Tuesday, 30 June 2009

ATP Film Premiere, Mogwai @ Picture House, 24 Jun

Edinburgh International Film Festival
All Tomorrow's Parties Film Premiere, and Mogwai, at Edinburgh's Picture House, 24/6
live review for the skinny (*****)

The organisers have made a real effort for tonights All Tomorrow’s Parties film premiere, appropriately hosted in a gig venue converted from an old cinema. In honour of ATP’s Butlins setting, there’s dancing girls and donkeys entertaining the queue outside (for the retro British seaside holidays theme y’see), while inside there’s a traditional ice cream stand and other decorations and Hi-Di-Hi references. The 75 minute film itself is a captivating composite of amateur footage shot across several ATPs, interspersed with more old-fashioned holiday scenes, that surely tempted everyone present to go straight home and buy a ticket. The shows by Battles, Grinderman and Boredoms looked great, but the most interesting parts are the outdoors scenes: Daniel Johnston sitting on the grass outside his room with his guitar and a small crowd; fans climbing into trees to get a better view of Lightning Bolt in a similar location; and Grizzly Bear wandering down to the beach at sunrise with guitars and a small troupe of disciples. I’ve never been, but ATP looks truly unique.

To nobody’s surprise, the surprise guests tonight are Mogwai. Kudos to the sound guy, because they’re both absolutely clear and extremely loud, and very moving in a way that’s impossible to pinpoint. What is it about a chord change or a shift in volume or an added texture that feels so meaningful despite being, on the face of it, utterly meaningless? Mogwai give nothing away easily, so every second is like a slowly unravelling epiphany that never fully exposes itself. My Father My King is a jaw-dropping closer, seeming to crack the atmosphere around us like My Bloody Valentine’s famous live Holocaust, except with structure, with purpose, as part of a song. Like a rainstorm purifying humid air, its effect is therapeutic; a spectacular end to a memorable evening.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Primavera Sound 2009

feature for

British festivals are grey and muddy, feature huge amounts of beer drinking, and everyone camps. At American festivals (well, Coachella at least), there’s sun and baking heat, huge amounts of water drinking, and very few people camp. Primavera Sound is based on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a complex of stages in Barcelona, so I was keen to find out whether it would represent a midway point between those two experiences. And it does, in the best possible way—there’s sun and moderate heat, a fair amount of boozing and late-night partying, and a beautiful city to explore too with loads of accommodation options to pick from. Did I even mention the music? Primavera prides itself on its curated line-ups, with stages hosted by Pitchfork and ATP, and a general commitment to putting on interesting and challenging music. Artists I didn’t even see a second of included Yo La Tengo, Ghostface Killah, Phoenix, Shellac, Squarepusher, the Vaselines, Sun O))), Gang Gang Dance, and El-P. But what I did see made it one of the best weekends of my life.

The atmosphere in Barcelona before the main events started was buoyed by Wednesday night’s success by the city’s main football team, FC Barcelona, in Europe’s biggest football competition, the Champions League. The match was watched by tens of thousands on big screens erected across the city, and when Barca completed their 2-0 win over Manchester United, everyone went crazy. It was a long night, with thousands of fans celebrating in the streets, eventually having to be cleared at 3am by police in riot gear firing rubber bullets. Barca is a brilliant team, but don’t rely on this pre-festival excitement every year.



Magik Markers are the first band we see, but from the offset it’s clear they aren’t suited to the setting they’re playing in. From where I’m sitting I can see hundreds of audience members chatting, thrilled to finally be here and enjoying the sun, while the Mediterranean Sea stretches out behind the stage. Magik Markers are playing dark, imposing, funereal-sounding songs from their new album Balf Quarry, with long droning organ sounds and minimally picked off-key arpeggios. They need to be in a tent, a small dark tent, with a little bit of smoke and red light, not out here on a big stage among palm trees and excited laughter. Four songs in, “Don’t Talk in Your Sleep” provokes a minor crowd reaction, but it’s just not working. We leave for beer.

