Saturday, 31 May 2008

The days of The Triffids

The Triffids re-issue series
feature for the skinny
If the character of English indie-rock was formed in the 1980s by bands like The Smiths, The Cure and The Wedding Present, then Australia's indie personality was shaped by The Go-Betweens, The Birthday Party and The Triffids. Oz's very own David Gedge was David McComb, the singer and songwriter for the Perth-based Triffids. He was a similarly romantic auteur who could write about individual loneliness and unrequited love in a juxtapose with the loneliness of his hometown, stuck out on the South-West verge of a vast continent-sized landscape, and the musical backing to his stories often felt like anthems for driving across that outback, in search of a special someone or something else. Last year Domino began an extensive reissue campaign to cover The Triffids' entire career, commencing with three of their studio albums last year, and this month two further albums and an EPs & singles collection were released.

1983's debut album Treeless Plain (***) began with the majestic but disquieting Red Pony, a string-laden waltz that provided the clearest evidence of this new young band's talent. Not only was it the cornerstone of their early success, it also provided the name for one of McComb's post-Triffids projects, The Red Ponies. Though Treeless Plain never sounded quite so grand again, it's still a decent enough indie-rock record with plenty of hooks, and flashes of folk and the odd country twang. Here and there are glimpses of Echo & The Bunnymen and the aforementioned Wedding Present, though Treeless Plain of course came before the latter were formed. Were it a new release by a new band, we would be hailing their promise and expecting bigger things, without going overboard for the moment. The reissue attaches a short radio broadcast gig onto the end, where six of the catchier songs are perfunctorily performed in what is a nice document for fans, but of little interest for the unconverted.

Beautiful Waste and other Songs (****) contains plenty to suggest those indications of promise were being fulfilled. It's not a studio album, but a specially compiled disc of singles and EPs recorded between Treeless Plain in 1983 and second proper album Born Sandy Devotional in 1986. Immediately it's clear that McComb's songwriting has matured to stretch beyond simple indie-pop songs, with ambitious arrangements throughout, including a Tom Waits-like cover of Louis Armstrong's St. James Infirmary Blues. Raining Pleasure features the disaffected tones of Jill Birt on vocals, supported by droning, mournful strings that combine to sound like a downbeat blueprint for The Delgados. Best of all is the Field of Glass EP, which was recorded live in a BBC radio studio. It rocks heavier than elsewhere, and nowhere are The Triffids as heavy as on the vivid and thrilling title track. Field of Glass is narrated by a maniac obsessed with a rich girl ('I'd walk a field of glass, I'd buy you anything'), who pleads to take her on a ride in his car; the song quickens as the narrator loses control, before almost everything stops to highlight his echoing demand: 'are you mine, all mine?'. Presumably the answer is 'no' as trembling cymbals give way to a furious bassline, and drums thunder like he's violently beating them, as McComb wails away like a crumbling psychopath. It's heart-stoppingly intense, and one of the highest points of The Triffids' entire ouvre.

Born Sandy Devotional (****) was reissued last year, but it's worth special mention here as The Triffids' acknowledged masterpiece - that is, as far as most critics and fans are concerned. Its package is more impressive than the others, as it contains a thick booklet which reproduces McComb's hand-written notes for the album. The notes discuss what he wants for the cover, his intension for the album to work as a coherent piece of art, and his deliberations on possible names, plus lyrics and photographs. It's actually the most interesting re-issue booklet I've ever seen, as it also includes scribblings on the books and albums he wants to influence the record, and how, for example, Tender Is The Night should specifically be reminiscent of his own Raining Pleasure, Eno's Discreet Music, and the Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning in different aspects. As for the contents of the disc, again it must be commended for being a rare example of giving real value in the bonus tracks: there are ten bonus tracks, and this whole other album is almost as good as Born Sandy Devotional itself. It begins with a trio of strong indie-pop tunes dealing with unrequited love and chicken killers, but the first real interest is sparked by the theatrical Tarrilup Bridge, where Birt again takes the lead vocals to describe in the first person the suicide of an actress. Lonely Stretch is oppressive and disquieting while Wide Open Road is, unsurprisingly, an expansive and liberating driving anthem. Stolen Property is a string-based epic which closes with McComb ranting angrily, not unlike Nick Cave, over a decaying but restorative outro. The bonus tracks suggest a very different Born Sandy Devotional exists in a parallel universe, where McComb made different choices and released an album with minimalist arrangements and intimate vocals. When a Man Turns Bad features no more than a scurrying overdriven guitar and threatening schizophrenic vocals to build bone-shaking tension, while White Shawl and Wish To See No More are monologues without backing that sound like they were recorded in a cardboard box. They're just as interesting as the released album and greatly add to the value of the package; the reissue of Born Sandy Devotional is the obvious entry point for any newcomer.

