Friday, 3 December 2010

The Skinny's Favourite LP of 2010: Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Top 10 of 2010
No.1 Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
feature for the skinny

Pay attention: it's hard – when there are photos, graphics, animations, videos and flashing coloured boxes, links to definitions and further reading and green cards and prizes, pages left and right and a billion others nearby, comments to make and songs to hear, hot new bands and unknown cult heroes and trends and friends and not enough time – to focus.

On one thing.

Until its end.

Without jumping away.

We apparently have to hand more information about the last eight years than about the preceding fourteen billion, because every new second spawns gigabytes of data: every sparing thought is a status, comment or tweet, every idea a blog post, every sight a photo, every sound a song, every song a dozen videos and on it goes. It's impossible to keep up with all this... everything, but we try. Multi-tasking is the new relaxing. We’re over-stimulated by unlimited content from an over-populated planet. Nothing sustains; it’s next, next, next, next.

At no point in the history of recorded music has a triple-album been a good idea, but especially not this point in history. It's just too long. Less is more, Joanna. Doubles are already pushing the limits. It just shows you don't know how to edit yourself, Joanna. To an iPod shuffler, filler is the biggest crime of all, and triple albums are serial offenders. To a multi-tasker, patience is an anachronism and subtlety a hindrance. A triple album by Joanna Newsom!? Next!

Have One On Me, astonishingly, wouldn’t be improved by editing. It's truly a first: a triple album that justifies its entire length. With Joanna Newsom, more is more.

After the elaborate fantasia of Ys, Have One On Me is comparatively straight-forward: instead of sinister pacts between runaway animals, here we have songs about the familiar twenty-something concerns of love and relationships, beginning with a blissful announcement of new love and ending with a sorrowful admittance of loves failure. But it's not an easy listen: her voice, modified after a throat injury, is still to newcomers thin and affected; her arrangements are sparse and delicate, her melodies subtle to tease out; her lyrics, more direct than before, are still shrouded by erudite poetry. And – did I mention? – it's more than two hours long. Have One On Me is not casual listening. It pays to pay attention to it.

Joanna Newsom is a dazzling lyricist, in both the positive and negative senses of "dazzling", but now almost wholly in the positive. On her first album, she sang "never get so attached to a poem you forget the truth lacks lyricism" and duly remained so attached. The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were full of beautiful lines, but lots of them were impossible to parse; Have One On Me is full of beautiful lines, but few are pure show, and many more lay their truths bare. In Good Intentions Paving Company she develops the story with wonderful phrases like “It had a nice a ring to it, when the old opera house rang, so with a solemn Auld Lang Syne, sealed, delivered I sang"; then she delivers a sucker punch at the end with the plain appeal “I only want for you to pull over and hold me 'til I can’t remember my own name.” Those moments hit right in the gut, because they're a reminder that emotions don't wait for the mind to articulate them. Joanna Newsom is meticulous, but her heart is not.

As carefully as she places each syllable, she places each note. There's not a gramme of fat on Have One On Me. Esme, 81 and On A Good Day are entirely solo, just Newsom and her harp. Baby Birch and Go Long feel just as sparse, every slow string twang allowed to live its full life to create an incredible intimacy. Then jaggedy guitar slaps burst through the former, a heavenly kora rains down in the latter, and they both very gradually build to stirring conclusions. In California, one of the album’s most beautifully frail songs, has 14 credited performers, unbelievably, as does the title track, which develops over its eleven minutes with quite staggering dexterity. Some players shuffle in for a brief flourish and then vanish; it's sufficient. No silence is filled without reason, no solo supported without cause.

Have One On Me stands out in 2010 because it's stimulating art, not just stimulation. Music and technology are moving towards convenience as a common goal, but Have One On Me is not convenient, it’s a challenge. The vast availability of music to the modern listener promotes a box-of-chocolates approach – many flavours, tasted briefly – but Have One On Me defies brief sampling, requiring many listens to reveal all its charms. Scenes and fashions can often be relied upon to flesh out a musician’s image or ideas, but there's no scene or fashion supporting Have One On Me. It’s a unique and uncompromising album, and in the age of tl;dr, that makes it a totem for the independent artistic ideal.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Skinny's 3rd Favourite LP of 2010: Caribou - Swim

Top 10 of 2010
No.3 Caribou - Swim
interview for the skinny

Canadian Dan Snaith has been making good records for over a decade now, but in 2010 he made a great one. After years of dipping his toes into dance music, for Swim he dived right in. The Skinny met Caribou backstage at Glasgow’s ABC to talk about his greatest album yet and the year that surrounded its release.

“I've been pretty lucky generally. I’ve had some bad reviews but the majority of them have been nice. I actually like reading negative reviews, I have agreed with people who've criticised certain aspects of my music. With Andorra, everyone was like: ‘here's this guy who really likes 60s psychedelia, he's a retro kinda guy’, and I was like: ‘fuck, that wasn't the point!’”

