Monday, 31 March 2008

Let's all join the Super Adventure Club!

SUPER ADVENTURE CLUB feature for The Skinny

They catch ‘em young at the Super Adventure Club. In South Park, that’s the name of the international paedophile ring that brainwashes Chef and ultimately causes his death. The Skinny caught an Edinburgh-based Super Adventure Club young too. After having only started gigging in November, we were hugely impressed by their performance at Henry’s Cellar Bar in early February.

“There’s no connection there!” insists singer and guitarist Bruce, “We just liked the name 'cos it’s silly.” Despite the group’s newness, these spring chickens have already recorded a debut album and plan to self-release it at the end of April via their MySpace page. “The album’s just to give people something to take away, an example of what we do,” says Bruce, “we might just give some of it away. I want to do a bit of travelling” he adds, agreeing that the ‘new model’ for bands involves the album as a kind of elaborate flyer for the tour.

As you might expect from a band that is two-thirds music teachers, Super Adventure Club really know how to play their instruments. Despite equipment problems the night we meet at Cabaret Voltaire, their show is still a striking display of technique given a soft touch with cooing backing vocals and playful swing. But as they had earlier explained, they have more than one trick up their sleeve to loosen the vibe.

“The dancing guy with the horse’s head is Bee,” bassist Mandy says, “He’s our Bez but he’s more intelligent and better looking” she adds, “even with his horse on!” Bruce chips in: “Some of the stuff we do is quite complicated, so I think Bee dancing about gives people a visual focal point and a bit of energy while we’re noodling away.” To some there is a stigma attached to strong musicianship: you’ll always find casual music fans liable to liken guitar solos of any length to self-flagellation. It’s Super Adventure Club's awareness of this punk-inspired impatience that makes them special; not because of the gimmick of the dressed-up dancer, but because of their determination not to be difficult, despite the complexities of their music.

So far, there’s been precious little to sample on their website, though the wonderfully askew Built in Redundancy went up recently because it’s their only finished song. “I think having nothing online is working in our favour actually, because everyone’s saying ‘give us more tunes!’" says Bruce. “That’s our quietest tune,” Mandy points out, “and then when people see us live there’s all these ridiculous noises!” The “ridiculous noises” made elsewhere are made up of guitarwork somewhere between metal and hardcore punk, vocals that range from unhinged yelling to crooning falsettos, and structures that take lead from prog and math-rock, regularly side-stepping or changing pace to keep things interesting. It’s an ever-imaginative mix that defies easy categorisation, and one that really shouldn’t be as accessible as it is. But if ‘pop’ is perhaps stretching a definition too far, how do Super Adventure Club describe their sound?

Drummer Waz says that they want to "step away from saying ‘we sound like this or that’", before Mandy jokingly blurts “screamo-jazz!” Bruce gets closer to the truth: “We’re pioneers in our genre, we’re just the best band around, that’s it.”

Super Adventure Club MySpace

Monday, 17 March 2008

Michael Jackson - Thriller 25

Album review for The Skinny

Thriller’s status as the biggest selling album of all time is advertised heavily on this 25th Anniversary Special Edition. In fact, the album appears to have been renamed Thriller 25: The World’s Biggest Selling Album Of All Time. That’s a pretty safe tactic, because it’s a sales record that will never, ever be beaten: at 104 million sales Thriller is already 60 million or so in front of challengers like Back In Black, Saturday Night Fever and Come On Over; and the physical album sales market is in terminal decline, with only fancy and expensive editions seeming likely to find a market in the near future. This fancy and expensive edition consists of a shiny sleeve, a 24-page full colour lyrics booklet, bonus remixes from some of the biggest names in pop in 2008, and a DVD with videos. If you still believe in having a physical version of music that deserves the commitment of your money, then Thriller deserves the entire contents of your wallet.

The bizarre thing about Thriller is that you can never really hear it for the first time. Thriller consists of nine tracks, seven of which were Top 10 hits in the US, with six reaching the top 11 in Britain. No other album comes close to being so well known throughout popular culture, so that virtually all of these tracks are instantly recognisable even the first time you put the record on. Thriller opens with the breathtaking groove of "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’", one of the greatest pop tracks of the 80s that still guarantees to fill dancefloors in all manners of different clubs. "Baby Be Mine", the first of the two non-singles, is a decent slab of Rick James-style funk, but third track "The Girl is Mine" is a minor disaster. A soppy duet with King of Uncool Paul McCartney, the song reaches its nadir with an embarrassing spoken dialogue section that would surely put any self-respecting girl off both massively rich pop stars. But that’s OK, because the next three tracks feature three of the greatest basslines ever written in pop music: "Thriller", "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" is the peerless triumvirate on which Thriller’s reputation and massive sales figure is built. "Human Nature" is a dream-pop ballad that has been sampled repeatedly by hip-hop heavyweights like Nas and 2pac, and "P.Y.T" is an under-rated Cameo-like funk jam. Finally, second non-single "The Lady in My Life" closes the album in a slow haze. Thriller is by no means a consistent album, or one of those records that exceeds the sum of its parts, but "Thriller", "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" and "Human Nature" reach such heights that it’s impossible to deride its massive commercial success as some kind of sign of banality. Simply, Thriller is a killer, with only a little filler.

