Saturday, 22 December 2007

Glasvegas (Live)

Live review for The Skinny

glasvegas @ cabaret voltaire, edinburgh, 7 dec (****)

In a way, it’s ridiculous that Glasvegas should already be receiving such hype on the basis of just five songs. But on the other hand, the way people of all ages are responding to the handful of tracks made available on MySpace is incredible. It’s like an Oasis crowd, with gangs of men and boys hugging and punching the air and singing along from the depths of their throats. They’ve only recorded half an album, but tonight this Cab Vol crowd knows all the words. Glasvegas’ anthemic choruses are wrapped in a dreamy haze, just as the band are obscured by red smoke, but there’s emotional gravitas here too, particularly in their revelatory first single Daddy’s Gone. It’s no surprise when their sixth and final song of the evening is a cover of the Ronettes’ Be My Baby; it clearly inspires everything they do. If Glasvegas can continue to re-contextualise one of the 20th century’s greatest pop songs for the 21st, there’ll be no stopping them.

Future Of The Left (Live)

Live review for The Skinny

future of the left @ glasgow barfly, 6 dec (****)

The new project of former Mclusky and Jarcrew members, Future Of The Left released an exhilarating debut album in October that flew under too many radars. Curses was a record of ludicrous thoughts snarled by Andy Falkous's tongue-in-cheek, over chugging punk guitarwork, and bent into the kind of melodic shape that Fugazi and the Pixies first conjured. The Barfly is tiny, so we can feel the jocular aggression like welcoming heat from a fire, every song bristling with manic tension and playful hooks that beg to be yelped with glee: “Colin is a pussy, a very pretty pussy!”, “s-s-s-sausage on a stick, yeeaah!”, and so on. It makes no sense at all, yet it also makes no sense that Future Of The Left are still playing such wee venues for wee crowds. If a band this good can’t at least book out the Barrowlands, there really is no Future.

Canadian indie-pop singles round-up

Single Reviews for The Skinny

young galaxy - outside the city (arts & crafts, **)

There’s definitely a Canadian indie-pop aesthetic: well-mannered romantic dream-pop with tightly controlled outbursts of passion, and always a male-female vocal duo. Adding to this over-stuffed market are Young Galaxy, a Vancouver male-female duo who carefully calculate their noisy swirls of emotion in an effort to inject edge into otherwise generic twaddle. It doesn’t work – it’s turned into a formula and is becoming generic itself. Even the originators of the Canadian revival are struggling to progress without a change of direction, the last thing we need are late arrivals wearing cheaper clothes.

stars - the night starts here (city slang, **)

Canadian indie-poppers Stars involve three members of Broken Social Scene, but don’t show any of their verve or bluster here. With over-polished production and twee spaceman synths, Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan make unfathomable drama out of whispered clichés like “forget your name, forget your fear” and “we’ll be angels after all.” Perhaps in the context of the album it’s a barnstormer but, on its own, The Night Starts Here is as sweet as melted marshmallow, and as sickly too.

kevin drew - safety bricks (city slang, ***)

It’s not easy to say why Kevin Drew’s Spirit If... is not the new Broken Social Scene album we’ve all been hoping for: packed with charming and catchy songs like Safety Bricks, it lacks only the focus to keep it a concise, fatless full-length. Safety Bricks is one of the happy-clappy songs, the one where he coos “woo-oo, woo-oo, woo-oo” like a courting bird of paradise, over a thrusting, shuffling rhythm, and in between romantic promises. Like the best pop, it’s fleetingly lovely and entirely disposable in equal measures.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Capello Appointed England Boss

Football report for Blogcritics

Fabio Capello was confirmed as the next manager of the English national football team on Friday. The English FA announced that the Italian has signed a contract for four and a half years, with reports suggesting his salary to be around £6 million a year. He replaces Steve McClaren, who earned £2.5 million a year and was sacked three weeks ago after failing to lead his team to Euro 2008.

Capello has one of the finest club football pedigrees in the world. His first managerial job was with AC Milan in the early 90s, where he built a team that is often considered among the best club sides ever assembled. They won Serie A four times in five years, and are fondly remembered by neutral fans for their comprehensive 4-0 victory over a strong Barcelona side in the 1994 Champions League Final. Capello then left to join Real Madrid, where he won the Primera Liga at his first attempt, before returning to Italy.

In 1999 he moved to Roma, and he brought them their first success in a decade when they won the league in 2001. His following years were not so successful, before he moved to Juventus in 2004 and won Serie A with them twice in succession. (It should be noted that these two titles have now been stripped from Juventus due to the match-fixing scandal uncovered last year). In 2006 he returned to Real Madrid, and despite opposition from fans who disliked his defensive style, he again won them the Spanish title. He now joins England, his first ever international appointment, having left Real in June.

While on first glance the appointment of one of world football’s most successful bosses represents a huge coup for the English FA, fans would be wise to be wary of two things. Firstly, international football is fairly different from club football, and requires different talents. This applies to players as well as managers: there’s an endless list of players who excelled for their clubs and flopped for their country, and vice versa. International football doesn’t allow managers to buy their way out of trouble; Capello is stuck with a pool of around 50 potential England players and must rely on the clubs to develop new players for that pool. Instead of working with the players every day in training, Capello will only have a few days before each game to work on set-pieces, tactics and team cohesion, and there are usually several weeks or months between games. More so than in club football, the international game relies on personal skills of man-management to get players in the right frame-of-mind for individual matches. Capello’s personal skills are frequently criticised: he has fallen out with players at every club he’s managed.

Secondly, Capello has a very poor grip of the English language. In an earlier piece, I said that the English FA must hire a man “who can… communicate his tactical instructions clearly to his array of top players”. Rafa Benitez agrees that the language barrier can cause real problems. How can players play to a disciplined tactical system when they don’t understand their instructions? How can a half-time team-talk be inspirational when it is incomprehensible? Capello says he will bring an Englishman into his staff to help with translation, but plenty of meaning can be lost from a second-hand speech.