Andorra won the Polaris Prize in 2008 – Canada’s Mercury Prize-equivalent – but Snaith was determined to move on to new things. He’s open about the inspiration for the direction he took: it’s one of the guys sitting in the next room, preparing to play before him tonight.

“The last track on Andorra was me trying to figure out how James [Holden] makes music” he says. “The last track, Niobe, was me trying to figure out how to get that dynamic of his, of something growing and falling apart simultaneously. And even though there was over a year in-between making the records, that was the starting point for this record. I went back to it and thought: ‘there's just so many different ways this track could go.’

“I was so happy with [Swim] when I finished it, but I also thought it might confuse people. It seemed to me that Andorra was a much more straightforward record, it was more concise pop songs. It really stuns me that Swim seems to have captured people's imaginations in some way that previous albums I've made haven't. I’m so happy because this is my favourite one, but I really didn't think it was going to be everybody else’s favourite one.

“Thinking about the situation in which it was made and then fast-forwarding to now, it's totally mind-boggling. I'd love to say I make music because I want to share it with people, but I make music for entirely selfish reasons, I just love doing it so much, and the thrill of when things go right in the studio or at home, that's the most amazing thing. But then this is just... we've always had good shows, but it's never been the party atmosphere it is now.

Swim feels like the beginning of something rather than the end, even though the end of Andorra was kinda the beginning of this one, it was also the end of making psychedelic poppy records, I feel like I've done what I wanted to do with that. I don’t want to make the same record again, but it feels like there's lots of points I can shoot off from on Swim.”

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Skinny's 6th Favourite LP of 2010: Beach House - Teen Dream

Top 10 of 2010:
No. 6 Beach House - Teen Dream
interview for the skinny

Beach House were fully aware of the majesty of third album Teen Dream as they were preparing it this time last year. “At one point I was more excited about every single song [on Teen Dream] that I had ever been before,” guitarist Alex Scally tells The Skinny, “even songs where I don’t really do anything, like Real Love. There was a recording of that we made and I was trying to figure out how to make this thing hold and I probably listened to it fifty times, every time enjoying every single second of it.”

Teen Dream has been a breakthrough for Beach House, who are now touring with some of the biggest bands in indie music, but they say nothing’s changed since their self-titled debut and its acclaimed follow-up Devotion. “Every record is a different world,” singer Victoria Legrand says, “but the attention on us now I feel is the result of our steady and persistent working. It doesn’t feel that different from what we were doing before but people are now noticing more.”

It’s not glamorous, they insist, and work it certainly is: “I think we’re at the 150 [shows] mark right now for the year, which is pretty crazy”, Alex says. But now that they’ve got here, he doesn’t see the band getting any bigger.

“We make music that’s all about intimacy, I don’t think that would translate to an arena. We played at a 1,500 person place and that blew our mind, it felt great, but I think that might be the limit. We just did a tour with Vampire Weekend and 14,000 people were at the Hollywood Bowl, I think it really taught us where we think the upper extent of our music is. Even if we could sell a show of 2,000 people, it might not work.” Such music-over-money ideals are admirable, and they’re surely about to be tested.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Caribou @ ABC, Glasgow

Caribou, Four Tet, James Holden @ ABC, Glasgow, November 21
live review for the skinny

With a line-up of James Holden, Rocketnumbernine, Nathan Fake, Holden again and Four Tet before Caribou, Sunday evening’s ABC lineup has a mini-festival feel to it. James Holden's mercurial dinner time techno slot tricks this sell-out crowd into thinking it’s 2am Saturday night, partly because we've been dancing for a couple hours already. He slides between bass-heavy bangers, slivery grooves and laser-driven mechanical shuffles until we’re all just about ready to spill out home to bed.

But it’s still only 10:15, and time for Four Tet to take over. Despite his albums’ more delicate style, now is definitely not the time for Kieran Hebden to slow down. So Holden's huge 4/4 kick drum remains, but louder now, so that its low frequencies grind all over the more fragile sounds of his new album. Everyone keeps dancing, of course, but there’s a feeling that Hebden might’ve been able to exercise a little more subtlety had he played earlier in the night.

After five hours of continuous beats, the 15 minute break for Caribou to set up as a four-piece band is a bit of a mood-killer. For their first few songs the crowd seems tired, and faced with Caribou’s more complex rhythms it takes some cajoling to get everyone moving again. That we would could never have been in doubt: a spectacular Niobe, propelled by clattering cymbal fills on every eighth bar, sets it up; more terrific drumming and scintillating noise for Melody Day ratchets the energy levels up again, and we’re not even on to the Swim stand-outs yet.

Jamelia, sung well by an unwell bass player in the absence of Born Ruffians’ singer Luke, swings cutely over a clickety woodblock rhythm before exploding in shimmering squall; Odessa's deep parping bassline and clattering rhythms sound profoundly weird and utterly compelling on this huge scale; and trippy encore Sun is stretched and pulled and pressed and dropped and revived til it’s mesmerised us all three times over. It’s a huge end to a night that seemed to have peaked too early, before Caribou proved it had never peaked at all.

