Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Best of 2008: #1 Portishead - Third

Portishead - Third (*****)
album re-review for the skinny

Let's admit it: Third is a flawed album. A handful of songs, including the mesmerising opener Silence, end too quickly, and Hunter is ambitious but lifeless. But then again, flawless music doesn't necessarily mean great music, and criticism of some parts doesn't preclude appreciation of others. Third arrived 11 years after Portishead's second, self-titled, but it borrowed just as much from two other brilliant 1997 releases: Bjork's Homogenic, whose Hunter shared a song title as well as similar foreboding, jittery atmospherics; and OK Computer. Radiohead's version of pre-millenium tension is extrapolated and realised by Portishead's Third as paralyzing post-millenial fear. Plastic's enclosing and vanishing chopper; We Carry On's militaristic technological threat; the bare, unrelenting violence imagined by Machine Gun; the ghoulish guitar slashing of Smalls; and the deep bass alarms that close out Threads; combine to form some of the most affecting passages of the decade.

Parts of Third may underwhelm, but that's OK, because it's not adherence to preconceived standards that make us really love music, it's the unexpected moments of glorious invention that gives us the little squirt of dopamine and the reflexive smile. In this case, imagine instead a wall of monitors lighting up in terror to alert HQ to the bursting of a reservoir wall: Third doesn't cause smiles, it creates gapes.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Best of 2008: #2 Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing

Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing (*****)
album review for the skinny

Lil Wayne might be the reigning king of the mixtape, but Washington DC rapper Wale (pronounced Wah-lay) must be next in line for the throne. His Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing has changed the game, raising the bar of what can be expected from a mixtape. The previously understood definition saw the mixtape as a low cost buzz builder, an excuse to freestyle in-between the real work, while the studio album was the fully committed artistic document. How can that still stand when Wale's free Mixtape About Nothing is as good as or better than almost every full cost hip-hop album in years? Wale is eminently likeable because he doesn't take himself too seriously despite the obvious intelligence behind his lines: in The Kramer, Wale's brilliant deconstruction of how the N-word is used is followed later, in The Chicago Falcon Remix, by the throwaway "I hate rap like Kramer hates blacks". But there are so many great rhymes here, and Wale's flow on top of the go-go funk-flavoured beats is astounding. Don't wait around for Wale's debut studio album, this is his arrival right here.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Best of 2008: #3 Shearwater - Rook

Shearwater - Rook (*****)

Keen bird-spotter Jonathan Meiburg is more interesting than the anorak and binoculars stereotype suggests: he’s been a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in Okkervil River since 1999, and is now concentrating full-time on ornithologically named side-project Shearwater, whose new record Rook was one of the most beguiling of the year. The sparse atmospherics led to many comparisons with latter-day Talk Talk, but Shearwater retain far more energy than Mark Hollis’ sleepy troupe. With his distinctively sharp crooning vocals and a real ear for creating space with careful production, Meiburg’s band crafted a sumptuous melodrama that wavered between moments of despondency and beacons of hope.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Best of 2008: #4 Hercules and Love Affair

Maybe I'm just a retroist but I've been extremely suspicious of modern disco in that I prejudge it all to be a pale shadow of 70s NYC disco - much like, until I listened to Erykah Badu and D'Angelo, I casually dismissed nu-soul* as irrelevant when there's still so much undiscovered 60s and 70s soul to investigate (which is a confusion between a genre's popular peak and its actual potential). But Hercules and Love Affair sounds so good, it'd be impossible for a disco fan to ignore, whatever disco's modern standing. Don't gimme none of that "Blind" bumming, cos "Hercules' Theme" is where it's at: a ridiculously smooth horns & strings led groove that amazingly starts boiling over towards the end. I could easily fit that into a set right between Eddie Kendricks and Double Exposure and no-one would notice the 2008 song (like I used to do with "New Me" and "Music Will Not Last" from Jamie Lidell's Multiply. Maybe it was just that no-one was listening). OK so "Blind" is pretty great too. But I also love the way Hercules & Love Affair works as an album - not a collection of great 12" - by subtly varying in style between each song to keep things interesting. There's no filler, no B-sides, no beat bars solely for mixing purposes: it's an album for headphones, for striding, and for dancing.

*why 'nu-soul'? what's wrong with 'new soul' which is a precise description of what it is? Does the more stylized 'nu' make it more glamorous or exciting or something?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Best of 2008: #5 Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend

Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend (****)
album review for the skinny

Falkirk resident Adam Stafford seems to be reaching the end of his tether, as he complains, "New fans can't be swayed, promoters will not speak to me unless my profile's raised" on Rescue Weekend's title track. But that song will surely date quicker than a numbered group of revolving singletons, because Y'All Is Fantasy Island's second album confirms Stafford as one of Scotland's best young songwriters. His acoustic-led pleadings focus on murder, social depravity and failed relationships, continuing the fine tradition of Scottish miserablism so ably furthered by his hometown's favourite musical sons Arab Strap. On this evidence Falkirk's favoured-status will eventually change hands to Stafford, whose keen melodic sense brings life to every one of Rescue Weekend's ten songs. Even when he whimpers, "If I wrote my words in blood no-one would notice," the melodrama is tempered by empathy; if new fans still can't be swayed by the languid lilt of lost love lament Flowers and Flesh, the tumbling drums which add unexpected muscle to High Hopes...' gorgeous finger-picking motif, or the wailing horn solos that pierce through two further tracks, then there really would be reason to be miserable. The man Stafford has no reason to bleed yet.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Best of 2008: #6 Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One: Fourth World War

I kinda feel like this is Erykah Badu's answer to / apology for / explanation of Common's Electric Circus, which she featured on in 2002 (with her then boyfriend, of course), and is one of the most derided albums of recent years. But I actually enjoyed it. It was hugely indulgent and ambitious and experimented with all sorts of non-hip-hop sounds and styles and that seemed to make it RONG - because, as Kanye has just shown again, hip-hop fans can be as conservative in their music tastes as anyone else. Neither Electric Circus or New Amerykah are purebred anything: the first track on New Amerykah ("American Promise") is pure Funkadelic, but after that it runs a groovy gamut, often sacrificing any hints of 'a tune' in favour of Zappaesque (We're Only In It For The Money) stream-of-consciousness diversions. "Master Teacher" and "The Hump" both take such sudden left-turns you have to double-take your MP3 player when it says the song hasn't changed. So here we are again, able - if we so choose - to criticise Badu for having 'lost the plot' here, just as Common apparently did, when in fact we can suppose that there never was a plot to begin with and both artists were just following their instincts all along. For some reason, Badu gets away with her ambitious sprawl, while Common is held more tightly to his fans' expectations. Either it's double standards, or it's time for the critics to play their trump card: this album is just better than Common's. It just is. Well, that's the end of the argument then.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Best of 2008: #7 Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

feature for the skinny

This time last year Frightened Rabbit were playing in city centre bars around Scotland and not selling them out. Tonight, every ticket has gone, and we're in one of the biggest venues in the country. Sure, they're playing Edinburgh's Corn Exchange as support for Seattle indie darlings Death Cab For Cutie, but the suspicion that the Rabbit are a strong draw for much of this crowd is confirmed by the almost capacity attendance during their brief support slot. Frontman Scott Hutchison twice bigs up Death Cab for the crowd, seemingly because he can't quite believe that so many people would be there for his own group. The truth is Frightened Rabbit have taken a huge leap forward in 2008, thanks to a fantastic second album in The Midnight Organ Fight and a relentless touring schedule, and they've become a hot ticket. The Skinny first featured them in September 2007, but we were more focussed on FatCat mates The Twilight Sad last year; 2008 has been, in Swing Out Sister terms, their breakout year. So let's go back to the beginning lads: talk us through a life less ordinary in The Year Of Frightened Rabbit.

