Archive for the ‘blah’ Category

THE THERMALS interview

June 4, 2013

“This record’s about killing,” announces Hutch Harris emphatically.

A bold statement, perhaps, but The Thermals frontman isn’t entirely averse to heavy themes. In 2006, the Portland popsters’ third album ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’ – widely regarded as their magnum opus – depicted two young lovers attempting to flee a fascistic parody of America’s fundamentalist Christian right. They followed it up two years later with ‘Now We Can See’, a record told entirely from the perspective of the dead. Yeesh! And yet Hutch tuts at the very notion that thrilling latest effort ‘Desperate Ground’ might be anything so vulgar as a concept album.

“We try not to say ‘concept’. It makes me think of Yes or Styx – all that bloated 70s stuff. I don’t want people to think, ‘I really gotta know what the story is’,” he explains. “It’s too much of a burden on the record.”

There’s no plot to follow?

“No, no. We keep it intentionally vague, so it’s not about something specific. It’s just about humans and violence in general. Really we wanted the record to be like a film, y’know? Like Die Hard – an action movie.”

See, that’s where the new Thermals album differs from their most famous work. The Superchunk-y noise-pop of yore remains gratefully intact, but this time the lyrical thrills are far more visceral.

“We wanted to write something timeless. Something about how humans are always killing each other, and probably always will,” he continues. “I love 80s punk but there’s a lot about Reagan or Thatcher – go back to those songs now and it’s hard to relate, especially if you’re really young and you never knew those people. We wanted to write something that still could be relevant 20 years from now.”

Some have suggested that this makes for a somewhat simplistic political statement, an argument which leaves Hutch exasperated.

“There aren’t supposed to be any politics on this record at all. It’s irresponsible! There’s no morals!”

And this from the band responsible for one of post-millennial indie rock’s most explosive pieces of polemic in ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’.

“Man, I’ve been trying to get away from that for so long. After that record people started thinking, ‘Oh, The Thermals are a political band’. I don’t want that to be our thing. It’s fucking boring, you know?”

You don’t agree that songwriters are obligated to uphold any moral code to the listener?

“It should be exactly in between – not moral, not amoral. To me, one of the worst clichés in music is the anti-war song. It’s been done. We should be able to sing about war without having to say ‘war is wrong’, because we know that already.”

By this stage, dear reader, you might be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any room for optimism amidst the unforgiving frontiers of ‘Desperate Ground’. Fortunately, a chink of light appears at the death, in the form of ‘Our Love Survives’ – the album’s sole moment of romantic defiance.

“That was the last song we wrote for the record,” Hutch notes. “I think it works perfectly. I guess it’s optimistic because it’s about hope, and yet the record ends the way ‘The Body, The Blood…’ did – the world is pretty much destroyed, but love can survive. It might sound like a cliché, but it was a good note to end on.”

At the time of our chat, the band has just finished the video for forthcoming single ‘The Sunset’, with a rousing performance from bassist Kathy Foster as a Rocky-esque boxer. Hutch is audibly enthused:

“It’s a tribute to a bunch of different movies at once. I dunno if you remember [Spike Lee movie] Do The Right Thing – the end credits with Public Enemy, and Rosie Perez dancing with boxing gloves on… we decided to have Kathy doing that. And if you’re gonna do a video about boxing, you should probably have a lot of Rocky in there.”

Are you a fan of boxing in general?

“Y’know, I don’t love boxing, but… we decided Kathy should look like she knows what she’s doing, so we actually got her boxing lessons. It looks awesome. Kathy loved it, so I think I might actually take some!”

It’s a slight variation on the album theme…

“This one’s not as violent as the ‘Born To Kill’ video, which was a ton of blood and shit, where I get the shit kicked out of me. But this video is violent and the next one should be, too.”

For all this talk of violence, it’s easy to forget that The Thermals were distinctly less brash last time out. 2009’s ‘Personal Life’ LP was noticeably more morose than previous collections, relying considerably less on velocity and volume. It’s a path that Hutch was keen to get away from.

“That record [‘Personal Life’] was kind of like a breather,” he says. “It maybe ended up being softer and quieter than we’d intended, but it was different.

“Whenever you’re making something, you’re reacting to the thing you did previously. We didn’t want that to be the path that the band was on – like, we’re just gonna get slower and quieter… that would be terrible. So ‘Desperate Ground’ was a conscious decision to get loud and crazy again.”

Do you prefer listening to louder, faster music?

“I almost only listen to 80s punk! I listen to The Addicts a lot, and Agent Orange – ‘Living In Darkness’. I listen to that record more than anything, so that’s definitely a huge influence.”

The Thermals seem to have quite a lot in common with power-pop from that era.

Yeah, I feel like we sound so much like The Undertones. I never got so into hardcore because I need a really strong melody.”

It’s interesting that you prefer to align The Thermals with indie rock rather than punk…

“I just don’t want people to think of us and picture leather jackets and Mohawks. punk is such a weird word, it doesn’t describe us as people.”

Either way, this is certainly a louder, faster album.

“I feel revitalised by this record. Really excited by the band again. Some records I’m like, ‘well, I’m spent.’ I feel like this record is great and I could do it again.”

Looks like ‘Desperate Ground’ has plenty of cause for optimism after all.

(Originally published by The Fly, 03/05/2013)

Videotales – Are Pop Videos Still Relevant?

June 4, 2013

(NB – news article about The Art Of Pop Video, an exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT, which closed on 26/05/2013)

From Dylan waving placards along with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ to Chris Cunningham’s nightmarish animations for Aphex Twin, pop history is full of iconic, innovative videos. And yet, difficult though it may be to comprehend in the age of YouTube, the record industry hasn’t always valued them so highly.