Beach House @ Oran Mor, Glasgow

Beach House @ Oran Mor, Glasgow, November 20 (****)
live review for the skinny

Dream pop duo Beach House are a band whose live reputation is always going to be closely tethered to that of their albums; they’re perfectionists in the studio, so there isn’t much space for reinterpretation, and they’re permanently bereft, so they’re not much in a mood for energy. But in the darkness of Òran Mór, with a golden light fading in and out with singer Victoria Legrand’s breathy intros, fairy lights behind them twinkling like stars, and the aural haze enveloping each lovelorn song, they create a dramatic and intimate atmosphere.

There’s a stream of highlights from 2008s Devotion and this year’s Teen Dream, but the biggest moments come towards the end of the set. Heart of Chambers allows Legrand to really open up, roaring the melancholic chorus like it still hurts two years later, and mighty kick drums lend encore pair Real Love and Ten Mile Stereo an explosive edge. At the end of an evening of melancholy, the mimicking of Alex Scally’s skyscraping guitar line by the shimmering stars behind him makes for a stunning finale.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Last Battle - Heart of the Land, Soul of the Sea

The Last Battle - Heart of the Land, Soul of the Sea (**)
album review for the skinny

For a band of six, Edinburgh’s The Last Battle sport a frail, minimal sound on debut album Heart of the Land, Soul of the Sea, based almost entirely on singer Scott Longmuir’s acoustic guitar. Tasteful cello flourishes and wispy female backing vocals don’t do much to fill out the palette, so The Last Battle ensure there’s some variation by, for example, splitting the short record with a monologue from a deep-voiced bandmate, and introducing a shuffling squeezebox to Cutlass.

Despite the stylistic difference, it’s that monologue, Photographic Memory, which encapsulates the album’s main problems: it’s sorely earnest and full of lyrical clichés. Heart of the Land's relentless sincerity becomes difficult to stomach if you’re not in a teary mood, and lines like "I'd like to sail away with you forever in a heartbeat" would surely earn derision were they to come from a soppy pop star, however melodiously they're delivered.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Brian Eno - Small Craft On A Milk Sea

Brian Eno - Small Craft on a Milk Sea (**)
album review for the skinny

Warp’s signing of Brian Eno was a symbolic coup for the label, the spiritual homecoming of a common ancestor to their entire roster’s two-decade output. But Small Craft On A Milk Sea does not indicate a return to the cutting-edge for Eno, who’s been wallowing in abstract ambient sound design for longer than Warp’s lifetime.

When Small Craft summons some energy, as in early tracks Horse and 2 Forms of Anger, racing drums, buzzing insects and squawking mechanical birds form a frightening scene, before the latter track’s guitars explode and enflame for a full minute.

But for the most part, Small Craft drifts aimlessly in featureless ambience. For all that he achieved in his first decade-or-so as a musician and producer – and his legacy of innovation in rock and electronic music is peerless – it’s difficult to detect anything of genius or inspiration in his 2010 output.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!

John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up! (****)
album review for the skinny

Few musicians seem to make overtly political records these days: the Iraq war moved few songwriters to sing out, and despite its catastrophic effects, there’s not much rhymes with “credit crunch”. John Legend and The Roots’ Wake Up! is a covers record featuring new versions of old soul classics like Donny Hathaway’s Little Ghetto Boy and Mike James Kirkland’s Hang On In There, among others, updated with Black Thought verses, though these songs’ themes of faraway wars and local poverty need no updating. It’s beautifully produced, so when those two songs and sole original Shine develop into galas of piano, organ, strings and bass, it’s like listening to peak-era Stevie or Curtis. A lethargic Wholy Holy can't compare to Marvin Gaye's original, and a 12-minute take of Bill Withers' I Can't Write Left-Handed is a good three minutes over-wrought; but Wake Up!’s lush recordings make it a treat for any soul fan.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love (****)
album review for the skinny

If the near-five year wait since The Life Pursuit and last year’s brilliant brace of albums from Camera Obscura and Butcher Boy led you to question Belle & Sebastian’s standing as indie-pop kings of Glasgow, wait until you hear Write About Love.

While arguably not as consistent as either of those disciples’ recent triumphs, there are parts of Belle & Seb’s eighth studio album as great as anything they’ve done before: When the light and lilting I Didn’t See It Coming is resurrected, after dissolving into space, by the late arrival of starry synths and Stuart pleading “make me dance, I want to surrender!”; when a fragile, metallic shimmer subtly emerges from Come On Sister, and ecstatic male backing vocals less subtly burst from it later; pretty much the entirety of Northern Soul stomper I Want The World To Stop, and the surreally hilarious I’m Not Living In The Real World, a coming-of-age caper inspired by early The Who and Beach Boys.

But perhaps the best moment of all is the final line of closer Sunday's Pretty Icons: a simple, undramatic remark of devastating kindness that’ll leave you choking over the glistening organ outro. Wonderful.

