Archive for the ‘general music faff’ Category

THE POSTAL SERVICE – Manchester Academy, 18/05/2013

June 4, 2013

The standard hubbub of pre-gig chatter at tonight’s gig is even more excitable than usual, no doubt owing to the fact that tonight’s audience have been listening to The Postal Service’s sole album for a decade, with little sign of a follow-up or live performance. But when the familiar electronic pulse of ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ kicks in, that anticipation dissolves into pure joy, and everyone swiftly loosens up. Tonight is most assuredly going to be a party.

Those 10 years certainly become apparent – Jimmy Tamborello’s array of bleeps, whirrs and clicks sound curiously timid in a world still gripped by dubstep’s thudding bass.

But for all that, it’s fascinating how warm those songs still sound. From the sweeping sadness of the melodies to Ben Gibbard’s adorably nasal croon. “I watch the patchwork farms / Slow fade into the ocean’s arms,” he sighs, and suddenly it’s impossible to understand why rock music (or at least the strand known as ‘indie’) ever had any difficulty crossing over with electronica.

These songs are as gloriously affecting as anything Gibbard has composed for the guitar-focussed Death Cab For Cutie, with those softly understated loops melting imperceptibly into his typically bookish narratives. You could rarely call The Postal Service ‘dance music’ – they sure ain’t Daft Punk – but everyone present does their best to groove along, turning nearly every lovingly-memorised line into a gleeful anthem.

Two new songs have been included in the recent reissue of ‘Give Up’ – ‘Turn Around’ and ‘A Tattered Line Of String’ – but they represent the only previously-unreleased material in tonight’s set. Nothing hints at a second album.

We do, however, get Jenny Lewis duetting with Gibbard on a rapturously-received ‘Nothing Better’, a giddy Beat Happening cover (‘Our Secret’), and a brisk run-through of the track that started the whole thing: Dntel collaboration ‘(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan’.

The set closes with Gibbard manning the drum kit stage left, as band and crowd alike coo, “everything will change”. Is this a sign that their productivity is about to increase? Or a line is drawn under the band for good? It’s impossible to tell, but at least everybody got what they came for: an intense hit of euphoric nostalgia. In that respect, The Postal Service certainly deliver.

(Originally published by Clash Music, 21/05/2013)

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MARK LANEGAN & DUKE GARWOOD – Black Pudding

June 4, 2013

Where to begin with Mark Lanegan’s voice? It’s a melted-down chainsaw. Soft beams of light shooting across a bubbling tar pit. A rusted tractor set ablaze amidst heavy downpour. Rich. Ragged. Ridiculous. It’s also one of the most uniquely expressive voices in American music – arguably similar to that of Tom Waits in its ability to extricate a sumptuously soulful croon from the sound of over-zealous vocal cord scrapings. But unlike the perma-hatted veteran, Lanegan never gives into the gnarl. He’s simply a vessel for sorrows that are resigned to their fate: in other words, the blues.

For all the raw feeling summoned by those rattling pipes, Mark has always worked best in collaboration with others. Sure, he’s made stand-out solo records since making his name as the Screaming Trees’ frontman (Whiskey For The Holy Ghost and Bubblegum representing particular career highlights), but sparks have truly flown when rubbing shoulders with the likes of Isobel Campbell and fellow Gutter Twin Greg Dulli. On Black Pudding he’s enlisted the help of multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood, and the results are often stunning.

The opening title track introduces us to Garwood’s nimble guitar work, which is both delicate and yet subtly powerful, paving the way for the tone of the rest of the album. Basic blues motifs serve as a peg on which to hang his ideas, which make songs feel like meditative explorations of mood rather than linear stories. Nothing is resolved. Instead we find textural experiments like the quick bursts of guitar drone that scorch ‘Mescalito’s arid shuffle, coalescing and gradually evaporating like sunspots in the desert heat.