Initially the pop promo was seen by old-skool rockists as commercial fluff, an advert that diverted attention from the more important matter of the music itself. MTV changed all that, as the artistic ambitions that fuelled 1980s chart pop provided a platform for directors to challenge their own colourful imaginations.

A major new exhibition at FACT – Liverpool’s acclaimed media arts centre – investigates the history of the medium, featuring over a hundred video clips ranging from Fred Astaire’s iconic ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ choreography to Spike Jonze’s stylised work for the likes of Björk and Fatboy Slim. According to curator Michael P Aust, the pop video’s “synaesthesia of music and moving pictures” is unique.

“No other art form has this: the moment when we’re moved by a song, but unable to distinguish whether this comes from what we’ve seen, or what we’ve heard,” he says. The Art Of Pop Video exhibition provides a rare chance to properly study this powerful combination. “There are no pop video museums,” says Aust. “Unlike in cinema, no canonized selection of important works has been established yet.”

It’s an apt time to look at this subject, as we may actually be in something of a golden era. Always a way for breaking filmmakers to boost their credentials, videos are currently attracting Hollywood big-hitters. JJ Abrams is directing Empire Of The Sun’s new ones, David Fincher did Justin Timberlake’s comeback vid, while the likes of Tilda Swinton and Shia LeBouef have taken high-profile starring roles recently. Videos are a rare chance to do an arty short film that people will actually see.

Newer acts are fully exploring the medium’s potential. North London troubadour Tom Hickox is the son of a classical composer, Richard Hickox, but takes his visuals as seriously as his songs. He collaborates with a new company called De La Muerte Films, and feels that music videos are more important now than ever.

“People are as likely to hear music on YouTube as anywhere else, so the visual half of that medium needs to be addressed,” he says. “Film is such a potent force, so it needs to be handled with care, but when the marriage of film and music works it elevates the song into a different realm.”

For FACT, the exhibition represents an opportunity to explore pop video in a grander context, posing questions about “what legitimises an art form,” explains programme producer Ana Botella, “and what defines our times – past the age of television into the age of accessible digital tools, the Internet and social networks.”

The technology has certainly improved over the years, but has the overall quality? “There are a hell of a lot of stylish, expensive videos out there which lack any soul or impact,” says Debbie Scanlon of De La Muerte, who’ve also made films for Dog Is Dead and Kyla la Grange. “We have the potential to be more creative now with new tools, but it’s important we still use our brains.”

So is there scope to take more creative risks, in the post-TV age? “It tends to be down to the artist and their team. We probably won’t be allowed to make that big budget elephant sex video we had in mind for One Direction,” she laughs. “But at the same time, if they decide they want to change their image…”

(Originally published by Clash Music, 24/04/2013)

THE BREEDERS’ FAMILY TREE

June 4, 2013

Supergroups, eh? Who’d have ’em? 1989 may seem like a long time ago now, but back then it turned out that a collaboration between two established indie rockers needn’t necessarily be filed under ‘tedious vanity project’. The Breeders were a revelation, conjuring fractious noise and sugar-sweet melody at every available opportunity, and writing some of indie rock’s best-loved classics along the way. A band this free-spirited was bound to be home to restless muses, of course, and with the most celebrated line-up reforming to coincide with the Record Store Day re-release of classic album ‘Last Splash’, this seems like a good time to take a look at The Breeders’ family tree…

THROWING MUSES

It begins here. When half-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly first began playing together in 1981, they couldn’t have imagined the imminent impact of their fascinatingly fractured post-punk on the nascent indie rock landscape. A blend of unconventional song structures, David Narcizo’s wonky rhythms and hallucinatory lyrics doesn’t look like much on paper, but where their contemporaries sparked fires, Muses songs positively burst into brilliant blue flames. Their early demos eventually caught the attention of 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell, and before long the bemused band found themselves adored by critics and underground obsessives alike. The idiosyncratically talented Hersh wrote the bulk of the band’s material, dazzling and delighting on the bewitchingly batshit albums ‘Hunkpapa’ and ‘The Real Ramona’, but the feline yowl of Donnelly contributions such as ‘Not Too Soon’ suggested there was another significant voice amongst their ranks – one that would soon depart for pastures new.

PIXIES

There’s little to be said that hasn’t already been written about the influential screech of this Boston quartet, although it’s worth noting that their big break arrived when Fort Apache’s studio manager saw them supporting Throwing Muses. Before long they too had signed to 4AD, going on to record landmark debut LP ‘Surfer Rosa’ with the legendarily acerbic Steve Albini in 1987. Unimpressed by the Pixies’ screamily masochistic surf, the Big Black frontman famously dismissed them as “blandly entertaining college rock”, but regardless, the album was swiftly acclaimed as a classic. One particular highlight came in the relative anomaly ‘Gigantic’, sung by bassist Mrs John Murphy (aka Kim Deal) and soaring on a chorus so big you could stick a flag in it and legitimately claim to have discovered a new country. Tensions built between Deal and chief songwriter Black Francis, but the band soldiered on through another majestic album (1988’s sublime ‘Doolittle’) before eventually seeing their collective arse and temporarily disbanding.