This song really reminded me of Frankie Valli's The Night, even before it got to the "the night, the night!" bit. So, for comparison's sake (and because this is an amazing song that you should listen to right now anyway):

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Andrew O'Neill @ The Tron

Andrew O'Neill (***)

comedy review for the list

If Andrew O'Neill's poster description "occult comedian" suggests an evening of witty witchcraft, that's not what he's serving at this year's Fringe. He's a metalhead, and wears all black clothing (and owns a black beach towel), but he's a long way from turning any unfortunate front-row volunteer into a newt.

He's actually very normal, towel tastes aside. In mocking religion, racism and homophobia he wrings laughs out of well-worn and worthy comedic subjects, and a long story about his first ever fight provides an impressive variety of angles. Metal music and culture is another deep well for comedy, one which O'Neill could probably explore further.

Unfortunately almost all of O'Neill's short scripted skits fall flat, both punctuating and puncturing his set. Surely every good David Dickinson joke has long ago been told, so there's not much to gain from two more attempts; and providing a melodramatic power ballad with a mundane answer is a schoolboy's game.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Saturday @ T in the Park 2010

blurbs on bands at T in the Park on Saturday

for the skinny

Saturday lunchtime’s persistent drizzle sends most casual fans under canvas, so bands like the T Break tent-bound Astral Planes can benefit from a larger audience. But beyond the friends in the front row, the casual outliers never really take to them. Doris Day’s (the song, obvs) weighty riffs momentarily stop the crowd chatting and even inspire a little air guitar; but the Glasgow band’s similarities to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Blondie suggest a personality received, not conceived.

“The new Frightened Rabbit?” a friend jokes as we head to the BBC Introducing stage for Admiral Fallow, formerly Brother Louis Collective. A reductive, throwaway comment; sadly impossible to shrug off. In a 20 minute set, three songs feel like shadows of specific FRabbit tunes. Their best moment comes when they step out of that shadow: an emotional clarinet burst at the end of final song Subbuteo provides a welcome Roxy Music-style release.

Unfortunately for the newly Guardian-profiled Kid Adrift, the rain has stopped before he takes the stage, and fans seem determined to enjoy the skies while they’re dry. So only a wee group is present to gawp at his bombastic synth-rock, and despite the volume and scope, somehow even they don’t seem to be paying attention. He’s not helped by poor sound, specifically an underpowered mic that leaves his vocals clouded out by the bass and drums, but predictable quiet/loud shifts in his music don’t help either.

Vampire Weekend are astonishingly popular. For a group with only two Top 40 hits to attract a miles-deep crowd at the Main Stage is remarkable, and for miles around we can see fans dancing, not just to those minor hits, but to album tracks too. “Cousins” is the highlight, the off-kilter scratch guitar intro immediately drawing waves of cheers from the crowd, before Ezra Koenig draws laughs by asking for “anger and ecstasy” from the crowd during “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)”. Perhaps he touched on the real secret to all this dancing?

After We Are Scientists pack the King Tuts tent out, The Coral’s crowd is sparse. It’s a minor mystery why they have such a good slot at all, and they don’t offer any clues from the stage. They start with breakthrough single Goodbye, before a dreary In The Rain and a new song with a stultifying chorus of “oh oh, waiting for a thousand years, oh oh, sailing on a thousand tears”. We don’t wait a thousand milliseconds more.

Rambling Man

Laura Marling | MySpace Music Videos

In the Futures tent, we’d earlier seen the quiet, folky Middle East suffer because watchers were too drunk to listen. But now the same tent is packed and wholly attentive for 20 year old Laura Marling, the new star of English folk thanks to her beautiful second album I Speak Because I Can. There’s a dramatic pause in Rambling Man that’s perfectly held by the rapt crowd, emphasising the effect of the return; before a sizable core of fans sing along to every word of Ghosts. Wonderful.

The BBC’s Vic Galloway introduces Young Fathers as “the best three-piece electro hip-hop group Edinburgh’s ever produced!”, which might sound a soft compliment but it’s pretty accurate: while their lyrics are hard to make out in the melee, there’s no hating their style. Before the crowd knows it, we're jumping around and flapping our arms like birds, all because of their infectious onstage energy and charm.

Seven years since he last played in Scotland, it’s an honour and a thrill to see Eminem performing again, even if we do have to wait an additional forty minutes past showtime for him to arrive. In some ways it’s like he’s never been away: his performance is full of energy, he doesn’t miss a beat and he’s clearly enjoying himself. Unfortunately his wireless mic isn’t quite so wide awake, meaning whole verses are occasionally inaudible as he patrols the stage, and his set includes a few recent stinkers: Beautiful and Not Afraid are particularly galling. Luckily, a late run including My Name Is, Without Me and Lose Yourself is clearly audible and full of fire. Anytime, Mister Mathers.


