CHELSEA LIGHT MOVING interview

June 4, 2013

Last time we encountered veteran noisenik Thurston Moore, he treated London’s magnificent Union Chapel to a hushed, blissful performance of his acoustic album ‘Demolished Thoughts’. Two years on, it looks as though the urge to construct walls of squalling, structured noise has taken hold once again – with Sonic Youth on indefinite hiatus, the iconic guitarist has returned with a debut album from a new band: Chelsea Light Moving. Loud, eponymous and relentlessly brilliant, it’s a welcome return for one of indie rock’s most enduring figures. So what better time to pose a few questions about poetry, heavy metal and starting afresh?

How does it feel to start out with a new band?

It doesn’t so much feel like anything new so much as how it smells. That smell of freshness, of baby powder sprinkled on a baby’s bottom. It can only become mannered and predictable and decoded with the relentless teaching of time and when that happens it will go away and I will start a new band called The Lonely Listener. I was thinking of actually starting a new band every year, or at the very least, a new band name.

What do your bandmates bring to Chelsea Light Moving?

Well Moloney is someone who can knock back a gallon of Guinness and five hits of mescaline and blast through a gig without anyone realising he’s titanically twisted (because he just is). Samara plays bass as if it’s an oversized violin turned sideways and she rocks it like a kosmische archer. Keith can play anything and everything and make it slay – he’s weaned on Minor Threat and Wizz Jones LPs. He should’ve got the Stones’ gig first time Woodsy dropped his pick.

Do you prefer to work with a female bassist?

If it was up to me it’d be a law – that ONLY females are allowed to play the bass in indie rock bands. Why? Because dudes think of the bass as a power thud and girls do not – they seemingly treat it as a cool beast to make the bad boys cry.

How did you choose the band name?

I just didn’t want to do gigs under my own name. Thurston Moore is not a good band name, I don’t think. Not as good as Dark Flight or Man Overbored. It’s a shoegaze title in reference to my desire to be a Londoner in my late 50s. But the gaze has lazer vision now and with it I plan to burn hot lines along Stoke Newington High Street from Jolly Butcher to Café Oto.

Did you consider that it might be less recognisable than your own?

No of course not. You think I know what I’m doing here? Moloney has to beg me to come to the rehearsal studio because I’m too busy looking for first edition Frank O’Hara poetry books but when I do comply it’s always a magic blast – all these songs were written in nine hours total.

How would you describe the record?

It reminds me of when I used to plug my brother’s Fender Strat into my family’s cheapo stereo system on top of our refrigerator in Bethel, Connecticut in 1973. I’d wire the guitar lead into the auxiliary input on the back of the console and the overdrive that would happen au naturel through the shit-shocked speakers was the defining sound of my artistic existence. So it’s nuthin’ new.

Is it a reaction to ‘Demolished Thoughts’?

Yeh. I’m ready to take my 12-string acoustic Martin and slowly grind it into the maw of a psychic wood-chipper.

Do CLM enjoy the same sort of musical telepathy as SY?

All groups NEED telepathy to even begin thinking about getting on stage. As Lydia Lunch has said, “Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD” – magic, sound & vision, are key – otherwise it’s just a disco.

Has your writing process changed?

I make all the ultimate calls in CLM – so that’s pretty cool in a megalomaniacal way – but that does get to be boorish after a while so I’m thinking of throwing it down for a bit to concentrate on opening a poetry salon in east London (true).

(Originally published by The Fly, 27/03/2013)

 

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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)

IL SOGNO DEL MARINAIO – Liverpool, Eric’s, 05/03/2013

June 4, 2013

Things were different last time Mike Watt came to Liverpool, in support of his fourth solo album Hyphenated-Man. A collection of herky-jerky spasms in the vein of the Minutemen, his legendary 80s outfit that expanded the horizons of hardcore, the record was a simultaneous rediscovery and affirmation of the idiomatic singularity that defined his early career. With new ‘uns captivatingly despatched, we were then treated to an encore of fan favourites from his former band’s catalogue – a punk-funk dance party with nostalgia as the icing, not the cake.