Then there’s the tumbling, intuitive piano that stumbles dizzily around the drunken lament of ‘Last Rung’, brashly beautiful in its plaintive chaos. In the midst of all this, Lanegan offers thoughtful whispers of lost loves and portents of doom – “Death rides a white horse,” he sombrely intones, “But I ain’t seen him yet.” If that reads like a defiant claim of invulnerability, the song’s fooling no-one. The line is practically shrugged into your speakers, grimly accepting the inevitability of mortality: a spine-tingling moment.

‘Black Pudding’ works best at its most sparse, which is why flute-drenched psych ballad ‘Shade Of The Sun’ is infinitely more arresting than ‘Cold Molly’s loose-limbed, stoned groove. Minor quibbles aside, however, it feels more like the product of two minds in sync than a collection of contrasting ideas thrown at the wall, which tallies up with Lanegan’s admission that Garwood is one of his “all time favourite artists”.

With an over-saturation of pseudo-folkies grabbing acoustics and aiming pointlessly for some intangible sense of ‘authenticity’, it’s easy to feel that there’s an over-saturation of terrible faux-Americana in this day and age. By plunging impassively into their own hearts of darkness, Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood have demonstrated that there’s still plenty of life lurking in the muddy waters of the blues. (7.5/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 17/05/2013)

LIVERPOOL SOUND CITY – Day Two

June 4, 2013

Day two commences with math-pop heroics courtesy of Vasco da Gama. Difficult to dislike a band with such fluid mastery of musicianship, especially when they’re so goddam modest about it. There’s frequent nods to The Dismemberment Plan and Dischord Records, but for all their clever arrangements, there’s a lingering suspicion that they’re a pop band at heart. Winning choruses mesh perfectly with the frenetic fretwork of guitarist Chris Lynn, leaving early evening revellers dazed but excited.

It’s a shame that the equally energetic Hands don’t attract a bigger crowd – their forthcoming Synaesthesia album ranks amongst the most immediately catchy collections to bolt from the Kill Rock Stars stable. They bounce adorably and ecstatically around the stage, with the soaring pop melodies of songs like ‘Trouble’ suggesting there’s even better to come from a band who’ve really got this ‘hooks’ thing nailed. Keep an eye out; they could well be soundtracking your summer.

Suitably cheered, we head to The Kazimier for something a little grittier, and Bad Meds are happy to oblige. Something of a local supergroup, the band includes Vasco da Gama drummer Dave Kelly and Hot Club de Paris’ Paul Rafferty amongst their number, and as such the curious cognoscenti are out in force. Theirs is a fun and frantic take on the skate-kid hardcore of early Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, replete with knowing banter (“Has anyone been signed yet? That’s the ultimate aim of Sound City, isn’t it?”) and a gloriously sludgy cover of ‘It’s Grim Up North’. Instant favourites.

Meanwhile, up the road, the much-hyped TOY decorate the Anglican Cathedral with their mountainous noise and Cousin it haircuts – given the time they’ve probably seen their music described via the shoegaze cliché ‘sonic cathedrals’, you gotta wonder if they ever imagined they’d actually play in one. As it turns out, the venue suits their sound rather well, as woozy riffs pile into each other atop a motorik rhythm section. Some of the more subtle chord changes of ‘Colour’s Running Out’ feel a little lost in the melee, but it’s a small price to pay to have your hearing blown out so magnificently.

The dashing Dan Croll is somewhat easier on the ear, and his take on classic pop songsmithery feels positively heart-warming. An evident knack for a hummable tune is enough to make every song feel instantly familiar, almost masking the dextrous subtleties of the band behind him. More of this winsome loveliness please.

The day’s final trek to the Cathedral feels, ludicrously, like the furthest Gigwise has ever had to walk, but The Walkmen are more than worth it. As dapper as ever, the band’s newfound maturity sees the majority of the set pitching for a rather more windswept approach than the energised stress of old favourites like ‘The Rat’, and it suits ‘em pretty neatly. Difficult to believe that they’re more than a decade into their career when their manifest enthusiasm still feels so fresh.