"This time last year the album had been done for three or four months," Scott tells us before the gig. "I think I knew it would be quite well received, cos I was very pleased with it, I'm not gonna lie, when I finished it I thought it was pretty good." Hold on a sec - so the second album was finished before the first was even released? Scott's brother Grant, the drummer, chips in "We always saw the first album as a kinda demos album, but when we gave FatCat the remixed mastered version they decided to put a full campaign behind it, so that meant pushing the next album back a bit". "This time last year we were pretty much sick of Sing The Greys" Scott says, "We were saying goodbye to that record and just really itching for people to hear the new one."

Early reports were good. "People were coming up and saying 'new album's fantastic by the way', and we'd ask where they'd got it, and they'd say 'Jetpacks'!" Apparently allowing friends (and now labelmates at FatCat) We Were Promised Jetpacks hear early copies wasn't the best idea. "By about March, Jetpacks had given it to pretty much everyone in Glasgow!" But apart from praise from pretty much everyone in Glasgow, the album was also attracting attention from international publications like Spin and Paste, as well as online zines like Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, and of course The Skinny. The acclaim was almost unanimous - I say almost: "We got one from this guy from the Costa Del Sol Tribune, or something like that. He gave it a really scathing review, it was quite funny. He was saying 'I don't understand what they're trying to do, it's all over the place, they need to be specific and consistent'. One of his favourite things of the year was a book signing by Mick Hucknall, but, we're saying nothing."

So the big day arrives, April 14th, and it's a huge relief. "I was in Edinburgh actually" Scott says. "I went to Avalanche and bought a copy, and they were already playing it when I went in. I was like [clenches fist]!". "I went into FOPP and it was the same" says Grant, "they were playing it in there. We played the album from start to finish at Mono for free the day it came out. It had been such a long time, we'd been waiting for ages, so for Mono to fill up so quickly that they had to stop letting people in... that was quite a big moment. It felt real then."

But because the album hadn't dropped until late spring, most summer festivals had already booked their line-ups, and the Greys-era Rabbit weren't chosen for too many. They did T, and Belladrum, and Connect, and Summer Sundae, and went on a massive tour of the States which even led to an interview with ABC News in New York when a reporter became a fan. “The shows were getting busier, and as we got closer to Washington and New York we found out that those shows had both sold out. We'd never sold shows out well before the night, even here [in Scotland]. So Washington DC was technically our first sell out.” As we talk in Edinburgh, they’ve just come off another US tour, during which they had to swap with the original headliners because crowds were leaving after their support; and tonight is the third leg of a packed European schedule with Death Cab.

One new song that’s received a particularly rapturous live reception is Keep Yourself Warm. "It's now the standard closer for the set because people always want to sing along, and they really sing those lines with gusto" Scott says, referring to the jarring opening lyric. "I'll get my hole" is such a strange line to be sungalong-to because it's male-only, distinctly Scottish, and really, horribly crude. But it's true - men, women, and probably children, of every background at every gig they play, roar along jubilantly. Does Scott think everyone actually understands what it means? "They might interpret it as whole, with a w, as in 'I'll become complete'. But actually no - it's about fucking!"

As is the album title, of course - The Midnight Organ Fight ain’t something a band has when musical differences arise. So it’s nearly 2009. Frightened Rabbit will see in the bells down under, with a gig in Sydney, before taking a well-earned break before yet another US tour. I ask Scott whether he’s had any time to think about the future. “Well touring has become such a habitual thing, there's not much brainwork going in to what we do these days, so yeah I'm starting to think about what to write about. I can't do another break-up album, cos I haven't had one this year! Maybe it'll just be a bit less focussed on me”. What does that leave, politics? “OK, that's track one, ‘Yes, You Can‘!

And there, bands still struggling to sell out city centre bars, is your encouragement: in one thousand words, or right there in just three.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Best of 2008: #8 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (****)
album re-review for the skinny

Music doesn’t exist in isolation from real human life. You might be able to separate the art from the artist to enjoy music made by bad people, but a musician’s background or personality is always capable of influencing a listener’s take. This is where backstories come in, precious narratives for journalists looking to meet word quotas, and for artists wishing to create an image or a legend. Robert Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil meant something; 50 Cent’s nine bullet wounds meant something; and Justin Vernon’s self-imposed three-month isolation in a cabin in Wisconsin woods means an awful lot when you hear the results on For Emma, Forever Ago. We all feel like getting away for a while when things get tough, to find the peace and space to be honest with ourselves, and to start again. That story really struck a chord with those who heard Vernon’s cry but could not interpret the words. Vernon found his true voice in a falsetto stripped of all pretence and presented as bare as could be. The end product was a love-letter to Emma - whoever she is - stark in its intimacy and honesty, but just mysterious enough to bear public consumption too. Put the pieces together and it‘s simple, but profound: from the hurt and confusion came anger, regret, acceptance, and fresh resolve, three months of reflection distilled into 37 minutes. For Emma, Forever Ago revealed just enough to get us interested, while leaving plenty of space to dream the in-betweens.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Best of 2008: #9 Hot Chip - Made In The Dark

I was never really impressed with "Over and Over" and so had no interest in anything else from The Warning; all the awards and acclaim it received I dismissed as dance dilettantism by indie kids. But Made In The Dark won me over on its own merits. My favourite section is the middle, when "We're Looking For a Lot of Love" provides the first change of pace and then segues into "Touch Too Much", which is musically both upbeat and melancholy, and lyrically introverted. The big loud outro is supposed to be danceable but is actually quite... well, touching... and then there's the very delicate and lovely title track. That sequence showed a subtlety and intelligence which, I suppose, I'd presumed they'd lacked before. I got it wrong. Also, I saw them live at Coachella and they were brilliant. I got it dead wrong.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Best of 2008: #10 Santogold / Diplo - Top Ranking

I already loved Santogold's album when this came out - a 35-track mixtape based on that record, featuring new versions of each track (interpolating Kraftwerk and Panda Bear samples amongst others), but also featuring songs by Aretha Franklin, Devo, Desmond Dekker, The Clash and more to pad it out. This demonstrates the myriad of influences used in the album, how they are all sown together without risking the vibe. But the best bit of this mixtape is towards the end, when Santogold's "Unstoppable" morphs into some menacing dubstep beast before an explosive Mumdance Mix of "Creator" booms in with all the subtlety of a concrete donkey. It's a jaw-dropping moment that the tape never recovers from, a climax I never saw coming.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Pumajaw, Sparrow & The Workshop @ Limbo, Voodoo Rooms, Dec 4

When Sparrow And The Workshop‘s (****) vocalist Jill sings “I’d like to be impossibly obscure” in The Gun, she’s obviously not reckoning with our intentions. Her voice has a strong country twang – being American, it’s not at all put-on – and the rollicking rhythms of the drummer remind me of Sons & Daughters’ driving energy. But there are ballads too, which immediately touch a nerve; in fact every song is immediately striking in some regard, and – almost impossibly – they keep getting stronger. Rip-roaring finale The Devil Song sounds like a steam train crossing the desert: so we call in applause, “woo woo!”, and it’s like we’re announcing an arrival.