This time, Watt may be the draw, but whatever it says on the poster, he ain’t the whole of the act. Il Sogno del Marinaio’s Stefano Pilia originally approached San Pedro’s favourite son about the prospect of recording and touring Italy together way back in 2009, and it’s only now that we’re seeing the fruits of their endeavours. But that’s enough context – what does it do? Well, quite simply, as much as it possibly can. This is incredible music, lurching from dissonant post-punk racket to funked-out groove to free jazz-inspired dexterity and more. ‘Zoom’ rolls by on a gently loping bassline, while Pilia uses a bow to tease freakish atonality from his guitar, and Andrea Belfi skips subtly across the kit with elastic-limbed rapidity. ‘Partisan Song’ just plain rocks, sounding like a riff Tim Kinsella and Sam Zurick might have dreamed up for one of their mathletic Joan of Arc spin-offs. Every song gives voice to a collective imagination set free and doing what the hell it wants.

The effect is wonderful. Il Sogno del Marinaio project movies onto the canvas of my mind: one minute I’m in a scuzzy backstreet bar straight out of dystopian cyberpunk anime. Next I’m wandering the desert of a western as directed by Jim Jarmusch; poignant in its monochrome starkness. Suddenly I’m lying in a field, gazing at dark clouds overhanging the cold earth, feeling the rain tapping softy against my face. I’m Roberto Benigni singing sweet inanities behind bars. I’m Robert de Niro driving the diseased streets of New York. I’m everyone and everywhere, lost to the illustrative flow of the sound. See, this music is cinematic and visual, not just noise but allegorical narrative, as emotive and viscerally beautiful as any words or physical action. I am so fucking in love with this band.

They round things off with a blistering cover of The Stooges’ ‘Fun House’, which closes with the frontman holding his bass aloft to yell, “Start your own band!” You can practically hear hearts being crossed as everyone present mentally promises to do so, whilst also suspecting that it couldn’t possibly be as wonderful as what we’ve witnessed tonight. If Mike Watt wants to play songs from his formidable back catalogue, I’ll be there. But man, if he and his equally-impressive bandmates want to make new music as richly powerful as this, I’d almost be happy to never hear a note off Double Nickels On The Dime again. Il Sogno del Marinaio rule.

(Originally published by Get Into This, 10/03/2013)

ICEAGE – Liverpool, Shipping Forecast, 26/02/2013

June 4, 2013

Moody fuckers, Iceage. You can tell from the way they march sombrely onstage – no strut, no swagger, just unblinking, unsmiling purpose. Guitars are strapped on with no acknowledgement of the crowd, and with a swift ripple of drums, we’re straight into the first song. And what a fabulous din they make: solid sheets of freezing, isolationist noise, skirting the dextrous, probing jabs of their post-punk influences in favour of powerful, pummelling onslaughts. They’ve quite reasonably drawn comparison to Joy Division for the mechanistic nihilism of their recorded output, but tonight’s set calls to mind Moss Icon’s anguished howls, or even the prototypical emocore of Embrace (not that one) – punk that’s progressive with a small ‘p’.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the controversy over the Copenhagen foursome’s dabblings with far-right imagery – undetectable here (well, they don’t unfurl a giant swastika behind the Shipping Forecast’s tiny stage or anything), but still, there’s an element of freakshow in the air, the room full of typically-liberal hipsters. Will they address it? How will they deal with it? What will they do? Well, nothing, as it turns out. ‘Banter’ (ahem) is limited to song titles spat into the air with typical sang-froid, ignoring the fratboys’ relentless, drunken shouting (in mock-Scandanavian accents – nice). Difficult to judge, but when an excitable punk audience seems reluctant to punch the air, lest it be mistaken for sieg heiling, it seems fairest to cautiously accept the band’s official line: that their aesthetic choices are made with an apolitical approach, however misguided or naïve that may seem. Something tells us the debate will rumble on tediously.