It’s been a pretty stellar day thus far, and Gigwise begins to worry that something is bound to suck at some point. And so we come to the tipsters’ faves Savages – on hand to prove that if you’re gonna be bummed out, it should owe a debt to their own high levels of menace and intensity – they’ve drawn plenty of comparisons to Souxsie & The Banshees, but the taut funk of their basslines owes just as much to the hypertension of The Bush Tetras, while Gemma Thompson’s strafes of white-hot atonality flash across the stage like electric storms. Every song drips with vitality and purrs venomously: once bitten, you’re lost to ‘em forever. Band of the weekend? Don’t bet against it.

Melody’s Echo Chamber present a much more relaxed affair, as their dizzy psychedelic alt pop proves to be much less acrid. Their delicacy serves as a neat counterpoint to their tendency towards off-kilter shonkiness, making them lovably delirious in the best sense possible.

Over at Leaf, The Still Corners seem to be struggling with technical difficulties that delay their set by a full half hour. When their reverb-drenched indiepop finally gets going, there’s a palpable sense of relief, albeit underpinned by a sense of irritation that it’s taken this long to get going. As a result, Gigwise ends up at the back of the queue for Thee Oh Sees, whose sweat-drenched set creates such demand that the rickety old Kazimier struggles to cope. There are angry scenes as waiting punters realise they won’t get to see the show, but what we eventually manage to catch amounts to a furious blast of psyched-out garage rock. Bodies spill over the monitors as the heaving moshpit flings itself back and forth with reckless abandon; sweat-sodden riffs riding hip-swaying basslines that pummel the guts and spill out the messy yards of intestine within. You can’t help but love a good rock show.

Speaking of which, that’s precisely how Future Of The Left opt to close out the day’s events, spraying a rowdy 2am crowd with gallons of molten riffage and barbed witticisms. The somewhat inebriated audience dances, screams and collapses into dazed heaps on the ground, surrendering to the forceful rage of the band… but that’s nothing compared to what happens when FOTL unleash two classics by frontman Falco’s previous outfit Mclusky. ‘To Hell With Good Intentions’ sees the first outbreak of pure euphoria, while the bon mots of ‘Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues’ amount to a twisted singalong with everyone’s shit well and truly lost. They close with a cover of Andy Kaufman’s infamous ‘I Trusted You’ – a helluva song and bona fide contender for greatest piece of performance comedy ever devised. Which is as decent a summation of this Cardiff quartet’s modus operandi as you could possibly desire. Bed time approaches – not with a whimper, but a full-on roar.

(Originally published by Gigwise, 06/05/2013)

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)

LIVERPOOL SOUND CITY – Day One

June 4, 2013

There’s few cities that can match Liverpool in the self-mythologising stakes. Football, art, camaraderie, that (in)famous ‘sensa yuma’… yes indeed, in terms of towns that loved to toot their own horn, the focal point of Merseyside would be up there with the best of ‘em. Maybe it’s down to the rich history as a port town; the former gateway to the United Kingdom. Perhaps it’s an extension of the embattled siege mentality that developed during a certain former government’s attempts to crush the industrial towns of the north. Who knows? But if there’s one area in which this place can truly claim to know its stuff, it’s pop music. Forget what you know about jingly-jangly Scousepop and cheeky chappie stoners; we’re talking about an area that’s experienced a genuine cultural renaissance in the past decade, and it’s pretty darn thrilling to see the place in such fine form.

Ok, we’re nearly done with the rhapsodising, but Sound City is as close to an encapsulation of Liverpool’s pop prominence as you could ask for. For Gigwise, the festival kicks off with a brief look at local lads Coffee And Cake For Funerals, whose silky r’n’b-tinges attract an impressive crowd early on day one. It’s about as far away from Merseybeat as you could imagine: subtle guitar chimes float spectrally atop dubstep-informed basslines and complex rhythms, making for an unexpected treat. Ok, some of their choruses sound as though they’ve been lifted from The James Arthur Guide To The X-Factor, but one suspects their ambitions are somewhat different to those of, say, James Blake. Either way, it’s a solid start.