THE BREEDERS

Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly first discussed the idea of forming a new band when Throwing Muses toured Europe with the Pixies, eventually performing together under the clunky but refreshingly straightforward moniker ‘Boston Girl Super-Group’. One shit-hot demo later, they settled on The Breeders and signed to 4AD, recruiting English bassist Josephine Wiggs to accommodate Deal’s switch to guitar. Slint sticksman Britt Walford agreed to become a recording member under the pseudonym ‘Shannon Doughton’, and with Steve Albini at the helm, the fledgling band decamped to an Edinburgh studio. The resultant collection ‘Pod’ proved breathtaking: songs crawled out from under the horizon uttering otherworldly howls, punctuated by guitar lines that you could quite reasonably call ‘angular’ without having to look too shame-faced about it. The two songwriters meshed perfectly, and the album was simply stunning.

With Deal returning to the Pixies later that year, The Breeders became inactive until 1992 when they recorded the ‘Safari’ EP. Shortly thereafter, Donnelly left the band to pursue her own vision, and Deal asked her twin sister Kelley to fill the void – undaunted by trivial matters such as ‘not actually being able to play the guitar’, Kelley duly accepted. Following the addition of full-time drummer Jim Macpherson, this new line-up set out on the road with Nirvana before commencing work on their biggest commercial success: 1993’s ‘Last Splash’. Chiefly famous for the bouncing buzzsaw pop of lead single ‘Cannonball’ (and its attendant video, co-directed by Spike Jonze and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), the record added irresistible hooks to the addictive wonders of their debut, and cemented claims that The Breeders were a serious force to be reckoned with.

BELLY

Following the first Breeders album, Tanya Donnelly officially and amicably left Throwing Muses, taking bassist Fred Abong with her to form a new outfit. Fleshing out the lineup with ex-members of hardcore punks Verbal Assault, Donnelly chose the name ‘Belly’, since the word itself was “both pretty and ugly” – the perfect encapsulation of their ethereal, folk-tinged alt-pop. The MTV-slaying single ‘Feed The Tree’, a sumptuous piece of off-kilter jangle, led 1993’s debut ‘Star’ to be nominated for two Grammys – a success which could not be replicated by the more rock-orientated rumble of follow-up ‘King’. In retrospect, the album rules as hard as anything else surfacing from the American underground in the mid-90s, but sterling anthems like ‘Now They’ll Sleep’ somehow failed to capture their audience’s imaginations as intensely as ‘Star’ had managed two years earlier. Donnelly’s first solo effort appeared in 1997, picking up where Belly left off, before her increasingly sporadic output softened steadily, as family life became her main priority.

THE AMPS

Kelley Deal’s heroin addiction was far from secret, and she entered rehab following an arrest for possession in 1994, thereby forcing The Breeders into a period of hiatus. Kim reacted with a solo project entitled Tammy Ampersand & The Amps, before shortening the name in time to record their sole LP, ‘Pacer’. Originally intending to play every instrument on the album herself, she moved to retain Jim Macpherson’s drumming talents before enlisting future Guided By Voices guitarist Nate Farley and Luis Lerma to complete the lineup. ‘Pacer’ built on the pop hooks of ‘Last Splash’ to create deliciously garagey bubblegum pop – ‘Empty Glasses’, in particular, sounds like its spent hours siphoning petrol from parked cars to spit on bonfires – but positive critical reaction didn’t translate into sales. In mid-96, the hard-touring band folded when Kim decided to gather a new lineup of The Breeders – which, inevitably, was short-lived.

THE KELLEY DEAL 6000

Upon leaving rehab in 1995, Kelley Deal elected to form a new band, pulling in favours from friends such as Jimmy Flemion from notoriously controversial slopsters The Frogs. First opus ‘Go To The Sugar Altar’ proved to be an unexpected treat, rich in gleefully shambolic experimentation and soaked in the sort of effortless melodicism that made ‘Last Splash’ such a universally instant favourite. Two years later, the band attempted to repeat the trick with ragged follow-up ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’, but their moment appeared to have passed. Commerical and critical indifference consigned the album to the bargain bins, and The Kelley Deal 6000 slowly evaporated.

THE JOSEPHINE WIGGS EXPERIENCE

Hertfordshire-born Josephine Wiggs didn’t exactly rest on her laurels following the dissolution of The Breeders. She embarked on a series of projects over the next few years, attempting to make her own mark with the ‘Bon Bon Lifestyle’ LP, released through the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal stable in 1996. Featuring former Spacemen 3/Spiritualized percussionist Jon Mattock – who also counted amongst Breeders alumni thanks to his contribution to the ‘Safari’ EP – the album drew from similar dreampop sources to Donnelly and the Deal sisters’ various outlets, and attracted reasonable reviews. But if ever a musical endeavour seems doomed from the get-go, it’s a bass player’s solo effort (notice how the heart sinks upon reading that phrase), and this was sadly no exception. Wiggs’ name simply wasn’t as recognisable as Kim or Kelley’s, and album sales reflected that anonymity. Shame.

AND THE REST…

At the turn of the millennium, the Deals formed a new line-up of The Breeders with Face To Face drummer Jose Mendeles and bassist Mando Lopez, resulting in the strange, sparse magic of ‘Title TK’ in 2002 and the poppier ‘Mountain Battles’ six years later. Factor in the reunion of the ‘Last Splash’ lineup and we’re just about up to speed, but there’s a handful of other acts worth mentioning since they form smaller branches of The Breeders’ family tree…

THE PERFECT DISASTER

Mining a similar source of Lou Reed-inspired pop to 80s acts like The Go-Betweens, The Perfect Disaster had been kicking around London in various forms before Josephine Wiggs joined in 1987. She stuck around long enough to play on the ‘Asylum Road’ LP and support the Pixies, which led to Kim Deal inviting her to join The Breeders in 1989.

