Thursday, 31 December 2009

My Favourite Albums of 2009

1. Butcher Boy - React Or Die
year-end heads-up for DiS

Glasgow is typically characterised as a dreich, dank and violent city, but much of its musical heritage seems to be centred around the light, graceful and romantic: Orange Juice, the Fannies, Belle & Seb, and Camera Obscura. Butcher Boy need to be added to that list, and not just because of their similar style; their continuing low-profile, even in their home city, is perplexing considering the strength of both their albums so far. If debut Profit In Your Poetry was hugely promising, React Or Die fulfils that promise, with ten achingly pretty, perfectly paced and impeccably produced songs in thirty fatless minutes.

In opener 'When I'm Asleep', singer John Blaine Hunt pointedly insists that his night-times are sterile: "I never dream, I never feel anything" he sings over a trilling mandolin melody. His vocal control is important: he doesn't hold a note for an instant more than necessary; it's only when the song swells, when the strings and mandolin combine into a gorgeous melancholy, that his vocals allow for breath, his emotion seeping through. It's as if his stoicism is stolen by the song.

This whole record does that to me. I struggle to stay composed. I've tried to pinpoint why the keyboard outro of 'You're Only Crying For Yourself' draws my eyebrows into an arch and teases my tear ducts to stir, every time I hear it, like Pavlov's bell. But, well, my attempt at critical detachment is stolen by that song, by all of them, by their exquisite arrangements, by Hunt's romantic lyrics. I'm convinced React Or Die will one day be recognised as an equal of any of its hometown's indie-pop classics. For now, it's either "just too beautiful and bright for these times"; or I'm finally going batty.

React Or Die is streaming in full on Butcher Boy's MySpace, and on Spotify.

And the rest...

2. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
MPP was The Skinny's album of the year, as you can read about here (or that last blog post on the left there).
3. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
In my head, the music I imagine my hypothetical future self will make is closer to this in style than any other album, ever.

4. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
My first Camera Obscura album. I know! Between this and Butcher Boy, I've had a swoonful year.

5. We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls
My breathless Clash review for it here, which I knew was breathless at the time but I still stand by 100%.

6. Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone!
My 5-star Skinny review here, which I think is only my fourth full-marks album review - after Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, In Rainbows, and Third.

7. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
I fucking love that cover by the way.
8. The Field - Yesterday and Today
In retrospect, better than his first album, which I wanted to like more than I actually did. Yesterday and Today has several passages of staggering beauty, I can't imagine ever getting bored of it.

9. Japandroids - Post-Nothing
Anthemic garage rock well encapsulated by the minimalism and friendship of the cover; until any clever sod can work out what the fuck is really "important", the answer is mates, music, girls and fun. Lad rock says the same, but Japandroids say it better.
10. Tony Allen - Secret Agent
One of the many sensible objections to music lists is that it's impossible to compare two works of art from completely different genres, so it's feels kinda weird positioning Tony Allen in a list just under Japandroids (and, for that matter, Japandroids in a list just under The Field). I try to make a guess as to how much I've enjoyed a record and rank it accordingly, because when you begin to think in genres, you apply your own perception of stylistic limits to the limit-free work of others. I discovered Afrobeat in 2009; it's not a genre I claim to know a lot about, and perhaps Afrobeat know-alls aren't impressed by Secret Agent; I haven't a clue. All I know is I played it to death and loved it every time.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Skinny's Favourite Albums of 2009


@The Skinny

Time is a great leveller when it comes to musical reputations, because it's much easier to make a solid judgement when you have the space to think freely about what you're listening to without the pernicious influences of hype, fashion or the temptation to be a contrarian. A year after it was first leaked, it comes as no surprise that Merriweather Post Pavilion still feels like the obvious choice for album of the year. It felt special from the moment it landed. If 12 months haven't dulled our feelings, will ten years? When will someone criticise it on its own terms, instead of on the tenuous extra-musical grounds of over-hype or hipster-hate? Where is the backlash going to come from?

"My parents listen to it and they're proud of it, and they like a song here and there, but it's definitely not their thing," Geologist tells The Skinny. So perhaps Geologist's mum could tell us why we're wrong? "No, I don't think she'll want to start the backlash! It's something she can show to her friends or to my grandparents, show them that I'm doing something worthwhile with my life, even though I have a beard!"

Merriweather Post Pavilion is going to be spoken of in rarefied terms for years to come, so you'd better get used to it. Sick of hearing the Kid A story yet? Well there's a MPP myth in the works already, you know how it'll go: progressive-this and zeitgeist-that. It's a wonderful album. It deserves it. "We love this record and are really happy with it, and we're very happy that people are receiving it so well. It feels good, you know?" Geologist says. "Everybody who puts something out into the world... wants it to be respected. We put a lot of work into it. But I think we have to be careful about it, we're going to be very conscious next time not to make MPP part two because that would be pretty boring." Panda Bear is still picking faults: "I don't know that we'll ever be completely happy," he says. "Listening to something 500 times or so throughout writing, touring, recording, mixing, mastering... you start to notice little things you might change. Sometimes you want to change things just because when you started the thing you were a different person."

Change it? Don't be silly. Panda Bear tells us something else remarkable: "We knew we wanted to have more of a focus on bass and bass frequencies, and we had some themes in mind like ballet, but like most of our albums the spirit of the thing kind of just came on gradually." Did you catch that? Ballet! Geologist, on the other hand, drops names like Kylie, dubstep star Burial, and Berlin minimal techno label Kompakt. Try to pin a genre on Merriweather Post Pavilion. It can't be done. Part of the MPP story, still in production, will require a succinct distillation of its aesthetic, one or two words to sum it up. But everyone's stumped. Merriweather Post Pavilion is an alien conflation of Burial, Kylie, Kompakt, ballet and bass. How could it not be album of the year?

the rest @The Skinny

Through no fault of their own, sometimes great bands acquire unhealthy legacies: Nirvana, I'm looking at you particularly. One of Pavement's aesthetic choices which was seized on big-time was a perceived musical sloppiness, a too-cool-to-care attitude that has afflicted countless indie rock bands since. Grizzly Bear care about the placing and playing of every note, and that discipline doesn't breed sterility: their studied vocal harmonies evoke plenty of emotion. And when they're livelier, as in the first two songs and the last two-but-one, the spotless production gives every movement its space. Grizzly Bear might've sent you to sleep before, but now they'll start you dreaming.

Bitte Orca is where everything finally came together smoothly for New Yorker Dave Longstreth, mastermind of the Dirty Projectors, who'd previously handicapped himself by concocting ambitious ideological aims for his albums that he wasn't quite able to fulfil. Bitte Orca keeps things simple, relatively speaking, by foregoing overarching themes in favour of accessibility, achieved not by compromise but by focus. It's not a concept that glues these nine tracks together, it's the songs themselves: post-punk, afrobeat, indie pop, garage rock and contemporary R&B all mingle happily in the company of Longstreth and the girls' elastic vocals. Bizarre on paper, brilliant in practice.

2009 was a strong year for hip-hop, thanks to the likes of Raekwon and Mos Def outperforming the disappointing returns of megastars Jay-Z and Eminem. Best of them all was Daniel Dumile's umpteenth album, his first as all-caps DOOM, an endlessly replayable journey through his comic book rogue fantasies that's a little darker than prior efforts. Dumile's gruff croak serves up a thousand perplexing rhymes for you to unravel, and guest spots from Rae, Ghostface and a little-known lady called Empress Star all impress. Born Like This is Dumile's best solo record since Vaudeville Villain.