Anyway, back to the music. It’s powerful. It’s punchy. It’s positively seething. It’s the familiar sound of youthful disaffection, crushed into jagged shards of thrilling brutalist sound. Hear that, Iceage? You’re something, alright.

(Originally published by The Fly, 07/03/2013)

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)

An Introduction To Sonic Youth

June 4, 2013

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic Youth’s fearsome debut ‘Confusion Is Sex’. But where to begin for those looking to get started with this most user-unfriendly of bands? Picking through their immense back catalogue can be a treacherous business, so we thought we’d help you get started with a guide to ten of the American punk legends’ most earth-shatteringly great tracks.

‘100%’

A burst of feedback introduces a thunderous riff, with Thurston Moore snarling his sarcastic blues through clenched teeth. As close to pop as Sonic Youth ever got, not to mention as instant an album opener as you could wish for, this originally appeared on 1992’s ‘Dirty’. Butch Vig’s muscular production oversaw the band attempting to mesh their art-rock sensibilities with a genuine attempt to become major pop culture superstars. In that regard they failed, but boy, what glorious failure.

‘Bull In The Heather’

Mystery, dissonance and the unnerving sound of Kim Gordon monotonously intoning “tell me that you wanna bore me”. One of Sonic Youth’s most popular songs, the title came from the name of a racehorse, imprinted on a bumper sticker given to Thurston and Kim by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich.

‘Eric’s Trip’

Possibly Lee Ranaldo’s finest moment. The pounding heartbeat of the drums drive their point home amidst an other-worldly haziness, virtually blocking out anything approaching melodic sense and mirroring the hallucinogenic hyper-awareness of the song’s bewildered narrator. The squalling splendour of 1998’s ‘Daydream Nation’ represents the band’s masterpiece, and this is just one of its many highlights.

‘Shadow Of A Doubt’

Heavily referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’, this 1986 track uses sparse harmonics and foreboding percussive thwacks to weave a tapestry as starkly suggestive as anything conjured up by the master of suspense himself. Above the ominously restrained beauty, Kim breathlessly whispers a plea of “kiss me”, somehow managing to sound both compellingly sensual and completely psychotic at the same time.

‘Dirty Boots’

1990 saw Sonic Youth freshly signed to Geffen, following lengthy relationships with notable indies SST and Blast First. ‘Goo’, their major label debut, showed what happened when they lowered their eyes from the sprawling magnificence of the open horizon and concentrated on what was right in front of them – specifically, grunge. In the event, we get a solitary, explosive leap through the best chorus they ever wrote followed by heroic bursts of noise and a heart-bursting instrumental sequence that seems determined to escape the confines of mere sonics, ascending straight to the heavens in the process. Not quite the hit single they envisioned, then, but still: incredible rock’n’roll.

‘I Dreamed I Dream’

Originally appearing on their self-titled debut 12” in 1982, ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ was the by-product of a band immersed in the compositional guitar experiments of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, whilst still half in love with the dissonant headfuck of New York’s briefly-sparkling no wave scene. Distinctly unmelodic, the song’s powerful rush comes from a hypnotic, minimalist bassline, with Kim’s flat murmurs melting softly into Lee’s howling mantras. Post-rock before post-rock; the first significant footsteps in a thirty-year adventure.

‘Death Valley ’69’

True horror committed to tape: guitars that sound like howling winds pitted against the tumultuous storm of the rhythm section, while Thurston duets with no wave icon Lydia Lunch on an account of the Manson family murders. Lifted from second full-length ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the song was a metaphorical depiction of the moral decay of 80s society: the idealism of the hippie dream torn to shreds by the cynicism of the following generation. With or without the horrific slaughter scenes of its accompanying video, it’s simply the sound of pure, unadulterated terror.