Immediately after recording Born Sandy Devotional the band retreated to a shed in the Australian outback to record In The Pines (1986), famously spending only $1000 on the entire recording session, a quarter of that accounting for the essential creative lubricant, alcohol. But as the band were experiencing far more success in the UK than in their homeland, their constant commute between home and work began to take a serious toll. Fourth album Calenture (1987), named after the delirium sailors experience when they've been away from solid land for too long, did little to increase their profile at home, though again it was well-received critically. Both of these albums were reissued by Domino last year.

1989's The Black Swan (**) was, appropriately, The Triffids' swan song. Renowned as a love-it-or-hate-it album, that reductive stance can be more precisely explained as a likelihood to like some songs and hate others. The start is certainly disappointing, as glossy over-production courtesy of Stephen Street, predictable melodies, and a misguided attempt at rapping combine to ruin the first half of the first disc. Unlike the concise original album, this reissue is a double-disc marathon clocking in at 36 songs over two hours. Apparently this was what McComb originally wanted before it was pared down to a more commercially palatable single-disc release - he wanted an eclectic and sprawling White Album to close The Triffids' story. There's something extremely puzzling about this reissue though - the original release was 13 tracks long, and there are two versions of each of those tracks spread across both discs, plus ten discarded tracks from the same sessions - but they are all intermingled, with both versions of the same song appearing before many of the 'new' tracks. This all means that what should have been easily demarcated into 'originally-intended double album' and 'bonus alternate takes for standard added-value reissue purposes' is actually all mixed, abandoning any hope of album-coherence and forcing 'sprawling' to be more accurately reinterpreted as 'messy'. As a collection of 36 contemporaneous songs then, as opposed to a double-album in the traditional sense, The Black Swan is understandably inconsistent. After that initial poor spell, songs like Black-Eyed Susan and the French-aping Clown Prince work somewhat to recoup the losses. There's the genesis of a touching song about, well, casual sex in American Sailors, and the Tindersticks-esque ballad Why Don't You Leave For Good This Time? inspires reflection for all of a minute, but neither song feels fully developed. Over two hours, there's just not enough quality to keep this issue of The Black Swan from feeling like a test of endurance. Single disc albums are more commercially palatable because shorter records are more aurally palatable, and like almost every double-album ever made, a good case could be made here for chopping much of the filler to produce a far more consistent, concise document.

The Black Swan didn't achieve the levels of success The Triffids were hoping for, and the group disbanded having seemingly hit a brick wall in both commercial terms and with their own physical exhaustion. Bass guitarist Martyn Casey joined Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, while McComb and guitarist "Evil" Graham Lee pursued a side-project full-time, the Blackeyed Susans, to little success. After an aborted attempt at a solo career, McComb developed a heroin addiction and needed a heart transplant in 1996. Three years later, David McComb died at home, three days after apparently emerging unscathed from a car accident; he was 36.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

We See Lights - We See Lights EP

We See Lights - We See Lights EP (***)
ep review for the skinny

If the thought of repetitive chanting and ethereal angel choruses brings you out in a rash, you can rest assured that young Scottish collective We See Lights ain't no New Age hocum. Instead they're a dream-pop-flavoured indie band that could really blossom if they focus on that distinctive sound, as highlighted on the title track to this self-titled debut EP. The maudlin violin and heavily-strummed guitars on Try cleverly depict the strain of the singer as he describes a failing relationship, while the performance of Shy's fantastical story is worthy of a Broadway musical - or Bedlam, at least. The EP isn't all great, but if they're looking at lights, we hope it's distant stardom.