"We didn't want to make something that sounded like the first record, we definitely think we've progressed and moved on as a band" guitarist and producer Andy MacFarlane tells The Skinny. But how Forget The Night Ahead compares to debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is a matter of heated debate. We (or rather you, discerning reader) placed Fourteen Autumns second on our list of the best Scottish albums of the decade; the NME included this one in its overall century of the century. "You'll always get some people saying 'it's not as good as the first record'" MacFarlane says. "Those people are wrong. But other people have been very kind about this one." It's a tight call, we'll grant that.

"This is a brilliant, furious album that manages to be both misanthropic in its message yet therapeutic in its sheer catharsis" said Chris Cusack in his 5-star Skinny review of Converge's seventh album Axe To Fall. But it wasn't straightforward for the progressive hardcore band to put together, because they borrowed the talents of nearly 20 guest performers. "Bringing some friends in to contribute to the songs added some new challenges to the process for us for sure," vocalist Jacob Bannon tells us. "But I really enjoyed what we created together and it seems that people are enjoying it, so that's a positive thing".

"We went in [to the studio] pretty naïve thinking that we were ready to make an album and were all set to record it in a fortnight, and it ended up taking about 9 months on and off" reflects Rick Anthony, lead singer of Glasgow's Phantom Band, who released the best debut LP of 2009. "It sometimes feels like we’re parents of this kid – you try and bring it up right and do the best by it but at some point you have to step back and let it go off on its own. It has its fuck ups but we still love it." We love it too.

Having equated the struggles of modern life with hunting for crystal skulls down a dark hole on 2006’s Blood Mountain, Mastodon took to the sky(e) for the fourth and final album in their ‘elements’ series. “It’s an astral planing dream,” guitarist Brent Hinds forewarned us of the progressive odyssey to unfold. With a narrative backdrop of Tsarist Russia, psychedelic flavours were thrown into a blender with banjo-led sludge metal and ADD song structure – an unlikely recipe which has seen the Atlanta quartet realise a curious crossover appeal. So what are they doing differently? “We scream like banshees being stuck in the ass with a knife, although now there’s a lot more singing going on,” Hinds shrugs. Will someone please relay this idea to Duffy?

For all the talk of its mystical themes and lavish production, what few people seem to mention about Two Suns is just how great a singer Natasha Khan is. Granted, singing ability isn't as important as X-Factor judges might claim, but Two Suns wouldn't be half the album it is without Khan's exceptional pipes. There's not a hair out of place on Bat For Lashes' Two Suns, a surprisingly inventive and remarkably touching second album that confirms Khan's singular talent. She even persuaded Scott Walker to collaborate; how can she possibly exceed that?

It's well established by now that Glasgow's indie-pop credentials are second to none, a view supported by another fabulous album by Camera Obscura this year. But don't overlook Butcher Boy, whose second album React Or Die is a real treasure, borrowing equally from Belle & Sebastian and Arthur Lee's Love in the sculpture of ten heartbreakingly pretty songs. "My initial direction was that we should aim for something folky, in the sense of it being old and unsettling", singer/songwriter John Blaine Hunt told us. "And even if it was unsettling, it must still be beautiful." It definitely is.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


OK so I'm warming to the idea of Rage Against The Machine topping the UK charts this week, in preference to the new X-Factor winner. Generally, I think RATM is tedious, adolescent bullshit, and I couldn't give a fuck about Christmas number one, or Easter number one, or Halloween number one. It's always shit. It doesn't influence my life. I didn't care when Mr. Blobby was the Christmas number one, or Bob The Builder, or Westlife or Alexandra Burke and I won't care if it's Joe McElderberry. But it would be quite funny to see the world's media squirm as they try to explain it, because saying the number one is an age-old song called "Killing In The Name Of" doesn't explain it. Would Christmas Top Of The Pops bleep out every single "fuck"? They'd have to, but it would draw more attention to it than conceal it.

Today Tom Morello and Zach De La Rocha appeared live on BBC Radio to talk about it. Before they went on-air, they were politely asked not to sing the offending lines, to which they agreed. But they couldn't hold to that, of course...

In a year in which Britain has seemed to regress towards conservatism with the Sachsgate pallaver (also involving BBC Radio), it would at least be amusing to end the year with a redress, a collective and explicit "FUCK YOU!" aimed at whoever you want it to be aimed at.


But I didn't really want to dwell on RATM, because I've been thinking further about about how people react to hype. Last week I criticised music writers who have purposefully avoided Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion even though there's a good chance they'd really like it. These other people, I said, were reacting against the hype, refusing to even take part in the discussion out of some sense that they were fighting the cause of a greater good. How silly! And some who did listen, only to review, were forced to trawl the depths of their creativity to come up with criticisms, out of a belief that someone ought to be damn criticising it, even if it meant overlooking a lot of positive qualities.

Make sure you're sitting down for this, cos it's a shocker: I, the accuser, have been guilty of similar transgressions too. It's true. I have met and interviewed Vampire Weekend, for an extended cover feature on them for The Skinny. I have seen them live twice -- once in a mid-sized Edinburgh club called the Bongo Club, I was there to interview the local support band; and once in the Californian desert, after I had met them, at Coachella. Confession: I have never listened to their debut album. Yeah, I probably would like it, even though I wasn't too impressed by them live. What can I say? I couldn't be arsed. I wrote the feature and still didn't feel compelled to acquire it (you might call that unprofessional, but you get what you pay for. I wasn't given a promo of it, and I don't like downloading things. My feature said nothing about the album, only about the background. Now, I would fire up Spotify, of course). I've never listened to any Arctic Monkeys' album either, actually. Of course I've heard individual songs by both, but never out of choice.

Why did I opt-in to the Animal Collective conversation but not the Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys' ones? I have a hunch it's because I already knew and enjoyed two AC records, so I was more receptive to the idea that I would enjoy MPP; whereas Vampire Weekend and the Monkeys were new bands with hugely hyped debut albums. I hadn't invested any time in them before the hype-rush.

Guess I should get round to the Monkeys at least by now, eh?

I realise that instead of trying to put people on some kind of hype-reaction spectrum, I should've just linked to these two Wikipedia pages:


Reverse Psychology

In summary:

"Reactance is an emotional reaction in direct contradiction to rules or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. It can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended."

"Reverse psychology... relies on the psychological phenomenon of reactance, in which a person has a negative emotional response in reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the option which is being advocated against."

Hype is encouragement, lots of hype leads to lots of persuasion, but too much hype invokes reverse psychology: everyone wants you to listen to and love this album so much that you dig your heels in, because it's no longer encouragement, it's pressure, and it feels like a curtailment of your freedom to choose whether to like it or not.

Makes perfect sense, put like that.

But it's still an emotional response to outside factors, and so it should still be discouraged from entering the mindset of a music writer. Although I never bothered with the Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys, I've never claimed to dislike them for their hype. I didn't react against it, I just didn't react to it, in either direction.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Amy Millan - Masters of the Burial

Amy Millan - Masters of the Burial
album review for DiS

If there exists such a thing as a die-hard Stars fan, then Amy Millan will find out when she counts the sales of her second solo LP Masters Of The Burial, because it's hard to imagine anyone other than a devout Stars acolyte being interested enough to buy it. If mediocre first album Honey From The Tombs didn't put the casual and curious off, mediocre second album Masters Of The Burial certainly will. It's an intimate, country-influenced half-hour that's very easy to miss because there's so little actually to it. For every delicate moment of prettiness, there's a dozen that are just too delicate to register. It floats on, never daring to infringe your day, except possibly to help you end it. If there is an appropriate utility for Masters Of The Burial, it could be as a late-night anaesthetic.