GUIDED BY VOICES

Longtime friends with the Deal sisters as fellow natives of Dayton, Ohio, the terrifyingly prolific Guided By Voices appeared in the video to The Breeders’ cover of their own ‘Shocker In Gloomtown’. After the split of the (recently-reformed) ‘classic’ lineup, singer Robert Pollard made one album with the backing of Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde, before snatching up former Amps Jim Macpherson and Nate Farley for a lesser-regarded but still shit-kickin’ GBV in the late 90s.

DUSTY TRAILS

Another of Josephine Wiggs’ various outfits, Dusty Trails was a collaboration with Luscious Jackson keyboard player Vivian Trimble. Self-described as ‘mood music’, the band’s self-titled debut drew comparisons to French and Brazilian pop of the 1960s, and featured the vocal talents of country titan Emmylou Harris. Not quite ‘Cannonball’, then, but rather lovely nonetheless.

THE LAST HARD MEN

With the 6000 finished, Kelley Deal once again hooked up with Jimmy Flemion to form this hard rock supergroup, alongside Skid Row vocalist Sebastian Bach and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin. An album was recorded for Atlantic in 1996, but the label rejected the finished article, leaving Deal to release a limited pressing on her own Nice Records in 1998.

R. RING

Kelley’s latest project, a collaboration with Ampline’s Mike Montgomery. Debut 7” ‘Fallout And Fire’ was a scratchily lo-fi lullaby composed of sparse acoustic guitars and tinny electronic hums; as gorgeous and moreish as The Breeders’ more subtle moments and utterly charming with it. More please.

(Originally published by The Fly, 19/04/2013. At the time of writing, I was mistakenly under the impression that the reissue was related to Record Store Day 2013 – seemed pointless to correct the mistake here though, given that it had already been published)

BLEACHED – Ride Your Heart

June 4, 2013

I’ll level, there are times when I feel like I’m getting bored with new “indie” music. Well, yes, okay, I’ve jumped around to Japandroids. Done the dishes to DIIV, each soapy sud plunged rhythmically against wet ceramic with palpable glee. Nodded along thoughtfully to Dirty Projectors, immersing myself in the rhythmic complexity as one would beneath a duvet cover full of sand: it’s warm! It’s rough! It’s comforting! It’s irritating! But however makeshift or weird, it’s still a fucking duvet at the end of the day.

Too often it feels like there’s little out there that really electrifies the blood; cuts to the core; bypasses the understanding of your analytical process and forces you to feel. This isn’t a new complaint. For some, the mid-’90s saw the end of indie’s full vitality, as grunge went overground and Britpop co-opted an alternative culture to make way for a new mainstream; one where the new, the different or the stimulating was skilfully ignored in favour of bland uniformity. Parochial tubthumping with a retro groove. Some even point to The Smiths as the beginning of the rot, when a post-punk-informed sense of adventure and experimentalism backed down in favour of traditionalism – an exhilarating but unfortunate return to jangling guitars and linear songwriting where the future had once seemed wide open; so full of boundless possibility.

Whatever, it’s all food for thought. But what irritates me about music in the 21st century – especially this so-called independent stuff – isn’t any of the above. It’s the way that, for all the promise of the internet and the depth’n’breadth of sound’n’song it’s supposed to expose, so disappointingly little seems to break through that truly and delightfully fucks with one’s head. We finally live in a world where neither radio nor record companies necessarily dictate the direction pop might take – videos go viral almost instantaneously, so all it takes is for a brief chain reaction of excitement before everyone can hear pretty much anything. Indie in its idealised form, one might imagine, would take advantage of this – audiences should be dictating how the media and music industries extrapolate and interpret popular culture, rather than relying on the same old sources to deliver über-polished, commercialist pop. And yet the best or most inventive acts – your Tunabunnys, your Micachus, your Trouble Bookses – are still playing in basements, unlikely to step up without the great Pitchfork seal of approval that (whether they would agree with this statement or not) seems to define how “indie” works. It’s not the bands’ fault, it’s just how the system functions nowadays, and it sucks.

Sorry. Deep breath. There’s a record at hand. And don’t worry, this isn’t one of those tiresome reviews where the author suddenly says “this record transcends all that” or “but this is different” before disproving the original point or attempting to prove by way of exception. Bleached – featuring Jennifer and Jessie Clavin, formerly of very ace post-riot grrrl punx Mika Miko – are a guitar-pop group that evolved from the scene based around LA venue The Smell.  With acts such as No Age, HEALTH and Abe Vigoda amongst its alumni – modern-day indie rock gentry, if not quite royalty – you’d be totally right in thinking that this band might be very symptomatic of everything I’ve outlined above – indie rock as media-distributed product that titillates but doesn’t challenge. But (ah, here’s the caveat!) despite all that, I like ‘em. Their debut Ride Your Heart doesn’t set its stall out as the throwing down of a sonic gauntlet; it’s indie music that feels like pop. Or maybe the other way round… it’s hard to tell now the lines are blurred.