We See Lights' MySpace

Monday, 26 May 2008

Radiohead - The Best Of

Radiohead - The Best Of (**)
album review for the skinny

As David Berman told The Skinny this month, this generation has chosen Radiohead as its biggest rock band. Anyone with a passing interest in rock music already has an opinion on Radiohead, and it's probably a variant of either "they've been rubbish since after OK Computer", or "they were rubbish before Creep and everything since has been brilliant." EMI's cash-in Best Of release is for the supermarket shoppers who haven't already dismissed Radiohead as 'depressing'; that's a small market, surely. Predictably it kicks off with their six biggest pre-98 hits - from Just to High & Dry via Creep - and only five of the 16 tracks are from the last decade, when they deliberately got weirder and jettisoned their uncommitted middle-ground fanbase. Pyramid Song is here, and that was a top five hit, but only because the loyal fanatics wanted to see a Top of the Pops crowd try to dance to it. But really, what's the point? Bands don't get crowned like Radiohead have been on the basis of 16 tracks, however they're arranged. Studio albums, not songs, are rock's preferred currency; so get the dollars, don't settle for the cents.

All you need is the headline and the photo

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Santogold - Santogold

Santogold - Santogold (****)
album review for the skinny

You may have heard that Santogold sounds like M.I.A. - so what? Fifth track Creator's stop-start rhythms and screeching vocals are very Maya-like, but as far as I know the Sri Lankan hasn't copyrighted female-fronted, world-influenced beats. Elsewhere, former major label A&R schmoozer Santi White sounds alternately like Karen O, Debbie Harry, and Gorillaz, as she mingles garage-rock balladry with glamorous new wave pop, hooky hip-hop beats, and fierce dub basslines: check the bone-crushing buzz of closer You'll Find A Way. Like Arular and Kala, Santogold is a thoroughly modern product of a globalized and empowered music scene, but rather than arguing over Santi and Maya, can't we just agree that Diplo and Switch, producers for them both, are the heroes here? It's not the style that counts, it's the execution, and at the moment there's few more masterful marksmen than Santogold's producers. Get them hired, Madge.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Jens Lekman: Life Thru A Jens

Feature for The Skinny

Swedish crooner Jens Lekman briefly hung up his guitar when scurrilous stories about him became too much to take. Luckily for us he didn't retire for long, but as he tells Ally Brown, if you're trying to find out the truth about him, you may as well just make something up

Swedish troubadour Jens Lekman was born on the dancefloor of New York’s decadent disco haven Studio 54, sang in a children’s choir run by Jonathan Richman as a kid, and only moved to Gothenburg as a teen because he was in love with her out of Ace of Base. “If you want to make something up about me in your magazine, I would encourage you to do that,” Jens tells The Skinny from his Washington-bound tour van.

Obviously we would never do such a thing, but it’s still a strange request, part of an explanation as to why he gave up music altogether a few years ago. “Rumours and stories were circulating about me, I was very paranoid and thought that everyone was out to hurt me,” he says, “I wasn’t sick of music, just the stories about my family and friends, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. If there’s all these weird stories that are circulating then I think these say more than me sitting here. It’s like what they say to boxers if they are seeing triple - hit the one in the middle.”

Luckily for us, Lekman is back in business and on his way to Scotland as part of a world tour supporting second proper album Night Falls Over Kortedala, one of 2007’s wittiest and prettiest records. Lekman is a charming and self-deprecating pop singer-songwriter in the Stephin Merritt mould, but for one key distinction that sets him apart from 99% of who we might broadly categorise as rock musicians: he regularly backs up his doleful croon and acoustic strums with samples, be they drum beats borrowed from Arab Strap, yelps from a hyperactive children’s choir, or outrageously camp disco basslines. Why so few artists outside of hip-hop and electronica embrace sampling is a mystery Jens has few answers to: “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense. The Avalanches perfected that art seven years ago. I guess it’s a question of copyright and sample laws, not many people want to get their hands in that. For me it’s when the sounds meet up and form something new, that’s what I like, I really like putting together sounds that aren’t supposed to meet.”

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of Night Falls is “A Postcard to Nina”, where Jens describes an uneasy meeting with a lesbian friend’s parents as he keeps up her pretence by acting as her boyfriend. Of course, releasing a song of the events kinda lets the cat out of the bag, doesn’t it Jens? “The story, although it was dramatic and awkward when it happened, is not as dramatic as it seemed to be back then, it’s all known. We still e-mail, me and her dad, he’s a really nice guy, and Nina lives in Paris right now. It’s just a song about a beautiful and strong friendship, me and Nina have known each other for 15 years now.”

So what happens when night falls over Kortedala, the Gothenburg district where Jens lived until a recent relocation to Melbourne, Australia? “People disappear, there’s a few gangsters out, I got mugged about eight times there, there’s a few mentally ill people, depressed people, unemployed people”. Despite this familiar scene, Jens assures us he’s being genuine with utmost praise for Glasgow [careful! – ed]. “I don’t really like the UK that much because of the way you’re treated as an artist there, but I’ve always been treated well in Glasgow. I’ve been there several times, it’s always been great - it’s the only good thing about the UK!”