Pumajaw (***) have just released their fifth album, Curiosity Box, and appropriately they still seem to be a curiosity around these parts: no-one I talk to beforehand seems to know what to expect. Guitarist John Wills and singer Pinkie MacLure try to weave a new-age atmosphere which only needs clouds of smelly joss-stick smoke to complete the effect. Wills records and loops rhythmic and ambient sequences so he can fingerpick runs on top, and MacLure’s agile vocals tell mystical stories in the tradition of rootsy folk. She has a fantastic voice, and his methodical production method is also impressive, but there’s not much to grab on to for this small crowd of Pumajaw apprentices.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak

Kanye West's fourth album is a radical stylistic departure from everything he's done before, but the one thing he has retained from his previous life is his infuriating inconsistency

Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak (***)
album review for the skinny

Kanye West's fourth studio album 808s and Heartbreak must not be approached as a Kanye West album. It’s not hip-hop: it’s claustrophobic electro-pop, entirely sung with Auto-tune; and it’s pretty depressing. In fact it’s so shockingly different from everything he’s ever done before, and in such stark contrast to his ebullient public persona, that it initially sounds like the chronicling of a mental breakdown. In fact, it’s a breakup album, mostly, with each song being strongly influenced by Kanye’s recent split from long-time fiancée Alexis Phifer. It’s been a bad year for Kanye, because his mum died too, and it’s clear the loss of both women from his life has left his seemingly gargantuan self-confidence severely punctured. Some people will like that idea, and plenty will be waiting to hate on 808s, but it doesn’t deserve contempt: he’s taken a huge risk by pouring his heart out and changing his style, and some of it actually works.

Kanye might be known as a narcissist, but 808s’ self-indulgence comes from depression, not ego, and that’s the mood that pervades. Opener Say You Will sets the scene with a melancholic choir aahing for three vocal-less minutes of an outro; Street Lights ends with Kanye lifelessly concluding “life’s just not fair”; and an almost tearful vocal in Bad News - “my face turned to stone when I heard the news” - takes on extra meaning given the context. Welcome To Heartbreak contains a verse so breathtakingly trivial - about not having a date to take to his god-sister’s wedding, and leaving before the cake is cut - that it actually strengthens the conviction of his sorrow: only someone utterly consumed by self-pity could be so upset by that as to use it in a song as a definition of heartbreak.

But it’s the final (and hidden) song that delivers the real pathos: it’s a live performance, a lo-fi audience recording of a freestyle he performed on-stage in Singapore, later titled Pinocchio Story (because he hates fame and just wants to be a real boy, obvs). Why not a soundboard recording, or even a new studio version? In fact, the poor quality makes it incredibly effective at communicating the isolation he feels: the lower volume makes him sound distant, as if he’s had to retreat after doing the popstar thing for the first 11 songs; and the audience reaction - baffled silence as Kanye pours his heart out with punctuated cheers for misheard positivity - reinforces the disconnect between him and his fans. How can he be personal to thousands of persons he doesn’t know? When he cries “do you really have the stamina, for everybody that sees you to say ‘where’s my camera?’” on a recording that could very well have been ripped from a fan’s camera phone, his point becomes a pertinent one. Yes it’s self-indulgent whining, but that’s what heartbroken people do: they lose all perspective and complain about every little thing. In the unrefined vocal of Pinocchio Story, when he’s stripped of all adornments, you can hear he’s genuinely hurt and suffering; for all his history with sampling, this is the most soulful he’s ever been.

Not only is 808s far sadder than any of Kanye‘s previous, it’s also not hip-hop in any real sense. There’s two rapped verses on the whole record, both by guests, so vocally it’s almost completely sung, roboticised by the Auto-tune. The clear and deliberate use of Auto-tune hasn’t had much exposure here in the UK, but it’s become increasingly common (and divisive) in mainstream US hip-hop recently. Here, it’s better known as “the Cher effect”: remember the vocal in Believe, like a vocoder but not? Despite the controversy of its overuse, it’s not too intrusive here, mostly just adding to the sense of detachment which is a theme throughout. 808s is packed with 80s musical signifiers, ranging from Depeche Mode ambience to Hacienda-style piano lines and Phil Collins’ gated drum effects. It’s not all down: first single Love Lockdown builds from Portishead-like deep bass blows, adds a housey piano bounce and then big tribal drums into a brilliant pleading chorus; and Paranoid has an irresistible playful synth-line and reassuring chorus hook courtesy of Mr Hudson.

But if there’s one thing Kanye has retained from his previous albums, it’s his inconsistency. To match and reduce the impact of those two standouts, there’s two standout poor tracks: Amazing and Robocop. The first suffers from laziness: Kanye is apparently so amazed that so many people come out to see him, that he’s unable to articulate his feelings any clearer than by repeating “it’s Amazing” about four hundred times. Robocop is all kinds of ridiculous, with not one or two but three tacky synth-string motifs overwhelming the rest of the song: the underlying two come from the Strings FX button on his Casio keyboard, and the other, the big charging melody, is the result of pressing ‘Demo‘.

Still, at least when he’s bad, he’s bad in a ridiculous way. Did I mention the Haka grunting? Millions of Kanye fans will be disappointed by 808s and Heartbreak, and those who already dislike him will find endless ammunition for their snark here. Those who buy into it will need sturdy and well-rehearsed arguments to defend it, and the stamina to do so often. But although 808s is an album that will polarize like few others, once the stylistic change has been understood it in fact stands and falls by the same standards as his previous three albums: by conveying some ideas brilliantly, and some not, it hints at outrageous talent without delivering it consistently.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

radio show 02

The Skinny Knows The Score episode 2, broadcast @ on 17 November 2008

ripped at 320, just over an hour, 146MB

1. New York Dolls - Personality Crisis
2. Ramones - Beat on the Brat
3. Jay Reatard - Always Wanting More
4. These Arms Are Snakes - Red Line Season
5. Black Affair - I Go Out (featuring The Cock & Bull Kid)
6. Ming Ming & The Ching Chings - Show Off
7. Friendly Fires - Paris (Aeroplane Mix)
8. De Rosa - Cathkin Brae
9. Jenny Lewis - Pretty Bird
10. Brendan Campbell - Burgers and Murders
11. James Yorkston - Tortoise Regrets Hare (Down The Tiny Steps remix)
12. Mr Scruff - ? (something offa Keep It Unreal)
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore
14. Late of the Pier - Bathroom Gurgle

early thoughts on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak

I deliberately ignored all the leaked singles, didn't watch his MTV performance of Love Lockdown or anything, so had never heard any of this until yesterday. So if you've been following the pre-release hype closely, you might've read all this before. But my jaw was scraping the floor after listening to 808s & Heartbreak yesterday.

I cannot think of the last time such a major artist took such a major risk. Not only is it so utterly different from what he's ever done before, it's also different in a very challenging way because it's morose, synthetic and entirely Autotuned (at least, that's kinda challenging to British ears - the overt Autotune thing hasn't really happened over here, I've never listened to T-Pain or Flo Rida, even Lil Wayne has little to no profile here (Wiki says Tha Carter 3 has sold 60,000 copies here since debuting at No.23 in the album chart)). But it's not just the Autotune, everything about this record is bizarre. It's not a Kanye West record, it's a breakdown, it's a headfuck. It's The-Dream doing his own Plastic Ono Band. That's one of my favourite albums of all time but a lot of people hate it for its self-indulgence: it's got nothing on the self-indulgence of 808s, and Kanye will lose a lot of fans with this. It's going to be very easy to hate on; people who defend it will need developed arguments, and the stamina to wield them regularly.

The final song, Pinocchio Story, is what's interesting me the most so far. It's an audience recording, not soundboard, and there's even one point where a girl screams and the recording distorts so you can hear it's some cheap lo-fi recording device. That's not Kanye production values, that's a crappy bootleg or a YouTube rip, which he's using to close out his album!? But I think it works amazingly well because its much quieter than the rest of the record, he sounds so distant, it's like he's gone away, like he can only do the 'performing mega-star' thing for so long before he has to retreat. But also there's obvious disconnect between him and the crowd - he's pouring his heart out and the crowd is bemused and silent but when they hear "and people say Kanye's too real" (roughly) they cheer - yeah you're so real Kanye! - and totally miss his point. He's trying to be deeply personal to thousands of persons he doesn't know, and I think that alienation is the point of the whole record, and I think Pinocchio Story conveys that brilliantly.