Drawing on powerpop, new wave and girl group harmonies, this record is full of engaging tunes, doe-eyed dedications and wry witticisms. ‘Dead Boy’ is a comically-upbeat number about still being giddy for a deceased lover, while ‘Outta My Mind’ wears its battered heart on its rolled-up t-shirt sleeve. Best of all, though, is ‘Searching Through The Past’: simple melodic joy, recalling Blondie and The Bangles at their most spine-tinglingly catchy. From afar, it’s easy to be bowled over by its uncomplicated charm and bewitching sweetness; up close one can imagine feeling smitten enough to swoon. It’s like being a kid again and catching the first breeze that really whistles through you, tingling the skin; that really makes you question the external forces of the world, be they incidental to your daily existence or just generally driving it. Plenty of other pop songs will do this in 2013 – ‘Teenage’ by Veronica Falls has a similar way with keening straightforwardness, and draws on similar influences to boot – but it’s always great to be reminded that a dumbass hook and the way a voice bends when delivering certain notes can still make you feel as infinite as they did before you filled your head with all this context.

Which brings us neatly back to where we started. Yeah, some days I am tired of this whole shebang in the 21st century, particularly after the over-saturation of landfill indie and the endless, tedious recycling of pop culture into ever-more watered-down facsimiles of the original source material. I’m bored of dominant media culture dictating what’s hip and what’s not, even when those media cultures seem weak and anachronistic compared to the press power of previous generations (and yep, I’m aware there’s an irony to me using an album review to make that point). I’m fed up of having to wade through so much unsatisfactory sludge to find the good stuff, because our collective imagination hasn’t evolved (or, less pessimistically, hasn’t realised it hasevolved) to a point where it can place nerve-racking challenge at least on a par with comforting familiarity, which in itself specialises in the easy manipulation of false sentiment. But every now and again it’s worth being reminded that these hips were made for shaking, this heart was made for beating and some songs were made for no greater purpose than to get on down with the pair of ‘em. And some days, with the right record playing and all those elements in sync, I don’t feel tired at all. (7/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 27/03/2013)

Teenage angst has paid off well

April 24, 2012

Good lord. Has it been that long?

I am immensely lazy.

Well, more to the point, I’m not. I’ve been very busy. But I’ve neglected you, dear old WHTB, and that’s got to change. Last year I decided I was going to use this page to review every single record I’ve been sent, which was a shit idea – blogs should be personal, so I’m gonna get back to the stuff I love.

So no more sifting through the review pile and gritting my teeth at the latest in a seemingly never-fucking-ending stack of godawful electronic shizzle and singer-songwriter dullness – or not on my own time, at least. Instead, here’s a couple of 7″s that have rarely strayed too far from my turntable over the past few months. Diggit:

 

MAZES/EAGULLS split

(Italian Beach Babes)

Two UK indie rock bands covering songs by fuzz legends The Wipers – pretty risky, no? Luckily, this is a doozy. Mazes do that whole Pavement thing with a minimum of fuss, all lacksadaisical jangles and privileged apathy. You can bet they write their own press releases and fill ‘em with words like ‘laconic’ and ‘arch’, but at least they get the simple things right. Eagulls, meanwhile, are utterly fucking awesome. Slop-gaze noise-punks with their eyes on nothing more than the beer they spilled all over their pedal racks, their own Possessed trumps the cover, bedecked in woozy guitars and nonchalant sneers. This record makes me wanna stand on street corners and throw fruit cocktails at yuppies. Seriously great.

 

BAM!BAM!  – Let It Go

(self-released)

Realistically, I’m not sure if I’d have found this band, had HHBTM‘s Mike Turner not pointed me in their direction. I’m so fucking glad he did, however – the above track Hi Fi Widows blew me away like nothing since Tunabunny’s (Song For My) Solar Sister last year. They remind me of Bratmobile, K Records and the years I idled away in shitty pubs’n’clubs, drinking shitty beer and hoping desperately that one of the bands on the bill would do more than merely not suck. If only BAM!BAM! had been around then, back when I really needed them. Now I’m teetering dangerously on the precipice of 30, almost too aware of my own mortality to commit to the moment and dance myself to delirium. Actually, scratch what I said earlier – I need them now. It takes something pretty fucking special to make me want to surrender it all and just feel aliveThis record does exactly that, and then some. Man, I really hope they come over to the UK.

I only wanna stare you down

September 9, 2011

It’s been ages, so let’s have another round of ‘songs i fucking love at the moment’, eh?

1. Tunabunny – (Song For My) Solar Sister

(From their forthcoming album Minima Moralia on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records)

2. Cheap Girls – Pure Hate

(From their split 7″ with Lemuria on No Idea Records)

3. Sometimes Always – Be True

(From their free download EP on EardrumsPop)

4. OFF! – Upside Down

(From their First Four EPs compilation on Vice Records)

5. Sourpatch – Cynthia Ann

(From their forthcoming second album on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records)

 

 

Yes, it’s fucking political

August 16, 2011

Yesterday, an article by NME editor Krissi Murison appeared on the Guardian website bemoaning the lack of political music in 2011. The argument goes something along the lines of ‘isn’t it lucky that the NME had The Clash on the cover while there were riots going on – why aren’t there more bands writing about politics nowadays?’ Everett True has already written a pretty succinct response over on Collapse Board, so I’m not going to go overboard in my own musings. But since the original article still appears to be stuck in my craw, I’ll weigh in with some thoughts anyway.

Firstly, although it’s certainly not the same magazine I used to read in school, I have no beef with the NME, nor (by extension) with Murison. If anything she’s overseen a significant improvement in quality from the magazine’s dreadful days under Conor McNicholas – when a double-page photo spread with a few paragraphs of text could pass for a main feature. At least the writing seems to be the focus again, and it’s enthused and (usually) well-informed (certainly not always). There are elements of its content that I don’t particularly enjoy, and some of its misguided attempts to tap into localised scenes can go woefully wrong, but that’s the problem with outsider perspective, especially when it’s widely published. Thanks to the still-growing influence of the internet, and the increased stratification of popular culture, a magazine like the NME simply can’t be the authoritative voice that it wants to be. Perhaps recognising this, the self-aggrandising ‘we invented everything’ tone seems to have died down, and it’s concentrating on music again. Which, regardless of how on-the-money it is, is a good thing.

