Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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)

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New year, new start

January 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get serious about writing.

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

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

Imagine.

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HNY, everyone

w x

Don’t bury me… I’m still not dead

November 7, 2010

All quiet on the WHTB front recently, but I’ve not been avoiding the keyboard entirely. In the unlikely event that you might want to read any further drivel from these fair hands, two of my live reviews (Auxes and Shrag, who are both superb) crop up in the latest issue of The Fly. My contributions to that mag’s website can be found here as well, including my review of Darwin Deez‘s recent show in Liverpool.

I also scribble for Bookmunch on occasion, if you’re really interested. There’s a fair few of my book/comic reviews up there, and an interview with Zak Sally to boot. In short, the internet is far from light on stuff wot I writted.

Should probably have updated with this sort of thing before now, really. Ah well.

Please sir, I want some Moore

October 24, 2010

the legendary Alan Moore

Mention Alan Moore to most people and you probably won’t get much response. Mention him to arts-savvy hipster types and you’re likely to cause some discussion about the bearded old druid who was phenomenally important in the reinvention of comics as we know them. Mention him to comic nerds and you’ll be smacked around the ears with a volley of rabid, utterly-reverential devotion. So it’s safe to say he’s carved a decent niche for himself – within a field that’s pretty niche itself – as arguably the most well-known figure in comics (with the very possible exception of Stan Lee).

Whether the cognoscenti know him from masterfully-written works such as the genre-transcending Watchmen, occasional appearances on late night arts shows or as the guy who wrote the source material for some hit’n’miss movies (a debate for another time), you’ll recognise that he’s an impressively intelligent dude. Plenty of comic writers have been praised for their scope, or the complexity of their output – Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco and Frank Miller stand out as obvious examples of realtively-modern times – but few have the same all-pervasive resonance of Moore’s writing. His reputation is well-deserved. It’s interesting, then, that his latest project should not be another comic, but an independently-produced magazine.

Dodgem Logic is not an ordinary culture magazine – there’s none of the hip-to-the-moment hackery that populates Sunday supplements, nor the excruciating Nathan Barleyness of Vice et al. Instead, Moore has gathered writers who are passionate about their subject matter and know how to string some interesting words together without a thought for fashion or other similar irrelevancies. The first issue alone features an article on attempting to live without money, some well-informed femenist polemic and Moore’s own thoroughly-researched history of underground publishing. There are also comic strips (including one by indiepop’s favourite comedian Josie Long), but it’s important to note that they’re treated with the same validity as the columns, rather than for tokenistic value. It’s immensely readable. If the magazine seems slanted towards a Northamptonshire perspective, it’s because that’s how Moore wanted it – although he also claims the DL team “are not local or global: we are lobal.” Five issues on, the magazine is still going strong.

This might seem like something of a vanity project, and perhaps it is to some degree. The vitality of the writing and the colourful, delightful artwork that binds it all together, however, make it more of a necessity project. The age of the internet presents us with almost too much choice in terms of reading material (how did you find WHTB anyway, and why are you still reading?), and underground publications like this are disappointingly rare. That it should be such a fantastic read is a testament to the excellent choice of contributors, and I urge you to seek it out and help ensure that Dodgem Logic remains a going concern.