England must also look at why they are not developing enough talented managers of their own, as Paul Ince has noted. A major footballing nation with such an infrastructure, such riches, and such passion for the game should have a queue of suitable bosses lining up for their top job.

In the meantime, England fans can only speculate about how Capello will do. He doesn’t officially start the job until January 7th, and faces his first test in a home friendly against Switzerland a month later. Capello has spent his career gathering top credentials in club football; now he faces the challenge of living up to those credentials, in a different country, and in a slightly different context.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007


Feature for the Skinny - Glasvegas

Everyone knows the story about Oasis’ breakthrough 14 years ago: they were spotted at King Tuts by Creation Records boss Alan McGee, playing a 20 minute set while third on the bill, and offered a deal on the spot. This summer McGee announced that he had done it again – spotted a brilliant new band third on the King Tuts’ bill, that was “the sound of young Scotland today”. McGee told the Guardian “I hadn’t loved anything that much since the Jesus and Mary Chain demo tape in the 80s”. For a band that had been quietly working away on their sound and building buzz from the ground up, such a grand statement in a national newspaper caused a huge hike in hype and expectation. But frontman and songwriter James Allen has adjusted to it now: “through a little time we’ve became friends [with McGee]. His enthusiasm for the songs I write blows me away at times. I see him as the Malcom McLaren or Tony Wilson of this generation.”

There’s no need to question McGee’s claimed 13-years of sobriety based on this assessment: the Mary Chain’s place in the Scottish music hall of fame isn’t yet under threat, but even before they’ve signed a record deal Glasvegas look a likely candidate for future entry. They’ve borrowed from dozens of sources – a look between The Clash and the Velvet Underground, the shoegaze guitars of early Creation bands and related fuzziness from Suicide, a 50s songwriting style and Phil Spector production values – to mould their own sound unlike anything else being hawked at the moment. Lyrically they have the subtlety to write sensitively about the pain caused by absent fathers, as well as uniquely Glaswegian anthems like “Go Square Go” and “I’m Gonna Get Stabbed”. Even the NME has displayed rare good taste by declaring “Daddy’s Gone” the “…single of the year. No question”.

The release of that debut single on MP3 and limited edition 7” at the beginning of November was the culmination of two years hard work, but things have been accelerating for several months now. They’ve supported Dirty Pretty Things, The Charlatans and Ian Brown, and made more fans in high places. “Ian phoned up out of the blue saying he’d got given a demo” James says. “The guys heart, spirit and soul was an eye opener.” At the time of writing the band remain unsigned, but that surely will not remain the case as you read this. James is already thinking ahead to the debut album: “I’ve got a bunch of new songs ready that the band ain’t even heard yet. My ambition for when we make our first album will be to give as much of myself to it as I can give in the hope of making something sugary and soulful”. This year, the Twilight Sad made an indelible mark with a debut album that caught everyone by surprise. Don’t be caught by surprise in 2008: keep a very close watch on Glasvegas, the west coast’s new, new favourite band.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Marilyn Manson

Preview for The Skinny

Brian Hugh Warner released his sixth album Eat Me, Drink Me in June, mostly to collective shrugs and “meh” from the media. Remember when Marilyn Manson used to be blamed for shootings and ill morals by outraged tea-drinkers everywhere? He’s shocked us so much there’s nothing and nobody left to offend – even the Daily Mail gave the album a positive review. While Manson might still look grotesque, his music has moved from dirty industrial shock-rock to glam and funk-inspired pop-metal. Supporting him at the Braehead Arena will be Norwegian rawkers Turbonegro, who describe their new album as “full of speed, power, humiliation and freedom!” There are 5000 seats at the Renfrew shopping mall, so there’s plenty room to make it an early Christmas treat for the whole family. Yes grandma, you too.

Braehead Arena, 8 Dec, 7.30pm, £25

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


Introducing... feature for The Skinny

Exactly a year ago, The Skinny wrote about a young Edinburgh band called The Rushes, who were creating a little buzz around the city after winning support slots with acts like The Fratellis, The Kooks and New Young Pony Club. Back then, frontman Daniel James Abercrombie said: “Next year I want us to succeed and for people to enjoy what we’re doing.” Just months later, The Rushes ceased to be, but that isn’t the end of the story. “That petered out,” Daniel says now. “We hit a brick wall with it about a year ago. We scrapped all the songs and started again: new name, new outlook. We’re a new entity, something completely different”, he asserts.

Despite running out of fuel while doing reasonably well as The Rushes, The Artists Now Known As Chutes are full of optimism for their new project. In just a few months they’ve already played to a packed T Break tent at T in the Park, and recorded BBC radio sessions for Steve Lamacq and Vic Galloway. Daniel is encouraged by the capital’s eternally burgeoning music scene: “We’re doing gigs with other Edinburgh bands that are challenging each other, playing together and inspiring each other. We’ve been part of the Edinburgh music scene for ten years, and there’s never been a better time than now. I often just walk around the place, I find it really inspiring.”

But he remains level-headed about the chances of succeeding in a music industry still trying to get to grips with the revolutionary effects of the internet: “There’s so many bands up on MySpace that are not going to get anywhere. You have to be realistic - to get to that level of success you need to be well marketed and there has to be a marketplace for you. You can make an album that a couple of thousand people really love but that’s not enough to pay your bills. There are bands like Aereogramme that never broke through to that next level but have made some amazing music.”

Chutes are at the comfortable state where they can pick and choose the gigs they want to play. When we meet them, they're supporting trendy New York afro-beat combo Vampire Weekend, and do a much better job of animating the crowd than the esteemed headliners. They clearly know how to write a hook, and Daniel looks like he’s been a frontman all his life. Their tunes are razor-sharp and call to mind local heroes Idlewild and Geordie upstarts Maximo Park. A year ago Daniel said “We need to get a wee break to progress to the next level.” Tonight he says “We’ve pretty much taken it as far as we can on our own, the next thing is getting involved with the industry.”