‘Expressway To Yr Skull’

Guitars that sound like doomed cathedral bells, melodies that hang heavily and moodily amidst a funereal trudge… the band pulled out all the stops with this astounding number. “We’re gonna kill the California girls,” Thurston wails, implicitly decreeing an end to pop’s mindless feelgood factor as the chaos escalates around him. Not for nothing did Neil Young describe this as “the greatest guitar song of all time” – where other bands expect to fly, this track effortlessly soars.

‘Teen Age Riot’

The definitive song from the band’s definitive statement, ‘Teen Age Riot opens with ethereal chords that crash against each other like waves in a chemical sea, before the pure noisepop thrill of the main riff throws everything into delirious relief. Supposedly envisioning a world with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis as president, the track represented Sonic Youth’s greatest success by that point, both artistically and commercially. There were many great records to follow ‘Daydream Nation’, but crucially, they never bettered it. Flawless.

‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’

Something of a curveball when it appeared at the turn of the millennium, the album ‘NYC Ghost & Flowers’ was composed following the theft of the band’s equipment. Forced to work in unfamiliar circumstances, SY teamed up with Chicago experimentalist Jim O’Rourke (who would briefly become an official member of the band) to create their least immediate record since the early 80s. With Lee’s image-soaked poetry standing before a post-rock backdrop that shames the relatively-traditionalist likes of Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, this title track is something of a curio, but thoroughly rewarding nonetheless.

STILL CURIOUS?

Wondering where to start? For the greatest works, look no further than the mighty triumvirate of ‘EVOL’, ‘Goo’ and the majestic ‘Daydream Nation’ – albums that define both the end of the independent era and punk rock’s major label experiment of the ‘90s. If it’s the serious stuff that intrigues you, then ‘A Thousand Leaves’ and ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ contain their most ambitiously complex work, but genuine novices might want to head for the hits’n’faves compilations ‘Screaming Fields Of Sonic Love’ and ‘Hits Are For Squares’. Dive in!

(Originally published by The Fly, 01/03/2013 – opening paragraph by Alex Denney)

BLANK REALM – Go Easy

June 4, 2013

“Will you clean up my mess again?”

Ok, so we know Richard Hell was talking nihilism. His fabled Blank Generation stood in staunch opposition to the failed idealism of the hippy dream; bathed in defeat and ruin; recognising that if it’s all for naught, you may as well do what the f*ck you want.

He was saying “get me out of here” before he was even born, although he’s still kicking around, so what would he think of 2013’s broken-down, end-of-days mindset? We’re beyond mere generational talk here: pop culture has eaten and regurgitated itself so many times that all that’s left to do is re-arrange the excremental remains in as many different patterns as we can. See what sticks – hey, guess what? Shit does. There are no new ideas, we’re constantly told. No new sounds. No new grooves. The new is fucking gone, and so often it feels like vitality and focus have gone with it – we inhabit an amorphous, flaccid blob of culture, with no defining qualities except blurred flashes of what went before. Welcome to the blank realm.

“Guess I’ve been acting kinda strange”

One of the central tenets of postmodernism was that there were no new ideas – which means that pop music in particular has been trapped in a postmodernist nightmare since the revivalist culture of the ’90s kicked in. It’s been (pseudo-)intellectualised and cemented into such an institutionalist clusterfuck that there’s no longer debate to be had – when received wisdom dominates, it swiftly wears thin, so the logical option is to tear away at it. Of course, when everything’s torn and splintered into miniscule subgenres, there’s no longer a dominant culture. Everything is murky and unclear.