Monday, 12 May 2008

Coachella 2008

Feature for The Skinny

A festival in the Californian sun starring Prince, Portishead and 'Dark Side of the Moon' in full, you say? Ally Brown takes one for the team at Coachella 2008...

Los Angeles is a huge metropolis uneasily plonked onto a desert, a vast city built around the film-set for an old Wild West epic. Without the Pacific coast it would be inhospitably hot, and a few hours inland the less built-on desert explains the need for coastal breezes. In the Indio Valley, surrounded by hotels that are cheapest in the summer, and mile-high palm tree-lined avenues, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival is hosted on a polo field, in late April. Any later would be at best torturous, and at worst seriously dangerous. The weather causes all the biggest differences between Coachella and UK-based festivals. Firstly, it's really difficult to get drunk without ruining your health or missing the music - gallons of water are needed just to stay upright, and you're not allowed to take alcohol out of the cordoned-off bar areas. Secondly, because there's no rain or mud, and not even any threat of rain or mud, it's a really clean site with really clean toilets; the white cabin loos were astonishing luxury for a festival, with paper provided, art on the walls, and subtly-lit mirrors. The chemical toilets were fine too, because there are far less drunks about and no rain or mud to get confused with poorly aimed bodily fluids. And finally, the weather causes people to walk around with barely any clothes on. It really is a toughie, this job.

With respect this picture isn't meant as an example. The Skinny's first taste of the real desert heat came on Friday afternoon at the smaller outdoor stage, the Outdoor Theatre, for Pixies-aping New Yorkers Les Savy Fav (****). Last year's Let's Stay Friends was a fun record, but nothing to prepare for this outrageous show: frontman Tim Harrington would've been arrested a generation ago for this wild performance. The chubby, bald and ZZ Top-bearded singer stripped down to nothing more than tight red pants, before jumping into the crowd, sticking his mic down a fan's trousers, and pretending to give him a blowjob. He launches further through the crowd, steals a film crew's camera and waves it around his head, ties up a stage-side onlooker with his mic-lead and slurpily kisses him, climbs under the stage, moonwalks across the amp stack, sticks his hand down his pants and wiggles a finger out the front, and finally, in an act that reminded me of those health adverts that warn against climbing scaffolding whilst drunk, he did exactly that and emerged at the top, unscathed and still angry, commanding the crowd from the roof of the stage. Incredible.

At the Mojave tent, Jens Lekman (****) has to contend with myriad sound problems but does so with the grace and wit expected from his lyrics. As effeminate in person as on record, he's all delicate hand gestures and distance-gazing introspection as he savours every a capella note, and there are many of those. But it's the string section which inserts 'Give Me Just A Little More Time' into 'Opposite of Hallelujah' - further demonstrating Lekman's wholly un-rock-like predilection for playing with samples - and the horns that give exuberant swing to 'A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill' that put the icing on the cake. All around us girls are yelling "I love you Jens!"; he's coming to Glasgow this month, so fathers - lock up your daughters.

We leave in time to catch a bit of The Breeders (***) on the main outdoor stage. But here, lying on the grass under gorgeous sunshine, surrounded by palm trees and beautiful people, with not a cloud in the sky, the sludginess of new album Mountain Battles isn't really appropriate. 'Cannonball' is great of course, but in this environment The Breeders generally sound like the sight of a distant rain cloud.

There's a massive crowd back at the Outdoor Theatre for Vampire Weekend (***), whose bright Afro-bopping should be perfectly suited for an afternoon like this. The singer hops and side-steps and flicks his head in time to the syncopating rhythms, like a bird of paradise on display, and it's all fairly minimal, with narrow stop-start melodies replicated in the vocal ticks; a new song seems to feature a sneeze as the hook. Despite all the hype, Vampire Weekend don't entirely win me over on this performance - the guitar and keyboard tones are irritatingly tinny. It's all impeccably mannered and I can't help but feel their attempts at playfulness are forced; perhaps they could do with loosening their ties a little.