I'm reviewing it for The Skinny and still don't know whether it's a 2, or a 5, or anywhere in-between. It's dominating all my thoughts since I put it on 24 hours ago. It's extraordinary.

some dudes on the train

live review for the skinny (****)
23:30 from Queen Street to Edinburgh, 16 Nov 2008

We're on the last train home, and it's mobbed. It's Sunday night. Some have been at Kanye West, some have been at TV On The Radio, some have been at Fucked Up, all are very tired. There's a dude sitting on the floor with a guitar, another with a bongo, another with a flute, and a lady is sitting, singing: Jump by Van Halen, Toxic by Britney Spears, Girls & Boys by Blur, No Limit by 2 Unlimited, and more. There's a part of me, the gnarly curmudgeonly part, that wants to be cynical, wants to deride them as hippy bloody students; but can't. An older gentleman is sitting behind them, loving it. 'I've misjudged the youth of today,' he thinks, 'because they get in my way and annoy me - but look at this!' Someone says "better than that support band!", and everyone agrees, no sarcasm in sight. Sure, we could all be pithy and dismissive, but why ruin the vibe? They give us a sticker, it says The Banana Sessions. How appropriate for a guerilla gig, boom tish. Check them out.

this went down exactly as is. Three Skinny writers were there to see it - myself, Darren Carle and Nick Mitchell - and we all really enjoyed it. I said I'd write it up, as a joke, but we weren't joking really. They entertained the train so, we thought they might appreciate the mention. It's apparently going in the print version of the mag next month, which is nice. Can't you feel the love in the room?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Okkervil River @ Oran Mor, 9 Nov

Okkervil River live at Oran Mor, Glasgow, 9/11/08 (****)
live review for the skinny

Okkervil River's greatest moment yet is the seventh song of their fourth album, Black Sheep Boy. Halfway through tonight’s show, Will Sheff ushers his bandmates off-stage so he can perform "A Stone" almost-solo, so he can cultivate lumps in all our throats by explaining, through perfectly poised poetry, how baffling spurned affection can be; because love doesn’t behave as it should. Then, a trumpet heralds the arrival of something in my neck: so that’s what that expression means. But let’s not forget the overall quality of that album, nor the two since, and don’t mistake Okkervil’s smarts for rigidity: they’re more often flamboyant than reflective tonight. "Unless It‘s Kicks"’ riff is inspired by Bo Diddley‘s thrusting rhythms, and Sheff on-stage is a snaking hip and a swollen lip away from Mick Jagger; so they can rock, alright; but it’s "A Stone" which makes this show special.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers

blog post #13532512 about Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers List will not say "it's so bad it doesn't even deserve my attention!" or "why the hell do they continue to embarass themselves?" or any such unself-aware nonsense. Rolling Stone do this specifically so that people talk about it, it gets reported by other media sources, and bloggers discuss their favourite singers, and yes many people decide it sucks and that RS has no credibility, but all publicity is good publicity, right? Here's the list in full (which, on the official RS site, is split onto 101 different pages! 101 page views, right, boosts the advertising. Why the hell not? They'd rather you bought the actual magazine, I'm sure):

100 Mary J. Blige
99 Steven Tyler
98 Stevie Nicks
97 Joe Cocker
96 B.B. King
95 Patti LaBelle
94 Karen Carpenter
93 Annie Lennox
92 Morrissey
91 Levon Helm
90 The Everly Brothers
89 Solomon Burke
88 Willie Nelson
87 Don Henley
86 Art Garfunkel
85 Sam Moore
84 Darlene Love
83 Patti Smith
82 Tom Waits
81 John Lee Hooker
80 Frankie Valli
79 Mariah Carey
78 Sly Stone
77 Merle Haggard
76 Steve Perry
75 Iggy Pop
74 James Taylor
73 Dolly Parton
72 John Fogerty
71 Toots Hibbert
70 Gregg Allman
69 Ronnie Spector
68 Wilson Pickett
67 Jerry Lee Lewis
66 Thom Yorke
65 David Ruffin
64 Axl Rose
63 Dion
62 Lou Reed
61 Roger Daltrey
60 Björk
59 Rod Stewart
58 Christina Aguilera
57 Eric Bourdon
56 Mavis Staples
55 Paul Rodgers
54 Luther Vandross
53 Muddy Waters
52 Brian Wilson
51 Gladys Knight
50 Bonnie Raitt
49 Donny Hathaway
48 Buddy Holly
47 Jim Morrison
46 Patsy Cline
45 Kurt Cobain
44 Bobby "Blue" Bland
43 George Jones
42 Joni Mitchell
41 Chuck Berry
40 Curtis Mayfield
39 Jeff Buckley
38 Elton John
37 Neil Young
36 Bruce Springsteen
35 Dusty Sprinfield
34 Whitney Houston
33 Steve Winwood
32 Bono
31 Howlin' Wolf
30 Prince
29 Nina Simone
28 Janis Joplin
27 Hank Williams
26 Jackie Wilson
25 Michael Jackson
24 Van Morrison
23 David Bowie
22 Etta James
21 Johnny Cash
20 Smokey Robinson
19 Bob Marley
18 Freddie Mercury
17 Tina Turner
16 Mick Jagger
15 Robert Plant
14 Al Green
13 Roy Orbison
12 Little Richard
11 Paul McCartney
10 James Brown
09 Stevie Wonder
08 Otis Redding
07 Bob Dylan
06 Marvin Gaye
05 John Lennon
04 Sam Cooke
03 Elvis Presley
02 Ray Charles
01 Aretha Franklin

here's my money: we all have our favourites and arguing whether Sam Cooke or Otis Redding should be higher is pretty inconsequential. On the RS page I saw fans complaining "John Fogerty should be in the Top 5!", and all that, well maybe. Personally I'd like to have seen Bjork and Morrissey a bit higher, Lennon & McCartney a bit lower, and places found for Eddie Kendricks and Scott Walker; but, whatever: I haven't listened closely to every singer on this list, so maybe I'm wrong. It's pretty tough to argue against Aretha, or Ray or Elvis or the several soul stars in the upper reaches, and so on. But one omission really stands out for me: where the hell is Frank Sinatra?

If Frank Sinatra had won that poll, would anyone have seriously argued? Sure, Sinatra's first successes came before the 'rock era' which the poll claims to encompass, but he hardly stopped there: arguably his three signature songs (if his canon could be reduced to just three!) were "That's Life" (1966), "My Way" (1969) and "New York, New York" (1979). Fact is, he's one of the four biggest selling solo artists of all time (with Elvis, Bing Crosby and Jacko), and it was all down to his voice. In fact, according to Rolling Stone's own 1983 Record Guide, "He virtually invented modern pop song phrasing".

Why didn't he make the list? In a way, we can't blame Rolling Stone as such. This wasn't a Wenner-Marsh committee meeting which necessarily placed Dylan and the Beatles really high because, like, they define music for baby boomers (oh look, Dylan and the Beatles' singers are really high, huh). RS asked 179 'experts' to name their Top 20s, and Sinatra obviously didn't score enough points to make the list. What're they to do, fake it? Their list of 'experts' ranged from James Blunt (!) to Iggy Pop to David Fricke, but with almost 200 people taking part it's pointless trying to pick a few out who're undeserving, or whatever. So what explains the collective amnesia?