(Listen to Magik Markers' full Primavera set here)

LIGHTNING BOLT @ ATP Stage, 8:45pm

Later on the same stage, Lightning Bolt don’t give a fuck what you think about the setting. The duo—an overdriven, messy guitarist and crazed, caged monster drummer—play songs that sound like a reinterpretation of Sonic Youth’s “Nic Fit”, an unintelligible rant, completely meaningless, stuck in primal development. Also, it’s pretty loud. Half-an-hour through it’s becoming a bit of an ordeal. From any other band we’d be demanding a change of pace right about now, but we clearly can’t demand anything from Lightning Bolt. They don’t give an inch: They just keep on rampaging, grunting, and flailing, until you’re ready to take it again. Or, leave. But as newly born masochists, we all stay, and we burst through that wall.

Later, we catch a bit of the Jesus Lizard from afar, and they’re pretty loud too, before leaving for Andrew Bird. He’s whistling on-stage, alone, and plucking his violin to new song “Oh No”, but clashes call, so we have to depart early again, this time for The Bug.

THE BUG @ Pitchfork Stage, 11pm

I read an interview with The Bug’s Kevin Martin a while ago where he described with reverie a memory of feeling his nostrils bulge with bass at a party—so if it’s his aim, to billow our noses with bass, he’s succeeding. He’s playing with just one MC tonight instead of the usual group, but the duo really know how to work the crowd—the MC yells “make some noise for The Bug!”, and The Bug complies by playing crowd noises, embellishing our own. Then we’re asked “who won the Champions League?”, and the bass drops, a siren alarms, a backspin reverberates through the crowd, and the bass briefly departs my face to shake my Adam’s Apple. Well it’s everywhere, really, the low frequencies are all-consuming, charging through the crowd, enveloping us all. It’s really good, and kinda tiring.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE @ Estrella Damm Stage, 00:20am

Well, I thought The Bug was loud, but then there was My Bloody Valentine. They’re doing two shows this weekend, one outdoors and one indoors, but I plump for the outdoors one to avoid clashes. From about 50 meters away, every kick of the bass drum is shaking my bones. The mid and high frequencies are so loud and distorted it’s difficult to tell where the haze of guitars end and the otherworldly vocals begin. After a while of sheer undulating noise, I grab for my earplugs; but there’s no point. They just muffle what’s already distorted, and the kick drum continues to assault. So I take them out again, and look around. Absolutely nobody is disengaged; it’s impossible not to watch, in awe, because of the volume. Then, midway through “You Made Me Realize”, MBV launch into their so-called Holocaust section, when the volume rises and they just play brittle, extreme noise for a good 10 minutes (shorter than usual). It’s an endurance test so many people have earplugs in, and are pushing them further in with fingers, gritting their teeth. It isn’t just the volume that is extreme here—the noise is so crunchy, so low, it sounds like the air around us is fracturing. It’s like a natural disaster is occurring—the airquake at the end of the world. At the end, the huge crowd erupt in cheers and applause, but I can barely hear it.

APHEX TWIN @ Rockdelux Stage

Although the Estrella Damm stage is officially the main stage, Rockdelux is surely bigger, as it has a large terracing around it for viewers to sit and watch. When I get into the crowd, the bass is so loud it’s making me nauseous, so I retreat up to the terracing for a seat. There are thousands of people below, and Aphex is playing a pretty straight techno set by his standards. He’s making use of the screen behind him to be subversive, merging giant images of ill children with his own gurning, scary mug. And, it looks really good, but from up here I’m struggling to get into it all. It’s been a long day, and my mate’s going home, so we head for the bus. As I lie down to sleep an hour later, there’s a deafening buzz in my ears.


