Thursday, 30 April 2009

PJ Harvey & John Parish @ Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 26 Apr

PJ Harvey and John Parish @ The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 26/04/09
live review for the skinny

Tom Brosseau (**) is no frills, defined. White tucked-in-shirt, straight jeans, side-parted silver hair, guitar, man. Brosseau keeps it so minimal, he barely even plays chords. The hushed Queen's Hall is a dream for a musician of his persuasion, who demands the kind of close patient attention that drunks in most other venues wouldn't afford. His voice is compelling, as feminine as Nina Simone's is masculine, and young like it's barely been used - indeed, his gentle between-song burr suggests it rarely is. Problem is, such spare arrangements focus more attention on the lyrics than they can bear. A songwriter with lines like "I like it when the colour bleeds, I don't like watermelons 'cos of the seeds" frankly needs to obscure them with noise, not highlight them with quiet. Unfortunately, the closer you listen to Brosseau's words, the more they seem like empty parcels wrapped in shiny paper.

PJ Harvey and John Parish (****) tear the house down with every song, but that reaction seems to be more in reverence to the barefoot Polly Jean than to tonight's songs as such. They're jointly billed, of course, so we can't complain that PJ doesn't play a single solo song - but her work with JP just isn't quite as strong. Tonight's setlist is hit-and-miss, but when it's good it's great. PJ's voice is impeccable - she sings creepy new song Leaving California so high she's almost whistling; she's subtly controlled but forceful in the aggressive biters; and theatrical final song April is revelatory. Cowering over the mic, eyes closed and still, she sings like a frail and frightened old lady, before the staid and steady musical background gathers life, allowing PJ to throw off her elderly shackles and exult "I dream!" like a woman reborn. Come back soon Polly Jean, and mind to bring that other songbook along too eh?

Say Anything's Song Shop - Wanna Be A-mused?

fifth blog post for Chordstrike

According to this recent blog post on Popmatters, the singer and songwriter of emo-rock band Say Anything has offered to write personalized songs for fans at $150 a pop. Max Bemis (pictured right) asks for a paragraph or two of autobiographical information, or details of a specific situation to be written about, and he'll write it into an acoustic song and record it for you. It's a Song Shop, which I haven't heard of before in popular music. When 99% of musicians are struggling to make money from their art, it seems to me like a great idea if he can pull it off to fans' satisfaction. Painters and sculptors are routinely commissioned to paint or sculpt specific pieces for specific customers, yet the convention for music has assumed that the musician must come up with their own completely original ideas for a non-specific listener. Why? This still requires a great deal of creativity from Bemis - he's given an angle to start with, that's all. And I don't think $150 is too expensive - there will surely be plenty of big Say Anything fans willing to treat themselves to their own personal Bemis song.

Another interesting aspect of this, pointed out by the Popmatters blogger, is that the rights of Bemis's songs are vested in his record label, RCA Music Group - including any song from his Song Shop. Presumably this means that if he writes anything particularly good, or if he struggles to fulfil his obligations for the next Say Anything record, then the song he wrote for you could appear on the next Say Anything album.

So, I have a few questions.

Firstly, which artist would you most like to write a song about you, if money was no object? It's not quite as easy as "who is your favorite artist?". For example, I doubt a Kraftwerk song would emerge with profound lyrics about your written scenario (fun game: give your own words to "Pocket Calculator" and try to make it sound serious); and if you chose Sigur Ros or the Cocteau Twins - well, you're never going to understand the words! Also, a lot of my favorite artists are dead, so that rules them out straight away. Many more of my favorites - Neil Young, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder to name a few - are well past their best, which makes me wonder whether I'd rather have a not-very-good song from a legend, or would I rather choose a contemporary artist who's more likely to write a song I enjoy? Finally, you also have to think about just what a songwriter might do to you in the song - Eminem would probably kill you (you may consider than an honor, to be killed by Eminem in a song), and Al Green would probably seduce you. Again, you may consider that an honor!