We amble enthusiastically up the hill to the cavernous Anglican Cathedral, where The Loved Ones take advantage of their surroundings to break a few hearts with their understated folktronica. It’s cheating really – just as you think you’ve had all you can take of beardy fellas playing sad songs on acoustic guitars, along comes a band who nail the whole shebang perfectly. The ethereal cry of ’Wonderful Life’ sends us sniffling into the early evening, just in time for Kepla’s addictively weird set at The Kazimier. Electronic pulses bleed organically into one another, twisting and turning almost unnoticed into completely different rhythms before you’ve even had time to notice, while jarring blasts of sheet metal strafes keep you on your toes. The set ends with a wry grin from Kepla dude Jon Davies, and our toes continue to tap long after the beats have subsided.

Across to the Garage, and Esco Williams has the crowd eating from the palm of his hand. His brand of r’n’b is slick, commercial as hell and phenomenally catchy, but for all his gratitude and nice-guy smiles, it’s easy to see that his mind is set on bigger things. To that end, here’s the Gigwise conclusion: these songs are fun right now, but they won’t quite set the world alight – stick him in a studio with Andre 3000 or Frank Ocean on production duties and let’s see some sparks really fly. By now we’re just about ready to check out one of the acts hailing from beyond the city boundaries, and we trudge back up to the Cathedral for Noah And The Whale. Such an easy band to dislike, what with their university lecturer dress sense, unerringly affable politeness and propensity for inoffensive melodies that your mum probably likes. And it’s difficult to imagine that a band named after Wes Anderson’s head cameraman would do their best to be anything other than self-consciously odd. Luckily the band’s neat line in morose grandiosity proves to be their strength, and whilst they may not be the most mind-bendingly out-there beat combo on the block, their budget Arcade Fire- isms sure get the crowd going.

Timetable disruption means we only catch the final song of PINS’ set, but a stirring rendition of ‘Luvu4lyfe’ demonstrates why so many people are coming round to their feral, Lydia Lunch-indebted howl. Meanwhile Oneohtrix Point Never proves to be one of the day’s highlights, blasting other-worldly collages of fractured noise over glitchy, textured electronica. Like all the best acts who propped up the Warp and Rephlex stables in the 90s, Oneohtrix keeps one ear firmly to the future, but by removing the breakbeat, he allows himself space and scope to let his imagination cut fully loose. In short, he’s fucking ace.

There’s time to check out the slackered-up fuzz of New Zealand’s Popstrangers – all feedback-drenched squalls and nonchalant wails over chunky pop melodies – before Stealing Sheep set to repairing hearts broken by The Loved Ones several hours earlier. Sound problems onstage leave the band frustrated, but out front there’s nothing to worry about – songs are played out as whispers on the wind; ghostly apparitions that charm and soothe in equal measure. Lovely stuff. There’s just time to catch the end of Lunar Module’s analogue rave back at the Kazimier, providing further fuel for the argument that electronica has truly won the day today.

There’s a few murmured enthusiasms about Leeds’ own Blacklisters, which seems wholly inappropriate given the shape, size and indeed volume of their riffs. The Jesus Lizard mastered this sort of horribly brilliant chaos years ago, but it’s an absolute joy to see this lot breathing new life into it. Frontman Billy seethes his way through every last note as the band snarl around him: jagged, visceral, hypnotic. Just the sort of thing you wanna see on a Friday night. The synth-led drama of Bastille is always going to fall a little flat after that, but they still manage to turn a beer-sozzled Garage into a full-on party. The band feed off the good vibes pinging around the room, with the immaculately-coiffeured Dan Smith bouncing majestically around the stage. All in all, not a bad way to kick off Sound City 2013.