No way in hell was I missing the next day's World Cup Final, even for Jay-Z.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Eminem @ T in the Park, 10 Jul

Eminem @ T in the Park, Balado near Kinross, Scotland, 10/07/2010 (***)
live review for The Skinny

Five years after his last scheduled UK gig -- and seven years since he last actually performed in Scotland -- it's teasing to have to wait 40 minutes past showtime for Eminem to finally take the stage to close Saturday's Main Stage lineup. But when Marshall Mathers arrives, it's a relief to see him still youthful and full of fight; considering the drug problems and the rare public appearances, my subconscious feared he’d turn up in a string vest and pyjama bottoms, or unshaven and greying at least. But seven years away haven’t aged him at all, physically; artistically, it’s a different story. Growing up is a difficult subject to navigate, for any person or any artist, but it’s extra hard for artists who have a stage persona and a real personality as messily intertwined as Eminem’s. So, just as a new greatest hits release from Em would sound strangely incoherent, tonight's set contained songs as if written by a few different Slim Shadys.

His earliest persona -- the funny one -- is who everyone’s here to see, but he leaves most of that for the end. The first half of the show is almost entirely Recovery and Relapse tracks, plus a three-song set with D12, and it’s underwhelming for all but the Stans on the barrier, frequently shown on the giant screens reciting every word. Presumably the cause of the delayed start was technical, and technical problems with Em’s wireless mic persist - entire verses are lost while his sidekick MC is fully audible. When it comes to Stan -- the song -- Em’s mic problems frustratingly remain: after the crowd sings along to Dido’s intro, the first verse is a washout.

The mic is working by the time Em wants to talk to the crowd, pitting all the boys and girls against each other in a noise-making contest, and encouraging all the boys to turn to the nearest girl and say “fuck you bitch!”. That’s Slim Shady talking, but then comes the real head-fucking sequence of the evening: he asks the girls “how many of you ladies feel beautiful tonight?”, dedicates the next song to every girl in the crowd, and sings “don’t let them say you ain’t beautiful”. Minutes later, the girls are singing along to Rihanna’s Love The Way You Lie hook, as Eminem threatens to tie her to a bed and set the house on fire.

Beautiful is on Eminem’s 2009 comeback album Relapse, but who is it by? Is it by a fake Slim Shady? Who was Kim, by? Is Beautiful by the real Marshall Mathers? Is Beautiful by the same artist as Kim? Is Beautiful by the same artist as Not Afraid?

Well yes, those two seem to go together: they’re both morose, self-pitying ballads that look for strength and hope but find cliche instead. Not Afraid, tonight’s second-last song, is a power ballad that sets Eminem up like an inspirational moral guide: “Everybody come take my hand, we'll walk this road together through the storm” and so on. What happened to “you can suck my dick if you don't like my shit”? That was only 20 minutes ago.

He created a monster, but it was a fully formed and living monster: as writer Jeff Weiss put it, he was “the id of every 16-year old boy in America”. Now what is he? A hotchpotch of moods, attitudes and beliefs: a normal adult? It’s hard to believe.

Eminem closed his T set with a furious Lose Yourself, but it was the other song to sandwich Not Afraid, Without Me, that was most revealing. 18 months after Stan, his comeback single declared an intention to be provocative: “...we need a little controversy, cos it feels so empty without me”. Now on another comeback, Eminem provoked boos from the T crowd whenever he addressed it as “Edinburgh”. It’s a reasonable mistake to make -- we’re well within a Ryanair definition of Edinburgh, at least -- but some fans weren’t happy. “Oi Eminem!” a little lass behind me yelled. “I’m fae Glenrothes!”.

Remember when Eminem was intentionally provocative?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

M.I.A. - Maya

M.I.A. - Maya (***)
album review for the skinny

When M.I.A. released a song attacking journalists just days after a scathing recent New York Times article, it either demonstrated a remarkable speed of execution, or that she had lots of room in her personal protesting schedule. That article exposed some of the half-truths in the M.I.A. mythos, including the discomforting leak that – having broken through as a pop artist with Paper Planes two years ago, and since got engaged to a multi-millionaire boyfriend – she's now very rich and famous. That's common for pop stars, but it leaves M.I.A. vulnerable: her rebel shtick could make her look like a trustafarian in a Che Guevara t-shirt if she isn’t careful with her words.

On new single Born Free she acknowledges that problem, singing “I don’t wanna talk about money, cos I got it”. She’s been forced to rein in the rhetoric, and thankfully she doesn’t say anything stupid on Maya about terrorism or truffles. But the problem with Maya is rooted in a far more mundane circumstance than the disorientating effect of celebrity: it’s that contentedness cools creativity. The NYT piece gave her a cause to fight for – her own reputation – hence the quick turnaround. But everything’s gone right for M.I.A. in the three years since second album Kala, so it’s no surprise that Maya is missing the spikiness so central to her personality.

