Tuesday, 21 October 2008

A Brief History of Scottish Music: 1978 - 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re joking now, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 October 2008

eagleowl - For The Thoughts You Never Had EP

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

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


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Gregory and The Hawk - Moenie and Kitchi

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

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


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

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

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

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

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Stevie Wonder @ O2 Arena, September 30

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Stevie Wonder's Part-Time Lovers

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

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

Makes me talk like a red too.

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

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

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

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

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

more later (mibbe)