Posts Tagged ‘acoustic’


June 4, 2013

Supergroups, eh? Who’d have ’em? 1989 may seem like a long time ago now, but back then it turned out that a collaboration between two established indie rockers needn’t necessarily be filed under ‘tedious vanity project’. The Breeders were a revelation, conjuring fractious noise and sugar-sweet melody at every available opportunity, and writing some of indie rock’s best-loved classics along the way. A band this free-spirited was bound to be home to restless muses, of course, and with the most celebrated line-up reforming to coincide with the Record Store Day re-release of classic album ‘Last Splash’, this seems like a good time to take a look at The Breeders’ family tree…


It begins here. When half-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly first began playing together in 1981, they couldn’t have imagined the imminent impact of their fascinatingly fractured post-punk on the nascent indie rock landscape. A blend of unconventional song structures, David Narcizo’s wonky rhythms and hallucinatory lyrics doesn’t look like much on paper, but where their contemporaries sparked fires, Muses songs positively burst into brilliant blue flames. Their early demos eventually caught the attention of 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell, and before long the bemused band found themselves adored by critics and underground obsessives alike. The idiosyncratically talented Hersh wrote the bulk of the band’s material, dazzling and delighting on the bewitchingly batshit albums ‘Hunkpapa’ and ‘The Real Ramona’, but the feline yowl of Donnelly contributions such as ‘Not Too Soon’ suggested there was another significant voice amongst their ranks – one that would soon depart for pastures new.


There’s little to be said that hasn’t already been written about the influential screech of this Boston quartet, although it’s worth noting that their big break arrived when Fort Apache’s studio manager saw them supporting Throwing Muses. Before long they too had signed to 4AD, going on to record landmark debut LP ‘Surfer Rosa’ with the legendarily acerbic Steve Albini in 1987. Unimpressed by the Pixies’ screamily masochistic surf, the Big Black frontman famously dismissed them as “blandly entertaining college rock”, but regardless, the album was swiftly acclaimed as a classic. One particular highlight came in the relative anomaly ‘Gigantic’, sung by bassist Mrs John Murphy (aka Kim Deal) and soaring on a chorus so big you could stick a flag in it and legitimately claim to have discovered a new country. Tensions built between Deal and chief songwriter Black Francis, but the band soldiered on through another majestic album (1988’s sublime ‘Doolittle’) before eventually seeing their collective arse and temporarily disbanding.


Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly first discussed the idea of forming a new band when Throwing Muses toured Europe with the Pixies, eventually performing together under the clunky but refreshingly straightforward moniker ‘Boston Girl Super-Group’. One shit-hot demo later, they settled on The Breeders and signed to 4AD, recruiting English bassist Josephine Wiggs to accommodate Deal’s switch to guitar. Slint sticksman Britt Walford agreed to become a recording member under the pseudonym ‘Shannon Doughton’, and with Steve Albini at the helm, the fledgling band decamped to an Edinburgh studio. The resultant collection ‘Pod’ proved breathtaking: songs crawled out from under the horizon uttering otherworldly howls, punctuated by guitar lines that you could quite reasonably call ‘angular’ without having to look too shame-faced about it. The two songwriters meshed perfectly, and the album was simply stunning.

With Deal returning to the Pixies later that year, The Breeders became inactive until 1992 when they recorded the ‘Safari’ EP. Shortly thereafter, Donnelly left the band to pursue her own vision, and Deal asked her twin sister Kelley to fill the void – undaunted by trivial matters such as ‘not actually being able to play the guitar’, Kelley duly accepted. Following the addition of full-time drummer Jim Macpherson, this new line-up set out on the road with Nirvana before commencing work on their biggest commercial success: 1993’s ‘Last Splash’. Chiefly famous for the bouncing buzzsaw pop of lead single ‘Cannonball’ (and its attendant video, co-directed by Spike Jonze and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), the record added irresistible hooks to the addictive wonders of their debut, and cemented claims that The Breeders were a serious force to be reckoned with.