Born Free is the stand-out, though – blowing through a four minute declaration of freedom in a frenzy, using an amped-up Suicide sample for its irresistible momentum. Story To Be Told combines heavily processed wailing Bollywood vocals and a low-flying jet with a cutting, juddering synth bassline, while Tell Me Why takes the Panda Bear route to psychedelia by endlessly looping and echoing choral samples. XXXO is probably the closest thing Maya will have to a hit, with a great shimmering synthline and a cloying hook: “you want me [to] be somebody who I’m really not”.

But it’s hard to take anything from, for example, Steppin’ Up, except the conclusion that the use of chainsaws for percussion is nowhere near as cool as it should be; or Teqkilla, which somehow stretches the dubious idea to pun on various drinks brands over six minutes of stuttering noise. If the politics of rebellion are now off-limits for M.I.A., then she’ll have to find something else to get angry about; we know what she thinks of journalists, so her fourth album is bound to be better.

Dirty Projectors + Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca

Dirty Projectors + Bj
örk - Mount Wittenberg Orca (***)
album review for the skinny

Dave Longstreth is a man with great ideas: his breakthrough album as leader of Dirty Projectors, Rise Above, was an attempt to reinterpret Black Flag’s Damaged despite not having heard it in 15 years. By the sounds of it, Mount Wittenberg Orca could be a similar attempt at a from-memory version of Björk’s Medúlla, only with Björk on hand, and not enough time to finish.

In fact it’s a 21 minute suite, available to download in exchange for a charitable donation, about a family of frolicking whales spotted by vocalist Amber Coffman last year. As with Medúlla, it’s almost entirely vocal, with Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle providing percussive chanting and precise harmonising to support the gymnastic lead roles of Longstreth and Björk. On And Ever Onward is the keeper, featuring Björk as the mommy whale celebrating the pleasures of a lifetime in the sea, with her calves cutely singing the title back to her.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid

Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (****)
album review for the skinny

It's easy to hear why Janelle Monáe has taken four years since her breakthrough as a guest on OutKast's Idlewild to complete her own debut album: The ArchAndroid is a staggeringly ambitious attempt. It's a first-time shot at a grand conceptual masterpiece that makes you wonder whether, considering the struggling record industry, she's perhaps pegged this as her only chance. She'll surely get another because her talent is obvious – the Big Boi-featuring Tightrope shuffles to an African rhythm before heckling horns intervene, Faster glides effortlessly and exuberantly like a Solange take on Stevie Wonder's Keep On Running, and Neon Valley Street showcases the full expressiveness of Monáe's voice. Almost inevitably for an 18 song opus, there are missteps – Make The Bus, featuring Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, irritates as a Love Below pastiche, and the psychedelic ballad Sir Greendown frustratingly interrupts the momentum of a fantastic opening sequence. There is a masterpiece here, but it’ll take a little skipping to find it.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Primavera Sound 2010

Even when it gets little things wrong, Primavera Sound never really fails.

feature for the skinny

Primavera Sound has its fundamentals cast in stone: always a great line-up of music (always, in fact, far too much great music to see), in one of Europe's most beautiful cities, under the Mediterranean sun. So, while I'm going to explain a little why Primavera 2010 wasn't a vintage year in the context of its predecessors, it's with reluctance that one would attach negativity to it at all. Weeks like this one make life worth living.

Over the weekend we clocked Wilco, Spoon, Orbital, No Age, Mission of Burma, Tortoise, Low, Sunny Day Real Estate, CocoRosie, Wire, Liquid Liquid, HEALTH, Shellac and Sleigh Bells on the Primavera schedule; we didn't see any of them perform. The depth of the Primavera programme means there's frequently three- or even four-band clashes, which makes for some wrenching choices, and some fast cuts. Gary Numan played Cars third in his set, and then watched half his crowd leave to go elsewhere; it's a competitive market.

Primavera's expert curation and wonderful location mean it's getting more popular every year. Fittingly, as it's primarily an indie music festival, its fans have mixed feelings about it succeeding too much. What the organizers are presenting as the great achievement of attracting record attendances of 35,000 per day, is experienced by the crowds as a reason for disappointment, since it's now harder to get near the stage, takes longer to walk between them between sets, and takes longer to queue for the toilets or for food. As you might argue for many bands on this bill, Primavera's best days may have been before "everyone else" discovered it.

But even if that's the case, it's doubtful anybody left Primavera in the early hours of Sunday morning disappointed. For, at worst there was still the final few gigs in the city centre's Joan Miro Park later that afternoon to look forward to, and a closing party featuring Jeffrey Lewis and Black Lips (another two to add to that list; we chose paella on La Rambla instead). For the non-Barca resident, the Primavera experience begins when you arrive in beautiful Barcelona. We spent the day before the festival wandering the labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter, dipping in and out of old, dark bars and cafes, and exploring parks with glorious fountains.