That's the same final step Rushes faltered at last year. Perhaps in a year we'll be writing again about a new incarnation of Daniel and his band-mates, back on their feet again after another re-think. As it is, Chutes are positioning themselves for the ever-anticipated Edinburgh boom around the corner. It may never come, but if it does, the least Chutes can expect is to be carried onwards and upwards in the slipstream.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Ween - La Cucaracha

Album Review for The Skinny

ween - la cucaracha (***)

Veteran American japesters Ween are masters of the half-serious game they play: mocking music styles and conventions, and building barriers to criticism through their own highly developed sense of irony. When they play it sorta-straight, Ween display a wide-ranging songwriting talent capable of evoking varied reactions: as on the explicitly carnal metal-punk of My Own Bare Hands, the self-loathing ballad Object, or the cartoonish bounce of Friends and Shamemaker. But among the 13 tracks of La Cucaracha are parodies of reggae, new-age spiritual music, hillbilly and prog-rock (at least, we must hope these wacky boys are winking). Like any joke, these spoofs lose their appeal after just a few listens. For example, the 11-minute Woman and Man perfectly lampoons the grandiose ambition of pretentious prog, with ridiculous statements, pompous drum solos, and overblown guitar workouts. It’s a great yarn, but how many times have you actually listened to that Spinal Tap LP?

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Malcolm Middleton

Preview for The Skinny

Together as Arab Strap, Aiden Moffat and Malcolm Middleton were Scottish music’s greatest duo (don't give me any of your Proclaimers nonsense). Now apart, they’re proving just as irrepressible. We gave the latest of Middleton’s three solo albums - A Brighter Beat - a glowing review back in February, even going as far as suggesting the downbeat singer had songs which “border[ed] on joyous.” His first two solo albums weren’t half bad either, even if they were melancholy in the extreme. On this UK mini-tour, expect Middleton to try out some of his new songs . He may currently be recording an “acoustic(ish) mini(ish)” new album, but he will be backed by a full band.

ABC, Glasgow on 5 Dec; Liquid Room, Edinburgh on 6 Dec. 7pm, £11.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Roy's Iron DNA - Men In Wax Jackets

Album Review for The Skinny

roy's iron dna - men in wax jackets (**)

On debut album Men In Wax Jackets, Edinburgh-based Roy's Iron DNA distinguish themselves from other budding bands by combining trip-hop beats, echoing dub grooves and the production values of a smoke-filled room to menacing effect. It’s not obviously like anything else, and could’ve been a winner without some foot-in-mouth vocal choices. While acknowledging that there must be a plurality of opinions in music, the ominous atmosphere and dubious social commentary of second track Silent Majority is unsettling, and surely cannot be spoken in reference to Scotland’s capital. The flat vocal melody of Soon You’ll Know makes a hash of the clichéd hook “we’re only waiting for the sun”, and the unintelligible foreign mumblings on the bass-heavy Bruma appear to be nothing but a pretentious patchwork designed to cover-up a shortage of ideas. Unfortunately, what good ideas Roy's Iron DNA do have are watered down within the context of a full-length that is more troubling than it aims to be.

Arrests in football corruption investigation

It came as no surprise to readers of Football Is Fixed when Willie McKay, Harry Redknapp, Milan Mandaric and Amdy Faye were arrested yesterday as part of ongoing investigations into footballing fraud. Back in July I posted on another football forum that there was a common link between many of the transfers which were not cleared by the Lord Stevens inquiry:

"I think the obvious connection in all of this is a certain football agent who I will not name, but I'm sure you'll understand who I mean.

He was the agent of:
Player B who transferred from Auxerre to Rangers
Player B then transferred from Rangers to Newcastle
Player F who transferred from Auxerre to Portsmouth
Player F then transferred from Portsmouth to Newcastle
Player M who transferred from Auxerre to Portsmouth"
"Player F" was a reference to Faye (who later moved to Rangers on loan), and the agent I was referring to was Willie McKay, of course. You'll have to work out the identity of players (JA)B and (B)M yourself, but unfortunately one of them is no longer under the jurisdiction of British police. Harry Redknapp had the finger pointed at him by the BBC Panorama programme, and frankly it's a wonder he's still in his job after these developments.

Of course all of these people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (as are current Portsmouth chairman Alexandre Gaydamak, super agent Pini Zahavi, Kia Jorrabichian, Sam Allardyce, Eggert Magnusson, Malcolm Glazer, Gillett and Hicks, and lots of other innocent people)... but if they are guilty of impropriety they'd better get the book thrown at them. You might think that lifetime bans from football would be an obvious non-criminal penalty but that isn't what the Italians think, so who knows! Also, as a Rangers fan myself, I'm very concerned that we have got involved with this agent, with Faye (who's shite anyway), and with that other possibly-dodgy transfer triangle with Auxerre and Newcastle. We await developments with interest. In the meantime, keep an eye on Football Is Fixed for the latest.

McLeish Leaves For Birmingham, Scots Face Uncertainty

Football report for Blogcritics

Scotland became the second British nation within a week to lose their football manager yesterday, after Alex McLeish (known to the fans as "Eck") resigned from his position to take the top job at Birmingham City. Whereas the English FA sacked Steve McLaren because of his incompetence, the Scottish FA desperately wanted to hold on to Eck after the stunning progress the Scotland team made under his guidance. Unfortunately for Scotland, that success just led to covetous glances from others, and ultimately the money and glamour of the English Premiership was able to woo Eck away from the job leading his country. That is hardly surprising if Eck's £400,000 per year salary will be quadrupled by Birmingham, as reports suggest. McLeish told the BBC today: “I absolutely loved my time as coach of the national team, but… I have always harboured a desire to manage in the Premier League and I am really excited about the challenge”.

