Archive for the ‘indie rock’ 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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

YO LA TENGO – Manchester, Ritz, 21/03/2013

June 4, 2013

SHHHHHHHH. We’re not planning to drop any pins – famously the most inaudible of all falling objects – but the near-spectral quietude of Yo La Tengo’s first set has certainly made us cautious of doing so. A solemn, respectful Ritz shuts its mouth and listens intently as the Hoboken trio strum acoustic guitars and murmur so softly that their voices crack with every shifting note. And holy fuck, is it ever sublime, lending tenderness and fragility to some numbers while amplifying those qualities in softer ones. ‘Ohm’ sees the whole band singing together, earnestly advising us not to worry so much. “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose,” they shrug resignedly, exercising their gift of making the simple sentiments sound sweetly profound. Georgia Hubley steps up to the mic for an entrancing ‘Cornelia And Jane’, but it’s Ira Kaplan’s keening sincerity on ‘The Point Of It’ that truly steals the show. A reassuring paean to the inevitability of getting older, it reduces the room’s dry-eyed quotient to a cold minimum. A heartbreaker for sure.

“Wait, back up, did you say ‘first set’?” Yes, dear reader, we sure did. Tonight YLT operate without support act, dividing their performances with a brief interval. It’s a Proper Show, in other words, and an infinitely louder second half delivers further thrills and fan favourites. In particular, ‘Moby Octopad’ and ‘Autumn Sweater’ showcase the band at their poppiest and most experimental, as drone-flavoured grooves mix with delightfully moreish ear-worms. The furious bursts and squalls of ‘I Heard You Looking’ bring the set to a thrillingly cacophonic close, but Yo La Tengo’s greatest skill lies in their ability to make even the biggest noise seem intimately warm. And if that’s not worthy of reverential silence, then what the hell is?

(Originally published by The Fly, 25/03/2013)

TEENAGE ANGST HAS PAID OFF WELL: 20 Years Of ‘The New Nirvana’

June 4, 2013

The music industry is a strange beast. All too rarely does it seek out new sounds or ideas. It does not embrace change or futuristic concepts like ‘progress’. Basically, it tends to stick with a tried and tested formula:

1. Find band
2. Watch band get popular
3. Attempt to sign everyone else who sounds like the popular band
4. Desperately hope one of these bands gets popular enough to repeat the process
5. Swim in piles of money

Of course, stage one is often the stopping point, and the trouble with stage three is that all sorts of shite gets ground up in the wheels of capitalism (that sound you just heard was The Fly’s copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ falling out of our pockets). Stage five is the great, unattainable goal of an unsustainable business model, and it dangled most tantalisingly during the 90s. Alternative rock was booming, and record companies strove to find another act who might replicate the success of the one band everybody seemed to agree on. The decade became an endless, fruitless search for ‘the new Nirvana’; a buzz-phrase which seemed more and more ridiculous with every Candlebox that fell by the wayside. Here’s just a few of the acts who were chewed up (and occasionally spat out) out along the way…

STILTSKIN

Hopes were high for this Scottish collective, particularly when they scored a chart-topping single with their grunge-inflected debut ‘Inside’ in 1994. Heroically pioneering the ‘Levi’s advert = instant megastar’ method of climbing the ladder, they provided a template for future jeans-endorsing acts like Babylon Zoo when everyone heard the album and instantly shared the same revelation – specifically, that Stiltskin were a load of useless old cobblers. Huzzah! After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the band, vocalist Ray Wilson went on to front an ageing Genesis between 2006-8, a move which equated to surefire success in much the same way as Harry Redknapp’s stewardship of Queen’s Park Rangers equates to ‘a sensible, well-thought-out appointment, ensuring the footballing and financial success of the club for years to come’. Stiltskin brought out a new record in 2011. Nobody noticed.

BUSH

Difficult to work out exactly why Londoners Bush irked the British press so much. Perhaps it was the timing of debut album ‘Sixteen Stone’, just as the prevailing Seattle whine was beginning to be surpassed by Britpop’s parochial optimism. Maybe it was the commercialist feel of their glossy, written-for-American-radio grunge-lite. It could even have been their audacious habit of being popular across the Atlantic, in contrast to the failed attempts of more celebrated countrymen like Blur or Oasis. In all likelihood, however, it was because they were utter cack. Bush deflected the Nirvana-wannabe jibes by recording a ‘difficult’ follow-up record with Steve Albini, before going onto become one of the biggest rock bands on the planet: proof, if it was ever needed, that the vast majority of people are fucking idiots.

SILVERCHAIR

Mere whippersnappers when their debut ‘Frogstomp’ hit the stands in 1995, Silverchair’s ambitions grew beyond their early Pearl Jam apery. Their initial success ensured hero status in their native Australia, but by the time they reinvented themselves as alternative metallers with third album ‘Neon Ballroom’, the rest of the world was already losing interest. Frontman Daniel Johns later pushed the band in more broadly commercial directions, also incurring the wrath of ‘Neighbours’ fanboys everywhere by marrying actress-turned-popster Natalie Imbruglia. All of which is vastly more fascinating than the tedious guff they plopped out before going on hiatus in 2011. That’s right, Silverchair are a rectum in this analogy. Tee-hee.

