Posts Tagged ‘Britpop’

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)

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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)

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”