Primavera doesn’t start until 5 or 6pm each evening, which frees up the daytime to sleep, lie on the beach, or explore the city. On Friday I decided to visit La Sagrada Familia, a ludicrously extravagant cathedral of Gaudi’s that’s been under construction since 1882, and is expected to need at least another 17 years to complete. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a lot of European cities, and each one is guaranteed to offer its tourists a massive church as one of the main attractions. So now I’ve got Huge Church Fatigue. It’s like each city at one point had a top architect who jealously eyed another city’s massive church and resolved to bequeath a bigger one for his own city.

Alongside La Sagrada Familia’s massive grey arches, stone-engraved bible scenes and statues are appended skips, bright yellow cranes, and hard-hat warning signs. Like the size of a building, the volume of a show seems to me to be an easy feature to amplify to win admiring gapes from viewers—or at least, it seems to be a technical achievement, one of mathematics or engineering, rather than an artistic one. The buzz in my ears as I circle La Sagrada Familia on Friday afternoon is an unwelcome but inevitable consequence of the loudness wars of the previous night. It’s almost as if each stage had an artist who jealously heard another stage’s massive volume across the festival grounds and resolved to beat it for his own crowd. Only Andrew Bird stayed out of it. And I know that churches are supposed to be big, and that live music is supposed to be loud; but when competitiveness of scale causes a building to take over 130 years to complete, or a crowd to suffer nausea and tinnitus, then perhaps someone needs to take a step back.

BAT FOR LASHES @ Estrella Damm Stage, 7:10pm

A girl in the crowd spies my notepad and tells me all I need to write down is that Natasha Khan has a perfect bum. But I’m a serious journalist, don’t you know, so I tend not to mention that kind of thing. She does look rather fabulous in a stripy black-and-white bodysuit, prowling around the stage waving bunches of golden bells, and though she’s been emphasising in recent interviews that she’s not just a singer, she is a great singer. The first few songs—“Glass”, “Sleep Alone”, and “Horse and I”—showcase her falsetto, each one reminiscent in spots of Bjork, Portishead, and St. Vincent. Her set’s a roughly equal mix of songs from both her albums, and while I prefer debut Fur and Gold for its minimalism, the songs from Two Suns sound great live, stripped of their production sheen. Also, it’s a nice change to have a show that doesn’t barrage its audience with noise.


It’s temping to be principled when it comes to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, to take a stance against their shameless pilfering of mid-‘80s C86 indie-pop. But while I’d be standing in the corner with my arms folded and my lip petted, everyone else would be having a really good time. Even at a festival like this, which is overrun with opinionated indie music geeks, the majority of folk don’t know enough C86 to be bored of it yet; and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do it really well. They’re not messing about—no between-song banter or breaks to swap guitars or re-tune—they burst straight from one song to the next, building momentum, getting girls dancing. Actually, everybody’s dancing. It’d be no fun being a po-faced wallflower.

DAN DEACON @ Pitchfork Stage, 01:00am

Call it the Susan Boyle Reflex, but there’s an incongruence between the appearance of Dan Deacon—fat balding guy in a white jumpsuit—and his expected ability to rile a crowd full of art students and fashionable creative types. But he did, he really did, through yelled instructions to the crowd: To crouch and stand and “aaah” according to his hand signals; to form a huge circle so we can have a dance contest; to get everyone to step back three steps; and to get us all to form a tunnel with our hands and run through it, snaking all through the crowd. Of course, at a festival, a foreign festival in this case, it’s a logistical nightmare—he doesn’t speak Spanish—but most of it comes off, to some extent. Meanwhile, there’s the music—his ensemble features two, three, then four drummers, three keyboardists, and lots of others I can’t quite see—and his hyperactive electro-pop, almost gabba-like in attitude, rises and crashes and builds and holds and retreats and explodes. Did I mention that we made a tunnel and everyone ran through it and formed a longer tunnel for everyone else? It was like a giant kid’s party, and it turned us all into hysterical toddlers. Incredible.

