Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Subtle - ExitingARM

Subtle - ExitingARM (***)
album review for the skinny

The best thing about Subtle's 2005 thriller For Hero:For Fool was that it was anything but their name: it was explosive and agile, and despite the density of Doseone's nasal rapping, Jel's exhilarating layers of sound took advantage of a different kind of density. ExitingARM, in comparison, is quite a disappointment, showing little of the dexterity of its predecessor. 'Sick Soft Perfection' exemplifies the malaise, being a muddy collage of muffled beats, mumbled lyrics and mundane sound effects, and the same could be said for several other tracks. Just as ExitingARM's best ideas are held within the mid-album trio of 'The Crow', 'Unlikely Rock Star' and 'Take to Take', so most of its soundstage is restricted to the mid-range. But perhaps its main problem is that for long stretches any hint of a melody is lost among the muddled maelstrom - in other words, Subtle have obscured their strengths to the point that their former misnomer suddenly quite suits them.

Jamie Lidell - Jim

Jamie Lidell - Jim (***)
album review for the skinny

Rarely does a musician execute quite so huge an about-turn as Jamie Lidell did in 2005, when the previously Aphex-inspired glitch man released a 60s-inspired soul and funk record called Multiply. Despite the retro-gazing, Multiply was a wonderfully presented showcase for a unique new voice in soul, bursting with light and energy in all the right places. Since then, soul has become quite a force in British pop, and Jim could well take advantage of that, mostly comprising jaunty, up-beat soul-pop that'd perfectly fit on any sunny day-time radio playlist. Jim is at its best when Lidell injects some sass and stomp into proceedings, as on 'Figured Me Out' and 'Hurricane', but these two highlights are all but cancelled out by two time-wasting steps into drippy balladry. Despite some great moments, Jim doesn't quite reward multiple listens as a full-length in the way its predecessor did: it's as lightweight as a kite, and just as likely to breeze on past your head.

full Coachella coverage on the way!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Jamie Lidell - The Jamie Effect

Feature for The Skinny

You may have noticed a new buzzword creeping into the music press recently, though it describes a style that's been around for half a century. At the moment it seems like anyone with a wobbly croon or a horn section is being tagged a "soul" star as PR-pushers swarm to cash in on 'the Amy effect'. Back to Black has sold almost 2.5million copies in the UK, a figure usually reserved for tepid water-treaders like Dido and the Blunt. First to fly in Ms Winehouse's slipstream have been Adele and Duffy, who've both received massive industry pushes with full confidence of success - and indeed, both have obliged with huge sales. But what we're really seeing here, perhaps, is the aftershock of one of 2005's best records, released on famed electronica label Warp: Jamie Lidell's Multiply. "I kinda predicted all this back in 2005 didn't I? I want some of those Grammys Amy!" Jamie quips from his home in Berlin after giving his thoughts on Britsoul's most visible star: "I like Amy, she's got something about her. Unfortunately the celebrity thing has taken over, it just seems like too much too soon. She's got a crazy personality that comes through in her music, but you have to worry for her life now."

OK, so its unlikely that any Warp-released record could have such an effect on the Grammy-giving, multi-platinum buying mainstream market, but the critical love and small-scale commercial success of Multiply has now led to Jim, Jamie Lidell's third solo album and one that could easily spawn some summertime radio hits. Lidell agrees there's a wee chance: "It is radio-friendly, but I've got realistic expectations about how it might do. Warp are always going to be underdogs there [the charts]. A lot of this current soul thing is that they're all ladies so perhaps there's a window there for me." He continues, "It's just 10 songs that I wrote and that I like. I've kept it more bracketed as a bunch of songs, kept it all together, it's more about old-fashioned songwriting. I think it's very focussed, it's short and fat-free but vitamin-enriched! I think I've followed through with what was started on Multiply."

To rewind a bit, its worth noting that Lidell wasn't always a soul man - or at least, not to the outside world. Initially he was one-half of IDM duo Super_Collider, before similar early demos of his own caught illustrious attention. "Muddlin' Gear came about because Squarepusher heard it and thought I should put it out on Warp", he says of his solo debut. "I've always been into soul, but you have to choose what you release. Electronic music can easily be released on a white label. Even while I was making Muddlin' Gear I was still in bands and always singing, but I didn't particularly have an outlet for it. Handing in Multiply was a bit of a shocker for Warp, they weren't sure about it, but once the money started rolling in they were much happier!". As he describes it, he's always had love for rhythm-based music whether it's descended from James Brown's funky drummers or Kraftwerk's electronic beats: "I was a soul man with Super_Collider but it was Sex Machine meets Man Machine, and now it's just Sex Machine! If there's time to go back to that previous stuff then yeah, I'd like to."

In addition to Jim's late-April release, Lidell will also be arriving in Scotland for two live dates as part of the final ever Triptych Festival. His live reputation is quite something, but for this round of touring he's decided to try something new. "For the last 6 years I've been playing solo, building up my songs on my own, being spontaneous, improvising it all. I actually programmed my own software to allow me to do it, to construct and undo and rework the music live, it's really electronic and fresh, beatboxing, and mixing together the Sex Machine and Man Machine elements. But I can't face all that now! It became a comfort zone for me and that's not a good place to be. So now I've got a 4-piece band, including a guy who plays two saxophones at once. So it's gonna be fun, more of what I did before but integrated into the live band set-up."