I think Frank Sinatra's just really uncool. Rolling Stone and the boomer generation have done such a thorough job of convincing us that popular music started with Elvis and The Beatles, with their music, that nobody from before then ever gets a look-in. But as I said - Sinatra still sold millions during the 60s and 70s, it's just by that time he was an anachronism, for the oldies, for the garage store spin-racks. He's other, but not in the sense of alternative: he's like Enya, who everybody's heard of and still sells by the bucketload, but Enya and Sinatra seem to exist in their own little space which is other to what I and we listen to and god knows who actually buys all these millions of records? It's probably your grandparents (at least as far as Sinatra's concerned, I'd still have no clue about Enya), or in other words: the boomers parents! So no wonder none of these 'experts' listed Sinatra as a favourite!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Optimo - Sleepwalk

Optimo - Sleepwalk (***)
album review for the skinny

Don't make the mistake of putting Optimo's new mix CD on for a gym visit or before a night out - it'll slow your treadmill to a halt or stunt the momentum of that party mood. Sleepwalk is much more suited to headphone listening, and its lush sound can be quite beautiful: from the opening sounds of a beachside tide; through obscure German ambient pioneers of the 70s; to a mesmerizing Arthur Russel cello and congo dream. The second half steps up a gear, reinforcing Optimo's famed eclecticism by moving between Duke Ellington, Future Pilot AKA and Lee Hazelwood in just a few minutes. But while this multifarious approach is ever-impressive, it's hard to pick out a thread for this second half other than: it's mid-paced, mostly unfamiliar, and it doesn't really go anywhere. Perhaps that's why it's called Sleepwalk - and the dreaming part, earlier, was more fun.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

radio show 01

The Skinny Knows The Score episode 1, 03/11

129MB, 57 minutes long, encoded at 320kbp

Myself and Lara Maloney have started presenting a The Skinny-themed radio show on Fresh Air. The first episode was on Monday night, 10-11pm GMT, and here it is above. I used to do radio regularly as a student, but Monday was my first time in 18 months, so as I was dealing with the buttons, knobs and sliders, and trying to do links too, I made a few minor fuck-ups. I'm sure with match-practice I'll get better. (Lara's first ever radio show was much smoother - a natural).

Here's the songs we played:
1. TV On The Radio - Halfway Home
2. Parts & Labor - Mount Misery
3. Little Joy - Don't Watch Me Dancing
4. Buzzcocks - Something's Gone Wrong Again
5. Television - Friction
6. Blondie - Union City Blues
7. Patti Smith - Break It Up
8. Bodies of Water - These Are The Eyes
9. Fucked Up - No Epiphany
10. Volcano! - Slow Jam (I think)

Little Joy

Little Joy - Little Joy (***)
album review for the skinny

Surely nobody was thinking of That's The Story Of My Life and After Hours when The Strokes and The Velvet Underground were being routinely compared back at the turn of the century. That's pretty much what Strokes' drummer Fabrizio Moretti's new side-project Little Joy sounds like: cutely perky acoustic folk songs, with minimal arrangements and nursery school vocal melodies. Playing the Moe Tucker role here is Fab's current beau Binki Shapiro, and her two tracks on lead include the standout Don't Watch Me Dancing, which swells to a singalong climax with Fab and regular singer Rodrigo Amarante on backing. The vocal harmonies provide the best moments throughout - the chorus cooing over old school organ licks on No One's Better Sake, the Western bar-room la-la-las on the elegiac With Strangers - but while Little Joy's stories are more grown-up than I'm Sticking With You ever was, few are, in a manner of speaking, made out of glue.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Tartan Army lose perspective in McNovo debate

While I'm waiting for these results, I gots something else to say!...

A week or two ago, Nacho Novo said that he would get a British passport and play for Scotland if he was asked to. Novo is a Rangers striker who scored about 25 goals for us in a season a couple years back, and frequently plays as a striker or right-winger, but is usually actually a sub or reserve. He's about our 4th or 5th choice striker, so he's not good enough to play for Scotland. But it was an innocent comment that provoked an uproar among Scotland fans who ridiculed the idea of a Spaniard playing for the team.

That seems kinda obvious, that it would make a mockery of International football. But International football is already a joke thanks to the very lax grandparent rules which Scotland already exploits to the detriment of 'real' Scots.

Novo has lived in Scotland for eight years, got married here, had kids here, and there's a good chance he'll continue to live here when his football career finishes. That doesn't make him Scottish, but to me it does make him more Scottish than many current Scotland players, such as Jay McEveley and James Morrison, who play for us because one grandparent was born in this country. This is because of the supposed 'bloodline' rule which trumps Novo in the eyes of many Scotland fans. But what does 'bloodline' actually mean? That Scottishness is in the JMs genes? That's utter nonsense: there's no such thing as nationality in genetics; when Montenegro split from Serbia, the Montenegran geneset didn't suddenly change. Just because a JM grandparent was born on this side of the border does not mean that grandparent is Scottish, never mind that their grandchildren would be in any way Scottish.

OK, so what does it mean to be Scottish? Does it mean haggis and Irn Bru and - well, generally a poor diet - and stinginess and alcoholism and kilts and bagpipes and inventions and glorious sporting failure? Whatever it means, these are clearly all cultural things, not racial things, these are all things which are suffused into a person's character or experience through living in this country. That's what Scots have in common - we live, or have lived for a fair while, in Scotland. That's why it strikes me as bizarre that Scotland fans can be happier that the JMs play for the country - despite only being here while on Scotland duty and never through normal residency - rather than Novo, someone who knows Scottish culture on a much deeper level. Whenever Scottish nationalists make a claim for our sovereignty, it's not because we're a different race from the English, but because we have a long history of having a distinct culture as a nation. So why attempt to bring genetics into it now?

It's a multicultural world now, so this supposed 'location of birth=genetic nationality' equation is going to become even more nonsensical as mass migration increases. Here's a scenario - a migrant family from Pakistan, and another from Poland, move to Glasgow and raise their children here. The kids grow up with Glaswegian accents and have only been 'home' on short, occassional holidays. What nationality are these kids, if they turn out to be good footballers? According to the silly 'bloodline' scenario, they are clearly Pakistani and Polish, but as nationality is actually a cultural phenomena rather than a racial one, they're more accurately Scottish. Would Scotland fans tell these kids they couldn't play for the national team? Of course not. The difference is that Novo moved here as as adult, and that apparently disqualifies him. The JMs never moved here, but they qualify because of the location of an event that occurred half-a-century before they were born.

A final thing here: England are supposedly Scotland's big rivals. It's practically part of the Tartan Army constitution to hate England: not 'the English', because that would be bigoted, but 'England', the football team and the oppressive institution. Yet, we'll gladly take England cast-offs to play in our team through the grandparent 'bloodline' rule rather than a Spaniard who actually lives here. Why? Because we know that the English are actually very similar, culturally and genetically, to us, more similar than the Spanish anyway. But you wouldn't get any Scotland fan saying that, oh no! Surely if the English are our big foes, we should reject their cast-offs as just that - England cast-offs who're taking advantage of a lucky freak of their family history to further their own careers with no actual care for Scotland or its fans?

I don't want Novo to play for Scotland either, but only because he isn't good enough.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

A Brief History of Scottish Music: 1978 - 2008

A Brief History of Scottish Music: 1978 - 2008
feature for the skinny student guide

(aimed at young'uns moving to this country to study)

In Scotland we like to boast about how brilliant we are at just about everything. We invented pretty much the whole modern world, including television, the telephone, antibiotics, the steam engine, and probably sliced bread and dogs and football and sex and the wheel and all that stuff too. So it’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s been listening that we’ve also got a fandabidozy (that’s a word invented by an old Scottish woman dressed as a young boy to mean “excellent”) history when it comes to modern music: we just about invented that too. And we’re not even going to mention people like David Byrne, Talking Heads frontman, who was born in Dumbarton; or Bon Scott and the Young brothers, of AC/DC, who were all born here; or Donovan, who was born in Glasgow; or Bert Jansch or John Martyn, or Mike Scott or Alex Harvey. We certainly won’t be mentioning the Bay City Rollers either, for different and obvious reasons. We don’t have to. Instead The Skinny Student Handbook presents a brief look back at the last 30 years of Scottish alternative music, from the 70s heyday of punk, to the beginning of last week.