While Birmingham City fans can feel excited about the prospect of Eck's arrival, for Scottish fans the news marks another period of soul-searching and uncertainty. It is the second time in a year that a successful Scotland manager has left the job to return to club football; Walter Smith quit to re-join Rangers back in January. Smith had turned the team's fortunes around after the disastrous reign of Berti Vogts, even leading Scotland to a famous victory over France. Incredibly, the team did not suffer from a change in management after Smith left, as Eck took charge and led the Scottish team to another famous win against the French. Although the team failed to qualify for the European Championships in the end, their ascent to 14th in the FIFA World Rankings was noted across the footballing world. The Scottish FA now face the difficult task of appointing a replacement with the nous to maintain the current squad's level of over-performance.

So who are the candidates? At the time of writing there is no obvious choice, with different bookmakers choosing their own favourites. Billy Davies, who was fired by Premiership strugglers Derby on Monday, is a front-runner who has already declared himself interested. Dundee United manager Craig Levein is highly thought-of, as is Hibs boss John Collins. Former national team captain Gary McAllister is also widely-tipped as a candidate, despite having no top-level coaching experience. Kilmarnock's Jim Jefferies, and Southampton boss George Burley, are also in contention.

Less realistic options include Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, Everton manager David Moyes, and former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. The departures of Smith and McLeish have illustrated that club management is far more appealing than national management to ambitious bosses. Ferguson and Moyes are proud Scots, but neither would leave their current clubs. Mourinho is a dream candidate for any management position in the world; he is unlikely to choose Scotland above all else.

A Scots' worst nightmare would see Steve McClaren in the running. Even at odds of 50/1, he's not a wise investment – it's never going to happen. Don't be surprised to see the Scottish FA appoint a 'management team', pairing an older man like Craig Brown or Joe Jordan alongside a rookie like McAllister or Collins. With Scotland out of competitive action until next September, there's plenty of time to make a decision.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

England's Qualifying Failure Down To One Man

Football report for Blogcritics

There’s been much gnashing of teeth and clutching at straws since England’s spectacular failure to qualify for the Euro 2008 championships in Austria/Switzerland. “There’s too many foreigners!” some exalted, as if the strength of the English Premiership impacted badly on domestic players. “We need to train the kids better” others said, as if this campaign has been a result of long-term negligence. “There’s too many egos in the squad!” claimed others, including Sunderland boss Roy Keane. None of that is true; the truth is the problem was plain incompetence by manager Steve McClaren; and the decision to sack McClaren means England have already taken a massive step towards recovery.

England were drawn in a group that they should have found fairly straightforward. Russia and Croatia are both good sides, but neither have much history of achievement in International competition, and neither is currently enjoying a ‘golden generation’ as the English are often said to be. Israel are a third-tier side with only 1 or 2 players who would get near the English squad. Macedonia and the others should have been easy meat for a team like England. Yet a home draw against Macedonia, an away defeat to Croatia, an away draw to Israel, an away defeat to Russia and a crushing final day home defeat to Croatia meant far too many points dropped for England. The Croatia game on Wednesday was particularly galling: needing only a draw to progress, England pulled themselves back from 2-0 down to level it at 2-2. But incredibly they were unable to hold on for the point, in front of 80,000 home supporters, against a team that had nothing to play for. Croatia scored again, England were deflated, Russia went through at their expense. England finished in third, level on points with Israel. McClaren was sacked on Thursday morning.

Typically, there were some Englishmen who were only too willing to pin the blame on foreigners. They claimed that top Premiership clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea flooded their teams with players from Europe, Africa and South America, restricting opportunities for local players. The argument fails for the same reason that the indignant “they take our jobs!” attitude to immigrants fails: because the best man gets the job whatever his nationality, as proven by the key English players who simply cannot be replaced by foreign imports. The cream always rises to the top. If they are good enough, they will break through – and in fact, young players can only benefit from training alongside the likes of Tevez (Argentina), Makelele (France) and Gilberto (Brazil). Besides, England didn’t always have it their way before the Sky TV revolution changed the national make-up of the league: they failed to qualify for six of the 14 tournaments between World Cup success in 1966 and hosting the European Championships 30 years later.

It’s not a so-called ‘grass-roots’ problem either. For that to be true would suggest a long-term malaise. In fact, this current generation of players is dubbed England’s ‘golden generation’ because so many of them are considered world class. Liverpool could not have won the Champions League without the inspirational Stevie Gerrard. Wayne Rooney was a revelation at Euro 2004 and remains one of the best young attackers in the world. Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich can’t find a foreign player remotely suitable to displace John Terry or Frank Lampard from the team, despite his cavernous wealth and fancy for using it. These players are all among the top handful in their position in the world, and with youngsters like Micah Richards and Theo Walcott coming through, the conveyor belt of talent isn’t showing too many signs of slowing.

It’s tempting to agree with Keane that the problem is with the players’ egos. It’s tempting because fans have grown to resent top footballers in many ways: they’re paid vast amounts of money and sometimes look incapable of basic skills, and they lack the sense of devout loyalty to their club that the fans feel. Ashley Cole is a prime example of a footballer the fans love to hate, after he described a wage offer from Arsenal of £35,000 a week as a “piss-take”, and promptly left the club that raised him to join London rivals Chelsea. Players like Cole, Beckham, Lampard, and Owen have such a media presence outwith football that it’s tempting to imagine they practice pouting more than penalty kicks. But to give in to such assumptions is to forget that other countries do well enough with perceived egotists too. Footballers have been top celebrities in Europe for many years now – and it didn’t stop England getting to the World Cup Quarter-Finals just last year.