RADISH

It was the unlikely figure of Nils Lofgren who first noticed Radish’s potential: with two independent albums under their belts by the tender age of fifteen, the band’s alarmingly precocious songwriter Ben Kweller sent a demo to the sometime E Street Band guitarist. One expensively-assembled demo later, a bidding war ensued to sign the self-described ‘sugar metal’ trio, with the adolescent rush of ‘Little Pink Stars’ burning briefly but brightly across UK radio in the spring of 1997. Essentially a goofier, grungier cousin of Ash’s effervescent ‘Girl From Mars’, the single flung the trio into the spotlight – major label debut ‘Restraining Bolt’ met with positive reviews, an opening slot at the Reading festival proved triumphant, and the band returned to the studio, excited by plans for an ambitious second album. Inevitably, the record was shelved; Radish were forced to seek a release from their contract, and that was the end of that. Kweller resurfaced at the turn of the millennium, pedalling Ben Folds-tinged country-pop under his own name.

IDLEWILD

A snarling bundle of sweat and chaos, Idlewild’s early appearances saw their sound famously described as “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”. Influenced as much by the angular pace of Superchunk as June Of 44’s dissonant post-rock, their art-school approach to Neanderthal punk energy made them heroes to skinny indie kids and muscular rock fans alike, before concerted efforts were made for the Edinburgh outfit to become (uh-oh!) ‘serious artists’. With journos hasty to rewrite their ‘new Nirvana’ spiels with the phrase ‘new REM’, it soon became apparent that the band were shooting for middle age too soon. Meanwhile, the band’s Roddy Woomble cultivated the worst haircut ever sighted on man or woman, before embarking on a fairly-well-received folk career. Which, one presumes, is lovely for him. Bit boring, mind.

LLAMA FARMERS

That’s right, Llama Farmers. Every now and again there’s a beat combo with a name of such jaw-dropping, face-palming, nation-uniting shitness that you want to stick them in stocks and allow infinite slaps to anyone who feels even slightly irritated by it. This Greenwich lot’s first two singles were decent enough to distract from their woeful choice in the moniker department, all hully-gully grunge riffs and shoegazey insouciance. Sadly, their transposition to a major label showed the gaping holes in their oevre – chiefly a lack of good songs or redeemably interesting features – and they passed unremarkably into the great indie dustbin in the sky. Nothing more was heard from them, but if you listen closely on a quiet night, you can still hear echoes from 1998; faint, ghostly whispers of angry voices seething at that bloody name.

PUDDLE OF MUDD

Fortune was never going to favour Wes Scantlin in the long run. Despite some independent success following Puddle Of Mudd’s formation in the initial grunge explosion, the phrase ‘discovered by Fred Durst’ doesn’t look good on anybody’s CV. Not even to Fred Durst. Trudging into a rock landscape razed to the ground by the ravages of nu-metal, the ‘workmanlike’ (read: bobbins) Muddsters suggested they might be due an extension to their excruciating 15 minutes of fame when worldwide smash ‘Blurry’ became another anthem for fans of knuckle-dragging yarlers like Nickelback and Creed. It was short-lived, however: before long a piss-drunk Scantlin sabotaged the band’s limited appeal with sloppy shows and embarrassing onstage rants. By summer 2003, nu-metal was a somewhat embarrassing stain on the 21st century’s trousers, and Puddle Of Mudd resumed their rightful place as a clump of dried jizz on the discarded, crumpled-up tissue of rock.

THE VINES

He looked like a star, and certainly tried to act like one. But things just didn’t pan out as Craig Nicholls had hoped – despite media proclamations that The Vines would save rock’n’roll with a handful of Mudhoney-esque stormers and a wealth of faux-psych ballads, the world just couldn’t stay interested. There was a crunching, cartoon-grunge charm to early singles like ‘Highly Evolved’ and ‘Get Free’, but ultimately audiences started to grow suspicious of garage bands called things like The Plural Nouns and started listening to post-punk imitators like Franz Ferdinand instead. Second album ‘Winning Days’ generated little but ripples of disappointment, while Nicholls’ increasingly-erratic behaviour (related to his as-yet-undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome) alienated the band even further from their fast-dwindling fanbase. The Vines continue to record to this day, either ignoring or oblivious to their current status as a half-remembered anachronism.

DINOSAUR PILE-UP

By and large, the idea of discovering a ‘new Nirvana’ ground to a halt in the noughties; the triumphalist New Rock Revolution and cerebral tendencies of the post-punk revival were at odds with what used to be known as ‘the Seattle sound’. Sure, there was the odd bunch who’d generate lazy references to the Aberdeen angst merchants – the swiftly-forgotten Nine Black Alps, for instance – but rock’s reference points had undeniably shifted. So it was something of a surprise when Leeds trio Dinosaur Pile-Up emerged in 2009, almost completely obscured by a cloud of Cobain comparisons. They were LOUD! They were PUNK! They were, without a shadow of a doubt, THE NEW NIRVANA. Except they weren’t really. As a swift spin of their forthcoming second LP ‘Nature Nurture’ will attest, jauntily-pleasant mosh-pop doth not make for era-defining, paradigm-realigning, awe-inspiring rock’n’roll. Verily, it maketh for sounding like Feeder. And that can’t be the point, surely?

(Originally published by The Fly, 21/03/2013)