Amy Millan has a very pleasant voice, it's true, and she uses it throughout this album, which is a good idea of hers. No guest singers for Amy's ballads, but Amy takes on four written by others, and these are among the strongest on the record. Richard Hawley's pensive ballad 'Run For Me' is sung slowly with just a chiming electric guitar for backup, and Amy's voice is very clear to enjoy on Jenny Whitely's 'Day To Day', which she sings with only a basic drumbeat. One of the more maximal arrangements features a really lovely string backing: Sarah Harmer's wistful ballad 'Old Perfume' is the album's stand-out. You get the point: everything's a ballad.

And yeah, I get it too -- it's intentional, Masters Of The Burial wants to sound intimate and cosy and warm -- 'Lost Compass' in particular sounds like it was taped within an inch of its happening. The problem is: albums prized for their sense of intimacy need points of connection -- a terse turn of phrase perhaps, a few cutting and convincing lines, or a soulful vocal performance, or a brief rush of vim and vigour -- because otherwise they're not intimate, they're just reserved. Like a lot of great records, Masters Of The Burial is minimally arranged, slowly performed and quietly recorded; but there's never a spark here because Millan doesn't give enough of herself to it. Her lyrics are familiar and generalised, so her personality is kept shrouded. She covers Death Cab For Cutie's 'I Will Follow You Into The Dark' and I don't believe a word of it. In 'Low Sail' she repeatedly tells of a determination to "find my way back to you", but it already feels like a foregone conclusion. She wants her man to stay with her in 'Finish Line', but it's more a polite request than a plea; I don't think she really cares, so neither do I.

Masters Of The Burial ends on a high note, literally. By leaving the final bar unresolved, Millan creates the tiniest hint of tension, the only such moment on the whole record. An unresolved ending in a film would suggest a forthcoming sequel; but not even Stars fans could get excited by that prospect.


Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Skinny's Best Scottish Albums of the Decade

Top 20 write-ups at The Skinny website

50. Lapsus Linguae - You Got Me Fraiche
49. Funk D'Void - Volume Freak
48. Dead Or American - Ends
47. We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls
46. De Rosa - Mend
45. James Yorkston - When The Haar Rolls In
44. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
43. Found - This Mess We Keep Reshaping
42. Christ. - Metamorphic Reproduction Miracle
41. Laeto - Zwoa
40. Sons & Daughters - Love The Cup
39. The Delgados - Hate
38. James Yorkston - The Year Of The Leopard
37. Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend
36. Foil - Never Got Hip
35. Half Cousin - The Function Room
34. Withered Hand - Good News
33. The Beta Band - Hot Shots II
32. Butcher Boy - React Or Die
31. Half Cousin - Iodine
30. Macrocosmica - Art of the Black Earth
29. Life Without Buildings - Any Other City
28. The Phantom Band - Checkmate Savage
27. The Twilight Sad - Forget The Night Ahead
26. Mogwai - Rock Action
25. Arab Strap - The Last Romance
24. Aerogramme - My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go
23. Idlewild - The Remote Part
22. Biffy Clyro - Puzzle
21. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastophe Waitress
20. Malcolm Middleton - Into The Woods
19. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
18. Uncle John & Whitelock - There Is Nothing Else
17. King Creosote - Rocket DIY
16. Meursault - Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues
15. De Rosa - Prevention
14. Mogwai - Happy Songs For Happy People
13. Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out Of This Country
12. Arab Strap - The Red Thread
11. Aerogramme - Sleep And Release
10. Mogwai - Mr Beast
9. Boards of Canada - The Campfire Headphase
8. The Delgados - The Great Eastern
7. Arab Strap - Monday At The Hug & Pint
6. King Creosote - KC Rules OK
5. Boards of Canada - Geogaddi
4. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight
3. Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
2. The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
1. Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows

I've seen worse lists (even though it is topped by a thoroughly unremarkable album). It doesn't exactly match mine, of course, so therefore it's incorrect. But it's not bad.

I googled to see if there was any reaction. On one forum, I read "what a shite list! Two from Mogwai, Arab Strap and King Creosote in the Top 20? What about promoting lesser known bands? It's all rather mainstream and boring for me!" On another forum, I read "what a shite list! I've not heard of any of that Top 20 except Franz Ferdinand! Where's The View, Glasvegas and Paolo Nutini? Bunch of elistist snobs!" Oh well, can't satisfy everyone. Probably can't satisfy anyone (not even Malcolm Middleton).

There are 7 (seven) albums from 2009 in there. This year has been a fantastic year for Scottish music, so in that way it shouldn't be a surprise. But in another way it's very odd, because canons take time to form, and decade lists compiled before the decade has even finished are more likely to be over-weighted in older years and under-weighted in recent years. That's very true for the Pitchfork list, the Lost At Sea list, the Stylus list. If any of these pubs do it again in a few years, it'll be more proportionate. For 7/50 records in this list to be from this year, which hasn't even finished yet, is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that those seven do not include Dananananaykroyd's incredible Hey Everyone!

This was the top ten which I submitted, which was also 2009-heavy:

1. The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
2. Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
3. Butcher Boy - React Or Die
4. Mogwai - Happy Songs for Happy People
5. Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend
6. Boards of Canada - Geogaddi
7. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
8. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
9. We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls
10.James Yorkston - Year of the Leopard

and even though I squeezed three 2009 albums into ten spaces, I couldn't find a space for Dananananaykroyd either! Scheisse.

It's also been pointed out to me by a mate that Kode9 is Glaswegian. That reminded me that Kevin Martin, of The Bug, was born in Paisley. If this list was not limited by geography to a country which is still very culturally homogenous, it would be criticised for itself being quite homogenous, being 95% indie-rock. In retrospect, it'd have been pretty cool if Memories Of The Future, London Zoo and Hudson Mohawke's Butter had made it, just for a bit of stylistic diversity. But (not butter) the first two are intrinsically linked with London, it would have been a bit odd to see them on a Scottish list. I wonder if they got any votes at all, just because the association is never made. And the latter (Butter) was released too late to be seriously considered - only a week or two before votes were cast.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Pernicious Influence of Hype

So it was exciting to have Simon Reynolds give the Stylus comeback a shout-out in his latest Guardian decade round-up yesterday. Also, he's participating, which was a surprise. I know he did an article for Stylus when it first opened, but he wasn't a regular contributor, unlike one or two of the regular writers who I believe can't take part. Anyway, one of the things Reynolds talked about was ex-Styluser Ian Cohen's Funeral blurb on Pitchfork's Decade list, which posited that Funeral was "the last of its kind", a unifying consensus-builder whose reception was so positive that it gave birth to a cynicism and contrarian-impulse in today's blogosphere that makes such unifying "event" records near-impossible now.

But cynicism and contrarianism have been a plasma through the internet's venous system since it came to life. Was Funeral's reception really cynicism-free? I liked Reynolds' phrasing that the blogosphere's "greatest liability" was that "there's no cool or ego-burnishing value to be generated from agreeing with other people". He's right: saying "I agree" doesn't impress anyone. Saying "no, you're wrong, and here's why..." is potentially very impressive. It's how you prove how smart you are, how different you are, how you tend to be right whilst everyone else is fooled by a variation of the same mysterious osmosis which fools the idiot public into believing the Black Eyed Peas are amazing. Look how smart I am, I see through it all. But that all depends on the "and here's why..." explanation being convincing.

Third gratuitous Stylus reference: the still-going Singles Jukebox last week caused a minor music blog kerfuffle by being very critical of the Animal Collective song "My Girls", being retrospectively analysed as it was missed on initial release. Of course, no record in the world could be loved universally, and there are surely lots of very good reasons to be unimpressed by Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion and "My Girls". But they weren't articulated well here; instead we got nit-picking rants, generalisations, assumptions and a lot of imagination. It looked less like genuine musical distaste and more like personal rep building. It wasn't "this is what I think of the music" it was "this is how uniquely I think".