Finally, why such a modest album title as Jim? "I'm shy of adding big statements to things, and it's also partly a piss-take on how everything gets over-analysed these days. I am just a normal person, and I just think album titles can be pretentious. Jim - it's a part of me isn't it? I'm the real Jim Shady!".

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Fuck it, let's all go to Coachella

Blog piece for The Skinny, published in February.

I just passed a thirty yard queue of people outside a ticket shop in Edinburgh, waiting to buy tickets for T in the Park. They go on sale at 9am – that’s in 13 hours. There’s no doubt that, 14 hours from now, the £160 passes will be sold out, and thousands of frustrated music fans will be flooding internet forums and auction sites with desperate pleas and offers of cash for spares, mostly to no avail. [T in the Park tickets sold out in 1 hour].

Meanwhile, you now have to register your details in February to enter a lottery for Glastonbury tickets, months in advance of any line-up details, and are still more likely than not to be refused. The last few years has seen dozens of new, smaller festivals spring up to try to quench this almighty thirst UK audiences have developed for festival fun, and still people can’t get enough. What is this peculiarly British obsession all about? Every summer, more and more people are choosing to fly to sunnier climes for their fill of festival frolicking, with the likes of Benicassim and Sziget, the usual cross-seas destinations. Then there's Coachella, all the way towards the West coast of America – but, if you’ll excuse just a moment of self-referential soul-searching - isn’t it quite bizarre that a Scottish music rag like The Skinny should be previewing a festival 5000 miles away in California because some Scots might actually want to go?

It’s especially strange because there are millions of Californians who might otherwise be expected to be festival-types who won’t be going, despite the idyllic setting and quality line-up, and despite it being somewhat less than 5000 miles away for them. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival might not even sell out its capacity of 65,000 tickets, but it boasts many advantages over the way we do things in the UK. For a start, it’s held in a flat green desert, so you’re virtually guaranteed the kind of glorious sunshine that’ll give you a whole-summer tan in ten minutes and a sizzling red charring in thirty. There won’t be any rain, or mud, or floods, or newly birthed rivers, such as Glastonbury-goers discover running through their tents every couple of years. Secondly, Coachella isn’t attended by rampaging rockets in tracksuits and tilted caps, swilling Buckie and pissing in other people’s tents; it’s attended by blonde bikini-clad beach babes, and dudes who can legitimately wear baseball caps because they’re cool. Third, it’s got a 2008 line-up that is chock-full of hot new things and established demi-legends to see. In the first category there’s Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Battles, Chromeo and The Field; in the latter, think of [Prince], Portishead, Kraftwerk, the Breeders, the Verve, and Roger Waters performing Dark Side of the Moon. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, you can certainly find room for M.I.A., the National, Animal Collective, Justice, Modeselektor, Hot Chip and Les Savy Fav. Who the hell is Dwight Yoakam? Let’s find out!

It’s only (ahem) £400 for return flights to Los Angeles, if you’re quick, and the festival itself costs around £160 for a three-day ticket and camping pass. Of course, as desirable as sunny weather, beautiful people and Kraftwerk live might be, you might think that’s not enough to justify nearly £600 spent per person before spending money. But then, when does a holiday ever make fiscal sense? I used to think, as a kid, that I’d always choose to spend my money on Super Nintendo games rather than holidays, because after a holiday you’ve spent hundreds of pounds and got nothing palpable at the end of it – whereas I could keep playing Mario Kart for ever! But we adults know that’s not what life is all about; it’s far more enriching to explore the world and seek memorable experiences than it is to achieve better high-scores on the TV in your bedroom. And as enjoyable as they are at the time, all your T in the Parks, Connects, Rock Nesses and Glastonburys will merge into one as you get older: but a festival like Coachella will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for a Scot, and it will always be especially memorable in its own right.

Well, that’s our justification anyway. The Skinny will be there, on duty of course, dilligently working hard to keep you informed about the music world, while trying our best to justify flying half-way across the world cos we didn’t fancy queuing for a T ticket. Sometimes you’ve just got to say “fuck it".

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Portishead - Third

Portishead - Third (*****)

album review for the skinny

From the rolling krautrock groove of opener “Silence”, it’s clear Portishead haven’t been sitting on their hands in the 11 years since their last album. Critics of their self-titled second record alleged that it sounded too similar to the first, but that was just Portishead’s distinctive style. Third is a leap away from Portishead, as would be hoped for with an album so long in the making, but the truly shocking thing is that Third doesn’t disappoint after such a gestation. In the ensuing decade they’ve ditched the decks, which means the crackling jazz samples and lounge sensibilities are out. Instead they’ve focussed on their strength, as the second LP indicated they knew, which is creating creepy soundscapes for Beth Gibbons to dramatise over. The result is the most frightening record you’ll hear all year, infused with dread and danger at every turn: from the sense of siege created in “Plastic” by the to-and-fro of a chopping helicopter effect, to “We Carry On”’s robotic marching, to the ensuing epic battle depicted in “Machine Gun”. Closing track “Threads” builds unease from a straining violin line, until Gibbons’ vocals are overwhelmed by the impending threat; the climax, as booming foghorns announce doom’s arrival, will leave you breathless.