Despite the rise of music tourism, Primavera's core crowd is still decidedly Spanish (or, more precisely, Catalan). It's hard to say whether anyone ever listens to what The Fall's Mark E. Smith is saying anyway -- as opposed to how he says it -- but surrounded by singalong Spaniards, phonetically feeling their way in the dark, it becomes even more mysterious. On one song, sung by the keyboardist, MES is so bored that he wanders the stage, splays his fingers across her keys like a drunken duck trying to type, and then smirks. He hates the sunshine.

The XX sound like they hate the sunshine too -- tall bassist Oliver Sim looks like a young Lurch -- so their pre-sunset slot is poorly timed. But as the sun drops, the darkness shrouds their songs in gloom, and the bright stage lights shining on their faces present a similar black-white contrast to their album imagery. After much restrained tension, the climax of finale Infinity is stunning, with Sim slamming cymbals as bass beats blast like machine gun fire.

Thursday's headliner is the newly reformed Pavement, who are just as the backhanded compliments of their youth suggested: very good. There's a thrill in simply seeing them perform so many of their best songs, but our favourite parts are when Bob Nastanovich gets involved: leaping to the front of the stage to yell the chorus to Conduit For Sale, leaping up and down to hit a wood block on Silence Kid, and, well, leaping to the front of the stage to yell the chorus of Unfair. Like a big kid, he looks like the one band member enjoying it as much as the crowd.

Geoff Barrow's Jaki Liebezeit-indulgence project Beak> is apparently inspirational in a dark, intimate setting, but as with The XX, here a large stage, bright sunlight and Mediterranean backdrop makes it difficult to admire. A little later, in the dark, Beach House make the same ATP stage intimate with an inspirational set. Their sedated sound bores some, but fatigue makes you forget social pretences, so the Baltimore duo's permanent tiredness lends an end-of-tether honesty to their ballads. Finishing with the unusually peppy 10 Mile Stereo sends us away regenerated.

Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington is more frontman than singer, and more ADHD-mad toddler than frontman. He emerges in a giant furry bear suit, wearing flashing red lights round his eyes, strips down to his pants, then runs a good 30m through the crowd to balance, on his belly, on the top of a pole. He then races past us -- we're not near the stage at all -- nearly taking our neck off with the mic cable, finds a fan on someone's shoulders and heads to embrace him. There's a burst of noise -- no singing yet -- and he returns to the stage to attempt to climb it. Les Savy Fav are exciting to listen to, but they're much more exciting to watch.

Unfortunately where we headed next, The Vice stage, was problematic. Everything we saw there lived down to expectations. Panda Bear had to perform with a minimum of on-stage lighting, and at a volume which barely washed over the crowd's excited chatter. Stood there in darkness, with a guitar and a mixing desk, Noah Lennox's echoing warble sounded dreary, not trippy. Like Numan, whose fans abandoned him three songs in, Panda Bear had to deal with a quick exodus. Numan himself was delayed 25 minutes by technical difficulties, and Yeasayer's post-Pixies set was hampered by poor sound too.

Pixies themselves were thrilling, moreso than we expected. Sure, Black Francis has moobs and Kim Deal has a new "manageable" haircut, but fans lamenting the loss of Pixies' youth, the fantasy of their early wee garage shows, are clutching expectations wildly out-of-step with, y'know, how time works. Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain. Isla De Encanta and Vamos are sungalong to by Spaniards relishing lyrics they understand for a change, and Hey!, Debaser, Broken Face, Nimrod's Son and the encore of Gigantic and Where Is My Mind? get ecstatic receptions too. In a festival in thrall to nostalgia, the Pixies exude the most vitality. After Diplo finished the night at 5:30am, we walked five minutes to the beach to watch the sunrise, then went for breakfast. More Friday nights should finish like that.

The Food: Do the free-poured spirits with mixer count as food? The non-alcoholic food in Primavera is pretty poor: its signature dish, the pizza cone, is only to be enjoyed ironically ("It's like an ice cream, but pizza!" and so on). The flavour of the pad thai remarkably managed to be overwhelmed by the taste of the cardboard box it was served in, but the felafel kebab gains a few points by actually being a chicken kebab. A nice surprise for me, probably not if I happened to be a veggie.

Inevitably, Saturday begins slowly. Van Dyke Parks is credited with assisting Brian Wilson away from the Beach Boys' surf-pop origins towards the avant-garde, having worked with him on SMiLE. In the auditorium, his traditional pop and classical influences are clear: while superficially similar to Sherman Brothers-era Disney, his arrangements are complex: Parks on piano, his cellist, bassist and violinist all seem to start playing different songs before converging together. His modest patter is hugely endearing, his return for an encore seems genuine, and the standing ovation that follows certainly is. Built To Spill's set at the ATP stage is packed with highlights from classics Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, but it's an epic rendition of Goin' Against Your Mind from the less-appreciated You In Reverse that unleashes rolls of energy through the crowd.

Headlining the final night on the main stage, Pet Shop Boys' bizarre on-stage choreography is endlessly entertaining: dancers with boxes for heads building walls, line-dancing skyscrapers of the world, box-headed couples fighting with the bricks of the wall; Neil Tennant dresses up as a king, and Chris Lowe seems to wear a pineapple on his head. More entertaining are their hits -- Can You Forgive Her?, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Go West, Always On My Mind, West End Girls -- which buffer the lesser known songs to keep the mood high.