Secondly, would you be pleased or upset if the song was used on the artist's next proper album? I think it would be great, something to tell the grandkids about - though they'd probably just say "who?" and listen to something new and noisy, instead of whatever ancient stuff their grandpa liked! But others might be upset by it, especially if their song was about something quite private.

Finally, are Say Anything any good? Admittedly I know next to nothing about them. I don't really have $150 to spend frivolously, but then again, it is my birthday in two weeks!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Solange - Better Than Beyonce!

fourth blog post for Chordstrike

I'm not sure if I actually believe that, but it's an attention grabbing headline, don't you think!?

Rumors spread last week that Solange was going to be dropped by her label Interscope after disappointing sales of her latest album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. Thankfully, Interscope have said those rumors aren't true: "Contrary to rumors floating through the Internet over the last few days, Solange remains a part of the Interscope Geffen A&M family." Phew!

If you're still confused by the headline, Beyonce and Solange are sisters; but there's lots of reasons why they aren't really suitable for comparison. Beyonce has been one of the world's favorite pop stars for a decade or so now, whereas Solange only has two albums, neither of which has even approached any of Beyonce's releases in terms of profile. Whereas Beyonce is a key figure in contemporary R&B and pop, Solange's music is more derivative of 60s psychedelic pop and 70s soul. On the opening track to Sol-Angel, Solange sings of: "Two girls going in different directions" and asks to "Let my star shine on its own." Well, her family connection is an easy angle for writers to generate some initial interest (moi? lazy?), but by rights her talent should enable her to stand on her own.

I think Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams is one of the best pop-soul albums in years. It's remarkably consistent front-to-back, with something to recommend in every song - not just the singles. Like the cover, it's extravagant and colorful, and like the title, it's quite hippyish. There's easy, bubblegum moments, but also interesting attempts to push the envelope a little - like when "Dancing In The Dark" steps up a gear halfway through, or when "Cosmic Journey" morphs out of its slow, psychedelic groove into a banging techno coda. And her voice is great - check out the heartfelt pleading in "Would've Been The One" and her alternately forceful/reserved delivery on "I Decided."

If only there was a way for you to hear some of these songs instead of having to read my blathering...

and a live version of "I Decided" which includes a little detour to Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' "Heatwave"...

Better than Sasha Fierce?

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Record Store Day - False Nostalgia?

third post for Chordstrike

It's not often these days that the NME writes brave and thoughtful pieces, but Luke Lewis's blog post this week about Record Store Day qualifies. Today (Saturday) is Record Store Day, an international collaboration between independent record shops which will include in-store performances and exclusive releases to try to encourage music fans away from their computers, and back into their shops. By now you're probably thinking - surprise surprise, this Amazon guy's going to say he prefers buying music online! But please hear me out - I write only as a music fan who buys music from a variety of places, some online, but often not. Record stores are great to browse in, and it's always exciting to be able to take a CD home and play it right away. But I think Luke Lewis is right when he says there's a lot of "false nostalgia" about record stores.

The regular story goes that record shops are more than just shops. Geoff Travis, founder of one of the UK's most famous record stores Rough Trade, told The Skinny this month that "A record store is a meeting place for the exchange of music, fanzines, ideas and culture. I believe that people like to leave the house and have somewhere convivial to go where they meet kindred spirits and share some music and some life." Kevin Buckle, founder of Scottish indie shop Avalanche, said in the same article: "There may also be other ways of discovering music but none are as effective as getting a good recommendation from a shop."

(there's a bit of swearing in this clip, and a wholly unnecessary flash of Jack Black's backside over his trousers. Eugh.)

Well, I've never had a recommendation from a shop, and even if I did, why would I trust it more than a recommendation from a friend, or from any other music fan? Online I can browse music blogs and forums, fanzine reviews, newspaper reviews, even review aggregators like Metacritic, to find a multitude of opinions about a multitude of records. Moreover, I can listen to previews of the songs, or even go somewhere like MySpace or YouTube to listen to full tracks. It's always easy to take a "things were better in the old days" attitude, but music fans have never been able to make more informed decisions about their purchases than they can now. And, of course, you can shop around for the best price now without having to cross town several times.