For all that, however, it still rankles that the editor of the NME can write an article bemoaning the lack of political grit in pop. This, lest we forget, is a music magazine that still publishes an annual ‘cool list’ – a pointless exercise in High Fidelity-style cataloging that has continually placed style over substance. Why do we need to know who’s ‘cool’? Who cares? One of the best things Murison could do for the ailing magazine is to axe that list. When our music critics start to concern themselves with such vacuous, page-filling dross as this, it’s a pretty definite indication that they’re not looking for anything below the surface. They’re as symptomatic of the lack of political pop as the performers are.

But wait – there is no lack of political pop. The article complains that there is no Clash to lead the charge – there are still plenty of punk bands writing political songs, if four chords and some informed shouting is what you want. Look at the folk-punk scene, poplated by the likes of Defiance, Ohio and Ghost Mice. Or, closer to the mainstream, there’s the likes of Against Me!, Gallows and The King Blues – personally I’d rather drink bleach from David Starkey’s tiny, pus-covered severed bellend than listen to any of those three, but nonetheless they’re pop and they’re political… that’s both tick boxes covered, right?

And naturally there’s plenty of other artists from a wealth of genres covering Murison’s criteria – again, Collapse Board has the best summary, which basically saves me the job of compiling anything (phew!). A curmudgeon (hello!) might question whether The Clash are really the best example of a political band in any case – their song most relevant to last week’s events (White Riot) is a clumsy statement at best. Cracking tune, like, but its point still seems awkward, even if its heart is in the right place. This’ll go down well with Clash fans, I’m sure.

The only real argument to consider is that there’s very little of the political in mainstream indie. Gone are the days when Manic Street Preachers would serve up dense polemic to rabid teenagers with scant understanding of what the lyrics actually meant. These days mainstream political rock doesn’t stretch much further than Bono’s sanctimonious blethering, which is unfortunately enough to turn anyone off the idea of charity. But isn’t mainstream society distinctly unpoliticised these days?

Granted, we’re seeing more and more protest against the ConDem government (the university fee protests, for instance), and whether you view last week’s riots as politicised or ‘merely’ political, there are signs that things are changing – basically, people are starting to give a shit. That’s a completely separate debate, of course, and the pages of an indie rock blog that no-one reads are certainly not the place to start it. But mainstream pop isn’t going to change unless society does, and it seems daft to expect pop to reflect anything other than its environment.

Bits and pieces don’t equal the whole

March 8, 2011

Yeesh, it’s been a while. Since then, labels have been kind (dumb? no, kind…) enough to send me stuff to review on these here pages. Which will happen in due course. Once I’ve given it all a fair few spins.

In the meantime, here’s one of those cop-out ‘what’s been blowing my mind lately’ posts. DIGGIT.

1. Sourpatch – Deli Dream

(from the totally superlative Mira Mija EP on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records)

2. Cheap Girls – Ft. Lauderdale

(from My Roaring 20’s on Paper + Plastick… still not bored of this, somehow)

3. Hickey – California Redemption

(fuuuuck yeh! from s/t album reissue on 1234. i’m a latecomer to Hickey. they fucking rule)

4. Eux Autres – The City All To Himself

(stars of the first show to be promoted as a WHTB shebang recently. except on here, of course. from Cold City on HHBTM)

5. Bad Banana – Celery

(acoustic version of a great track from super-lo-fi pop-punks’ demo album. i heart the shit out of this band)

I’m only trying to remind you

January 10, 2011

I tried with Teenage Fanclub. I honestly did. But for years it just didn’t work out.

It all started out so well too. In 1996 I was 13 years old and still delirious with excitement from the swiftly-dying Britpop ‘movement’. The NME – my weekly bible at this point – still occasionally gave nods to the Fanclub, but no matter how reverential the mention, they were hardly plastered across the paper enough for me to pay significant attention as a young pup enthusiastic for exciting new sounds (however retro and… well, not really exciting these sounds may have been). As it was, my pocket money went in other directions. I had Northern Uproar singles to buy! (And, if I’m honest, I suspect I may have been put off by Brendan O’Hare’s beard and the length of their hair. Time, you play cruel jokes on us all…)

By the summer of that year, I had discovered the Manic Street Preachers’ dark and abrasive The Holy Bible. This represented the beginning of a two-year love affair with that band, and is possibly the root of my love for more dissonant, less immediate music (leaving aside my embarrassment as a recovering MSP fan, one hates to use unbearably smug words like ‘challenging’ here, especially given how unchallenging it seems to me now). As far as this story is concerned, however, it caused me to pick up an issue of Vox magazine with a huge feature on the Manics and a free tape. The interview and retrospective on the Blackwood boys was obviously the main source of attraction, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the cover-mounted compilation of session recordings from the then-superlative Mark Radcliffe Show.

This wasn’t the first free tape I’d gotten with a magazine (that prize goes to a fairly unremarkable NME effort the previous Autumn), but it was certainly the first to contain more than a couple of tracks that I’d actually want to listen to. An acoustic version of Suede’s My Insatiable One sparked an obsession with Brett Anderson’s lot (that would mercifully evaporate with the release of Head Music several years later), whilst my first exposure to the intense sadness of Tindersticks still lingers in the memory.