This redux edition incorporates remixes by some of today’s biggest pop stars, in an attempt to persuade you to buy this massively selling album again. All the remixers lazily volumise and compress the drums and bass, a cheap and nasty trick to take advantage of the rather obvious point that most of Thriller’s greatness comes from the beats and the basslines. Kanye West’s string-heavy mix of "Billie Jean" is passable but for this tackiness, while’s version of "P.Y.T" arguably improves on the original by adding horns and sizzling the synths. You could also argue that’s "The Girl is Mine" is an improvement on the original, but only in the sense that any regular shit is better than sloppy runs. He heavily sizzles the synths again, syncopates the rhythms, and in an attempt to reprise Macca’s embarrassing dad routine, blurts out nonsense like “She like the way I rock!” It’s not essential. Akon’s take on "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" is frankly terrible, an impressive feat considering the source material. He introduces it with a flowery piano motif, which seems to miss the point completely, and attempts to turn the song into an autotune-dependent ballad before finally introducing the loud, compressed rhythm section. Finally, Fergie’s attempt at "Beat It" is another failure, not because she messes with it too much, but simply because she’s got a painful bleat of a voice. This 25th Anniversary Edition also includes an unreleased Jacko song from the Thriller sessions, a saccharine ballad called "For All Time" that’s cut from the same branch as "Human Nature".

Even if the added bonus tracks aren’t up to much, this special edition also includes a DVD with videos for "Billie Jean", "Beat It" and "Thriller", and a so-called live performance of "Billie Jean" that is clearly lip-synched. The "Billie Jean" video sees a young, agile black performer moonwalking through film noir backstreets, followed by an insidious private dick character, while in "Beat It" Jacko leads a cast of dodgy street characters in a choreographed dance. The most notable thing about both these videos, unfortunately, is the stark difference between Jacko then and now. For those of us who were a little young at the time to notice, seeing how young, athletic and black Michael Jackson was in 1983 is difficult to compute. "Thriller", on the other hand, is notable for at least 30 different things besides the subsequent exploits of the singer. After careful study it has become my belief that the "Thriller" video is the height of all human achievement so far; not just for the zombie dance, but also for the genuinely scary werewolf sequence at the start (it is a 15-certificate), as he shouts “get away!” and the girl screams instead of running; Michael’s big stupid grin as he watches the chase; Michael dancin’ and slidin’ and groovin’ around his date as she walks away from the cinema; Vincent Price’s monologue as the zombies break out of the ground; how everything stops as the zombies encircle the couple; then Michael shockingly becomes a zombie!; then there’s the zombie dance; then, when the chorus kicks in, dance-leader Michael is no longer a zombie!; during the fade-out, the date is chased into a house and again it’s really frightening as the zombies, including Michael, bust their way in; they’re just about to get her and she looks up and sees normal Michael!; and as he leads her away, he turns back to the camera and reveals his evil eyes, as Vincent Price cackles away like a maniac again. It’s incredible. As good a 42 minutes as the album Thriller is, mankind has yet to devise a better way of spending that same amount of time than watching the full "Thriller" video three times back-to-back. In fact, you can apply that formula to anything: as good as bungee jumping/rampant sex/swimming with dolphins/walking on the moon/fun thing x, y or z might be, it’s still not guaranteed to be as fun as watching the "Thriller" video instead; ergo, height of human achievement.

----[(unfortunately the real "Thriller" video on YouTube has embedding disabled - you know where to get it - in the meantime, here's one of many parodies...)]----

Now, as we already know, almost everyone on the planet already owns Thriller, and the additional 2008 remixes add nothing to an album that is already, bar the Paul McCartney bits, among the greatest ever recorded. But those few poor souls who don’t already have it owe it some attention, rather than letting some vague process of osmosis rule their awareness of "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" and the like. Also, 14 minutes of DVD-quality "Thriller" is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick; try as you might and say what you like, but Thriller is a killer and there ain't no way to beat it.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Early thoughts on Portishead - Third

I'm due to review this for The Skinny, so a more coherent review will appear on this site in a couple of weeks... but for now (after three listens) this is what I'm thinking...

Portishead's Third is the best album of the year so far. It may also be Portishead's greatest album, though it's too early to say that now of course (it isn't even out yet, slow down the internet!). Portishead (the album) proved that Portishead (the band) do scary better than they do groovy or funky, making Dummy seem tame and tasteful in comparison - in several places, Portishead still makes my jaw drop, namely on "Cowboys", "All Mine", "Half Day Closing", the intro to "Over", and "Elysium". The best (read: heaviest) they ever get on Dummy is "Roads", which is truly unsettling. Dummy is more rooted in old soul and jazz (just as Massive Attack's debut Blue Lines is more rooted in old soul and reggae than their later stuff), which explains why it's less scary, because soul never had the objective to frighten. Third is far more frightening than Portishead, and I think it might actually be the most frightening album I've ever heard (beating Nico's The End by a hair).