I suspect Geoff Travis is just remembering his own shop in its 70s heyday in that quote. But there's a reason Rough Trade has such an enduring reputation - because shops like it are few and far between. Mostly, if you want to meet like-minded people, you go to a bar or a gig, not a shop.

Of course, I don't want record stores to close down. I've spent many happy hours trawling through endless boxes of records, or flicking through CD racks looking for that specific album I really need to hear right away. Clearly, online and offline music stores have different pros and cons and I really hope, despite the economic downturn and the fall in CD sales, that both can continue to serve music fans. But let's not get too misty eyed about a romantic notion of what record stores are when it isn't very close to reality.

The NME blog post was also discussed on Idolator.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone!

Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone! (*****)
album review for the skinny

Dananananaykroyd may be a little late to the party, but their stunning debut album has been well worth the wait

Could Dananananaykroyd be Scotland's best new band? Not exactly -- The Skinny first saw them in 2006, at that long-gone city centre festival Indian Summer, and their line-up has changed considerably since then -- so they're hardly "new". A debut EP, Sissy Hits, was set for release ages ago before their record label went bankrupt; it eventually elicited rapturous praise on release last summer. In the three years since they formed, they've made like a band from the future, taking the new model route of gigging to get by regardless of recorded output. They've toured across Europe and built up a deserved reputation as an awesome live band; but they've gone so far, in fact, that it's been easy for us back home to forget about them. With all the clamouring for FatCat's Scottish heroes and Edinburgh's burgeoning alt-folk scene, the absence of a Dananananaykroyd album has allowed them to drift away from Scottish music fans' awareness. Appropriately, Hey Everyone! addresses us all with an unforgettable force; it thrusts one hand round our necks, while the other cheerily waves hello.

But Hey Everyone! isn't really addressed to everyone. Dananananaykroyd are a post-hardcore punk band, with two drummers, two guitarists and two screamers - it'd be euphemistic to call them "singers". They wont please your parents, and they wont even please music fans who treasure qualities like clarity, ambience, poetic lyricism, or calm. They don't do that. Danananananykroyd do ferocious riffage, relentless rackets, noise enough to make you feel dead old. Vocalists Calum Gunn and John Baillie Junior can yelp like dying animals, but their style fits perfectly the unhinged thrash and percussive assaults coming from behind them. The drummers are used like dual guitarists - one on 'lead' sprawls full-range passages throughout each song, while another on 'rhythm' (!) can pound away for sheer power. They combine to amazing effect on songs like Pink Sabbath, where drum fills act as rhythm and melody, and Watch This, where light clickety-click fills propel the quieter sections. There are quiet sections -- there has to be, for respite's sake -- though for Dananananaykroyd, the whole group shouting from a few yards away, as in the start of Some Dresses, qualifies as quiet. It doesn't last long - Some Dresses climaxes with vigorous guitar punches, before 1993 launches into its Fugazi-like thrust.

But then 1993 breaks down into a gentle choral hymn -- "Turn your hissy fits, into sissy hits" -- and you realise that for all Dananananaykroyd's blunt abrasiveness, their construction of Hey Everyone! is pretty subtle. Short instrumentals begin both 'sides', and other tracks play trumps with each other on hooks or velocity or sanity, but every minute contributes to a riveting 45-minute whole. Hey Everyone! flows through peaks and troughs of pace and power, setting challenges up and laying resolutions down. It juxtaposes melody with strength and humour with earnestness. Dananananaykroyd are as youthfully boisterous as Los Campesinos!, and as battle-hardened as Trail of Dead, and their album teaches that what could be painful can actually be hugely fun. "Hey everyone!" they seem to be saying, like late arrivals to Scotland's new indie-rock party. With troubadours reaching for acoustic guitars and champagne hippies crashing out, it's the riotous gatecrashers who'll keep going til morning. Don't even think about flagging now.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dananananaykroyd @ Cabaret Voltaire, 7/4