The National (****) provide a soft rock extravaganza on the same stage as the sun prepares to set, and they're at their best when the drummer gets militaristic with tat-t-t-tat rhythms, as on 'Squalor Victoria'. Matt Berninger really strangles his voice on 'Mr. November', when perhaps he should've strangled his backing singer for being alternately too loud or too flat. But that's a minor complaint: Alligator and Boxer are two of the finest indie-rock albums of the last few years, and the fanfare that rounds out the 'Fake Empire' outro is just another great moment in a set which confirms The National as big league players.

On the way to Aphex Twin, we're sucked into the Gobi tent by the thunderous electro basslines coming from inside. Here, Miss Santi White is creeping around the stage like Tina Turner, excitedly screeching while two petite dancers play musical statues at her side. Santogold (****) has been most commonly aligned with M.I.A. for fairly obvious reasons when you hear her, but she's far from a copycat - at times Santogold reminds me of the garage baladeering of Karen O, while at others she evokes Blondie's glamourous new wave pop. Then, when a deep dub bassline reverberates through my body, we decide to stay for one more; six songs in, we hot-foot it to Aphex, without really knowing why.

The Sahara tent is the largest of the three covered stages, being half as long as the other two again, and is at the far end of the site. Richard D. James can just be seen above the speakers, fiddling with a laptop, playing a subtle game: when we walk in he's playing 4/4, almost-funky techno, and every sweaty attendant is dancing. But gradually the breaks are getting longer and the beats tougher, and dancers are dropping out one-by-one, looking slightly bewildered and embarrassed for losing the groove. Halfway into the set there's no more than heads bobbing to unpredictable beats... and then he starts again with the 4/4 and the whole crowd gets moving, visibly relieved. It's amusing, and also slightly worrying - when Aphex Twin (****) claps his hands, we're all going to start barking like dogs, aren't we?

That's not for us, so we boost back to the main stage to catch The Verve (***), who front-load their set with Urban Hymns album tracks like 'Sonnet' and 'Space and Time'. It's our first look at a night-time gig on the main stage, and it's quite spectacular with the huge screens and lights. The Verve themselves aren’t quite so spectacular, though they do remind the audience that their roots lay in reverb by hazing and swirling the guitars whenever possible. There’s a strong nostalgic appeal in hearing these songs which years ago first got the people in this crowd excited about music. But tastes change as people get older, and it’s only now that I can bring myself to think that ‘Sonnet’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ are actually quite dirgeful. It’s hard to imagine that The Verve have much to offer 2008 more than nostalgia; I won’t exactly be queuing up for their mooted comeback album.

Troubled by this conflicted reaction to a former favourite band, we trek back across the site one last time tonight to catch Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (****), arriving in time to see the title track from recent LP 100 Days, 100 Nights. She must have shorter heels on than Santogold, because her careful creep is more stable and allows the middle-aged soul diva a lot more scope for dancing – and boy does she use it. She absolutely belts through these songs, ably backed by the most in-demand funk band in the world. The climax, built from a groove based on swinging horns and a classic James Brown motif, brings a thrilling end to a wonderful first day. Though we’ve seen lots of good performances already, it’s the two tottering Tinas whose shows we want to see again, immediately – or, next time they come to Scotland, at least.

Coachella's campsite is a place for sleeping, not for partying. It's a completely different environment from British festival campsites, which seem in comparison like 72-hour party venues which luckily happen to be adjacent to live music. While in the UK the only alcohol limit is how much campers can bear to carry in, alcohol is banned at the Coachella campsite other than in the bar, which closes at midnight. Though some booze and drugs do sneak past the thorough bag searches on entry, even those who do want to party all night are collared by golf-buggied security staff if they make too much noise past 2am. It's an attitude shift British festival-goers will find hard to adjust to, but there's something to be said for this paternal approach to camper well-being after long days traipsing around in the roasting sun - and the last thing you want as you wake up in a cooking tent is a hangover. The extra capacity for sleep, plus the complete lack of rain or mud, meant Coachella's campsite offered the most comfortable - if not the most fun - camping experience we've ever had at a festival.

Saturday is even hotter than the day before: the temperature today gets to 110ºF, we hear, and our water is warm enough to cook rice in. By mid-afternoon the heat is almost unbearable, but that ‘almost’ is all the leeway we need to stand outside for DeVotchKa (***), a Denver band who’ve just released an excellent sixth album in A Mad And Faithful Telling. Despite being American, their sound is wholly European: just as Beirut and Gogol Bordello mine Eastern European and Jewish musics, as do Devotchka, but I also hear Spanish and French sounds in here too. Two curtain-climbing acrobats appear for two songs, but the gig is cut short after just half-an-hour when instrumentalist Jeanie Schroder has to be helped off stage. Not only was the heat sweltering, but she had also been carrying a huge chrome sousaphone horn around her shoulders – in hindsight, perhaps wearing silver in this sunlight wasn’t a good idea.