A few individual track comments...

"Silence" is very Can-like ("Canny"?), the way it revolves into a groove, before cutting out suddenly like Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" does in the middle of a groove. The beat is more energetic than any beat Portishead has ever used before.
"Plastic" includes a fantastic helicopter effect, which fades and returns like a helicopter which flies away and then returns, like a looming threat.
"We Carry On" turns the threat into an apocalyptic vision of robots, marching to war.
"Deep Water" is perhaps a little incongruous, being a lo-fi folk (anti-folk?) number like the Moldy Peaches (or the Velvet Underground with Mo Tucker singing), but even here there's something brilliant to note - check out the muffled doo-wop backing vocals.
"Machine Gun" is fucking heavy, really. Quite obviously it sounds like a machine gun battle between rival factions, which continues the threatening imagery (and the idea of marching into war). The machine gun beats frequently change timbre, which sounds like gunfire from different platoons. Towards the end there's a genius bit when early 80s synths come in (synths like Moroder's on Scarface, or Vangelis' on Bladerunner), and it sounds fucking epic.
"Small" is scary too, mostly thanks to the screaming ghoul effects which remind me of Brian Eno's moaning synthesizers on Nico's "You Forgot to Answer". That's a really harrowing song, and this comes close to replicating the effect.
"Threads" has a straining violin line that keeps things uneasy through an otherwise regular PH song...but the unease builds as distant foghorns rise in the mix, until the end when Beth Gibbons starts wailing melismas and the foghorns boom over her, suffocating the life out of her and the song. The album ends with these huge booming balls of doom, foghorning you into submission.

I felt this ending so powerfully on my second listen that I had to put my left hand in my mouth to stop myself squealing, and banged my head down on my desk to recover my thoughts. It really shook me up in a way I haven't felt about a new album for a long, long time. Luckily, I've calmed down a bit since then!

Other than "Hunter", which I feel is the weakest track on the album, my only other criticism so far is that a good few tracks take long intros to get into good grooves and then... fade out, or stop, not just "Silence" but also "The Rip", "Machine Gun" and "Small". You might say this is good because it's unpredictable, and it prevents self-indulgent groove pumping (hello Songs in the Key of Life)... well, mibbe, but it just makes me long for 12" extended remixes, already.

There are arguably some parallels between the Portishead career path and that of Massive Attack - first albums more obviously soulful, second albums critical disappointments, third albums are returns to form with frightening bass and gloom a long distance from their first LPs... alternatively, if you prefer Portishead to Dummy as I do, you could point to the promising debut album with one obvious hit, the second album being a consistent and near-perfect exposition of the style, and the third an ambitious vision of fear and the technological future... and compare the trajectories of PHead and RHead...

But, let's not. It's surely possible to manufacture parallels between career trajectories to match any two acts picked at random. So I'll finish for now by saying well done! to Portishead for returning after 11 years and delivering an album that's not in the least bit dated and not in the least bit disappointing. It's a hell of a trick and I can't wait to a) buy this album on vinyl and listen to it through my great big speakers, and b) see them live at Coachella!

PS. I want to add my congratulations to my buddy Sean Michaels whose blog Said The Gramophone - which is linked there on the left - just won the 2008 'bloggie' award for Best Music Blog (beating off competition from Idolator, among others). I remember a few years ago, before I really looked at music blogs, when Sean used to tell me he ran a blog that was "quite popular", and I didn't pay much attention. Now I know he was being understated as usual, and that his blog is actually one of the best and most widely-read in the world - and this confirms it! I find links to Said The Gramophone on the blogs of almost every good music writer I find! Congratulations Sean, I'm just another who has discovered many gorgeous songs through your lucid and poetic write-ups, and your award is fully deserved!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

No Kids - Come Into My House

Album review for The Skinny


Vancouver trio No Kids don’t like to over-complicate things. Their debut LP Come Into My House is characterised by syncopated rhythms and sparse instrumentation, with no more than three or four layers daring to infringe at any one time. Opener “Great Escape” swaps violins out for short bursts from mechanical drummermen, who are themselves then swapped out for a horn section to take centre stage, and so on. “For Halloween” has a stronger beat, reminding of the spare, frill-less Junior Boys, but by their careful economy No Kids create space and facilitate focus towards the touches of elegance on what might otherwise be considered a robotic record: the crying harmonica on “Bluster In The Air”; the climbing horn motif on “You Look Good To Me”; the piano that introduces the very first song. But these moments of teasing warmth out of minimal textures are a little too rare on a record that suffers from short stretches of listlessness.