Now, I’m not saying that this is what Brisbane quartet Blank Realm had in mind when they made this record (in all likelihood, they were driven by the same primal urge that drives most kids to whack guitars at volume – the insistent desire to make noise). There’s nothing high-concept or era-defining about this collection of spacey noisepop. What I am saying is that they’re a pretty accurate reflection of the age in which we live; the basic thrills of, like, whatever, hidden behind clouds of woozy fug. Narcotic yawns hidden behind guitars that sound like sloppy shit one minute, and an imploding cosmos the next. Dismissive loucheness, shrugging off the complexity of life in favour of knowing, wilfully-dumb slogans. The need to thrill with everything, powered by a recognition that it means nothing. Plus a flat refusal to give a solitary fuck.

Rhetorical question: how many fucks do you have to give for pop music to mean anything anyway?

“Gotta go to school today/Gotta learn that stupid shit/Soon as I can get a car to drive/Then I’m gonna be done with it”

Go Easy is Blank Realm’s first album, and it’s really good. Drenched in the reconstructionist rock’n’roll of Royal Trux, it veers from gaping spacerock chasms – all cheap weed and broken effects pedals – to perky, post-punk pop. They lack the studio mechanics of Herema’n’Hagerty, but the desire to rock out scuzzily is all present and correct, with equal emphasis placed on committing to the energy and surrendering to the drone. Hear the way ‘Cleaning Up My Mess’ stomps mightily through its snotty chorus before nodding out to a lazily blissful riff. “Girl, will you clean up my mess again?” Literal mess? The mess of sound? The mess they’ve made of life? That’s not answered, but it plays out as an admission of male ineffectuality as much as a terse refusal to resolve a situation. The title track is even more wracked and triumphantly lost: guitars stutter and start; uncertain and sounding thoroughly sick of it all. Meanwhile there’s tracks like ‘Acting Strange’ which pick our ears apart with disco damage and a barrage of disorienting effects, rebounding chaotically and majestically between speakers until you feel like you’re falling off the fucking pavement.

See, that’s the thrill of pop in this day and age. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It rarely does. But sometimes something comes along that seems to revel in nonchalant noisemaking; gives in to the din and just is. Effortlessly, thrillingly, brilliantly, Go Easy does that in spades. Blank Realm? I’ll take it. (8/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 28/02/2013)

MAZES – Liverpool, Camp & Furnace, 22/02/2013

June 4, 2013

Jack Cooper looks tired. A day wasted by the side of the road will do that, of course, and a broken-down van looks to have drained the joy from his bandmates’ faces. The quietly-spoken Mazes frontman looks particularly affected, his sombre expression capturing the meagre space between disappointment and exhaustion. Of course, by the time the spiralling, Television-esque ‘Bodies’ reaches its juddering climax, he’s jumping and stomping around the stage, lugubrious chords ringing ominously and punctuating his flammable fretwork. And why not, huh?

Most of the cuts tonight come from new album ‘Ores And Minerals’, with the tartrazine-fuelled Eric’s Trip-isms of their debut reduced to a few brief cameos. And that’s a-OK – nothing against their former life as lo-fi Yankophiles, but the out-rock tinges of their new material fit them like a particularly well-tailored glove. So, as welcome as old favourites like ‘Bowie Knives’ may be, they’re attacked and received with less relish than the discombobulated lurch of ‘Daniel Higgs Particle’. The band acknowledge the latter as their tribute to Baltimore legends Lungfish, fuelled by cyclical, awkward pulses and a hook that yearns without imagining there’s a resolution on the horizon. Zen psych-pop that permanently blemishes the skin rather than pointlessly blistering – it’s great stuff.

‘Skulking’ is the other set highlight: a locked, motorik groove underpins a meandering melody, sung plainly and mirrored on the guitar before the whole thing launches into a fuzzed-out solo that channels the band’s frustrations into engaging fury. It’s all anchored by the restraint of the rhythm section, reminding us that rage is expressed even as the rest of the world continues to spin, and it’s even more intensely thrilling for that. Marry that mastery of form and execution to a knack for pop tunes and you’ve got a real force to be reckoned with. Luckily, that’s exactly what Mazes are.

(Originally published by The Fly, 08/03/13