Despite best intentions to see Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ entire set, you know how it goes at festivals – friends get lost, new friends get made, people need to meet and shop and eat and drink and pee. Sorry pal, I don’t know what the SPL scores were today, I’m actually trying to get to… so we only catch 15 minutes, most of it taken up by the epic title track of the former Pavement man’s new Real Emotional Trash. And it’s good, really good, an awesome rolling juggernaught that squeezes in and then spews everything forth in Malkmus’ trademark ramshackle way. Damn people, ruining my festival - who needs friends anyway? (I'd give Malky's set *** - Ed)

Hot Chip (****) at the Sahara tent were a hot ticket in this boiling weather. I’d never been a huge fan, but notice the past tense: the way these four head-banging nerds got the whole sweaty tent going completely won me over. Leading by example instead of hiding behind a laptop, the highly excitable quartet on-stage gave it their all, segued songs with shifting rhythms to keep the grooves fresh, and gave ‘Over and Over’ a crunchier extended workout. But to call that a highlight might reinforce what had been my previous perception - that this group were one-song-wonders. That’s certainly not the case – the ones that go “out and out and out”, “a web a web a web” and “so outside, outside” were great too. The ending, the “do it do it do it now” one, seemed entirely appropriate for what was to follow – who knows if it was deliberate, but the binary synths were a clear borrow from the electronic four-piece about to take the main stage.

Kraftwerk (****) are probably up there with James Brown and The Beatles in terms of influence, having lead the way for electronic music since about 1971. If there was no Kraftwerk, there'd be no Hot Chip, and no Sahara, Slam, Glade or Dance festival tents at all frankly. Unlike Hot Chip, Kraftwerk were determinedly immobile, standing almost completely still behind laptop stands, with only the occasional mouse movement confirming that we were looking at humans after all. But if the start is a little lifeless, it dramatically improves halfway through with the terrifying ‘Radio-Activity’. Performed with giant nuclear warning signs on-screen, sweeping synths and dramatic choral aaahhs, it’s also now clear that Hutter is indeed singing, and an extra jittery rhythm towards the end is a welcome deviation from the original version. It’s the song of the festival so far. During a lights-out, the group is replaced by four mannequins who then “perform” ‘We Are The Robots’ with more mechanical mobility than their human counterparts could muster. The humans return for the climactic ‘Music Non-Stop’ – and then the music stops.

Kraftwerk’s influence shone through again, earlier, when ‘Trans-Europe Express’ reminded me that Portishead (****) were due up next. Their first single off new album Third was what it brought to mind, and ‘Machine Gun’ was as extraordinary in the setting of a vast festival stage as I had hoped. It sounded like war – well, obviously, but it sounded like real war, like helmets and bunkers and squeaky bums time, like it was a good idea to duck and cover if you valued your life. An eye-roller on the grass was freaking out, but so were the sober fans, awed and petrified by the sheer drama and size of it. Elsewhere, it was just another brilliant Portishead gig, with the astonishing ending to ‘Threads’, the noisy and distorted breakdown in ‘Glory Box’, and Beth Gibbons’ wicked witch impression during 'Cowboy' being highlights.

When Prince (*****) finally takes the stage, it's only to introduce another act: former protégés Morris Day and The Time take centre-stage while the main man stands stage-side, and then drummer Sheila E gets a chance to shine with her own song ‘The Glamorous Life’. It's actually really fucking good, but with the clock eeking past half-11, the sore-footed audience are wondering if we're actually going to see any Prince, mindful that Jack Johnson had referred to a midnight curfew the night before. Thankfully, he finally finds the spotlight and whips out the big guns: '1999', followed by 'Controversy', 'Little Red Corvette', 'Cream', and 'U Got The Look'. At almost 50 years old, but looking younger than he did when he was 30, Prince is surely now the greatest live performer in the world. His 30-year career has spawned countless classics, but his live shows are infinitely more fun than any 'Best Of' disc could suggest because of his extraordinary musicianship - highlighted here by repeated Hendrix-esque solo guitar runs - his conductor's command of the audience, swaggering stage presence and dance moves, and even the slapstick comic timing of his facial expressions. There's nowhere else in the world this crowd would rather be.