Download Dan Deacon's entire Primavera set here at the Free Music Archive

BLOC PARTY @ Estrella Damm Stage, 2am

This is where my notes fail me, because I’m far too giddy to write anything more helpful than “AMAZING!!!” Much to my surprise, Bloc Party sound fantastic. I wasn’t even planning to see them initially, because their two latest albums weren’t very good. But “Song for Clay”, from A Weekend in the City, is actually pretty powerful here, and like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earlier, they’re not giving anyone the time to get bored—it’s straight into the next song, and the next, and the next. “Mercury”, which I hated on record, captivates me now, and there’s huge momentum within the crowd. Of course, the Silent Alarm songs—“This Modern Love”, “Like Eating Glass”, “Helicopter”—get the biggest responses. But for the first time, I’m able to hear the more recent songs in the same set, and not think of them as weak links. More than that, it was one of the most rip-roaring sets of the weekend.


BOWERBIRDS @ Joan Miro Park, 2:15pm

Joan Miro Park is a tiny park near the centre of the city, which hosts a few low-key gigs on Saturday afternoon for any member of the public to watch. But it’s not filled with curious taxi drivers and shop workers—it’s pretty much just a small crowd from the festival again. A small, sandy section is cornered off for Bowerbirds, who play for us among palm trees under another hot, clear blue sky. They’re perfect for the setting, playing gentle acoustic-based indie with just enough brightness to keep us awake, but no more. Everyone is hungover (by which I mean I’m hungover, and assume others are too), and combined with a gentle breeze, it’s very soothing.

SHEARWATER @ Pitchfork Stage, 6:15pm

When last I saw Shearwater, in a tiny basement in Glasgow around six months ago, they seemed unsure of how to translate their ornate, exquisitely produced albums into a live setting, where atmospheric noise and the energy required when playing onstage hinder any attempts at delicacy. Now, on this Pitchfork stage, which dwarfs their usual European stages, they appear a fully-fledged rock band, less concerned with preserving details, happier to put a bit of bluster into it. Jonathan Meiburg has even developed a bit of a swagger, and impresses the crowd by speaking (what seems to me like) fluent Spanish in between each song. It’s left to the songs to impress the non-Spanish speakers, and they have no problem winning me over. A mix of tunes from last year’s Rook and 2006’s slept-on Palo Santo, Shearwater excel at contrasting bombast with tenderness, and Meiberg sings with an alternating roar and falsetto croon, just short of Scott Walker’s. In a word: Superb.

NEIL YOUNG @ Estrella Damm Stage, 9:15pm

Primavera’s organisers are sensible enough to clear the other stages while Neil Young is on; they know it’d be unfair to other bands to have them clash with a musician who’s probably inspired everyone here. But this was widely reported to be a two-and-a-half hour set, and it wasn’t. He came on 15 minutes late, and left the stage at ten past eleven—I make that one-hour-forty, which is quite a shortfall.

But it was a brilliant 100 minutes. Any fears about him hawking his subpar new album were unfounded, as he only played one song from it in a seventeen-song set. “Hey Hey, My My”, “Pocahontas”, and “Cortez the Killer” featured really crunchy, overdriven guitars, reinforcing his “Godfather of Grunge” reputation, and the latter in particular struck a real emotional chord when Young yelled “he was a killer!” while leaning away from the mic. “Cinnamon Girl” went down a storm, and when he played three songs from Harvest in close proximity—“The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Heart of Gold”, and “Old Man”—the audience went wild, and I was a little teary-eyed myself. After “Rocking in the Free World”, which seemed to get the biggest reception of any song, the band took a bow while Young waved an FC Barcelona scarf. But the inevitable return produced only one more song—a cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”—before Young walked off again and the stagehands began the clear up. At Coachella last year, the similarly aged Roger Waters took a half-hour break midway through his epic set. It’s understandable that a 63 year old would need a rest after 100 energetic minutes, but then it perhaps shouldn’t have been billed beforehand as a special, extended set.