It seems to me that a person's mode of reacting to music can be placed on a spectrum. At the far left, there are people who are very tolerant of and receptive to hype, who convince themselves that whatever their own most credible source says about a record is how they feel too; positive, negative or indifferent. These people rarely admit to being so influenced but to them, the canon is self-evidently accurate. At the other end, there are people who are very intolerant of and suspicious of hype. They convince themselves that the conventional wisdom on a record is dead wrong. If a record is well-hyped, it's probably shit, because other people get excited about rubbish things. People rarely confess to this position either (though Frank in my office does - which is maddening, but refreshing). To these people, the canon is self-evidently boring.

[Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple as this (so help me refine this if you can), because we have to work out what counts as "hype", a "credible source" and a "canon", because none of these things are the same for everyone. Also, I suspect a lot of people react differently, left-or-right, based on many different factors.]

Well, any critic who wants to be better at his job should strive to sit in the middle of that spectrum. The ideal is that no review should be influenced by other, prior reviews. I know I've been guilty of that in the past (and I probably don't know that I have, too), but people who put themselves forward as reviewers should at least attempt to adopt that mindset: of being equally as skeptical of hype as of dismissal. I don't think Ian Cohen is right that Funeral was the last of its kind, because I've read convincing rebuttals of that album's status, whilst the only Merriweather Post Pavillion backlash I've read has been straw-clutching and self-serving.

I admit it: I love Merriweather Post Pavillion; I don't care if you think I'm just another bee in the hivemind. I love Funeral too. So mock me.

Finally: to go further, the ideal is that no review should be influenced by any external factors at all. This reviewer must live in a cave with only a record player and a selection of fine headphones for company. Is Amy Winehouse's second album actually one of the best of the decade, as OMM and The Times have claimed? I always avoided it because I suspected she was mostly famous for being a fuck-up. Is it humanly possible to listen to that album without her tabloid persona influencing your reaction?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Japandroids, Super Adventure Club, Bronto Skylift @ Sneaky Pete's

Japandroids @ Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 13/11/09 (****)

live review for the skinny

Technical problems hold up tonights This Is Music at a sold-out Sneaky Pete's, meaning opening band Bronto Skylift take the stage an hour behind schedule. A delay can work for a band if the crowd is sufficiently excited, but tonight Bronto struggle to rile people up, despite the drummer doing his best by climbing onto the bar and smacking the lights out. It's not because they don't have energy, but because their painfully abrasive guitarwork and manic drumming is very indulgent: they concede no ground to audience members holding out for for a hook.

Super Adventure Club are indulgent in another way, in the long solos and multi-part multi-tempo songs sense. Sometimes it's hard to hold onto the thread of a song through so many changes, but when you can, it's riveting - Math Rock and 17th Century Ambassadors are particularly awe-inspiring. Near the end, a heavy, hard ten-minute long freeform instrumental piece is full-stopped by a scream and a belch; the next song starts with a smooth croon, harmonising backing vocals, and a melody like a 60s Fairy Liquid advert. Super Adventure Club are never predictable.

Vancouver garage rock duo Japandroids step the energy levels up a gear, and this time the crowd goes with them because they have the tunes to match. There's nothing complicated here: Japandroids play fast and loudly distorted teen anthems about girls and mates, with repetitive shouted vocals, easy to shoutalong to. So we do, mutually assuring each other that a manifesto for life developed as a kid can still apply in young adulthood. Responsibilities? Sorry, we've no space, you're not getting in. We prefer raucous mclusky covers with knob jokes, thanks.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

New Stylus Link

<-------------- wtf?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Frightened Rabbit, Ben TD, Ash, Wonderswan singles

A few single reviews I've done recently and not been arsed to post on here...

Frightened Rabbit - Swim Until You Can't See Land (***)

single review for the skinny

Frightened Rabbit's success is based on nothing resembling modernity: ever since the first lovesick caveman grunted a tune, his descendants have been trying to marry clear storytelling with earnest convictions without tipping into mushy sentimentality. That's an easier balance to hold when girls aren't involved, so Swim's sexless metaphor about trying new things is delivered with a suitable level-headedness. Will Frightened Rabbit swim away from their comfort zone on album number three? Their breakthrough album was a break-up album; "Call this a drowning of the past," he sings here, "she is there on the shoreline throwing stones at my back." Let's hope he's not a specialist.

Ben TD - Leaves (***)
single review for the skinny

Let's give Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Ben TD the benefit of the doubt and say that his confused lyrics in Leaves are actually purposefully garbled. "I saw you in the street picking up leaves, isn't that funny" he starts, before strangely backtracking "cos leaves are cool, but not that cool". That's exactly the kind of mealy-mouthed blabbering that lovestruck men come out with, tongue engaged while brain's away for a walk. Leaves is a very lovestruck song, but unfortunately Ben TD misses a natural opportunity to tie it up into a neat little 3-minute package because he's got a minute more of pleading to do. Trim off that excess earnestness and this is a touching ode to the stupefying power of love.


Ash - True Love 1980 (**)
single review for the skinny

It's a long time since anyone really cared about Ash, so in a valiant attempt to halt their decline, the Northern Irish rockers have promised to release 26 singles (one every fortnight for a year) instead of a new album. It's an interesting idea aimed at maintaining the interest and attention of fans over a longer period of time, but it could fall flat if all the songs are as poor as this one, the first of the proposed 26. True Love 1980 is a New Order parody, right down to the trite lyrics and flat singing, which aren't elements of New Order's sound that anyone should attempt to replicate. With tinny synths and schmaltzy verses, True Love 1980 is more foolish than brave.

Wonderswan - Furrrpile (**)
single review for the skinny

Leeds quartet Wonderswan say on their MySpace that they formed out of "a shared love for scuzzy 90s lo-fi slacker bands." No shit! The reason everyone's gone crazy about the upcoming Pavement reunion is because it's been demonstrated for a decade now that nobody can do Pavement quite like Pavement. Furrrpile is a crushingly dull imitation, featuring overdriven out-of-tune guitars recorded in low fidelity along with a flat and witless vocal: "Throw me on the furrrpile and I'll climb inside, down in the furrrpile we've got our own styles," and so on. Slacker cool can't be manufactured.


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Dirty Dozen - Singles Column, November 09

Compiling the Dirty Dozen is a dirty job because sometimes it involves bashing honest, hard-working bands who never upset anyone (because no-one ever listens to them). Then again, sometimes it involves bashing massively successful bands who make millions of girls greet, so that's virtually a public service. Snow Patrol's Just Say Yes (*) is as blubbery, wet and limp as a dead seal, and Gary Lightbody's pleading to the unfortunate subject of his affections is delivered with all the gusto of someone telling a child their dog died. Mind the Grange Hill cast's advice. Glasgow's Kick To Kill do a pretty good Cure impression for the first 80 seconds of Cut Me (**), but it's downhill from there due to the roughly four thousand repetitions of the shouted vocal hook. Dead Confederate's The Rat (**) is dark and gloomy, only coming to life when someone gets accused of having "stupid human for brains".

Eh? Local rockers Satellite Underground are already imagining a successful future, where they'll regularly be gigging in front of a Sea Of People (**). But you cannae pair "at least we're together" with "this time it's forever" without causing a wave of groans. Water And A Flame (**) is an over-polished melodramatic ballad, duetted between Daniel Merriweather and Adele. Ewwww! Meanwhile, 39-year old Rivers Cuomo is still writing songs about high school romances. Wheatus – sorry, I mean Weezer's (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To (***) is ridiculous, but also kinda cute.