On Saturday night, a small bunch of campers staged a half-hearted rebellion against bed-time. Following a clutch of drummers banging on wheelie bins, about a hundred excitable kids congregated outside our tent to whoop, yell and chant: "Coachella! Coachella!"; "Fuck yeah!"; "aawooo!"; and so on. "This happened last year" we were told by an onlooker, "they had to get a police helicopter in to clear it". No choppers this year, leaving policemen to zoom around on their buggies to chase everyone away (remember, Californian police are armed with guns and batons). Returning to the campsite on Sunday night, we knew there would be no repeat: the shitty smell as we got back was explained by the police horses strutting between tents, checking for trouble.

Sunday’s line-up turned out to be rather lacking when we got there, especially when Swedish techno maestro The Field cancelled at the last minute because of Visa problems. So we sauntered about, looked at all the shops and stalls, and visited the various art installations that peppered the field. In mid-afternoon we paid a visit to the Sahara tent for Deadmau5, but he appeared to be sustaining cheap tech-house beats with a looped Daft Punk vocal sample for about 10 minutes. The skinny white boy behind the decks took off his freaky giant red mask to reveal John Smeaton – does this man’s talent have no end? – or at least someone similar, but with no sign of progress past endless calls of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, we decided to move on.

In the next tent we thought to give Swervedriver (**) a go, but it was so loud that the guitar mix was difficult to make out – and that seemed to be what they were relying on for melody. Sludgy and thick, several songs initially reminded me of the stultifying scurge of naïve local grunge bands, though Swervedriver did build most into burning grooves that prompted a degree of visceral thrill. But by the end this seemed to be a formula, other than the final song, which I had originally jotted down as being “slow-burning”; now I know what I really meant was “boring” (I'll lend you a copy of Mezcal Head, then we'll talk - Ed).

Spiritualized (***) were much better, despite early sound problems that frequently interrupted a minimal Jason Pierce set-up with unwelcome feedback. These disturbed songs were mostly taken from forthcoming album Songs in A&E, so the sleepy crowd weren’t really able to take to what they didn’t know, and for my money it seemed fairly hit and miss. Finally Pierce woke us all up with a languid and beautiful 'Ladies & Gentlemen...'. ‘Lord I Have A Broken Heart’ is sung so achingly slow it sounds like respiratory depression, but there was no danger of us going under again – the climax, ‘I Think I’m In Love’, was the most energetic song of the whole set, yet still clocked in at a gentle crawl.

Even if Pierce was lazing on a Sunday afternoon, this was no time for The Skinny to sit about – despite increasing claims from US critics that My Morning Jacket are among the best live bands in America, we elected to see the re-formed Love And Rockets (****) instead. Consisting of two former Bauhaus members, on stage they seem like the missing link between the glam-punk of the New York Dolls and Jane’s Addiction’s kooky alt-rock, but they’re also very English, with Buzzcocks and Disintegration-era Cure also influencing their sound. ‘It Could Be Sunshine' and ‘An American Dream’ both burst with swagger, but it’s a wonderfully sleazy ‘Kundalini Express’, which they dedicate to Syd Barrett, which really brings the hypothetical house down. (P.S MMJ were average anyway - Ed)

The big event for most people we talked to over the weekend was not Prince, but Roger Waters (*****), especially as he was slated to perform Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. This was an extraordinary set, as he and Pink Floyd are famous for, which showcased both the best and the worst of prog-rock. Pink Floyd haven’t been ‘cool’ since punk aligned them with beard-stroking dads and declared that youth preferred musical modesty to grand ambition, and Roger Waters himself makes me want to reassert that conviction; on-stage he seems as conceited and out-of-touch as a 64-year old billionaire rock star must be. Plus, he looks like a lizard, and that’s troubling for anyone who knows the theories of David Icke. But, ultimately, I can cope with a bit of all that. It comes with the territory. Despite its terribleness, this show was one of the greatest things I have ever seen.

The first half of the set was completely over the top. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Have a Cigar’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ suggested he might play that entire album too, but there were also songs from The Final Cut, The Wall and Animals. Forty minutes in, Waters performed a bizarre new anti-war song called ‘Leaving Beirut’, complete with unintentionally hilarious comic strip on the screens. Then came the most expensive single song performance, em, ever: during a guitar breakdown, a giant pig covered in scrawled political slogans inflated behind the stage, circled above the crowd, and then flew away. Later Waters paid over $10,000 for its return. Meanwhile, an aeroplane – that is, a fully-sized (not model) piloted plane! - criss-crossed overhead, spurting out clouds of glittery powder which were lit up by searchlights. There were explosions on-stage, and then, at the climax, two giant jets of fire were shot up from the side of the stage, almost enough to char my eyebrows off from 50 yards. I cannot remember what song he was playing*.