Scotland has never been as culturally mixed as cities down south or in the States; you don’t get much in the way of good hip-hop or dub coming from these shores. We do a few things well, but we do them very well. Punk’s mid-70s explosion changed the game for anyone wielding a guitar, and Scottish bands were quick to adjust. Glaswegian label Postcard crammed a frankly silly amount of great music into their short lifespan, but it was in the 80s when Scotland’s first truly great bands arrived. The Jesus & Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins made an impact with alternative music lovers worldwide, and Primal Scream’s seminal 1991 acid house voyage Screamadelica is rightly considered a timeless classic. They’ve had their ups-and-downs since, but that’s allowed other great bands to come to the fore. Belle and Sebastian annoy twee-haters, but their fans know they offer far more depth than that casual dismissal accounts for. They’ve since been voted Scotland’s greatest ever group, and who are we to argue? Well, another contender would certainly be Mogwai, who emerged thanks to another great Glaswegian label, Chemikal Underground, in the mid-90s. As we arrived in this millenium, Franz Ferdinand became global pop stars, and it remains to be seen whether Glasvegas have the momentum behind them to do similarly.

Any skinflints skimming the timeline will see that several key Scottish bands burned out or faded away very quickly, meaning their recorded legacy is sweet but very short. All three Postcard bands listed here are covered well by one-disc compilations, as are The Skids, Lowlife, the Vaselines, the Rezillos, and arguably the Beta Band. So take our advice and give them a shot if you don’t know them already. Elsewhere, the Cocteaus, Belle and Seb, and Mogwai will require a lot more of your time and money, but they’ll pay dividends.*

Obviously, because we Scots invented this music shit, there’s a lot more out there beyond this handful of picks. I hadn’t even written this yet and my flatmates were complaining: what about Aztec Camera? What about Long Fin Killie? What about Doing The Dishes? (yeah OK, that was about something else). Well, that’s where The Skinny will help you out. We’re always on the lookout for new talent, and reminding our readers about all the great music that’s already out there in this fair nation. We try to be modest, but we’re actually quite brilliant at it.

LATE 70s
The Rezillos
Campy glam-rockers who were swept up with all the excitement of punk. Like the Ramones, yet both smarter and sillier, Can’t Stand The Rezillos was their one and only album.

The Skids
New wave band from Dunfermline which featured Stuart Adamson. More from him later: in the meantime check out Sweet Suburbia, which includes the classic singles Into the Valley and The Saints Are Coming.

Josef K
Kings of Edinburgh post-punk, with jerky angled rhythms and guitars splashing all over the place like splaying hi-hats. Check out the Paul Morley-compiled Entomology for an overview.

Orange Juice
Edwyn Collins’ genius post-punk group from Glasgow, who got a Top 10 hit with Rip It Up (And Start Again), and were one of the formative groups of all indie-pop. The Glasgow School’s a good starting point.

The Fire Engines
Really undervalued wiry post-punk band from Edinburgh. Another recent compilation Hungry Beat goes over the main points of a band that barely even attracted a cult following, but should’ve done.

The Jesus & Mary Chain
Famed for hiding sugar pop melodies under overdriven, feedback-drenched guitars, the Mary Chain’s greatest album Psychocandy was an important forerunner to shoegaze and grunge. Bobby Gillespie was the original drummer, before he went on to found…

Primal Scream
From the Andrew Weatherall-produced acid house classic Screamadelica, to the dub-inflected Vanishing Point, to the naked aggression of XTRMNTR, Primal Scream have looked dapper in lots of different outfits. They don’t always hit the mark, but those three albums alone make them one of Scotland’s greatest ever bands.

Cocteau Twins
The Cocteaus are to dream pop what Nirvana are to grunge. From Grangemouth, near Edinburgh, check out Treasure and Heaven Or Las Vegas for Liz Fraser’s melismatic mewl and the celestial guitar swathes that surround it.

Cocteaus-offshoot formed by former Twins bassist Will Heggie. Would it be silly to call dream pop that’s a little darker “nightmare pop”? A recent compilation, Eternity Road, is a great summation.

The Beta Band
Fife’s never really recovered from the effortlessly surreal genius of the Beta Band. Their earliest work, compiled on The Three EPs, is marvellously batty and seductively tuneful.

The Fence Collective
Collective of contemporary folk musicians based in Fife, featuring an amorphous cast of ex-Beta Band members, King Creosote, Lone Pigeon, James Yorkston, and just about any decent singer-songwriter in the land.

The Vaselines
Kurt Cobain’s favourite band should be one of yours too. Downright silly and completely loveable indie-pop, covered perfectly on The Way of the Vaselines compilation. Reformed this year, so keep an eye out for any gigs.

Teenage Fanclub
The so-called Fabulous Fannies sound a bit like the Byrds, and a bit like the Beach Boys, but they come fae Belshill. With eight solid albums so far, Bandwagonesque or Grand Prix are probably the highlights.

Belle and Sebastian
Belle & Seb shocked everyone when they won a Best Newcomer at the BRIT Awards: it was the first decent band the BRITs had ever seen. If You’re Feeling Sinister, and the EPs collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, are both essential.

The ultimate post-rock band. Not bothering with normal pop music structures, they start quiet and get very loud and then quieten down again. OK, so there’s more to it than that, but it’s beautifully done.

The Delgados
The Chemikal Underground founders also knew how to make a right racket, but they wrapped more-or-less conventional indie-pop structures around the bluster. Check out Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward’s contrasting vocals on The Great Eastern, or Hate.

Arab Strap
Frontman Aidan Moffat is a thoroughly modern poet with an old-fashioned romantic heart. Assisted by Malcolm Middleton before their split in 2006, Arab Strap are often casually called miserablists, but can also be hilarious and uplifting.

The Proclaimers
According to the Da Da Da Da (Scotland) Act 1999, citizens of this country are required to have the lyrics of 500 Miles tatooed on their inner eyelids so that we may never miss an opportunity to triumphantly bellow it into the night.

Big Country
Remember Stuart Adamson? His new band became a huge, international success, with rock heavily influenced by traditional Scottish sounds like bagpipes and fiddles. Great band, actually.

We’re joking now, right?

Famously burned a million pounds in cash as a publicity stunt. Yeah yeah, but also – wrote a book, The Manual, about how to have a No.1 hit single and then had one (Doctorin’ the Tardis as The Timelords), dumped a dead sheep at the BRIT Awards, and pioneered ambient house. We’d love to say all that other stuff shouldn’t overshadow the music, but all that other stuff was brilliant.

Boards of Canada
One of the most beloved ambient electronica groups in the world. Music Has The Right To Children and Geogaddi, in particular, are stunningly gorgeous examples of what can be done with a little creative maneouvring of field recordings.

Franz Ferdinand
Franz presented a challenge to high-minded rock fans to appreciate derivative pop-rock that was unashamedly aimed at the hips. Also, they presented a challenge to history teachers when they became better known than that Archduke fella who fought in the war or somesuch.

The Twilight Sad
2007’s fiery debut album Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters was The Skinny’s Album of the Year. The follow-up album is due out very soon and we can hardly wait.

Frightened Rabbit
Labelmates of the Twilight Sad on Fat Cat, 2007’s Sing The Greys was a solid if largely unremarked upon indie-rock record, but this year’s Midnight Organ Fight blew it away. One of the albums of the year, and definitely one of Scotland’s best new bands.