The Horrors' Whole New Way (***) is a strange choice for a single, a bonus track on the Japanese edition of their excellent recent Krautrock-inspired LP Primary Colours, it's no standout in that context. Passion Pit's full-length is a little tough to get through, because their rainbow-brite exuberance quickly gets annoying. But on its own, you'd need a heart of stone to deny Little Secrets' (****) earnest effervescence. If songs were judged by verses, few would appreciate The Cheek's Hung Up (****). But its brilliant stomping horn-led chorus more than makes up for the flatness elsewhere. John Peel woulda loved it.

Of all the Kate-Bush inspired femmes breaking this year, Mowgli's Road (****) marks Marina and The Diamonds out as the weirdest. Marina is so kooky, she cuckoos. Either a genius or a quack, we'll lean towards the former. Alex Turner is in typically graceful storytelling form on the Arctic Monkeys' Cornerstone (****). It's a perfectly measured slow pine for a lost love, but it just misses out on Single of the Month because Turner tries the most dubious rhyme of "ghost" with "toast" since Des'ree. Thin margins. Instead, the honours go to The Dead Weather's unique and baffling I Cut Like A Buffalo. Set to a reggae syncopation, singer Jack White riffs on a confusion between "choke" and "joke". "Is that you chokin'?" he hectors, "Or are you just jokin'?" It's not very funny, but when he makes a rhythmic choking sound over the breaks it sounds equally like a large animal suffocating, or a DJ scratching. Is that what "cut like a buffalo" means? No idea, but it's wonderfully eccentric.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Starless & Bible Black - Shape of the Shape

Starless and Bible Black - Shape of the Shape
album review for drowned in sound

There's a King Crimson album called Starless and Bible Black, but this Manchester-based group say that's not their inspiration: it's in fact a 1965 track by jazz pianist Stan Tracey with the same name. That's not easy to believe judging by this record: second full-length Shape of the Shape involves no piano, lots of prog signifiers, and jazz in only the broad sense that includes lounge music (so, not very jazzy jazz). Lounge acts frequently hire vaguely exotic European singers, so Starless and Bible Black have a French lady who we could luxuriously refer to as a chanteuse - Hélène Gautier. But French female singers aren't always as gorgeous-sounding as the word used to describe them, and Gautier's unremarkable voice can do little to save a record mired in impeccable mediocrity.

To briefly give it some due, Shape of the Shape is lovingly produced, every pluck of a guitar string resonating in full, every gap between sounds given time to breathe. If your dad is like my dad -- caring more about the precision and clarity of the sound reproduced through his high-end speakers than about the melodies or rhythms or whatevers of the actual composition - well, Christmas is just around the corner and Shape of the Shape has a real warmth of sound. And there are a few lovely moments, such as when an angelic chorus revitalises fourth song 'Radio Blues' as it drifts towards its close by entering really high, in contrast with the low descending bassline.

But those moments get very lonely. Everything on Shape of the Shape is mid-tempo. Mid-tempo's fine, it's necessary, but like a referee, when you notice it it's a problem. Every song features at least one instance of the UFO synth effect, landing or taking-off or swooshing across the sky, like they do. Fine, sometimes. Nearly every song starts with the slow strum of an acoustic guitar, giving the whole record a grounding in folk. Of course, that's OK, in theory. Gautier's voice is high and weedy, she hits the notes, has little character. For the most part, trying to transcribe her lyrics is like trying to transcribe Liz Fraser, because she sometimes sings in French, and sometimes just poorly enunciates. The successes aren't encouraging: "Hold me down now my mind is open / tell me how many hearts are broken / how to see family tree, treasured, lost in history." Add meaningless mush to indecipherable yawning and the vocals are clearly not a strong point. But it's hard to know what might be a strength here, production apart. There are no hooks, no memorable tunes. There's no rollicking rhythmic excitement, no dynamic shifts, no climaxes, no purges. No one-liners, no discernible stories, no themes. No risks taken, no happy accidents occuring, no disasters, no distastefulness, no surprises. Shape of the Shape is bland and instantly forgettable.

One song breaks the mould a little, the nine-minute album centrepiece 'Les Furies', which achieves a kinetic energy we might be able to describe as 'upper mid-tempo'. After three whole minutes of stereo-weaving buzz effects - like having your head shaved with different-sized clippers mowing tangled patterns - 'Les Furies' gains a chugging guitarist and a drummer with a sense of urgency. His flailing fills and rolls towards the end are the only passages where Shape of the Shape rises out of its dreamy inertia.

Vocals aside, Shape of the Shape is a good articulation of how I imagined Emerson, Lake & Palmer might sound in their quieter moments, though I'd never actually listened to them. On Spotify, I found 'From The Beginning', which pretty much nails this album in four minutes. It's what prog became after its first flurries of invention - complacent, conservative, self-satisfied, cliched - not 'progressive' at all. It's sometimes hard to condemn an album as inoffensive as Shape of the Shape, but nobody is a music fan because they love competence.


Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Dirty Dozen - Singles Column, October 09

The Dirty Dozen
singles column for the skinny october 2009

Believe it or not, the Dirty Dozen isn't the dregs of the promo pile – some singles don't even earn a casual dismissal. Unfortunately, Stirling's Vegas Nights just squeeze in. They're apparently gaining support in the Far East, which is presumably why their warbling harmony vocalist seems to be trying to sing in a tonal language. Touch And Feel / It Came As No Surprise (*) suffers from more problems than I've got space to mention. It's difficult to find much right in Alley Cat (*) by overdrive-heavy power-poppers Monocle Rose either. Their boring singer requests a less-boring person to lead her astray, and its need is apparent. Meanwhile, Kid Harpoon's Back From Beyond (*) boasts all the edge and charm of a boiled potato. Despite his claim to be "still singing tunes about you", there's no discernible tune about anywhere.

Finally we hit a second star, and it's for – gulp – Airdrie screamo. Flood Of Red's Home Run (**) makes a ridiculous melodrama out of driech skies, but at least there's some energy and good drumming in it. The Xcerts' drummer is having a ball on Nightschool (**) too, but their epically earnest pop is hard to distinguish from a clutch of other tear duct-teasing bands. Irish quintet The Brothers Movement combine BRMC's sleazy swagger, the Verve's woozy swagger, and Oasis's boozy swagger, into one swaggeriffic package. Standing Still (**) has caused this band to miss the boat by a good 7 or 8 years.

Stirling returns in the form of Jack Butler's Surgery 1984 (***), which steps the competition up a level via the simple method of slowly building towards a climactic explosion. It's the first great moment of the D12 so far, and herky-jerky b-side This Soul Accelerates is pretty good too. The name Bonobo rings a bell – Wikipedia says they are also known as Pygmy Chimpanzees – disambiguation fail! Apparently, this ape-like Ninja Tune producer specialises in the kind of lounge grooves that got stuffed onto a billion chillout compilations around about the time The Brothers Movement are familiar with. An album's worth might be tiresome, but The Keeper (***) is pretty smooth on its own. Wild Beasts are doing rather well for themselves, despite their singer shrieking throughout All The King's Men (***). But he hits the notes, so like in Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, the agile vocal melody becomes a big part of the appeal.