I went to see Portishead last night at the Corn Exchange (formal review thing to follow shortly), and the degree to which they have 'ditched the decks' and 'leaped away' became evident just by the function of Geoff Barrow within the group. When he wore his DJ headphones, it was always an 'old' song, and when he took them off in exchange for drumsticks it was always a new one. Beth Gibbons, forever hunching her shoulders in as if she wanted to disappear behind the mic stand, seemed genuinely thrilled with the response they were getting, and even though I love this album (and am starting to think Portishead might be one of my favourite bands period) I was also a bit taken-aback by the rapturous reception they were getting from 2000 (normally-reserved) Edinburgers. Some of the new songs were jaw-dropping live - I mean "Silence", "Machine Gun" and "Threads" in particular - though the suspicion still holds that Portishead often don't know how to finish a song. This is a minor criticism as - as I just said - I love them, but if they could learn the art of the outro it would mean songs like "Silence" and "The Rip" resolving in a more satisfactory way rather than just ending abruptly in the former case, or fading out at what seems like the start of a mid-section in the latter.

This is part of what makes Third a flawed album - "Hunter" is another part - but I'm absolutely resolute in my decision to give it 5-stars, as it has had a bigger effect on me than almost any album of the last few years... more so than any from 2007, certainly. This just reinforces the point that art should not be judged solely on whether flaws exist, but rather on the heights of response it can generate. I'll often hear or read people praising an album by saying something like "there's not a bad song on it", but this doesn't give any indication as to how good the not-bad songs are. You know, Claude Makelele never gives the ball away and rarely has a bad game, but every football fan in the world would rather watch a less-consistent flair player like Berbatov or Tevez, because it's not simple things done well that make us love football, it's the unexpected moments of glorious skill that give us that little squirt of dopamine and the reflexive smile. "Hunter" and other parts of Third leave me underwhelmed, but that's OK, because elsewhere my brain lights up in terror, like a wall screen alerting mission control to the bursting of a reservoir wall.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Connect takes a turn for the worse

Last year's inaugural Connect Festival had a few organisational teething problems, but it also had the bare bones of a world class festival for music lovers. Set in the grounds of a castle in the beautiful Scottish countryside, under the shade of a mountain on the coast of Loch Fyne, we were treated to Bjork, the Beastie Boys, Primal Scream, the Jesus & Mary Chain, MIA, the Fire Engines, the Furries, Jarvis Cocker, CSS, Nathan Fake and more. I tried a fresh oyster from the loch - as Dave's pal Dave pointed out, they taste like giant salty bogies - and spent most of Saturday wearing a paper Spiderman mask enjoying what was actually one of the best days of my life.

Left: Broon gets ready to slurp on a giant salty bogey...

Right: ...and is later confident that "Spider-Broon, Spider-Broon, does whatever a Spider-Broon does" is the height of contemporary wit

But it was far from a sell-out, so it should have come as little surprise that this year's line-up would move a little more mainstream to try to cash in on the insatiable British festival appetite. But this? Firstly, it's now called Hydro Connect thanks to some peculiar hook-up with Scottish Hyrdo Electric. That sounds more like a tool a plumber needs to fix your sink than it does a music festival, but names aren't important. What is important is this:

Franz Ferdinand, Kasabian, Bloc Party, Paolo Nutini, Sigur Ros, Manic Street Preachers, Goldfrapp, Amy MacDonald, Grinderman, Duffy, Elbow, The Gossip, Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, The Coral, The Roots, The Breeders, The Levellers, Camera Obscura, Sia

So last year we got Bjork and MIA, this year we get Amy MacDonald and Paolo Nutini? Last year we got the Beasties and JAMC, this year we get Kasabian and the Manic Street Preachers? Bloc Party's most recent album was terrible, Sigur Ros are atrocious, Elbow are possibly the worst live band I've ever seen (though I like their records), while Spiritualized, Mercury Rev and the Coral are all a good 5 years past their sell-by dates. Don't even get me started on Duffy or Sia...

Admittedly there's still a lot of acts to be announced but they're coming from a long way back in the field after announcing that, and it's quite clear they've changed their strategy from 'providing a boutique festival of interesting and innovative music for 24-35 year old music lovers' to 'a more expensive version of T in the Park and Rock Ness for those who would rather eat oysters with their noses in the air than drink lager with weegie neds'. Actually, T in the Park's line-up is the best of the three this year - so says REM, the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Primal Scream, Sons & Daughters, Aphex Twin and The National.

I'm really disappointed with Connect's announcement. As if the permanent departure of Triptych from Scotland's musical calendar wasn't bad enough, we now have to console ourselves with Connect going soft too. If you add the downfall of Indian Summer, which was brilliant in 2006 and apparently rather pathetic in 2007, it seems that promoters are cottoning on to the fact that it is just not viable to put on alternative music festivals in Scotland.