Has everybody suddenly forgotten that achievement? England played poorly but still got to the last eight, before losing to Portugal in a penalty shoot-out and sacking Sven-Goran Eriksson because that wasn’t good enough! The squad then and the squad now is virtually the same, but in 17 months England have managed to drop from a place among the best eight in the world to a position where they failed to prove themselves to be among the 16 best in Europe. This is no pirates/global warming correlation – this is cause and effect in action - this is exactly what happens when you replace a competent manager with an incompetent manager, and there are dozens of examples to show this throughout football.

Two clear recent examples can illustrate this from two of England’s British counterparts. Under Bertie Vogts, the Scottish media wrote that he suffered from having to work with the worst ever generation of Scots’ players as the team slipped to 88th in the world. Yet just two years after that lowpoint, the same group of players under different management have dragged Scotland up to 14th in the FIFA Rankings and been rechristened as “potential legends”. Similarly, Northern Ireland went 10 games without even scoring a goal under Sammy McIlroy. Lawrie Sanchez took over and led the same players to wins over England, Spain and Sweden. Their leap up the FIFA Rankings was even more impressive than Scotland's: 124th to 33rd under Sanchez. There are countless examples like this that prove that football is as much played on the training field and the tactics board as it is on the pitch on matchday. It’s not always easy for the press or fans to pinpoint exactly where the problems lie, meaning Eriksson was probably criticised for his tactics just as much as McClaren. It’s what we don’t see – the training methods, the team-talks, the dressing-room relationships – that determines whether players perform above and beyond their usual form (as with the Scottish and Northern Irish players), or are pale shadows at International level of their true capabilities, as with the current English squad.

English fans are not being delusional in believing players like Gerrard and Terry are world-class: they consistently prove at club level under top managers that they are. England don’t need knee-jerk reactions; they don’t need to close the borders to foreign imports or make sweeping changes at youth level. They just need to hire a manager who can foster a positive and determined atmosphere within his squad, and communicate his tactical instructions clearly to his array of top players. If he can do that in the dressing-room, we’ll all see the evidence on the pitch.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Harlem Experiment

(my first) Album Review for

the harlem experiment (***)

The Harlem Experiment is the third in Ropeadope's "experiment" series of albums, which each set out to explore the life and culture of the chosen city, as interpreted by local musicians. After Philadelphia and Detroit comes Harlem, which to my knowledge is a large neighbourhood of New York City rather than a city itself; but with a rich enough cultural and musical history to be deserving of such a tribute anyway. Considering that cultural heritage it should come as no surprise that this is a record that uses Latin jazz, funk and hip-hop to tell Harlem's story; unfortunately it never comes close to matching any of the better Latin jazz and funk records that have come from Harlem already, so is of little appeal to anyone with limited interest in Harlem generally.

On the surface The Harlem Experiment is a finely-executed concept album. There are no off-topic distractions – no tales of Bronx life or excursions to Central Park – and each song delivers something in the way of Harlem flavour. The 15-track album includes sampled radio debates on civil rights, descriptive monologues of specific scenes, and instrumental tracks that succeed in painting pictures: of meandering street life, families hanging out on the stoop, or friends chilling in a café. In other words, these instrumentals comprise slow jazzy grooves that don't really want to go anywhere. There are two tracks that stand-out as highlights: James Hunter presents a live and rather lo-fi version of "Rose In Spanish Harlem" that has charm in abundance, and the closing track "Walking Through Harlem" features hypnotic guitar lines and impassioned vocals from Olu Dara.

However, the biggest misstep comes halfway through, when we get an anaemic cover of Jimmy Castor's funk classic "It's Just Begun" after an impressive monologue explaining that Harlem's future is brighter than it's past. The greatest thing about the original was its sheer driving force, but this version replaces that with a meek shuffle and aimless noodling sprinkled over the top. It also features horribly dated synths, the kind of synths that a low-budget 70s sci-fi series might employ to denote travelling forward in time to the mysterious Y2K. I don't think that's the kind of retro-referencing futurism the interlude was intending to relate to. Another mistake is "Lil' Bit", a 4-minute story of a local girl who's a wannabe rapper, which is far too long to justify more than one listen.

Of course, thanks to the skip button (and now the delete button), a couple of poor tracks can be excised from any album at the listeners discretion. But even with those two lead weights dropped, The Harlem Experiment still fails to gain much height. "One For Malcolm" begins with an empowering Malcolm X speech, over which a solo trumpeter squawks and squeals as if to suggest disquiet or protest. I want it to burst open and thrust forward into a great cacophonous freak-out, but it never does: it continues to squeal, calms down, floats around, and then fades away. That's not how I remember Eddie Palmieri doing things, and that demonstrates the main let-down of The Harlem Experiment.

If you don't own the best recordings by Palmieri, Ray Barretto and the other NuYoricans already, they deserve prioritisation over this; if you do, this is going to strike you as inferior anyway. The Harlem Experiment is by no means a bad record, but considering the vast volume of albums furiously fighting each other for your precious listening time, it's just not quite good enough to warrant special recommendation.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Economic dilemmas in football

While I'm here and discussing Italian footballers, I have to recommend a blog I read several times a week - Football Is Fixed. The writer is a betting markets analyst who insists that corruption is rife throughout football and that matches are regularly fixed for economic reasons. This doesn't just happen in Italy, where match-fixing has been exposed and punished - apparently Asian betting markets are worth hundreds-of-millions of pounds for each and every Premiership game, and these markets have a huge impact on what happens during each match in terms of the performance of the referee, or the performances of other key individuals (goalkeepers usually). Transfer irregularities are also rife, he insists. I'm not convinced on 100% of it, but a lot of what he says makes sense.