Take It (****) by Auld Reekie's Action Group is a real low rider, built of rhythm upon rhythm upon riff upon rhythm. It's moody and dark, and almost danceable, and while it never fully takes flight there's a lot to appreciate in their approach to songcraft. The Nextmen's Round of Applause (****) is the only hip-hop track in this month's D12 – a laid-back party jam based on a couple of New Orleans funk samples. It's flippant, but fun. Same same but different is Virgil Howe's Someday (****), which uses soft hip-hop beats and a brief vocal sample with trippy guitar lines and atmospherics to construct an enchanting single of the month.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Nick Cave @ Picture House, 13 Oct

An Evening with Nick Cave (****)
HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, 13 October 2009

live review for the skinny

One of the first rules of writing, in any sector, is to write about what you know; so one great challenge all novelists face is to create characters and stories that don't betray too much of themselves. The title character of Nick Cave's new second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, is a violent, "sexually incontinent" degenerate, an alcoholic travelling salesman with scant regard for anyone but himself. And what is Nick Cave doing here? Travelling the country selling his book, of course. When he perches on a chair to bombastically roar an early passage from the book, in which Bunny gets obscenely horny whilst cruising through Brighton listening to Kylie Minogue's Spinning Around, you wonder just what other parts of Bunny's character or narrative are borrowed from the Brighton-dwelling, former Kylie-duetting author's own life. Just sayin'.

Tonight's performance is part book reading, part gig, part Q&A; though in reality, the brief Q&A sections dissolve quite quickly as no-ones got any decent questions. With only multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis and guitarist Martyn P. Casey for support, each song is played more carefully than usual, Cave's usual theatricality muted by the greater need for precise playing. The all-seated crowd don't care; everyone's an acolyte in here, laughing uproariously at every tossed-out quip; "but you're beautiful!" a man shouts when Cave asks for the stage lights to be dimmed slightly. Tonight's setlist features three songs from this writer's favourite Cave LP The Good Son, plus assorted career highlights like "Into My Arms", "Red Right Hand", "Babe, You Turn Me On", and "The Mercy Seat". And the book? Well, it seems a touch over-written, but I ordered it as soon as I got home anyway. He's a good salesman.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Hockey - Mind Chaos

Hockey - Mind Chaos (**)
album review for the skinny

Showing some admirable self-awareness, Oregon's Hockey use the first song on their first album to pre-empt what they know is going to be a recurring criticism of their band: singer Ben Grubin's extravagantly affected vocal style. "Look out, cos I'm just too fake for the world, oh you know it's just a game to me" he squeals, yells, and coos, but that confession doesn't make his flagrant oversinging any more palatable. I'd say it was a shame, but it's a USP they'll work to their advantage in some quarters: if you catch yourself thinking Brandon Flowers has got himself rather over-excited, or that Razorlight have got much funkier, you're probably listening to Hockey on Radio One. There's a few good ideas here -- the lilting backing vocals on third track Learn To Lose are particularly nice -- but they're outweighed by repeated resort to modern rock cliche; and everything's overshadowed by Grubin's histrionics on the mic.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Taken By Trees - East of Eden

Taken By Trees - East of Eden (***)
album review for the skinny

Victoria Bergsman's second album as Taken By Trees is born of admirable intentions: seeking to break free from her comfort zone, she travelled with a sound engineer to Pakistan to find some local musicians to record with. So while East of Eden never strays too far from Western indie-pop norms, its South Asian instruments and backing vocalists give it a vivid sense of the exotic. Bergsman's lethargic vocals even sound like she's wilting in the heat, although, if you remember her guest spot on Peter Bjorn & John's Young Folks, that's just the way she sings. A blog-chasing cover of Animal Collective's My Girls seems unnecessary, but there are other, better moments on several tracks: the man wailing in the distance on unsettling opener To Lose Someone, the flicked-out guitar trills of Watch The Waves, the complex but gentle hand-tapped percussion of Day By Day. East of Eden is ambitiously conceived and modestly played.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Twilight Sad - Forget The Night Ahead

The Twilight Sad - Forget The Night Ahead (****)
album review for the skinny

The Twilight Sad have taken on a leaner, meaner look in time for the release of their hugely anticipated second album Forget The Night Ahead. Singer James Graham and guitarist/producer Andy MacFarlane have both shaved their heads, as if two-and-a-half years of wondering how the hell to follow up their magnificent debut album has left them both ready to escape to the same institution as Britney. Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters didn’t take the Twilight Sad into the charts, but it did elevate them into an exalted position in Scottish indie rock; reams of positive press across the Atlantic, where Graham’s local brogue earned him dodgy comparisons to Groundskeeper Willie, solidified an international indie reputation. And it came out of nowhere - three tiny gigs and a low-key EP release preceded the album, which had won rave reviews from Los Angeles to Melbourne before the Kilsyth band reached Edinburgh.

Forget The Night Ahead isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s following one of the most acclaimed Scottish albums of the young century; 30 months of touring the US, Europe and Britain in support of some pretty big bands (Smashing Pumpkins, Mogwai, Snow Patrol); and a couple of stop-gap EPs which weren’t all that satisfying. If second album syndrome really exists (and Wikipedia says it does), Forget The Night Ahead must be odds-on to show symptoms. You’ve already seen the rating above: its symptoms are mild.

Forget The Night Ahead isn't massively different from Fourteen Autumns, but it is a bit louder and noisier, and hence more intense. Both records are concerned with the possibilities of guitar noise, and how to shape feedback, reverb and other effects around otherwise unshowy, austere but emotional indie-rock. There’s a slight move towards shoegaze‘s chromic fog, but that only materialises momentarily in a few songs. Scissors is where the clearest My Bloody Valentine influence shows: their famous live ‘holocaust’ section - a twenty-minute endurance test of unfathomably loud and brittle guitar noise played as a finale during You Made Me Realise - is the basis for this three minute vocal-less interlude. Abstract echoing waves wash over Scissors’ middle, but from recent gigs it’s clear the band are most keen on the painfully rough intro and outro here.

Whereas the theme to the first seemed to be adolescent anger at neglectful domestic life (although Graham diplomatically insists otherwise), there’s no clear theme here: the lines that stand out seem significant within their own song, but don’t connect to the others. Graham’s lyrics are obliquely dark, often sung as non-sequiteurs, and full of references to stories not fully told. But he possesses an emotive vocal style which is capable of lending weight to otherwise confusing lines: “head up dear the rabbit might die” still feels like the most profound thing in the world when Graham cries it live. In new song The Room he croons “you're the grandson’s toy in the corner/ don’t tell anyone else you were seen in the cherry tree/ look what you have done.” It’s an impossible line to parse, but the sweet vocal melody excuses it. That holds true for most of the record: the standout lines are those most sweetly sung or loudly cried, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation.

The most prominent vocal on the whole album is troublesome, though. It kicks off the album’s centrepiece, Floorboards Under The Bed, a brave anti-commercial footstamp from the band. Preceded and followed by two of their most conventional indie rock songs yet, Floorboards begins with Graham singing a cappella in a reflective room: “We’ve taken all of our mistakes/ turned them into aeroplanes/ and the boy’s throwing rocks off my face”. Then harsh guitar stabs twist and slice, a piano wanders in, and the song descends into a stark instrumental anti-song, just in case you were having fun for a minute there. It’s a stunning shock and awe move, but what are we to make of those conspicuous opening lines? Do the first two parts refer to scrap paper, and therefore to playfulness, and the latter to suffering backlash or hatred? Perhaps, but that doesn’t really clear anything up.

If Forget The Night Ahead's lyrics can be cryptic, for the most part they remain on the right side of mysterious, allowing the visceral thrills of the band to dominate. That Birthday Present fades in with a ferocious momentum, guitars howling and drums racing like …Trail of Dead during their youthful vintage. First single I Became A Prostitute also begins with driving force, and is then carried by a heartbeating drum-kick into a huge anthemic chorus and a thick, loud guitarscape. Unsettling closer At The Burnside builds in with ghoulish but timid guitar squeals, before exploding in cacophonous, disastrous noise.