Following the first Breeders album, Tanya Donnelly officially and amicably left Throwing Muses, taking bassist Fred Abong with her to form a new outfit. Fleshing out the lineup with ex-members of hardcore punks Verbal Assault, Donnelly chose the name ‘Belly’, since the word itself was “both pretty and ugly” – the perfect encapsulation of their ethereal, folk-tinged alt-pop. The MTV-slaying single ‘Feed The Tree’, a sumptuous piece of off-kilter jangle, led 1993’s debut ‘Star’ to be nominated for two Grammys – a success which could not be replicated by the more rock-orientated rumble of follow-up ‘King’. In retrospect, the album rules as hard as anything else surfacing from the American underground in the mid-90s, but sterling anthems like ‘Now They’ll Sleep’ somehow failed to capture their audience’s imaginations as intensely as ‘Star’ had managed two years earlier. Donnelly’s first solo effort appeared in 1997, picking up where Belly left off, before her increasingly sporadic output softened steadily, as family life became her main priority.


Kelley Deal’s heroin addiction was far from secret, and she entered rehab following an arrest for possession in 1994, thereby forcing The Breeders into a period of hiatus. Kim reacted with a solo project entitled Tammy Ampersand & The Amps, before shortening the name in time to record their sole LP, ‘Pacer’. Originally intending to play every instrument on the album herself, she moved to retain Jim Macpherson’s drumming talents before enlisting future Guided By Voices guitarist Nate Farley and Luis Lerma to complete the lineup. ‘Pacer’ built on the pop hooks of ‘Last Splash’ to create deliciously garagey bubblegum pop – ‘Empty Glasses’, in particular, sounds like its spent hours siphoning petrol from parked cars to spit on bonfires – but positive critical reaction didn’t translate into sales. In mid-96, the hard-touring band folded when Kim decided to gather a new lineup of The Breeders – which, inevitably, was short-lived.


Upon leaving rehab in 1995, Kelley Deal elected to form a new band, pulling in favours from friends such as Jimmy Flemion from notoriously controversial slopsters The Frogs. First opus ‘Go To The Sugar Altar’ proved to be an unexpected treat, rich in gleefully shambolic experimentation and soaked in the sort of effortless melodicism that made ‘Last Splash’ such a universally instant favourite. Two years later, the band attempted to repeat the trick with ragged follow-up ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’, but their moment appeared to have passed. Commerical and critical indifference consigned the album to the bargain bins, and The Kelley Deal 6000 slowly evaporated.


Hertfordshire-born Josephine Wiggs didn’t exactly rest on her laurels following the dissolution of The Breeders. She embarked on a series of projects over the next few years, attempting to make her own mark with the ‘Bon Bon Lifestyle’ LP, released through the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal stable in 1996. Featuring former Spacemen 3/Spiritualized percussionist Jon Mattock – who also counted amongst Breeders alumni thanks to his contribution to the ‘Safari’ EP – the album drew from similar dreampop sources to Donnelly and the Deal sisters’ various outlets, and attracted reasonable reviews. But if ever a musical endeavour seems doomed from the get-go, it’s a bass player’s solo effort (notice how the heart sinks upon reading that phrase), and this was sadly no exception. Wiggs’ name simply wasn’t as recognisable as Kim or Kelley’s, and album sales reflected that anonymity. Shame.


At the turn of the millennium, the Deals formed a new line-up of The Breeders with Face To Face drummer Jose Mendeles and bassist Mando Lopez, resulting in the strange, sparse magic of ‘Title TK’ in 2002 and the poppier ‘Mountain Battles’ six years later. Factor in the reunion of the ‘Last Splash’ lineup and we’re just about up to speed, but there’s a handful of other acts worth mentioning since they form smaller branches of The Breeders’ family tree…


Mining a similar source of Lou Reed-inspired pop to 80s acts like The Go-Betweens, The Perfect Disaster had been kicking around London in various forms before Josephine Wiggs joined in 1987. She stuck around long enough to play on the ‘Asylum Road’ LP and support the Pixies, which led to Kim Deal inviting her to join The Breeders in 1989.


Longtime friends with the Deal sisters as fellow natives of Dayton, Ohio, the terrifyingly prolific Guided By Voices appeared in the video to The Breeders’ cover of their own ‘Shocker In Gloomtown’. After the split of the (recently-reformed) ‘classic’ lineup, singer Robert Pollard made one album with the backing of Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde, before snatching up former Amps Jim Macpherson and Nate Farley for a lesser-regarded but still shit-kickin’ GBV in the late 90s.