For example, it does strike me as odd that everybody knows about widespread performance enhancing drug use in cycling and athletics, but it's rarely mentioned in relation to football. Considering the vast sums of money in football now (dwarfing cycling and athletics), the incentives for seeking to gain such an edge are far greater. The same basic truth applies to match-fixing. Again, I think everyone knows that it is rife within cricket (as the murder - sorry, the accident! of course it was an accident! - of Bob Woolmer demonstrates) . The sums of money involved in football are so massive that it seems naive to believe that nothing of the sort takes place in moneyed-leagues like the Premiership, or in international competition. Why are characters like Gaydamak and Shinawatra buying up English football clubs, when every fan knows that the quickest way to lose a lot of money is to put it into football? Are there hidden revenue streams that we don't know about?

What always concerned me about the Scotland-Italy game is that there was only one result that UEFA wanted - an Italy victory. The value of the European Championships as a television spectacle is vastly increased by the presence of Italy rather than a small, unglamorous nation like Scotland. Not only does Italy have 10x more TV viewers than Scotland, but more neutral fans would tune in to see Italy play than Scotland, meaning advertising can be sold for a lot more. We're probably talking tens-of-millions of pounds here - is that not enough of an incentive to have a quick word in the referee's ear? When the governing body of a game has a strong vested interest in the outcome, how can we possibly be sure that the game is in fact meritocratic?

McFadden's post-game comments were enlightening as to his views on the matter:
"After all the hard work, we've been absolutely robbed by the referee. I think he was shocking. Coming from the Ukraine game, people didn't want us to qualify and they've got what they wanted."

Whoever could these "people" be that he's talking about?

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Scotland 1 - 2 Italy

I was planning to watch the Scotland-Italy game in the Tennents bar in the West End of Glasgow, but not long after getting there I got a last-minute offer of a ticket to Party On The Green. This was the giant marquee erected on Glasgow Green with 8 gigantic screens inside, a stage with bands and dancers and stuff, and 7000 very drunken Scotsmen. How could I say no? The £12 tickets sold out last week in 3 minutes and were going for £80 on eBay - I tagged along with my oldest pal Alan, his gf Angela, and his flatmate Stevie.

7000 drunken and over-excited Scotsmen do not disappoint. The atmosphere was incredible, helped somewhat by the on-stage performers: firstly, a band of big beefy men, wearing nothing but kilts and wild faces, with long straggly hair and unkempt bears, blowing bagpipes and banging drums with all their might. These are men who devour porridge and whiskey for breakfast, and wrestle bears and Englishmen for fun. We sang Flower of Scotland and 500 Miles and that bloody Chelsea Dagger...and 70 seconds in to the game, it all went tits up.

We'd been asking for it! Imagine erecting a 7000 capacity bar on Glasgow Green for the game! Imagine planning a fireworks show and three post-match bands to celebrate with! Imagine the Daily Record devoting 20+ pages to the match for 6 days straight! When the game kicked off, the players who had been dreaming all week about the upcoming game-of-their-lives were still dreaming, and Italy punished us. Hutton, Brown and Fletcher stood motionless on the right flank, Weir lost Di Natale and McManus gave Toni too much room = 1-0 to Italy.

Gradually we got back into the game, but teams like Italy always do this: take an early lead, and then allow the other team to have possession. It gives us false confidence, because we think we're playing well. We only had so much of the ball because Italy were content, being 1-0 up already. At half-time I rushed to the bar, and didn't get back to the match until there was 20 minutes left.

Alan had taken an hour to get the first round in, and missed the first 15 minutes of the game (well, seen them on small screens from a distance). There were plenty of bar staff, none of whom looked like they had ever been in a bar before. Admittedly, it must be tough to get staff to work on a day like that, but it seemed like they only had WRVS ladies and foreigners: both groups who are going to struggle to understand steamin' Weegies barking orders at them. Still, most folk in the queue were in good spirits and we had a laugh. I didn't really see Ferguson's goal - on wee tellies, from afar - and didn't even know who had scored until people started singing "Oh Barry Barry!" - but the celebrations were wild, of course: everyone hugging and kissing everyone else, screaming and jumping, drinks flying, star-jumps, aerobic leaps, and primal screams. Stevie and I got back with the drinks in time to see a bit of Scottish pressure, and McFadden's glaring miss which instantly made me think of Gazza's v Germany at Euro 96 - the cross was just too fast for him to wrap his foot around the ball and keep the shot under control (or you could say he was an inch too slow in getting to the cross). The sucker-punch came in injury-time - a scandalous free-kick decision (it was a free-kick to Scotland, not Italy!) - but worse than that, our non-existent defending which allowed Panucci to rise unmarked at the far-post for a free header. All was not lost at 1-1, we would still have had a hope of qualifying, yet the defenders switched off. For Scotland, the first 90 seconds and the last 90 seconds undid the entire 90 minutes of good work in-between.

People walked. Instantly, the tent ejected dejected fans into the pouring rain. We stayed. A press photographer saw me sulking and went to take a photo - not wanting to be The Face Of Gutted Scotland in the papers, I obscured the shot with my pint glass. We watched the three covers bands trying to cheer up the hundred-odd fans that remained dry. We watched the entirely inappropriate fireworks show. We went back to Paisley and I won £20 on the karaoke. If there's one thing Scottish football fans can do, it's accept a glorious failure. Life goes on.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Animal Collective

Live Review for The Skinny

animal collective - oran mor (glasgow) - 6/11 - (***)

Strawberry Jam has proved to be one of the most divisive albums of 2007, with just as many people saying they hate it as others who say they love it. Similarly, Animal Collective’s return to Glasgow splits the audience once frontman Avey Tare pulls out with a throat infection just hours before the gig. Playing on without him, Panda Bear and Geologist perform an hour of jams from Panda’s recent Person Pitch album, with only two Animal Collective tracks appearing all evening: Chores and Derek, both from Strawberry Jam. So for those unfamiliar with Person Pitch – not the easiest of records to get into on one live listen – it emerges as a frustrating night and not what they had bought their ticket for. Perhaps it should have just been cancelled instead: but on the other hand, for those who knew and enjoyed Person Pitch, hearing Take Pills and Bros instead of For Reverend Green is no great loss. In fact there's a real hypnotic quality about the dreamy throbs and echoing vocals - and the blinding background lights – which leaves the crowd silent and motionless, as if in a trance. Above scything synth noise and snatches of falsetto chorus hammered into a beat, Panda Bear sings like a stuttering yodeller in a cave, inducing those who are turned on to really tune in for the trip. Those who aren’t tuned in might have preferred it if Panda had dropped out at the start.