Like Fourteen Autumns, Forget The Night Ahead is a serious grower. There's little point in giving it just one listen - five will persuade you to persist much further. But, it's not quite a match for the debut. Why? Some of the best moments of the first album were where Graham seemed to genuinely lose his rag: like when he raged "and they’re sitting around the table, and they’re talking behind your back" on That Summer. Perhaps mindful of now having fans and therefore expectancies to meet, Graham's a little more restrained on this album, meaning we never feel the full hairdrying force of his anger. Also, the accordion was a key part of the band's sound on Fourteen Autumns, but it's missed here amid all the storms and swells of guitar.

But the Twilight Sad still pack a helluva punch: in Scissors and Floorboards Under The Bed, the group explicitly demonstrate their commitment to the anti-commercial noise aesthetic; and in I Became A Prositute, Made To Disappear, That Birthday Present, Interrupted, and The Neighbours Can't Breathe they've added a handful more powerful anthems to their catalogue. Were Forget The Night Ahead recorded by a new band, it'd be hailed as a stunning debut. Keep an eye on the Twilight Sad - this band's got some potential, by the way.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Withered Hand - Good News

Withered Hand - Good News (****)
album review for the skinny

By the time Edinburgh's Withered Hand opens Good News's final track with "maybe the world would be better without me", you'll want to give him a slap and tell him to pull himself together. Depression is a mental illness and that line proves Dan Willson is delusional. That's the bad news; the good news is that his debut album makes good on the promise of his two early EPs, partly because four of his strongest early songs are included here too. Supported by local musicians, including his friends in Meursault, Willson ponders his own existentialist quandaries on standouts Love In The Time Of Ecstasy and I Am Nothing. But all the self-deprecation and talk of alienation would get dreary were it not laced with dry humour. Every track features a handful of great lines, but Religious Songs is both his most quotable and most graceful number. The world is better for songwriters like Willson.


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Sweet Baboo - Hello Wave

Sweet Baboo - Hello Wave
album review for drowned in sound

I wish the diplomats who argue against the need for negative music criticism would spend a bit more time sucking on bogeys like Sweet Baboo's Hello Wave. Yes, you can download anything you want for free on the internet, but the pounds you save in your pocket can't buy back the time you've just wasted. Occasional exposure to albums like this are actually to be recommended for anyone pretending to be a music critic; they give you a grounding. If your listening diet is nothing but critically lavished and 'important' albums, it's easy to lose sight of where the borders of Sturgeon's Law are to be drawn. Sturgeon said that 90 per cent of everything is crap, and he was right; but his 90 per cent doesn't apply to the vaguely disappointing third albums from your favourite band, or slightly underwhelming debuts from hyped-up new scenesters. It's stuff like this, Hello Wave, that floats under the water waiting to sink your ship.

It makes no-one feel big or clever to lay into a well-meaning musician who operates entirely for love not money. Sweet Baboo's Stephen Black is probably a good guy who'd buy you a pint if you shook his hand and told him you enjoyed his music. And that must be why this album, his second, exists, because of stingy, thirsty sycophants. It's only 36 minutes long and it's difficult to get through. The first song, laboriously titled 'If I'm Still In Love When I Get Back Home From Travelling (America)' is the same knowingly cheesy novelty song the every-night resident at your local live music bar plays under the presupposition that the simple act of playing a guitar and singing is entertainment enough for folks. That's why you avoid that bar, because it isn't. Here is also where the first signs of Sweet Baboo's tedious 'quirkiness' arise: he nonsensically interjects "cheese!" after referring to the city of Philadelphia har har; he claims to have shot a seagull and then admits to making it up, cos he's wacky like that; and you know when he twice concedes he was "quite drunk" that it can't be a winking understatement because these drunk stories are rubbish. But he decided to write a song about them anyway.

It's got to get better and it does, kinda, marginally. The following song sports some niftily agile fingerpicking and third track, 'It's Three Let's Go', is a shuffling Broken Social Scene intro extended into a pleasant enough three minute-long instrumental. But don't lose track of your standards just yet. Stephen Black's voice has yet to show any more expressiveness than my dog's, and his personality is somewhat harder to locate too. In 'Hello Bullfrog, Hello Wave' -- we're at track seven now - Black fantasises about being washed away by a river into the sea, drearingly singing "take me from here, to there, from there, to here, from here, to there" for, god, ages. At 5:05 it's hardly an epic, but it's the longest song on the album by a full minute, and it really feels like it. He's melancholy, because pretty girls don't reciprocate his feelings, and his rabbit died and there's other odd references to death, but he still hasn't given me a reason, in his lyrics or his melodies, to give a fuck. "In the night sky I hear him calling me," he begins the next song, and if you read that in a booming Nick Cave voice it could seem quite dramatic: "and although my hands aren't tied and I tried with all my might, the demons have a hold and I've got no place left to go." But Sweet Baboo isn't Nick Cave, so he's singing it lightly over a jaunty two-chord campfire singalong strum. I could be listening to 'Stagger Lee', but no, I'm listening to 'Kumbaya' instead.

And then he interjects "Steve!" after "I hear him calling me", to further demean his own declared demons, and I wonder if even the Monday night guy down the road would sing this song to three punters and the barman. It's hard to think of a 36 minute-long record as indulgent, but Hello Wave is about half-an-hour longer than it ever earns.


Friday, 31 July 2009

Interview: Dirty Projectors

interview feature for clash magazine

Depressingly often, talking to a musician is far less interesting than listening to their music. When "we just make songs what we like, like" is the most perceptive explanation a band can give about their creative processes, the facepalm is instinctive. That's not the case with Dave Longstreth, mastermind of the Brooklyn-based Dirty Projectors, whose new album Bitte Orca is one of the best records of the year so far. Despite Bitte Orca being an endlessly inventive and fascinating listen - and a fun one too, beard-scratchers - he talks a real good game, if you can actually get hold of him. Sure, he's performing with David Byrne, and yeah, he's in the studio with Bjork; we've heard all these excuses before, press person! When Clash finally does touch base, he's still juggling a million things to do, but while we've got him, he's going to make an impression.

Dirty Projectors have been a going concern since 2002, and used to include two members of Vampire Weekend. In recent years they've been cultivating a reputation as a band easy to admire, but not quite so easy to love. Isn't the idea of a chopped-and-screwed rock opera about a suicidal Don Henley kinda amazing? That's Dirty Projectors 2005 album The Getty Address. And what if a band tried to cover an entire album that they hadn't listened to for 15 years, basing the whole thing on blurry fragments of teenage memories? That's Rise Above, from 2007, in a conceptual nutshell. Both albums had plenty of great moments, but ultimately felt like they were born of better ideas than execution. Bitte Orca isn't so easy to narrow down, but it seems like the absence of an overarching theme has taken the edge off its abstract experimentalism, allowing the band more room for baser aims, like hooks.

So I ask Longstreth to explain what Bitte Orca's about, really, and he says this: "Collapsing dualities, conciliating factional antagonisms, creating Mexican blankets of formal beauty and arresting emotionality". I don't quite know what to say to that, so he continues: "Parsing the future for potsherds of the past, reggae kaleidoscopes, goofing around with noise-gated snare drums". There's a pause. "'Stillness Is The Move' is sort of a love song" he continues, much to my relief. "The beat is based on T-Pain. We commissioned a radio mix of the song by the guy who mixes all of Timbaland's records, but the mix we made sounded way better, so we didn't use it." 'Stillness Is The Move' is the album's first single, a juddering, trilling, soaring kind of alien R&B ballad, featuring bright lead vocals from Amber Coffman. Explaining the new prominence of both female band members -- following song 'Two Doves', a clear tribute to mournful German chanteuse Nico, is sung by Angel Deradoorian -- Longstreth says "I wanted it to feel like a Beatles album, each of the singers with a lead number, playing with foreground and background. So much of our singing is about sharing a melody between two voices, or dividing a harmony into component voices, you know. Giving the girls a lead number felt like a natural application of that idea to the album as a whole."