LIARS @ ATP Stage, 11:30pm

“Thanks to Neil Young for opening for us”, Angus Andrew says, as his set starts immediately as crowds swarm in from the Estrella Damm stage. Generally I’m a Liars sceptic, but here in the darkness, with a smoky stage and lots of very drunk and happy people, they have more appeal. The tribal drums are causing a kind of trance in people, especially on “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!”, which reels my sober self in to dance and should really have been extended longer than its three or four minutes-long duration. All we need now is a giant fire to dance around.

SONIC YOUTH @ Estrella Damm Stage, 1am

Two years ago, Sonic Youth performed Daydream Nation in full here. Tonight it’s a mixed set, including a handful of songs from new album The Eternal, and at least three from that aforementioned highpoint. Like the new album, they’re pretty good, but they’re not revolutionary any more. They’ve become a fairly reliable albums band and a reliable live band too. “Hey Joni” is a thrill, and “Tom Violence“‘s epic sprawling drums reverberate for miles, before an encore of “Bull in the Heather” and “Expressway to Yr Skull”. It’s a fittingly loud and cacophonous ending to Primavera’s rock band line up, which emphasises how much Sonic Youth have influenced almost every other band on the bill.

But it’s only 2am, with Simian Mobile Disco, A-Trak, DJ Mehdi, Zombie Zombie and more to keep the party going through the night. I don’t remember much of it, except that I had a great time. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Are Video Games Killing the Radio Star?

sixth blog post for Chordstrike

Check out this intriguing article in The Guardian for another view on why the record industry is facing problems. I'd recommend reading it in full (it's not too long, and if you have time also look at the linked-to article where Ben Goldacre scrutinizes some industry statistics), but in summary, the writer Charles Arthur suggests that it's the booming video games industry, not MP3 filesharing, that's the main cause of the record industry shrinking between 10-15% every year for the last four or five years. Arthur's argument is that levels of disposable income are pretty stable, but people are spending over three times more now on video games than they were a decade ago. So, something's got to give. He's drawn this graph with British figures:

When people are deciding how to spend limited amounts of money, it's no surprise that they spend it where they can't otherwise get free or cheap adequate replacements. The internet is full of free music -- legal and illegal -- and there's also lots of low-quality videos and films to view; but it isn't full of free Nintendo Wii games. And while games have got more innovative and more involving, and television and DVD technology has improved so that home movie viewing is better than ever, the major music technology innovation of recent years - the MP3 and the portable MP3 player - is a downgrade in quality which favors convenience over engagement. Put like that, it's no surprise that the big money is heading towards video games, DVDs are doing very well, and it's the CD market that's losing out.

So what's the best way to analyze such an important issue? With personal, anecdotal evidence, of course! As a male between the ages of 15-30, I'm in a key demographic for both music and gaming, and I can confirm that my games purchases have dwindled to zero while my CD and vinyl buying has grown to addiction-level heights. But if I was still into gaming, I wouldn't have the money to buy all the music I do - and if I bought three games a month (as said, the games industry has apparently tripled in size in the last decade), there's no way I could afford to buy music.

Of course, people who pirate lots of music and never pay anything back are still stealing. Access to music isn't a right, it's a privilege, because musicians put a lot of time and money into doing what they do, and they need to be remunerated. But what this article suggests is that it's not a simple case of every illegal download equaling a lost CD sale; it's that music suffers from being the most easily available form of entertainment, generally, in a very competitive marketplace. It also perhaps offers hope that when the games industry stops growing and hits a glass ceiling, the record industry might also hit a glass floor, from where it can reassess and seek to grow again.

So, it might not be CDs and legal MP3s versus illegal MP3s, but CDs and MP3s versus games. Do you agree? How have your gaming habits affected the music you buy (or don't buy)?

