Archive for the ‘reviews’ 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)

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)

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)

HARD SKIN – On The Balls / Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear

June 4, 2013

OI OI! Time for more tales of coppers, cunts and council estates from Fat Bob, Johnny Takeaway and Nipper. Piledriving streetpunk classics with more hooks and mob chants than you can shake a copy of Shock Troops at. On The Balls, their latest collection of stirring classics, is as good as anything else they’ve done, if not better.

Menacing promises of vengeful violence (‘We’re Gonna Do Them’) sit side by side with rousing declarations of their own brilliance (‘Another Terrace Anthem’) and odes to the familiarity of their local area (‘The Gipsy Hill’). Like plonking guitars in the hands of the cast of The Football Factory, Hard Skin are raucous and deadly, and they totally rule.

Hang on,” you may be thinking at the stage, “this sounds awful. They sound like thugs”. Weeeeell… yes, that’s sorta the point. But there’s a twist: emerging from the punk scene of the ’80s/’90s, Hard Skin’s members have never been less than left-wing gents, playing with characters for shits and giggles. Fat Bob (real name: Sean Forbes, whom you may know as Noisey’s ever-hilarious Record Store Dude) fronted anarcho-japesters Wat Tyler, while Takeaway (a.k.a. Ben Corrigan) sang with the infamous Thatcher On Acid. Their current outfit pays homage to the enjoyable aspects of oi! – instant three-chord hooks, boozey singalongs, shout-outs to the lads and a good laff – whilst lampooning its less savoury elements. The joke, of course, is on any idiot oblivious to the satire, although the tricky part is that playing with shitty politics can unfortunately attract their adherents (just ask Warren Ellis or Al Murray). But fuck those guys, right? They’re idiots.

This time round, the ace up Hard Skin’s sleeve is to provide a companion record entitled Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear, in which the entirety of On The Balls is recreated with guest female vocalists. Perspectives duly switched, songs reveal themselves in different contexts: ‘Council Estate’s doomed, wantaway narrator is trapped in the life into which he was born. Replace him with Marion and Roxanne from Veronica Falls, however, and their smooth enunciation seemingly twists his words into those of bourgeois snobs, disgusted by their perception of the working classes. Cunning. Other songs, meanwhile, simply sound great, like Manda Rin’s performance on ‘Crack On, Have A Booze’, while there’s no little joy in Debbie Smith’s wry contribution to the homophobe-baiting ‘Sausage Man’. Hard Skin may not be the biggest band in the world, but despite the rough exterior of their records, they’re very clever indeed, and these two records will play havoc with your liberal sensibilities whilst secretly agreeing with you all along. May as well just lend ‘em your voice. (7/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 04/03/2013)