(Originally published by Gigwise, 03/05/2013)

MINUS THE BEAR / VASCO DA GAMA – Liverpool, Kazimier, 28/04/2013

June 4, 2013

Ah, Vasco Da Gama. You have the prescription for the daily blues. Liverpool’s latest progenitors of cerebrally addictive math-pop have something pretty special on their hands: specifically, great songs. ‘Brigadiers’ sees iridescent guitars shooting beams of rippling light across cavernous, rumbling rhythms, while John Crawford’s plaintive keening keeps the glorious mess on an even keel. Meanwhile, the tension-and-release tactics of ‘Them Teeth’ show what lessons can be learned from Faraquet and Tera Melos whilst creating wholly nifty singalongs. It’s all interspersed with charmingly self-effacing banter about watching Top 100 Nu-Metal Anthems countdowns on telly, and is utterly, wonderfully ace. More of this sort of thing, please.

It’s fitting that Vasco De Gama are playing as support to Minus The Bear – anyone remember the Seattle quintet dazzling their way to a certain level of indie prominence ten years ago? Theirs was a veritable ménage à trois between fret-tapping frenetics, glistening electronics and solemnly earnest college rock; manna from heaven for studious indie rock types everywhere. Not that we hear too much of that stuff tonight – ‘Absinthe Party At The Fly Honey Warehouse’ and a stirring ‘Spritz!!! Spritz!!!’ are the only cuts from 2002 debut ‘Highly Refined Pirates’. Understandably, the majority of the set is culled from latest opus ‘Infinity Overhead’, with the likes of ‘Steel And Blood’ feeling rather more muscular under the lights of the Kazimier than on record.

Jake Snider is genial enough, if not overtly communicative, and his understated wail (think Finch from ‘American Pie’ attempting to channel Evan Dando) sure feels impassioned. But he’s largely secondary to the roar of the band, particularly on grandiose slow dances like ‘Diamond Lightning’ and the cut-loose coda of ‘Drilling’. They may no longer be the math-rockin’ scene leaders of yore, but Minus The Bear still add up to a darn good night out.

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

PERE UBU / VARIETY LIGHTS – Liverpool, Eric’s, 24/04/2013

June 4, 2013

Those eyes. Tiny black holes. Stare into ‘em too long and you start to feel yourself ebbing away, drifting into zen-like surrender to the magic of the sound. Then David Baker blinks suddenly, as if emerging from a trance, and you realise Variety Lights are performing subtle spells that leave you utterly bound to their dark magic. On record, their warped electronic rattle is disorientating, but transposed to a live set it’s earth-shattering. There’s a borderline gothic edge to their compellingly odd psychedelia, making it both grandiose and eerie; it’s the product of an imagination acceding to its fondest ideals. Songs like ‘Starlit’ and the majestic ‘Feeling All Alone’ reverberate with skronking synth and an unnerving sense of wonder, while guitarist Adam Franklin (yup, he of Swervedriver) drives ‘Establishment’ into a dizzy wall of vertiginous twang – like a Chris Isaak song left on a radiator. Variety Lights are something very special indeed.

It’s a tough act to follow, but then again, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas has never been one to care what other folks might think. Decked out in beret and braces, he explains that we are merely spectres inhabiting his dream world – you can’t really argue with that, so let’s go along with it. The landscape mapped out by his singular psyche is freakishly, irresistibly colourful; the taut funk of ‘Love Love Love’ is punctured by irascible sheets of robotic noise, while the four-note cycle of ‘Mandy’ finds itself repeatedly pounded into glistening new shapes over the course of seven minutes. 35-year-old classic ‘The Modern Dance’ appears almost nonchalantly in the middle of the set, igniting the dancefloor and reminding us that Thomas’ vision has always been uniquely focused. This is art that’s beautifully dense and overpoweringly complex, but still gives your tail-feather a darn good shake. Incredible.

(Originally published by The Fly, 01/05/2013)

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)

TUNABUNNY – Genius Fatigue

June 4, 2013

When we were 12, my friends and I formed a band. Our “skills” were best described as rudimentary, matching our shoddy equipment and a feeble understanding of what we were doing. In school, we sold cassettes of ourselves (it was the mid-’90s) trying to articulate the raw sounds that buzzed frantically around our heads; perched awkwardly over a one-channel recording device but oblivious to its restrictions; gleefully obeying the gnawing need to disregard our artistic limits and just create for creation’s sake.

