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.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Bloc Party - Intimacy

album review for the skinny

Bloc Party - Intimacy (***)

You've got to give credit to Bloc Party for making a real effort to progress their sound when Silent Alarms II and III would've sold them enough records to continue a lucrative career. But - and you knew there was one - third album Intimacy, like A Weekend In The City before it, is dominated by a sense of a band throwing a load of ideas together and hoping they'll stick, with only mixed results.

It's telling that the song that works best here is closer Ion Square, which uses insistent hi-hats and bass kicks over slow chord changes to give both pace and contemplation to a Silent Alarm-style building epic; but if Intimacy featured ten tracks like this, wouldn't we be chastising Kele and co for attempting to re-write that stunning debut album?

Two records later, Bloc Party haven't yet found a cosy fit that satisfies their need for evolution while retaining what made them stand out in the first place. Kele Okereke's lyrics, a sticking point on Weekend, continue to feel clumsy here, though his vocals are wisely mixed a little lower so as to be less obstrusive generally than the worst moments of that record. Yet, you can't help but feel it's not a good sign if a record is improved by passive attention to the lyrics. Musically, they're still trying to incorporate booming electronics into post-punk action, such that the intro to first song Ares sounds like a Prodigy breakbeat.

First single Mercury mercifully makes more sense in context than it did on its own, but as with other ambitious attempts here, its hyperactive drums and processed vocals impress only that Bloc Party have learned how to use a lot of new toys recently. It takes balls to add chanting church chorals to an indie-rock song in 2008, but Zephyrus still falls short despite the best efforts of Greg and his Orian singers. Throughout, Intimacy requires qualification: Better Than Heaven's ballistic guitar attack of an outro is thrilling but preceded by a tedious build-up, and the effect of Signs' tender story is minimised by ungainly verse lyrics.

Which leaves one track - the aforementioned Ion Square - whose only criticism is its familiarity. The song's disciplined rise sounds effortless, which brings the previous 37 minutes' fault into focus: credit Bloc Party for trying, but if they're struggling to attain the heights they once reached, it's because they're trying too hard.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Connect 2008

festival coverage for the skinny

(photos to come)

The entire Skinny coverage is on the link above. Here's just what I did...

The Connect Festival – this year renamed Hydro Connect thanks to a sponsorship hook-up with Scottish Hydro Electric – has got everything going for it, in theory. The location – and the journey to get there – is absolutely gorgeous, being on the banks of Loch Fyne and in the grounds of Inveraray Castle, with steep hills rising behind both main stages. It’s small enough to get to know quickly, and so that traipsing from one end to the other should take no more than five minutes. And the ethos of quality food, and of supporting the environment, is something that everybody can get behind.

Unfortunately, in the two years it’s run so far, it’s been hampered by poor weather and the quagmire conditions that follow. At least this year the rain mostly held off until overnight Saturday, but waking up on Sunday with a hangover, wet clothes and a manky tent, and deep valleys and ponds of sticky mud outside, inevitably prompts the question: I paid how much for this?

But that’s all part of the British festival experience: it’s an endurance test which challenges you to overcome adverse conditions and enjoy yourself anyway because there’s no other choice. For The Skinny, the days after a festival are almost as enjoyable as the festival itself: firstly, getting home to a bath, a clean loo, and a warm, comfy bed; secondly, listening to music again with a fresh energy after seeing so many great performances over the preceding days. We certainly saw plenty of those at Hydro Connect 2008; now all they need to do is fix the weather...


A painfully thin crowd greets Broken Records on the second stage, first thing Saturday. Is everyone still in their sleeping bags? It’s their loss, because among the sparse attendance couples and groups get dancing, and one song sparks enthusiastic cossack yells: "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" It’s another superb set from the rising Edinburgh septet, who make it mighty tempting to miss Bloc Party to see them again this evening on the much smaller Your Sound tent.

Glasgow-based trio Zoey Van Goey are so sweet, it’s almost impossible to be cynical. Birthday girl Kim Moore’s mellifluous vocals are what do it, but there’s no denying the careful craft of these songs too, disguised by gently weird beats. The versatile threesome swap instrumental duties a few times, drummer Matt gets distracted by “the giant frigging castle” behind the crowd, and we all help out with a freestyle handclapping solo at the end. Let’s leave the solos to the musicians next time, eh.