Another of Josephine Wiggs’ various outfits, Dusty Trails was a collaboration with Luscious Jackson keyboard player Vivian Trimble. Self-described as ‘mood music’, the band’s self-titled debut drew comparisons to French and Brazilian pop of the 1960s, and featured the vocal talents of country titan Emmylou Harris. Not quite ‘Cannonball’, then, but rather lovely nonetheless.


With the 6000 finished, Kelley Deal once again hooked up with Jimmy Flemion to form this hard rock supergroup, alongside Skid Row vocalist Sebastian Bach and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin. An album was recorded for Atlantic in 1996, but the label rejected the finished article, leaving Deal to release a limited pressing on her own Nice Records in 1998.


Kelley’s latest project, a collaboration with Ampline’s Mike Montgomery. Debut 7” ‘Fallout And Fire’ was a scratchily lo-fi lullaby composed of sparse acoustic guitars and tinny electronic hums; as gorgeous and moreish as The Breeders’ more subtle moments and utterly charming with it. More please.

(Originally published by The Fly, 19/04/2013. At the time of writing, I was mistakenly under the impression that the reissue was related to Record Store Day 2013 – seemed pointless to correct the mistake here though, given that it had already been published)


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)

I’m only trying to remind you

January 10, 2011

I tried with Teenage Fanclub. I honestly did. But for years it just didn’t work out.

It all started out so well too. In 1996 I was 13 years old and still delirious with excitement from the swiftly-dying Britpop ‘movement’. The NME – my weekly bible at this point – still occasionally gave nods to the Fanclub, but no matter how reverential the mention, they were hardly plastered across the paper enough for me to pay significant attention as a young pup enthusiastic for exciting new sounds (however retro and… well, not really exciting these sounds may have been). As it was, my pocket money went in other directions. I had Northern Uproar singles to buy! (And, if I’m honest, I suspect I may have been put off by Brendan O’Hare’s beard and the length of their hair. Time, you play cruel jokes on us all…)

By the summer of that year, I had discovered the Manic Street Preachers’ dark and abrasive The Holy Bible. This represented the beginning of a two-year love affair with that band, and is possibly the root of my love for more dissonant, less immediate music (leaving aside my embarrassment as a recovering MSP fan, one hates to use unbearably smug words like ‘challenging’ here, especially given how unchallenging it seems to me now). As far as this story is concerned, however, it caused me to pick up an issue of Vox magazine with a huge feature on the Manics and a free tape. The interview and retrospective on the Blackwood boys was obviously the main source of attraction, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the cover-mounted compilation of session recordings from the then-superlative Mark Radcliffe Show.

This wasn’t the first free tape I’d gotten with a magazine (that prize goes to a fairly unremarkable NME effort the previous Autumn), but it was certainly the first to contain more than a couple of tracks that I’d actually want to listen to. An acoustic version of Suede’s My Insatiable One sparked an obsession with Brett Anderson’s lot (that would mercifully evaporate with the release of Head Music several years later), whilst my first exposure to the intense sadness of Tindersticks still lingers in the memory.

The overall winner from this cassette, however, was Teenage Fanclub’s version of their b-side The Shadows. Devoid of a chorus, it instead featured nothing more than a simple harmonica riff and a gorgeously melancholic two-part harmony. The words were pretty enough to convey a sense of wistful optimism, and before long I found myself playing the song to myself whenever I picked up a guitar. It’s still a favourite, by the way, although I’ve now heard the ‘proper’ studio version, and frankly it’s not a patch on the simplicity and wonder of this acoustic strum-through.

And then suddenly… nothing for a while. The Fanclub’s sixth album Songs From Northern Britain emerged in the summer of the following year, but whilst i knew that Ain’t That Enough was a thoroughly pleasant tune, at the time it didn’t quite grab me as I wanted it to. Another two songs from that album turned up on NME tapes in the lead-up to that album’s release (the Raymond McGinley compositions I Don’t Care and Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From), and again I was unmoved. Young ears discovering the joy of volume in Sonic Youth’s glorious noise are perhaps not quite tuned into the sophistication of those pieces, and I was gleefully unaware of what I was missing out on.

I picked up more songs through free tapes, but it wasn’t until I heard their cover of Sebadoh’s It’s So Hard To Fall In Love in 6th form that they truly registered on my horizon again. Even then it was fleeting. I listened obsessively to the song over a glorious month in 2000, and then went back to ignoring Teenage Fanclub.