George Clinton

Live Review for the Skinny

george clinton - the arches - sunday 4/11 - (*****)

Before the star takes the stage, The Arches crowd is treated to a support band like no other: The Funk Brothers boast that they have played on more chart-topping singles than the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones and Elvis put together, and we get some of them tonight. Indeed, there Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, but Marvin Gaye is long-dead so this is the realest we'll ever get, and to hear that, along with Motown classics What's Going On, Uptight and My Girl from some of the original band is a real pleasure. With a rapturous throng demanding "we want the funk, give up the funk!", 66 year-old George Clinton finally took the stage sporting an explosive multi-coloured hair-do and a face bursting with croaky roars and commands. Clinton's call-and-response compering was followed with a religious fervour, while the band launched through extended guitar-heavy funk jams with snatches of recognisable motifs dotted throughout. Live funk is always liable to complaints of indulgency, but vamping a groove for long stretches is key to the style of a funk show, and it's allowed when just five seconds of a descending bassline (Flashlight) makes dancers wither at the knees. I've seen James Brown and Prince perform different kinds of funk: but George Clinton's P-funk is the most exuberant of them all, and he drives a ferocious funk party like no other.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


Apologies for my tardiness in updating. I've been hard at work reviewing albums and singles, interviewing bands, writing features... y'know, all the tough stuff music writers have to do. It'll all be published soon and I'll put it all up here ASAP.

On Sunday I was at the Bongo Club interviewing a local band called Chutes. They were supporting Vampire Weekend, who're a big new name in blogland at the moment, mostly because it seems white indie-boys have never heard afrobeat before. Why does it take an indie-rock band before anyone talks about afrobeat? It's almost as if it's a new style - mibbe afrobeat rhythms under indie-pop guitars IS a new style, but it wasn't one that convinced me on Sunday. I'd rather listen to Osibisa. Or Paul Simon. Anyway, at least Sasha Frere-Jones will be happy.

One of the features I've written tonight is for a new Glasgow band called Glasvegas. They're fantastic - click on the link and listen for yourself. Seriously, I've got pretty excited about this lot. They won't remain the best unsigned band in Britain for long. I'll post the Q&A up here ASAP, and the fully-prosed feature as soon as I can.

Finally, I want to publicly declare that Roxy Music's "If There Is Something" is the greatest song ever written (after 1:38 anyway). Either that or "Send His Love To Me", by PJ Harvey. I've been warbling them both at the top of my lungs for at least a week.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Caribou and Frightened Rabbit

Single reviews for The Skinny

frightened rabbit – be less rude (****)

The stand-out track from Frightened Rabbit’s promising debut album Sing The Greys, Be Less Rude is a perfect slice of unpretentious indie-pop that packs just enough verve and attitude to elevate it from the daily guitar-based grind. Riding on a plaintive harmonica, singer Scott makes a plea for politeness and perspective - “you sit on your high-horse and you’re spouting high-horse shite” - as drums crash right on cue. It’s anthemic and bouncy, without getting too big for its modest subject matter or flying away skyward. It’s that harmonica that weighs it down, imbuing a humble charm amidst building anger.

caribou - she's the one (***)

Caribou's Andorra is a capital N-shaped record, peaking with its first and last tracks and drifting down in-between. She's The One uses stuttering backing vocals as a beat, suffused within uber-romantic dream-pop and falsetto harmonies. It's really more than romantic - it's about infatuation, having an obsessive interest in a person despite the advice you're given ("you'll never see just how perfect she could be"). Lightweight but faintly eerie, it's most helpful to know that She's The One is Andorra's fourth track out of nine.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Confusion: Bernard Sumner

Book Review for The Skinny

confusion: bernard sumner, by david nolan (****)

Bernard Sumner has never been the most media-friendly of musicians, which means it’s easy to forget just how important he has been to the last 30 years of music. David Nolan’s new biography on the Joy Division guitarist who went on to lead New Order reminds you of his impact: from Love Will Tear Us Apart to Blue Monday and everything in-between and after, indie-rock would look very different without Sumner’s input. He has input into Confusion too: although it’s not an authorised biography, Sumner occasionally interjects to clarify or correct what former acquaintances have to say about him - “Sumner: That’s just not true. Never happened.” That makes for an interesting collage of different viewpoints where the reader wonders where the truth really lies. It also provides as much of an insight into Sumner’s personality, through his sharp rebukes and explanations, as has ever been seen. With Nolan’s in-depth research and casual, almost conversational prose, and Confusion’s impressively up-to-date conclusion, it makes for as comprehensive and readable a biography of the man as any post-punk or indie-dance fan could hope for.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

George Clinton

Gig preview for The Skinny

george clinton - the arches (glasgow) - 4/11/07

The Parliament-Funkadelic gigs of the 70s are the stuff of legend: giant spaceships descending from the ceiling, wild dancing in outrageous and bizarre costumes, and the loudest, skankiest funk ever heard performed by up to thirty musicians on-stage. Sadly, George Clinton’s Arches gig is unlikely to match up to those brushes with inter-planetary first contact, but it’s well worth beholding for anyone even remotely interested in funk. It’s no over-statement to say Clinton is a genius, one of James Brown’s few peers and a leader to funk’s greatest players like Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley (each of whom joined Clinton’s P-Funk revolution after honing their chops with JB). And even if the Arches doesn’t birth any UFOs or time-travelling wizards, 66-year old Clinton, with his multi-coloured dreads and wacky on-stage antics, is still the radgest pensioner you’ll ever see.