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Future of the Left - Travels With Myself and Another

Future of the Left - Travels With Myself and Another
album review for clash

Welsh post-hardcore trio Future Of The Left, who were formed from the ashes of Jarcrew and mclusky, released a near-faultless debut LP in 2007 with Curses. Its thrilling energy and bizarrely hilarious lyrics are qualities retained by the follow-up, Travels With Myself And Another, if not quite so consistently. But it's impossible not to love tracks like Stand By Your Manatee, where frontman Falco revels in retelling an "awful truth" that's really a playground taunt; and Lapsed Catholics, where Falco's meandering spoken intro describes Sky News as a "hysterical gung-ho technicolour crapfest". Travels... is certainly no crapfest, but it is both hysterical and gung-ho, in much better senses than Falco meant.


Friday, 12 June 2009

Georgia's Horse - The Mammoth Sessions

Georgia's Horse - The Mammoth Sessions (**)
album review for the skinny

Georgia's Horse is a vehicle for the rather gorgeous voice of Teresa Maldonado, a Texan chanteuse who sketches similar characters to PJ Harvey on To Bring You My Love: aged-too-young girls and murderously neurotic wives. Maldonado's debut album The Mammoth Sessions is a record of intense intimacy, with production polish spurned in preference for dust-covered twanging guitars, eerily straining violins, melancholy piano motifs, and that voice, slurred as if by sedatives. In fact, it's all a little too sleepy, meaning the not-particularly-lengthy 53-minute running time feels a lot longer. If Maldonado can barely muster the energy to enunciate, it's little surprise that most songs are soporific in effect. A brief climax in Erzulie Dantor is stirring, but by the tenth track you'll be ready to drift off to sleep... and there's still three songs left to play.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (****)
album review for the skinny

Dirty Projectors' last album, Rise Above, was an attempt by New Yorker Dave Longstreth to recreate Black Flag's Damaged despite not having heard it for 15 years. Yeah, it's a great idea, but the execution wasn't totally smooth. Bitte Orca is where it all comes good for Longstreth, the hifalutin conceptuals dropped in favour of writing idea-crammed songs with almost-pop hooks.

Momentarily reminiscent of Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, King Sunny Ade, Nico, The Fiery Furnaces, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel and on and ariston, Bitte Orca sounds wholly like no-one at all. Hear how his vocals leap and spin over complex fingerpicking and Afropop rhythms on Temecula Sunrise; how the female vocals of Stillness Is The Move soar like an R&B diva's, adding pop shine and grace to all the underlying oddness. Listen to how Useful Chamber glides from Casio demo mode beats and natty rapping to a raucous garage rock freakout to a chorus of painful-then-angelic cries to bizarre crooning balladry and, whew, back to Jack White's nightmares again.

Bitte Orca is playful and romantic, and often quite bewildering, but for all the elastic singing and idiosyncratic structuring, it's also Longstreth's most lovable set yet.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls

We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls (Fat Cat)
album review for clash

Cards on the table: We Were Promised Jetpacks' signing to FatCat was a surprise to many music fans watching the Scottish unsigned music scene. It was thought by a fair few of us that there were better undiscovered gems out there, and that Jetpacks would struggle to follow-up the preceding FatCat releases from north of the border: The Twilight Sad's awesomely powerful debut album and Frightened Rabbit's widely acclaimed ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’.

Hands up: Jetpacks have proved us doubters wrong – ‘These Four Walls’ can stand proudly alongside both those brilliant records. The Edinburgh four-piece were actually brought to FatCat's attention by Frightened Rabbit, and have made good on their early promise with new, improved recordings of previously heard tracks; even better new tracks; and an attitude to constructing an album-as-whole that makes ‘These Four Walls’ greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, it's one of the best Scottish debuts for years.