The overall winner from this cassette, however, was Teenage Fanclub’s version of their b-side The Shadows. Devoid of a chorus, it instead featured nothing more than a simple harmonica riff and a gorgeously melancholic two-part harmony. The words were pretty enough to convey a sense of wistful optimism, and before long I found myself playing the song to myself whenever I picked up a guitar. It’s still a favourite, by the way, although I’ve now heard the ‘proper’ studio version, and frankly it’s not a patch on the simplicity and wonder of this acoustic strum-through.

And then suddenly… nothing for a while. The Fanclub’s sixth album Songs From Northern Britain emerged in the summer of the following year, but whilst i knew that Ain’t That Enough was a thoroughly pleasant tune, at the time it didn’t quite grab me as I wanted it to. Another two songs from that album turned up on NME tapes in the lead-up to that album’s release (the Raymond McGinley compositions I Don’t Care and Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From), and again I was unmoved. Young ears discovering the joy of volume in Sonic Youth’s glorious noise are perhaps not quite tuned into the sophistication of those pieces, and I was gleefully unaware of what I was missing out on.

I picked up more songs through free tapes, but it wasn’t until I heard their cover of Sebadoh’s It’s So Hard To Fall In Love in 6th form that they truly registered on my horizon again. Even then it was fleeting. I listened obsessively to the song over a glorious month in 2000, and then went back to ignoring Teenage Fanclub.

From hereon in things get messy. In university I discovered punk, and for a few years would label anything slower than the first Ramones album as ‘boring’. Unless it was reggae or 60s garage. Or Mogwai, oddly. In retrospect 2001 was a pretty exciting time, and a great time to be young, flush with a student loan and high on musical delirium. But I still regret the ease with which I dismissed so much great music that I’d discover for myself later on.

In the end, it was by accident that I got into them at all. In 2006, I finally managed to go to an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, for the first time since unsuccessfully trying to rouse my friends’ interest in 2001. Giddy with excitement, my pals and I started drinking on arrival, which swiftly cut short my interest in the event’s more cerebral bands. After getting thoroughly bored during Electrelane’s set, I wandered into the other live room to see what else was on. Anything that had a chorus or just sounded like a pop song would have done at that point. Happily,  a certain band (guess who?) were onstage, midway through their 1995 single Sparky’s Dream. I knew the song, and I’d enjoyed it as a teenager without being overawed. But it was different this time, for some reason. Instead of leaving me cold, it was drawing me in and surfing the waves of inebbreiated delight that ebbed and flowed around the hall. Next they launched into Everything Flows, quoted in my last blog and largely known to my undereducated ears courtesy of J Mascis & The Fog’s cover version. And then it was over. I’d missed the majority of the set. But by this time it was too late. I felt warm, fuzzy, drunk and thoroughly converted by that song and a half.

Upon returning home, one of the first things I did was buy their most celebrated album Bandwagonesque. Its charms took a while to creep under my skin, but once they did, I ceased to look back. From the opening line of The Concept (“she wears denim wherever she goes / Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo / Oh yeh”) to the final heroic instrumental Is This Music?, the album is an effortless, gracefully wonderful collection of simple pop songs that offer no challenge, dissonance or difficulty. Instead, it gets by on straightforward brilliance. It’s fantastic. I rushed to investigate their back catalogue further.

Four years later, I’ve fallen totally and utterly in love with their latest effort. In an eerily appropriate moment of symmetry with that first song of theirs that had me hooked, the album is called Shadows. It’s wonderful. Like finding an old pair of gloves in a drawer in the middle of winter, and discovering that not only do they still fit, but they match with all your other clothes, and age has not diminished their ability to keep your hands warm.

Norman Blake’s songs are almost always my favourite Fanclub tunes, but with Baby Lee and If I Still Have Thee he may have surpassed even his own dizzy heights. And Gerard Love’s Sometimes I Don’t Have To Believe In Anything is a gorgeously-understated piece of perfect pop – somehow indier-sounding than the Big Star/Byrds material that they’ve become famous for, but by no means schmindie. In fact, in one of those strange moments where a great band begins to sound like those it’s influenced, it reminds me rather of The Delgados, only better.

To close,  I could attempt to sum up everything that I’ve belatedly come to love about Teenage Fanclub, but Andy from the ever-excellent blog/fanzine A Fog Of Ideas managed to do so better than I could ever hope to. It’s not a short quote, but it’s entirely apt:

the fannies aren’t avant garde or edgey or any of those things but what I think they have done that is perhaps radical (if you like) is to make ‘adult orientated rock’ that manages to avoid a lot of the trappings of that much- and possibly justifiably-maligned musical styling: they’re not lazy or resting on their laurels or playing tried and tested chops, they’re not good old boys revelling in histrionics and overbaked mannerisms and the like

what I think the fannies have done is grow old rather gracefully, they play music that’s unaffected and from the heart and I think in a world where there’s so much artifice and copping of moves that’s kind of quite agreeable

which sounds like I’m damning them with faint praise but I actually find that quite significant and winning, uplifting even

possibly they may not be relevant… but then who’s deciding what is or isn’t relevant and what-me-worry?

for me they make music of infinite grace and beauty and I can understand why that might not be appreciated, it’s never been a common currency

and in my best whispering bob harris voice, the following fannies lyrics explain why they appeal so much to me:

here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?
true as a clear sky, ain’t that enough?
toy town feelings here to remind you
summers in the city do what you gotta’ do

you can call it niceness, if you want, I just think it’s anti-bullshit, or maybe it’s another kind of bullshit but it works better for me than the alternative all day, every day: cynicism, nihilism, misanthropism, all the isms, if you will

it’s better than that, it’s more hopeful

Wise words. I just wish the band and I had gotten along sooner.