Just in time for the release of their self-titled debut album, Glasvegas go about winning over thousands of doubting Thomases in a crowd obviously more sceptical than the hysterical hoardes at T in the Park. Glasvegas sound brilliant, their feedback reverberating heavier than ever before, and it’s an unusually energetic show too – not from James Allan of course, who remains unmoved throughout – but from the guitarists, who wildly throw themselves across the stage as they squeeze everything they can from their instruments. Glasvegas aren’t just learning how to physically fill a big stage, but also how to use its amps and speaker stacks too.

Andrew Weatherall can do so much better than this, which boils down to the surgical extraction and implantation of a kick drum every 8 bars. And again – on the mark – on the thirty-two – there it is – there it goes – and again – and away – and again… is this some kind of experiment? But I don’t expect most here to notice, being in their own wee internal worlds.

Unfortunately the sound where we’re standing in the Unknown Pleasures tent is terrible: Black Thought could be reading out the Yellow Pages for all we can hear him. It’s like listening to your neighbour play The Roots through a brick wall. Somewhere along the line there’s an extended You Got Me jam with a crazy, virtuosic climax from the guitarist and ?uestlove on drums; which makes it all the more disappointing that we’re unable to hear it properly. Apparently it sounded great at the front.

Bloc Party probably have the sales but not the back catalogue to headline an event like this. The mid-set one-two punch of So Here We Are and Like Eating Glass is near jaw-dropping, but at other times it’s less easy to remember why this band attracts such a following: specifically, Two More Years and the climactic Blue Light, which works far better in its album track context than as a live finale.


It’s like Scott and Grant Hutchison are playing to a nursery school in the Speakeasy Cafe, with Frightened Rabbit fans sitting cross-legged just inches away from them. The wee marquee is packed and all the lucky kids here see a special show, with Scott on great chatty form in-between a handful of stripped-back picks from Sing The Greys and brilliant latest album Midnight Organ Fight. Despite all the bells and whistles on the bigger stages, two men, two drums and a borrowed guitar provide one of the weekend’s biggest highlights.

When you need to take your mind off the brown puddles slurping around inside your wellies, Camera Obscura know how to help. A couple of breezy new songs set the scene for the very appropriate Let’s Get Out of this Country and Lloyd, I’m Read To Be Heartbroken, a duo which gets everyone singing and swinging and pogoing gently. Squelch squelch squelch. Utterly charming, but I'm not sure about that new squelch section.

On first appearances We Were Promised Jetpacks seem like earnest lads with a keen sense of rhythm, which mostly comprises a uniform kick drum with incessant motorik hi hits. Thankfully they make no attempt at funk whatsoever, which is a good thing because punk-funk is easy to learn but difficult to master, especially for young bucks. If WWPJ ever did try to sell you hair mousse, at least they’d do it with sincerity.

Accompanied by a Meatloaf-alike friend on voice box duty, Kraftwerk man Karl Bartos’ apathetic approach to mixing actually serves him well, because it allows he and his wingman more freedom to play with the pace. They never go for the easy option of a straight Kraftwerk song: only hints and flurries of recognisable hooks, interspersed with similarly influenced electro-retro deutsche-dance beats, is enough to keep everyone on their dancing toes.

Five new songs are premiered by Franz Ferdinand as they close the festival, several of which feature kazoo-toned synths much like Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who soundtrack. The first stands out thanks to two unexpected but brilliant left-turns it takes, making it sound like a random sample from an indie-dance mix tape. Franz Ferdinand have always done that kind of thing well: it’s what sets Take Me Out and Do You Wanna up for their shakedowns, though tonight the latter is a little heavy-set. They know how to find a groove, and as Alex Kapranos introduces each band member for solos during closer This Fire, they briefly look more like a funk group than a pop group. Average white band? Somewhat better than average, I’d say.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Streets - Everything is Borrowed

album review for the skinnyThe Streets - Everything Is Borrowed (***)

Mike Skinner's a Marmite musician if ever there was one: if his first two albums didn't convince you that this likely geezer could inject as much meaning into mundanity as any artist, in pop music or out of it, then Everything Is Borrowed won't convince you otherwise. For the rest of us, it's just a relief that Skinner has shed the impression of third album Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living of a thoroughly dislikeable cokehead. Call this his 'mature' album: from the sweet refrains of the opening title track it’s clear he’s taking a fatalistic approach. Skinner's done a lot of growing up, and the wonderfully told stories of mid-album duo Edge Of A Coin and Edge Of A Cliff impart uncharacteristically sage advice. He’s not quite swapped the Classics for slippers and the pranging for a pipe, but Borrowed is Skinner’s most relaxed, unselfconscious and thematically diverse record yet.