And it's all about the rhythms - well, mostly. Like early Echo & The Bunnymen and U2, Jetpacks know that propulsive drums can be hugely effective without any concessions to funk or swing. It seems an obvious tactic, but by building everything on top of rollicking percussion from drummer Darren Lackie, Jetpacks ramp up tension for singer Adam Thompson to powerfully unleash. It's demonstrated best on ‘Short Bursts’, the fast-rolling drums on which sound huge, and in a hurry to get somewhere. A sombre, ominous opening is ripped up by scratching guitars and splaying hi-hats, Thompson yells, guitars fall away and tease themselves back in, the bass pokes a head round the door; "We'll teach you to die!" prompts an almighty squalling racket and, then, everyone leaves, steps out… and just the huge drums remain.

If it seems kinda simple on paper, it's exhilarating in practice, and the way they use driving 4/4 rhythms throughout gives ‘These Four Walls’ an undeniable energy. Check out the catalytic beats of ‘Quiet Little Voices’, which support a repeating three-chord riff and Thompson's anthemic chorus - it's sure to be a festival favourite this year.

Thompson's a romantic young guy, whose lyrics are repeated regularly so they become more like mantras. You won't forget his protective advice to "stay calm" or to "keep warm" or to "make time for us", because he says it again and again. But lyrics aren't really important here - too-clever wordplay would be implausible for a vocalist who hollers like Thompson, on a record that's more about sweaty youthful urgency than thoughtful rumination.

And such incessant rhythms could get formulaic, but Jetpacks have thought of that, too. The fifth track is a percussion-less instrumental interlude, an atmospheric drift and swell that sets the scene for the second half; and the tenth and final track is a beautiful acoustic-only lament, which eases us home with a sigh. Again, that's a standard album closer tactic, and yes, Jetpacks' debut album follows a big bunch of unwritten rules about how to meticulously construct an epic song, or an anthemic chorus, or whatever. But they've just taken good advice about how to get the most out of their songs, and most importantly, how to not be just another pedestrian indie-rock band.

The secret? Don't walk, run.


Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sonic Youth - The Eternal

Sonic Youth - The Eternal (****)
album review for the skinny

Sonic Youth's greatest album is always whichever one you heard first - unless that was NYC Ghosts & Flowers (you poor thing). The band's famous experimentalism, so initially radical to the sonic tuning of a youthful mind, starts to sound kinda formulaic after your fifth or sixth album of it. But so what if they've been scratching the same off-chords for 20 years, if Thurston Moore is still sloganeering cryptic bullshit in his same slacker-kid drawl now he's hit 50 years old? Somehow - maybe it's a good skin care regime - The Eternal keeps up their new millennium hot streak, which is still slightly behind their '80s hot streak, but catching. Somewhere, today, a 15-year-old's musical world is being turned upside down by The Eternal; for the rest of us, it sounds a lot like a Sonic Youth album. This is no bad thing.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Broken Records - Until The Earth Begins To Part

Broken Records - Until The Earth Begins To Part (**)
album review for the skinny

Broken Records have had 18 months of building support from fans, bloggers and critics in the run-up to Until The Earth's release this month. A superb self-titled debut EP and regular enchanting live shows all over Britain had them marked as an obvious prospect. In fact, success seemed an inevitability, because unsigned bands as fully formed as Broken Records never stay unsigned for long. That no record deal was forthcoming from the rumoured bidding war until a celebrated signing with 4AD in January of this year was a only a minor concern.

Early comparisons to Arcade Fire might've been directed at Broken Records' passion, melodrama, and self-seriousness; or perhaps it's just because both bands have seven members. A better comparison for their music emerges now - The Waterboys, led by Edinburgh's own Mike Scott. The Waterboys' most acclaimed album, This Is The Sea, was a self-consciously big record, an untethered attempt at large-scale profundity which was difficult to listen to without cringing at its bombast. But Scott's indulgences were overlooked by many because, underlying it all, the songs were strong enough in other ways.

