are all about partying, the joy of relationships, and probably driving around America in a vintage cabriolet. At a time when power pop is being bludgeoned to death by increasingly puerile Weezer releases, and stadium/arena-rock is being pulverised and banalised by Kings of Leon, Free Energy are a breath of fresh air. Obviously, the production plays its part too, capturing the undeniably passionate sound of an unbridled electric guitar, alongside the occasional squelch of vintage synth. But importantly, the songs are there too – seemingly having jumped off the writer’s page, fully formed, snappy, catchy.

The outfit recalls the perpetual enjoyment of Thin Lizzy and Tom Petty with none of the sneering irony of early noughties garage rock. These guys are dead earnest about having a blast, and I’m dead pleased that their debut album, entitled Stuck On Nothing, is going to be released on 26th January 2010. At least that way, it’ll have a good six months to settle into a groove in people’s consciousness before its true season – the summer – blasts off.

Hit their MySpace for the lowdown, and be sure to check out the free single, “Dream City”.