Like all Dirty Projectors albums, Bitte Orca is packed full of ideas - but this is the one which gets them all to coalesce together most smoothly. It's all pretty odd on first listen: you'll hear flashes of Peter Gabriel, King Sunny Ade, Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, Talking Heads, The Fiery Furnaces, Arthur Russell and Frank Zappa in there at different times, not forgetting the aforementioned T-Pain and Nico. Somehow, even though he's pulling from so many different boxes, Longstreth still manages to put his hundred-piece puzzle together and form a clear picture, a picture that looks in whole like no-one else. It's been enough to convince two of the world's most critically revered musicians, David Byrne and Bjork, to collaborate with Longstreth in the last few months. Firstly, Byrne and Dirty Projectors recorded 'Knotty Pine' together for the Red Hot Organisation's Dark Was The Night charity compilation this winter. Then Bjork got in touch, having been impressed by a Dirty Projectors cover version of her own 'Hyperballad', and Longstreth agreed to write a suite for her to sing, again in support of an AIDS organisation. The six-song Mount Wittenberg Orca, which is planned for release "sometime", is about an imagined moment of eye-contact between Coffman and a whale. "Bjork is a huge inspiration for me," Longstreth says, "It was a big honour to write music for her. She said the only other person's music she's ever sung was Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire." That's not a name that often gets dropped in interviews with indie-rock bands. But Dirty Projectors are not a normal indie-rock band.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Wickerman Festival 2009

Wickerman Festival, Dundrennan, 24-25 July
festival review for the skinny

Strangely, but thankfully, the Wickerman Festival near Dumfries is a Friday-Saturday weekender, not a Saturday-Sunday affair. That's fortunate because when The Skinny got up on Sunday morning to pack up the tents and head home, the gusting winds and lashing rain soaked us skinwards within minutes. We were lucky - other than some brief showers on Friday afternoon, Wickerman was blessed with long spells of gentle sunshine, particularly on Saturday. All music festivals are dependent somewhat on favourable weather, but it seems particularly important for Wickerman, because this year's packed line-up was still pretty bare of appealing acts. That puts more emphasis on the ancillary pleasures of camping and drinking with friends, and on the non-musical entertainment, because there's fewer bands to get excited about. In theory, at least; we got excited about plenty of bands.

Much of our weekend was spent in the Solus Tent, a long and narrow marquee dedicated to up-and-coming Scottish bands. But when we first walk in 5 minutes before the start of Meursault, it's completely empty bar the sound guy. Singer Neil Pennycook isn't a quiet performer, so his bellowing voice soon draws people in to a set which focuses on highlights from last year's debut album. As great as that record is, it's new song Crank Resolutions which has been the standout of recent sets, its pulsing beats and racing rhythm contrasting with Pennycook's distressed vocals.

The Seventeenth Century play to a slightly bigger crowd, but they leave me unconvinced. They seem to adhere very closely to the Arcade Fire's eloquent brand of melodrama, using long maudlin violin lines and wailing vocal outros to convey a vague melancholy that doesn't quite match the mood of the evening. Perhaps they'd suit a dusky bar setting, but their self-seriousness today doesn't connect.

On the other hand, the always-impressive We Were Promised Jetpacks know exactly how to play to a festival crowd. They warm us up with, eh, Keeping Warm, and then Quiet Little Voices entices the quiet little crowd to begin using their own, eh, voices, in support. By the fourth song everyone has got it, so wild finale Short Bursts is served to a crowd on the verge of climax. It's a perfect set closer, shifting between quiet and loud moments with ecstatic energy. Jetpacks are getting better with every gig.

Headliners The Human League bring a touch of glamour to this very modest festival. Singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall still look gorgeous 30 years into their careers, while Phil Oakey commands the stage in a tight black lab coat, looking like a slender Dr Evil. They reel out hit after hit -- Tell Me When, Love Action, Open Your Heart, Seconds, Mirror Man -- and to finish, Don't You Want Me, which is incredible, of course. Even those who came with high expectations left fully enamoured.

Saturday's schedule kicks off with a Solus tent show from Bronto Skylift, who are really not the kind of band you want to soundtrack your hangover. So instead of being gently eased back into life, we're smacked around the chops by the savagely loud Glasgow duo, who play their instruments like they're trying to kill them. In "the closest thing we'll ever get to a love song", screeching feedback and vicious drumming underpin what I think is the repeated romantic yell "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger!". A family with three young kids look a little perplexed, but three cooler boys aged about 10 start their own moshpit at the front. Shame on us for leaving them to start it.

The afternoon provides a good opportunity to sample some non-musical fare. Down at the spoken word tent, a middle aged man recites Bill Maher's comedy routine about translating rap lyrics into "white" - watch that here - and then tried a rap of his own, which we'll generously call 'spirited'. Then we try the nine-hole crazy golf, which was only crazy insofar as it was pitch 'n putt with no putters and no fairways. So the first 20 minutes were spent looking for missing balls in deep, rough grass, and the next few minutes were spent trying to tap them into the hole with sand wedges. A once-over with a lawnmower, and some putters, would've made the golf far more enjoyable.

Back at the main stage were Norwich's The Kabeedies, who fulfilled just about every stereotype of meaningless art school post-punk you can think of. They looked cool and they danced a lot, but their patter was terrible. "How do you pronounce this place, is it Dun... Dun... Dundrennan?". Not. Hard. "She hit me on the arm, I have a bruise! That's amazing!". Not. Amazing.

Candi Staton seems to be best known now for her vocal on The Source's 1991 hit You Got The Love, but her biggest solo hit was Young Hearts Run Free, and in the late 60s she recorded some beautiful soul ballads, like What Would Become Of Me and I'm Just A Prisoner. But after trumpeting how many hours she'd travelled to be here, her set may as well have been torrented in. A lacklustre cover of Suspicious Minds is followed by a wedding singer performance of Stand By Your Man, cheapened to novelty status by a calypso beat. Clashes call.

Punch and the Apostles are much more fun, if a little ridiculous at times. Most of the time it's a cacophonous din, as each song is built up towards a big melodramatic climax and then brought down to earth again slowly while the saxophonist wails free-form solos. Occasionally, moments of glorious clarity break through the headache-inducing fug, suggesting that there is method behind the apparent madness after all.

But by far the best show of the day, and possibly of the whole weekend, was still to come: Drums of Death, in Solus, face painted like a zombie panda bear. He's hopping around a laptop and mixer, running to the barrier, working the crowd, rapping and singing, and I've no idea what he's saying but his beats are just brilliant. They seem to incorporate bits of everything -- electro which leans to Italo, to house, to punk, to techno, to grime, to indie-rock -- and he's putting everything into riling the crowd. There's a piano-based interlude, like recent LCD Soundsystem, which bangs back into life with astonishing force, and unbelievably he moves onto something even better. Who is this guy? He's called Colin, he's from Oban, and he's jaw-dropping live.

At midnight, the 30ft Wickerman which has stood watching over the site is ceremoniously set alight and fireworks are let off, but it's not the end of the festival yet. A DJ set from Utah Saints on the main stage is surprisingly brilliant, because their song selection is a perfect mix of big-hitters (Justice, The Killers, MGMT) and lesser-known maintenance beats. Finally, Edinburgh's William Douglas and the Wheel perform classic rock covers and originals to a raucous crowd in what was earlier the spoken word tent. We stumble back to the tents at 3am, actually get to them at 4 (don't ask), and thank the heavens for waiting until the end of the festival before unloading on us.