The biggest new band in Scotland. The Skinny’s been on their tail since last year, but the debut album just came out this month. Remember those Mary Chain guitars? Just add epic emotional tales in strong local accents, and you’ve got anthems to fill Sauchiehall Street for the next three thousand weekends.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

eagleowl - For The Thoughts You Never Had EP

eagleowl - For The Thoughts You Never Had EP (****)
review for the skinny

Edinburgh's eagleowl are notoriously slow workers, but it'd be missing the point somewhat to withhold acclaim until a full-length debut album emerges, when this EP has everything but the duration. Their slow-burning, fragile folk refuses to betray youthful energy, instead moving with care to preserve the peace behind each song. Most impressively, eagleowl know exactly how to construct a collection of songs that flows from first second to last: the fourth track of five Blackout is entirely instrumental, but feels essential in its context. Holding For The Thoughts... all together as one is the violin, which takes on such vivid character through its journey as to wrestle the EP's emotional focus from both the male and female singers. From its terrible melancholy on the title track, to its cautious step forward in Blanket, to its cheerful resolution in final track Motherfucker, it’s the violin’s personality that makes this record sing.


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Gregory and The Hawk - Moenie and Kitchi

Gregory & The Hawk - Moenie and Kitchi (***)
album review for the skinny

Young New Yorker Meredith Godreau may have named herself Gregory & The Hawk to avoid being stereotyped as 'another female singer-songwriter', but the secret will get out somehow. Much in the style of a singer-songwriter, Meredith sings songs that she writes too. Whoops. But let's let another secret out of the bag: Gregory (ahem) has a stunning voice, like a less affected variant of Joanna Newsom's lightweight whisper, which could seduce bankers while announcing a stock market crash. Falsetto'd over songs like Wild West and Stonewall, where her guitar is gently embellished with crashing drums, it's breathtaking. Ghost also benefits from a fuller band sound and a rare burst of energy, while Harmless gives a nod to PJ Harvey's intimate neuroticism. But if the album as a whole doesn't quite take off, she's indicated some potential; and if the music career never takes off, she'd make a fine new talking clock.


destined to soundtrack a T-Mobile commercial any day now... the other name she reminded me of was Vashti Bunyan... but I didn't want to make too much of that in the review because it's a bit unfair to dismiss a lightweight female fairy singer-songwriters based on the tastes of marketeers

ps. I wrote that up about 6-8 weeks ago, so the 'bankers/stock market crash' line was pure prophecy - Meredith should be camped on Wall Street at times like these.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (***)
album review for the skinny

What now comprises The Stand Ins was originally intended to be the second disc of a double album with The Stage Names, which was instead released last year on its own. Possessing neither the brash melodic agility of that record, nor the dizzying lyrical depths of Black Sheep Boy before it, The Stand Ins won’t be received quite so well; but don’t dismiss this as an off-cuts album. With character portraits as vivid as these, Okkervil River simply couldn’t have kept The Stand Ins off the stage. Will Sheff is mostly concerned with the troubled minds of those on the fringes of fame, and thanks to tracks like Singer-Songwriter, where he gleefully dissects the faults of a self-obsessed muso, and On Tour With Zykos, where he depicts the regretful hurt of a rock star’s latest disposed one night stand, it’s difficult to think of a current indie-rock lyricist who can match him.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Stevie Wonder @ O2 Arena, September 30

I didn't take any notes, I didn't think about how I'd review it during the gig, and it's now 8 days later... nevertheless I'd like to get a few things down about the Stevie Wonder gig I attended last week in London, other than the post I made before - probably for my own benefit more than anyone else's...

I've been telling people all week, when they've asked me "how was Stevie?", about the shitty crowd. And it's true, but why aren't I answering the question? Perhaps my expectations were too high ("...too high, too high, and I ain't ever coming down"), but I left feeling more satisfied than excited.

Part of this was because of the crowd - which, I forgot to mention, also showed its apathy by barely responding to Stevie's repeated attempts at crowd interaction. Partly it was because I was three rows from the back of a humungous big soulless stadium and watched most of the gig on the big screens. But partly, it was because Stevie wasn't as good as he could've been.

Everyone knows - and Stevie's 70s legacy is often even overshadowed by - that in the 80s, he really took a nosedive, exemplified (but not limited to) "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (which he played, second last). Well he played a few other ballads from that period which have nothing on several he omitted. Like every funk band is obliged to do (but every rock band is obliged not to do, huh) everyone had a moment in the spotlight to do a solo - but of 15 other performers on stage, about a dozen solos of 32 bars each takes a long time! And finally, he oversang a lot. I'll qualify that - near the beginning he did a segment where he was teaching the crowd to singalong, and progressively made it more complicated to see how long the crowd stayed with him, until he sang a ludicrously long and complex line and everyone burst out laughing and cheering. Great - we all know you've got a fabulous voice Stevie, and it's still there at 58. But then... it was like he was attempting to repeat that himself in songs, continuing to show off, mangling the melody we actually want to hear. The first time was impressive, the fifth time was not. I remember thinking - if this was a guitar solo, I'd be mocking it with a hand gesture.

During "Signed, Sealed, Delivered", Stevie started barking "Joss Stone! Joss Stone! Where is Joss Stone!?". I thought (hoped) he'd gone mad, but sure enough a leggy blonde in a wee black slip ran on from backstage, pins flailing about all over the place, and sat beside him at the piano. It was the worst guest appearance I've ever seen. She wailed - "ooh ahh! waah! oooh-oooh-wah-wah" etc - for about 30 seconds - OK mibbe a minute at most - and then ran backstage again, feet swinging wildly.


So anyway... I was probably a bit disappointed with the gig. There, I said it. I loved "My Cherie Amour", and "Living For The City", and "I Wish", and "Master Blaster (Jammin')", and "Superstition" at the end (which I can't really listen to anymore because I know it so well, but live it sounded like the greatest pop song ever written (which it is - either that or "I Was Made To Love Her", which he didn't play)); but a combination of factors - the crowd, the venue, and the performance - meant it was never going to match my expectations.

Stevie is one of my all-time heroes so I suppose I thought the gig would be one of my all-time greatest, and it just wasn't. I feel sad even writing this post! The satisfied feeling I had at the end was partly related to, like, having ticked that box, or something, which I don't want to be saying but I think is true. Looking back on it, I can't divorce my prior expectations of what it could have been from what it actually was, to appreciate that there was in fact loads of parts I loved, and therefore enjoy and be enthused by the memory. I wish I could.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Stevie Wonder's Part-Time Lovers

I'm in London just now - feel like a country hick in the big city, all I need is a knotted napkin on a stick to complete the look - because Stevie Wonder was playing at the Millennium Dome last night and there was no way I was going to miss him.

I say Millennium Dome; the real title is 02 Arena, and it's such a cartoonish temple to capitalism that it makes me feel like a red. They've essentially built a little stadium under the canvas, and around it follows a plastic street with brands and franchises plastered everywhere - high street pub chains & restaurant names, a cinema, and displays for other sponsors. Adidas is "uniting Britain", ludicrously, BMW is aspiring you to own a grey car, Pepsi Max is supercharging your life without sugar, Credit Suisse is (probably going bankrupt but shhhh), and so on. There's not a speck of dust anywhere; just pish watery lager, overpriced factory-processed food, and manipulative corporate propaganda everywhere you look.

Makes me talk like a red too.

Stevie was due to start at 8:15, as an announcer repeatedly told us, but as we were hurrying to our seats the restaurants and bars were full of punters who seemed completely oblivious. Surely - oh surely! - they hadn't just come here for the food! We were seated on time, three rows from the back on the top tier (the last time I was in this venue, for Prince last year, I was three rows from the back of the top tier too. One day - ONE DAY! - I will get a ticket for a show at the O2 that is less than 150 metres from the stage) and could clearly see hundreds of empty seats in the stadium, for this supposedly sold-out show. VERY slowly people started to fill in, but Stevie was nowhere. He didn't come out until almost every seat was filled, at 8:45.

Then, at the end, waves of people were scurrying out before Stevie had even finished. It was like being at Ibrox, where most Gers fans are horrified to see people leaving a full 5 minutes before full-time to get to the Underground quickly. But this was Stevie Wonder!