That was the cue for a half-hour break, before Waters and his band returned for Dark Side of the Moon, Floyd’s 1973 opus that represents an unparalleled combination of genuine innovation and commercial success. Enough has been written about it already; suffice to say it’s one of the best (aka “my favourite”) albums ever made, regardless of what punk had to say three years after its release. And here, Roger Waters performed it live, in full, with a giant revolving prism emerging at the end, complete with jutting laser spectrum. Wow.

at long last, sorry for the delay.
some of these photos were taken by my pal Ricky LG. Cheers Ricky!
*I do know of course, it was 'Sheep'. But you get my point

Monday, 5 May 2008

Kraftwerk at Coachella

full Coachella round-up to follow ASAP (I have to wait for The Skinny to publish it).


Unlike Hot Chip, who brought the Sahara house down with a frantic show before Kraftwerk ambled onto the main stage, Kraftwerk were determinedly immobile, standing almost completely still behind laptop stands, with only the occasional mouse movement confirming that we were looking at real people. Still, with no obvious sight of musical creation, and initially no deviation from the songs as recorded, it did cross my mind that this could be four random men playing Minesweeper while a ‘Best Of’ CD-R played off a stereo. "But I don’t care", I thought, "It’s a thrill just to see a rough version of Kraftwerk standing on-stage while their songs play loudly, and backed by the giant screen animations". Why is that? Why wouldn’t I really mind if they were just playing off a CD-R?

The Kraftwerk show had a different dynamic from most gigs, which are two-way interactions, dialogues not monologues. Well, this was too, but most gigs are weighted the other way - the artist performs to win over a crowd, a crowd reacts (or doesn't react) accordingly. In this case, Kraftwerk weren't "performing" at all, they weren't seeking to win any new fans, but the crowd was reacting anyway. More than a performance for fans, this was an appearance for worship, a chance for established fans to cheer our praises and give thanks for all the recorded Kraftwerk we'd enjoyed already. And Ralf Hutter’s mere presence gave authority to all four men together being dubbed Kraftwerk, so we can cheer for them all without knowing who the hell the other three were.

Seems silly, really, when it's put like that.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Portishead live at Edinburgh Corn Exchange

Portishead live at Edinburgh Corn Exchange, April 12th (****)

live review for the skinny

Such is the dinner-party aesthetic that Portishead unwittingly acquired after Dummy, that it’s a minor surprise the Corn Exchange floor isn’t arranged with furnished tables for Beth Gibbons to lounge over. Instead the packed crowd is loud and excitable, and it’s no fun when a surplus of drunken lads are yelling “I just want to be a woman” to drown out Gibbons’ gentle plea. When she can be heard, Gibbons’ dramatic mewl pierces the atmosphere like a scythe, and Geoff Barrow demonstrates the devastating percussive force of the new songs when he replaces his DJ headphones with drumsticks. The core style of the old Portishead now informs the ‘filler’ of the new, but “Glory Box” and “Wandering Star” sit easily alongside the apocalyptic tones of “Machine Gun” and “Threads” because they’re united by Gibbons’ unique voice. Moments before the encore, she breaks her between-song silence to tell us we’ve been one of the best crowds they’ve ever had; be assured Beth, the feeling is mutual.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Prince at Coachella - 'Creep'

full Coachella breakdown to come...


An hour or so in to his set, Prince staggered us all with a cover of Radiohead's 'Creep' - but let’s get one thing straight – the staggering thing about this wasn’t the standard of the rendition, but the fact that the man who sang about shagging his sister on Dirty Mind in 1980 was now covering a grunge-inspired British wallow in self-pity. I'm a huge Radiohead fan, but 'Creep' is a fairly detestable song, celebrating an all too human weakness that most of us grow out of after adolescence and become better people for getting over. Prince Purple Rained all over it, re-calibrating his 'Creep' into a synth-based power ballad that laid even more sentimentality on top of the already-indulgent self-pitying. Sure, it was a great spectacle, but self-deprecating sorrow is not a look that suits Prince. Besides, having him sing "I don't belong here" while on-stage is plainly ludicrous.


(all versions of this seem to have been taken off YouTube!)