From hereon in things get messy. In university I discovered punk, and for a few years would label anything slower than the first Ramones album as ‘boring’. Unless it was reggae or 60s garage. Or Mogwai, oddly. In retrospect 2001 was a pretty exciting time, and a great time to be young, flush with a student loan and high on musical delirium. But I still regret the ease with which I dismissed so much great music that I’d discover for myself later on.

In the end, it was by accident that I got into them at all. In 2006, I finally managed to go to an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, for the first time since unsuccessfully trying to rouse my friends’ interest in 2001. Giddy with excitement, my pals and I started drinking on arrival, which swiftly cut short my interest in the event’s more cerebral bands. After getting thoroughly bored during Electrelane’s set, I wandered into the other live room to see what else was on. Anything that had a chorus or just sounded like a pop song would have done at that point. Happily,  a certain band (guess who?) were onstage, midway through their 1995 single Sparky’s Dream. I knew the song, and I’d enjoyed it as a teenager without being overawed. But it was different this time, for some reason. Instead of leaving me cold, it was drawing me in and surfing the waves of inebbreiated delight that ebbed and flowed around the hall. Next they launched into Everything Flows, quoted in my last blog and largely known to my undereducated ears courtesy of J Mascis & The Fog’s cover version. And then it was over. I’d missed the majority of the set. But by this time it was too late. I felt warm, fuzzy, drunk and thoroughly converted by that song and a half.

Upon returning home, one of the first things I did was buy their most celebrated album Bandwagonesque. Its charms took a while to creep under my skin, but once they did, I ceased to look back. From the opening line of The Concept (“she wears denim wherever she goes / Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo / Oh yeh”) to the final heroic instrumental Is This Music?, the album is an effortless, gracefully wonderful collection of simple pop songs that offer no challenge, dissonance or difficulty. Instead, it gets by on straightforward brilliance. It’s fantastic. I rushed to investigate their back catalogue further.

Four years later, I’ve fallen totally and utterly in love with their latest effort. In an eerily appropriate moment of symmetry with that first song of theirs that had me hooked, the album is called Shadows. It’s wonderful. Like finding an old pair of gloves in a drawer in the middle of winter, and discovering that not only do they still fit, but they match with all your other clothes, and age has not diminished their ability to keep your hands warm.

Norman Blake’s songs are almost always my favourite Fanclub tunes, but with Baby Lee and If I Still Have Thee he may have surpassed even his own dizzy heights. And Gerard Love’s Sometimes I Don’t Have To Believe In Anything is a gorgeously-understated piece of perfect pop – somehow indier-sounding than the Big Star/Byrds material that they’ve become famous for, but by no means schmindie. In fact, in one of those strange moments where a great band begins to sound like those it’s influenced, it reminds me rather of The Delgados, only better.

To close,  I could attempt to sum up everything that I’ve belatedly come to love about Teenage Fanclub, but Andy from the ever-excellent blog/fanzine A Fog Of Ideas managed to do so better than I could ever hope to. It’s not a short quote, but it’s entirely apt:

the fannies aren’t avant garde or edgey or any of those things but what I think they have done that is perhaps radical (if you like) is to make ‘adult orientated rock’ that manages to avoid a lot of the trappings of that much- and possibly justifiably-maligned musical styling: they’re not lazy or resting on their laurels or playing tried and tested chops, they’re not good old boys revelling in histrionics and overbaked mannerisms and the like

what I think the fannies have done is grow old rather gracefully, they play music that’s unaffected and from the heart and I think in a world where there’s so much artifice and copping of moves that’s kind of quite agreeable

which sounds like I’m damning them with faint praise but I actually find that quite significant and winning, uplifting even

possibly they may not be relevant… but then who’s deciding what is or isn’t relevant and what-me-worry?

for me they make music of infinite grace and beauty and I can understand why that might not be appreciated, it’s never been a common currency

and in my best whispering bob harris voice, the following fannies lyrics explain why they appeal so much to me:

here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?
true as a clear sky, ain’t that enough?
toy town feelings here to remind you
summers in the city do what you gotta’ do

you can call it niceness, if you want, I just think it’s anti-bullshit, or maybe it’s another kind of bullshit but it works better for me than the alternative all day, every day: cynicism, nihilism, misanthropism, all the isms, if you will

it’s better than that, it’s more hopeful

Wise words. I just wish the band and I had gotten along sooner.

Still, better late than never.

“Don’t look back”