Dananananaykroyd @ Cabaret Voltaire, April 7th
live review for the skinny

Favours for Sailors (***) have seemingly been winning a few influential fans recently, but it's not really apparent here why. They sound like a band more in thrall to Stephen Malkmus' solo records than his Pavement stuff, which is kinda the wrong way round to take it. Anyway, their harmless pizza banter and competent show is utterly blown away by the band that follows them. There's lots of people who'll tell you that Glasgow's Dananananaykroyd (*****) are the best live band in Britain. Who are these people? Anyone who's been to watch them. Dananananaykroyd need two drumkits to batter out their relentless sprawling rhythms, two singers to scream, yell and work the crowd, and just a few songs to get everyone into a frenzy. Both vocalists and guitarist break the fourth wall by spilling into the crowd and cheering along with us; it's gallus, but nothing compared to the cuddling outbreak they manipulate like impudent preachers, or the final song that's sung off-stage by the crowd in chorus. Yes, you read that right - there was a brief, crazy outbreak of cuddling in the crowd. You have to see it to believe it. You have to see it.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! (***)
album review for the skinny

Karen O used to be a wildcat, and now she's domesticated

Just like the first wave of post-punk bands a generation ago, the post-punk revivalists of this decade are also turning to synthesizers when their guitars no longer yield fresh ideas. For the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that means a third album sound plotted somewhere between Blondie, Franz Ferdinand and Gwen Stefani; which, hopefully you've noticed, is two-thirds of a great formula. But just like Franz, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are caught in a conundrum about how to balance their party songs with their introspectives. First album ballad "Maps" shocked everyone by showing Karen O's emotive side, and remains arguably the best thing they've ever written. But a few too many opaque slowies on It's Blitz! short sells Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most attractive quality - Karen O used to be a right entertaining and imaginative radge, and now she's just a wee bitty tame.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Music Drawing is The New Music Writing

second blog post for Chordstrike

One of my favorite websites to read about music is Popjustice. It mainly focuses on British chart pop that I'm not really interested in, but it's written so funnily it always cracks me up. It's got no pretensions to objectivity or expertise - it's written in the style of an over-excitable teenager, with silly jokes, wide-eyed enthusiasm and unsubtle sarcasm. OK, that doesn't sound good, but it is! Recently, Popjustice printed a review of the much-derided new Chris Cornell album, Scream. Take a look. I hope you agree that's an AMAZING review.

So music writers are apparently struggling for work these days. Maybe they need to think a bit more creatively. Instead of writing about music, maybe they should try drawing about music?
Inspired by this innovative new form of reviewing music, I've had a quick play around with Paint and a spreadsheet to present three reviews of the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, It's Blitz!.

Firstly, what does it sound like?

You can imagine that, right?

OK, so let's move on to Review 2, which I have snappily titled The Applicability of Certain Keywords Beginning With "S" Throughout the Album:


But I think it needs more work.

Finally, is it actually any good?

In conclusion: really quite good.

It seems so obvious now that Popjustice has shown the way. If a picture tells a thousand words, then I've just provided three thousand words-worth of It's Blitz! analysis. It took me half-an-hour to do, and it took you about half-a-minute to read and understand. After all, in this tl;dr age, who wants to read a dissertation!?


old-fashioned YYY review to come soon!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (***)
album review for the skinny

Dark Days/Light Years was not recorded in a studio by mere mortals with guitars; it was cooked up in a laboratory by third-eyed hippies with primary coloured liquids in smoking beakers. Sometimes those bubbling beakers overflow and leave an unwelcome stain, such as with the irritating three-minute outro of closer Pric; and songs like Moped Eyes and Lliwiau Llachar remain inert despite the far-flung ingredients combined to provoke a reaction. But the carefree experimentalism and surreal humour of Cardiff's favourite pop alchemists leaves plenty at which to widen your eyes. When they rediscover their flair on the batshit funny Inaugural Trams and the grooving motorik of White Socks/Flip-Flops, it becomes tempting to describe the Furries' ninth studio album as a comeback. It almost is: after a decade's worth of diminishing returns and band-abandoning side-projects, Dark Days is the Furries' best full-length since that last one you loved.