BSS present Kevin Drew (live)

Live review for The Skinny

broken social scene present kevin drew - the arches (glasgow) - 15/10/2007 (****)

If Kevin Drew hopes his name being prominent on the new Broken Social Scene album will shoot him to stardom, it hasn’t happened yet. Before tonight's gig a girl approaches him beside the merchandise stall and, completely unaware, asks where she can purchase the support band’s album. On stage, he’s not worried: Drew, band-mate Brendan Canning and a handful of the other Scenesters provide a raucous show, packed with BSS favourites and the best of Drew’s new Spirit an energised (and trendy-as-fuck) Monday night crowd. They meld gentle romantic charm with anthemic bluster, staving off soppiness with voluptuous guitars and the catchiest hooks never to make it to radio. Old favourites Cause=Time and Lovers Spit are given thunderous renditions, but nothing surpasses Drew’s own Farewell To The Pressure Kids, a cacophonous, echo-heavy jam that’s astonishing in size. By rights, Kevin Drew will never go unrecognised in these parts again.

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Album review for The Skinny

radiohead - in rainbows (*****)

At every stage since the phenomenal success of OK Computer, Radiohead have struggled to be themselves in the face of crushing pressure from their army of obsessive fans. After being both praised and pilloried for the leftward steps of Kid A and Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief represented that split between fans in its compilation of traditional indie-rock songs alongside more experimental efforts. Thom Yorke’s solo album got the scatter-bleeping tendencies out of his system, before Radiohead’s seventh album dropped out of the blue to demonstrate exactly how they were supposed to sound all this time.

With sumptuous, enveloping production, fluid guitars soaked in reverb, and Yorke’s voice at its most soulful, In Rainbows is Radiohead’s leanest, warmest and most accessible record in a decade. It exudes the confidence of a band liberated from the pressures of label deadlines and expectant fans, a band that finally seems – dare I say it? – happy in its own skin. This is a new Radiohead, one that subtly melds synths, loops, trips and beats into mid-tempo indie-rock, instead of clustering disparate styles into different songs and worrying about which to choose. Now you have the choice, but whatever you decide to pay for In Rainbows, it’s worth every penny.

What is the point of this review? Nick Southall suggested that one of the reasons Stylus struggled to increase it's readership is because the easy availability of music online now means there is little point in reading critics' reviews. In Rainbows exemplifies this: anyone who is interested in Radiohead downloaded this album three weeks before my review was finally published in The Skinny today. Everyone who reads this review already has an opinion on the album, so (despite that last sentence) I'm no longer serving any recommendation function. The relevancy of music criticism takes a blow when, instead of taking time to read trusted opinions and committing money and time to carefully chosen albums, people can bypass all that by giving cursory listens to everything and snap-judging it all. Sure, a soldier might land more bullets on an enemy by wildly firing at them with a machine-gun, and they may kill more adversaries that way. Perhaps technology has increased efficiency and rendered the old way redundant. But I don't think music should ever be about quantities and efficiencies: for me, it's more satisfying to take a breath, focus on the subject at hand, and land a shot squarely between the eyes.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Stylus is dead...

...long live Stylus!

Tomorrow is Stylus' last day as a going concern. I joined as a writer at the end of May and am gutted that it is ending so soon, but everything that Todd (Burns, the editor) explained about his reasoning was completely understandable. I would not want to sacrifice for five days what he has sacrificed for five years for that site.

I applied to the site in May on a whim: I never thought I would be accepted. I knew Stylus had some of the best music writers on the internet, so I could barely believe it when I got the e-mail from Todd saying I'd got in. The same day I'd received good news about my final Uni grade: I was far happier about being accepted by Stylus than I was about getting a good Law degree.

Since news of it's closure emerged, I've been reading reaction on forums, in comments boxes and on other blogs. Of course, the sadness expressed has nothing to do with anything I've written, but it has filled me with more pride at just being part of the team for a short time. Even Simon Reynolds expressed great sadness about it on his blissblog, and he's one of the greatest music writers ever. Looking back at some of the articles and reviews we've published - handily compiled on 'A Bluffers Guide To Stylus' - is truly inspiring to a budding writer like myself.

It was a privilege to write for you Todd. I only wrote 11 album reviews, and 3 blurbs. I wish it could've been more, and that one day I might've written something deserving of a place on that Bluffers Guide. Tomorrow, the world of music journalism will weep, but real life will keep moving. I'll continue to write for The Skinny, and re-evaluate in the new year.

Broon's Tunes (and other stories)

Since I started work in August, researching bands for a secret future project, I've become a real music geek. I've been a music obsessive for 7 years or so, but I've never quite approached this level of geekery before. Spending 8 hours a day researching bands on Wiki and AMG makes a big difference: and when I get home, I inevitably read more about music, the music that I want to read about. It's all I can talk about these days. I've become a right boring bastard.

So I thought I'd start a blog...

It's taken me a long time since I started writing to start a blog, for many reasons. Blogs have a tendency to be narcissistic, poorly written, and often superfluous for any writer who is published elsewhere. Bloggers say "I" and "me" a lot, which is fine if you're an interesting person, and not fine if you're not. I know I'm an interesting person. Now I just have to convince you.

But I'm still learning this game. In the meantime, while I'm slowly shifting up gears towards top speed, I recommend checking out some of the blogs listed down the left. Those are some very talented writers: my blog is already benefiting by basking in their reflected glory. In time there'll be music reviews here, and interviews, and comments and opinions and lists and similar. And despite what anyone who has chatted to me recently might think, I am interested in other things too: perhaps there'll be space here for 'other stories' relating to current affairs & politics, football, philosophy, (medical) ethics, and more. Perhaps. At the very least I hope that Broon's Tunes can prove - to myself as much as anyone - that I'm not a boring bastard, really. Let me know if it's working.