Still, better late than never.

“Don’t look back”

New year, new start

January 5, 2011

“I’ll never know which way to flow, set a course that I don’t know” – Teenage Fanclub

A new start always seems like an empty promise. All those hopeful plans and ideas to change seem to fade so rapidly when faced with the humdrum day-to-dayisms that so easily get in the way. In a way it reminds me of that line in Come Out 2nite by Kenickie wherein the teenage narrator surveys the drunken, gleeful chaos of a girls’ night out and announces “I know we’ll always be friends”. It’s as hopeful and sincere as all of those new year resolutions, but equally tinged with a certain sadness when the listener realises that soon those girls will go to college, get jobs or do whatever people do, and the links of that friendship will evaporate, sadly but naturally. It’s a trueism for most of us.

So it’s refreshing that, for once, I’m stood on the precipice of a genuine change. At the start of February, I’ll be kissing goodbye to the deskjob and finally flinging myself at the mercy of the media industry. Well, sort of. I’m certainly ditching business support in an attempt to get paid writing work (rather than the sporadic, unpaid freelancing I’ve done for the past seven years), but before I do that, I’m going back to college.

You see, I never really thought about practical ways to go about becoming a professional music writer. Neither of the fanzines I edited saw the light of day. The student paper didn’t return my emails, so I never pushed them. Even when I started writing under a crap pseudonym for a local reviews site (long since decamped to London), I still didn’t go so far as to send my writing to bigger publications. Forever fearing rejection, I didn’t allow myself to make the effort to take those steps, because it would be easier to daydream than be told I wasn’t good enough. The problem with this sort of fear is that it breeds further laziness, and so by the end of 2009 I woke up to find myself typing my days away under a glass ceiling in a career I didn’t want in the first place. I was overweight, apathetic and miserable. Things had to change.

As 2010 began, I resolved to make those changes. I began using my gym membership more than at any time since being unemployed in 2006. I started to write songs for the first time in years. When the opportunity to join a new band presented itself, I took it, and before long my other band was also playing more shows. Suddenly I was playing music frequently for the first time in years. It was great, but I knew I had to make more of a plan for a life outside of what is essentially a hobby (a furiously passionate one, but a hobby nonetheless).

It was time to get serious about writing.

After some investigation, I formed a plan. It required the humiliating but necessary act of moving back in with my parents to finance it, but it was a plan nonetheless. And so here I am on the verge of it coming into practice. From February, I’ll be commencing my NCTJ diploma at my local community college. You might observe it’s a step I should have taken years ago, and perhaps you’re right. But as far as I’m concerned it’s a step I’m happy to be taking at all. Now I’ve seen what happens when I drift, I want to take control of things.

So 2011 is where things change. When people ask ‘what do you do for a living?’ I’ll have to start replying ‘I’m a writer,’ rather than explaining how I’m making ends meet and then dismissing my ambition with a ‘…but I’m also…’. It’s a big change, but it’s refreshing, and I’m genuinely excited about it. Come the summer, I’ll be searching for an actual job in this business. I’m on my way to being a professional writer.

Imagine.

After the self-indulgent and pointless way I’ve rambled on here, I’ll certainly have to become more focussed.

Anyway.

People in my chosen career tend to sign off the previous year by listing their favourite bands or releases, or prediciting the best artists of the next twelve months. This is an area of pop hackism that I’m looking forward to least, to be honest – the Nick Hornby-esque compiling of lists for lists’ sake. So for now I’m going to enjoy the blogosphere’s freedom to ignore that ominous future task, and instead just tell you about my favourite record of my best year in a long time.

Majesty Shredding is Superchunk‘s first full-length since the appropriately-titled Here’s To Shutting Up in 2001. Not that they’ve been resting on their laurels since then – singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan has been busy with his Robert Pollard collaboration Go Back Snowball, and the ongoing Portastatic project, drummer Jon Wurster has begun a career in radio comedy, and bassist Laura Ballance has run indie powerhouse Merge Records alongside Mac for 20 years. You might be forgiven for expecting this ‘comeback’ to be a cheap cash-in on the success of their peers Dinosaur Jr and Pavement‘s recent reunions. But it isn’t.

For one thing, Superchunk never actually split up. They just took some time out. As Pitchfork rightly pointed out, Majesty Shredding “sounds like McCaughan had another 11 Superchunk-sounding songs sitting around, and the band finally found time to record them.” And they’re all stormers. This may not have the same impact as 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty, or introduce unexpected dynamic changes like Foolish or Come Pick Me Up, but it does contain eleven great songs that… well, that just don’t let up. There’s the hook-tastic Digging For Something, laced with ‘woah-oh-oh’s and nagging guitars. Rosemarie reveals the reverse effect of the bands effect on 90s emo by sounding like the best song late-period Get Up Kids never wrote. Everything At Once resembles Slowdive being given a crash course in fizzy pop-punk and utterly joyous choruses.

Then there’s Learned To Surf. Technically, this isn’t a new song – it first surfaced on 2009’s Leaves In The Gutter EP. But I’m going to argue for its inclusion here by virtue of a) being on this album and b) being utterly superb on every level. It may not just be my favourite song of this year; I can’t think of many records I’ve liked this much in the last decade.

The same goes for the whole album though. It’s utterly wonderful.

No doubt I’ll keep you abreast of my progress with the course.

“I can’t hold my breath any more – I stopped sinking and learned to surf”

HNY, everyone

w x