We told our peers we were the greatest band in the world, perhaps even convincing ourselves that three Beatles-obsessed fuckwits using two pencils as drumsticks might be capable of bursting past the surface; melting through the slime; becoming a phenomena for the ages.

Naturally, we were shit. But it’s the most artistically “free” I’ve ever felt in my life – the only time I can honestly say that notions of “how things are supposed to work” (yawn!) or “other people’s standards” (fucksake) or “professionalism” (spit!) were irrelevances. When self-belief and necessity and an inability not to create drove everything more than aspiration or consideration for how other people might perceive it. It was liberating, it was wonderful, it was the impetuosity of youth illustrated in such glorious colours that it’s dazzling to look back. So yeah, I peaked with shitty tapes of poorly-recorded, woefully-played half-songs, and fuck, man, I miss that feeling.

I’ve not thought about this stuff for years (the joy, the excitement, the unrecreatable  sense of wonder), but Tunabunny bring it all flooding back.Genius Fatigue is the third album from the Athens, Georgia four-piece, following the nihilistic avant-sulk of their self-titled debut and its post-punk-inflected follow-up, 2011’s Minima Moralia. Together those two records formed a diptych positing the destruction and ultimate salvation of music; an artform which has chewed itself and spat itself out so many times that any deviation from the tried and tested feels like a minor victory. Rest assured: this band are far from ordinary, and this continues the frankly mind-boggling acceleration of their capabilities. A sped-up image of a flower; growing and bursting and blooming into being. It’s beautiful.

Take that frantic opener, ‘Duchess For Nothing’. Building from panting, staggered urgency to high speed roars of assertion, vocalists Brigette Adair Herron and Mary Jane Hassell kick and punch their way through the song’s two raggedy minutes as though the fate of the world depends on them. “She ain’t a parody of woman – she’s a screaming queen”, they declare, pounding transphobia to dust with voices not wildly dissimilar to those of the Deal sisters (never a bad thing). Lo-fi, raw and bruised, it ain’t the stuff top ten hits are made of. But it is the sort of thing wide-eyed kids fall for with unabashed, undying devotion. We’re so used to the forced passions and staged over-emoting of 21st century pop that it almost feels shocking to hear people actually singing from their hearts – that’s exactly what this record does.

Elsewhere their muse takes hold of dizzy psych (‘Serpents And Lights’), fractured, ethereal balladry (‘Airplanes In Echelon’) and dusty, damaged drone-pop (‘Wrong Kind Of Attention’). Topics leap from Hollywood nepotism to political insurrection, while echoes of Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth and The Fall fly around with heroic abandon, occasionally crashing into each other and tumbling into concussed piles underneath the whole wonderful mess. Tunabunny’s glory shines through in the way their incandescence is more audible than their battered, scratchy instruments – songs are captured upon creation, valuing the rawness of the art and the celebration of its completion far higher than less interesting matters like musical proficiency. The scope of their imagination wins out, and tremendously, triumphantly so.

The “genius fatigue” of the title refers to the band’s disillusion with the same old artistic figures being held up as sources of inspiration; of the same old source material being devoured and excreted and devoured and excreted, again and again, in increasingly tedious ways. Maybe it’s time we cast off the old guard and developed new ways of appreciating art. Let’s give up on championing the fixed legends of received wisdom and abandon notions of aspiration or imitation over genuine heartfelt artistry (after all, where have they got us? Fucking Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran, that’s where – a patriarchy of mediocrity and smooth-edged tedium). Why don’t we try celebrating ideas that challenge? Or cheer at the accumulation of potential, instead of glib approximations of overly comfortable sentiment? We need a revolution. Maybe, just maybe, Tunabunny are the band to lead the way. (8/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 29/03/2013)