London is so monied that a £55 ticket to Stevie Wonder was just a regular evening out for thousands in attendance, it didn't mean anything, hence them swanning in late (in such numbers that it delayed the show) and leaving early again. Y'know, I just travelled from Scotland and took a week off work and paid three times face value for my ticket, six-and-a-half miles from the stage, while the 'fans' in the best seats were corporate guests and bored middle-aged couples with nothing else to do.

Probably, I shouldn't care, but I did. Dedicated fans always feels put-out when someone else tramples on their deeply-held affection for a musician; whether that's through a scathing review in a magazine, a withering look of contempt in a conversation, or a mass show of apathy at a once-in-a-lifetime show.

This is how Jonas Brothers fans feel when they're ridiculed. But but but - Stevie Wonder!

more later (mibbe)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Frightened Rabbit, James Murphy @ The Caves

Frightened Rabbit, then James Murphy, at The Caves, Edinburgh, 21 Sep (****)

live review for the skinny

The underlit crags of The Caves' interior make it a uniquely beautiful setting to watch live music in; a venue where gazing at the walls isn’t necessarily indicative of a pharmaceutical malfunction. Unfortunately, the height of the main chamber and all those rough edged surfaces seem to throw Frightened Rabbit’s sound around tonight: muddled within each other, each instrument is difficult to pick out. Still, Selkirk’s finest are in top form, particularly in the storming self-deprecation of The Modern Leper and Keep Yourself Warm’s massive, pounding finale. Half an hour’s just not enough.

We’re staring at the walls again as James Murphy gets his disco-not-disco DJ set underway, but only because we never knew a projected image of a smiling child could look so disturbing. Eventually Murphy gets into a groove with the crowd and we don’t let it go. The clattering beats and alien vocals of Liquid Liquid’s version of White Lines is an early highlight, showcasing the leftward bent of Murphy’s choices tonight; an extended but restrained mix of the Bee Gee’s You Should Be Dancing is by far the most mainstream it gets. We are, brothers Gibb, can’t you see? Nobody’s looking at the huge gurning faces now: we’re splaying our feet and arms, singing along with Ceronne, and wishing that this wasn’t a bloody school night.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Bon Iver @ The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 17/9

live review for the skinny

Bon Iver @ The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, September 17

If the wild acclamation of For Emma, Forever Ago has left you a little nonplussed, an explanation for the high praise perhaps lies in Bon Iver's live performances. Put simply, while the album is sweet - but to these ears slightly over-rated - it truly comes alive when performed on-stage, where Justin Vernon's falsetto is a thing of spellbinding beauty. The acoustics in The Queen's Hall help focus the mind on these intimate songs, which obviously come from a folk tradition but here reveal debts to the classic west coast rock of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the early post-rock of Talk Talk. Two songs tonight in particular are extraordinary: Vernon encourages the crowd to chant along with The Wolves, resulting in a stunning yelped climax; and the final song before the encore, Re:Stacks, is performed so tenderly that no-one dares breathe too loud for spoiling it. It's not just reviewers that have been left breathless by Bon Iver.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Tennent's Mutual kicks off this weekend

preview for the skinny

We've been pleasantly surprised by the way The Tennent's Mutual seems to be going so far. Perhaps it was the sheer chutzpah of the idea that led to scepticism in some quarters, but the Season One line-up is mightily impressive, and it's led by a really exciting brace of opening nights in our two major cities this weekend. James Murphy is the headliner on both nights, but he's not here with his own LCD Soundsystem's Sound Of Silver to promote: instead he's promising a DJ set that'll explore the roots of New York disco.

As any fan will tell you, the casual dismissal of disco as high-camp cheesy pop is a mile away from the underground sound that emerged in NY clubs like The Loft and The Gallery, which was broadly based around driving psychedelic soul and funk, but was also capable of incorporating African, Latin or Rock rhythms. It's accessible, addictive, and versatile enough that Murphy's 'Special Disco Version' set could go in any direction from his starting point: don't miss it.

In Glasgow on Saturday night he'll be supported by Fife-based art-rockers Findo Gask, the ever-sunny indie-pop Kid Canaveral, and Belle & Sebastian's Chris "Beans" Geddes with a funk and soul set of his own. For our money, the Edinburgh gig the following night looks even better. Murphy's main support in the atmospheric Caves will be Frightened Rabbit, whose Midnight Organ Fight isn't just one of the best Scottish albums of the year, it's one of the best albums of the year period. They're pretty special live too. Also on hand are up-and-coming new wave quartet Isosceles, who we featured back in April.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Shearwater @ Captain's Rest, Glasgow, 15/9

live review for the skinny

Shearwater @ The Captain's Rest, Glasgow, September 15

Shearwater's most recent two albums, Palo Santo and Rook, both benefit from a production aesthetic that values each quiet second equally with each loud second, forging a real sense of space. Unfortunately, tonight, something in the room making a noise like a camera film rewinding for the entire duration of the set makes it hard to appreciate the quiet moments so much. Still, that just means the songs have to hold our attention in more conventional ways, and they do. Jonathan Meiburg, formerly a member of Okkervil River, has a tremendous voice, that switches between a forceful yell and a tender falsetto, exemplifying Shearwater's dynamic strength. Opening number On The Death Of The Waters eventually builds into a swirling crescendo, but it's the song's delicate opening passage, as well as I Was A Cloud's exquisite unwinding, that really captivate this audience. The encore is a Talk Talk recreation: all things considered, it seems Mark Hollis is finally getting the idolisation he deserves.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Monkey - Journey to the West

album review for the skinny

Monkey - Journey to the West (****)

You’d be forgiven for expecting a new primate-themed record by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett to be a third Gorillaz album, with Del Tha Funky Homosapien in a cartoon guise rapping over hooky-as-hell beats. Let’s get one thing straight – that’s not what Monkey is, at all. Journey To The West is an Eastern-themed opera score, more Philip Glass than Feel Good Inc. It’s an entirely artistic project from a pop star who, lest we forget, released an album of African music a few years ago, clearly unconcerned about whether he ever fronts a chart battle again. It’s also not intended as a stand-alone piece of music: it’s merely a version of the soundtrack to a piece of musical theatre that has already shown in Manchester, Paris and London. In that respect, it’s pretty much impossible to understand what any of it means without the visual accompaniment – not to mention that all the singing is in Mandarin, and occasionally in the style of a monkey – other than the fact that it’s a suite about a journey.

This isn’t a record to be downloaded in bits, or played through an iPod Shuffle – it’s an album in the old-fashioned sense, with a beginning, middle and end that are all essential to a musical understanding, if not a literal understanding, of each other section. The creative scope and ambition shown by Albarn is astonishing: he not only resists the temptation to throw any Blur or Gorillaz references in as comfort blankets, and never accidentally does so out of habit, but in fact takes risks with difficult monotony in the hope that they pay off later. Sometimes they do, and it’s astounding. Take ninth track Battle In Heaven as an example. The first two minutes are almost painful, with tuneless alarms and violins that scour harshly, but respite is given when dramatic booming horns come in to announce someone’s arrival. Then Albarn makes it tough again: like a Lynchian nightmare, something or someone is painfully wailing, in reverse, in real misery; to ease the pain, Albarn lays a sumptuous string arrangement over the cries and brings the horns back, but she only seems to get worse.

As a final pleading cry rings out, tenth track O Mi To Fu’s electro beats stumble in and wipe the slate clean, before taking us somewhere else entirely. It’s an entirely indecipherable but breathtaking sequence of moves. Monkey doesn’t always get as good as that, but the vision has to be applauded. Can you believe that the lad who once wrote Country House is now adapting 500 year old Chinese folk tales about travelling monkey kings into fully fledged operas? I wonder what Mogwai make of that.