Broken Records' singer and chief songwriter Jamie Sutherland is how Mike Scott would be were he equally in thrall to Beirut's Gulag Orkestra as to Astral Weeks. There are clear Eastern European and Celtic influences on Until The Earth, which is part of the reason Broken Records were so enjoyable in the first place. The rip-roaring A Good Reason fuses boisterous Russian squat-kicking folk with muscular indie-rock, and If Eilert Loevberg Wrote A Song... makes use of an accordian-led polka to similar effect. Broken Records' pianist regularly finds a gorgeous chord sequence, such as in the intro to A Promise, and again at the start of Ghosts. Closing track Slow Parade majestically grows from shivering strings and guitar arpeggios into a dramatic and moving finale, one that should surely one day soundtrack a Hollywood rom-com's happy ending. In fact, Until The Earth's set is consistently strong, and the way several songs are blended directly into the next one provides a sense of continuity that adds to the album's overall cohesiveness. Unfortunately, like This Is The Sea, Until The Earth also presents a challenge to listeners: to appreciate the songs despite the pretentiousness of their presentation. If it wasn't for Sutherland's oversung vocals, the formulaic structures and grandiose arrangements of several songs, and song titles which heap on the pomposity by referencing 19th century Norwegian theatre, Until The Earth would be a classic.

Sutherland has always had a tendency to oversing, but it was masked somewhat by muffling effects on the EP. Here, the vocals are cloyingly forceful and false throughout. It's like when Bruce Springsteen summons up all the strength from his chest before he erupts into voice; his emphasis threatens to suffocate the actual meaning of the lyrics. And when, out of nowhere, Springsteen huffs and puffs a line like "let's blow this fucking place apart", as he does on his most recent album, he descends into self-parody. Until The Earth's opening track, Nearly Home, is reminiscent of a similar vocal excess when Sutherland sings "And rip it up, rip it all apart, this place that our parents built, we'll let it all burn down to the ground" before slurring that final word because he's seemingly too angry to pronounce the vowel. Fourth track A Promise features more bombastic bluster, as Sutherland strains so hard to emote each line: "hhhand if our hearts all disappear, hhhand if our bones they crumble to the soil, hhhand all our love will rise again, hhhand all fall to the sea." Almost every song features instances of such exertion that the album becomes as tiring to listen to as it sounds to perform.

A Promise also demonstrates the other major problem with Until The Earth. Listen to that delicate, tender piano intro: it lasts just a few seconds on its own, and it's gorgeous. Then Sutherland's vocals come in: a little oversung, but the melody is just right, and the story he recites about the burial of a loved one is genuinely touching, for a moment. Then piano chords louden, and my heart doesn't swell, it sinks. A Promise is the fourth track, but it's the third to do this exact same thing. What was originally subtle must now be made epic, the profundity amplified so you're left in no doubt that you must care, harder. Later, the embellishments fall away and there's another lovely strings interlude. But then the drums start to pound and the strings hold and tremble to build tension before, yes, the bombastic climax. By now it's a formula, and it's still to be repeated four more times before the album's end. It's like Broken Records don't trust us to comprehend their subtle majesty, so they decide to hammer it home in case we've missed it. Combined with Sutherland's emphatic angst, it portrays a sense of self-importance that's difficult to bear.

And that is so very frustrating because Until The Earth is an album that could've been "important", as far as indie rock ever can be, had it been recorded with a touch of modesty in mind. The producer could've minimised the gradiosity of the arrangements, not highlighted them. Someone could've had a discreet word in Jamie Sutherland's ear about his vocals. The band could've directed more songs towards un-epic endings. Sutherland could've thought about why the sixth track was like a song as written by Eilert Loevberg, and renamed it so we might understand. Until The Earth isn't a disaster. For many, Broken Records' grandiosity will amplify the obvious strengths in the songwriting. The Waterboys sold millions, won awards and rave reviews, and toured the world, and Broken Records still have a lot of achievements within their grasp. But others will be blinded by their bluster, dissuaded from listening by the forced sincerity and manufactured meaningfulness. Until The Earth Begins To Part is as ambitious and indulgent as its title suggests; and that's a pity.