Finally, the 3am clash between The Field, Orbital and HEALTH is particularly galling, but we have no regrets about picking the former, at the Pitchfork stage. Playing with a drummer, guitarist and bassist enables Axel Willner to exercise a lot more fluidity in his performance than Ableton Live alone would allow; or at least, it looks more like a performance than a man at a laptop ever could. The drummer is especially good, adding frills, rolls and extra rhythms to create new patterns; he needs a break after 45 hypnotic minutes, before a final 15-minute Over The Ice that seems to hold for an eternity before shattering.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

A Sunny Day In Glasgow @ Nice N' Sleazy's, Glasgow

A Sunny Day In Glasgow @ Nice N' Sleazy's, Glasgow, 15 May (***)

live review for the skinny

Sadly, the A Sunny Day In Glasgow founding member who would be most excited about playing with his band on an actual sunny day in Glasgow has left the group, leaving co-founder Ben Daniels to understatedly point out the obvious irony to the packed Sleazy's crowd.

This Philadelphian band have gathered a lot of attention round these parts for their bizarre name; and held that attention longer with two beautifully textured albums. Unfortunately, in Sleazy’s ASDIG are unable to fully replicate all the depths of noise that they wash their sound with on record, which exposes a frailty common to any dream pop-type band whose melodic nous is anywhere south of Kevin Shields’.

Precisely: if the 'dream' goes missing, the 'pop' has to stand on its own. The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere certainly achieves that, but the band's own songs gasp for a little more fog.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Meursault, Olympic Swimmers, Conquering Animal Sound @ Cab Vol, 10/4

Conquering Animal Sound (***) spend half of their time on-stage crouched, and if you're at the front you can see why: pedals and knobs, wires and cables, gizmos and toys on the floor. It's fascinating to watch the Edinburgh duo use their array of devices to build up a song: they make a noise, loop it, pick something else up and loop it too, singer Anneke Kampman miaows and Jamie Scott fingerpicks his guitar and those sounds are looped; and six minutes later the pathwork is complete, it drops to silence, and there's huge cheers. Tonight their four rolling collages could do with a few more focal points, but it's clear to see why CAS are picking up plaudits.


In contrast, Glasgow quintet Olympic Swimmers (***) are pretty conventional, being a five-piece indie-rock band in the vein of Yo La Tengo, female lead singer aside. Like the New Jersey band, Swimmers' slow, brooding songs don't exactly set pulses racing live, and they are also apparently handicapped tonight by the absence of their usual rhythm section. Final song Father Said is the standout, redeeming a somewhat sleepy set by growing from a tenuous start towards an epic, shimmering finale. More songs like this please.


Finally it's Meursault's (*****) turn to launch their second album All Creatures Will Make Merry in front of a hometown crowd so keen the venue sold out almost a week ahead. They opt for the slightly risky strategy of playing the new album in full, despite few of the songs being known to anyone, but it's clear from the off how focused they all are on their performances. Sparse ballads, where singer Neil Pennycook is backed by just a cello and toy guitar, are interspersed with songs with racing beats and abrasive textures, and each one is met with roars at the end. On this form, Meursault are nothing short of awe inspiring.


Meursault - New Ruin (Live at the Queen's Hall) from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
album review for the skinny

The first thing James Murphy ever did as LCD Soundsystem frontman was confess to a serious music addiction. Losing My Edge, his 2002 debut single, was an acutely observed and very funny monologue about the one-upmanship of music fandom, expertly name-dropping bands in a way destined to endear himself to music geeks, bloggers and critics. "He's one of us!" we thought. "He knows who Pere Ubu are too!"

So when his self-titled debut album eventually dropped in 2005, it was easy to look past the myriad obvious influences – The Fall, New Order, Can, David Byrne, Suicide, funky Beck – because he'd already declared his deference to elder musical heroes in that first single. And there was more: the very first thing he sang on the debut LP was "Daft Punk is playing at my house", boasted like a connected fan rather than as a musical peer. By bridging the gap between fan and artist, James Murphy earned our empathy and the benefit of any of our doubts. By the time of the second album, Sound of Silver (2007), LCD had developed their own characteristic style, and added a whole new dimension which had been missing from the debut: love. We knew he was a party guy, and we knew he was occasionally a balladeer, but previously his slow songs had been inward-looking; in the core of Sound of Silver, Someone Great and All My Friends, Murphy allowed himself 15 minutes to be sincere about others who were important to him. He wasn't schmaltzy, he just explained from within; and it didn't ruin the mood because both songs retained a propulsive motion that the next song was able to pick up again from. Having quickly mastered motion, he'd now mastered emotion too, and he meshed the two so convincingly on Sound of Silver that his musical inspirations became irrelevant.

At the risk of cliche, Sound of Silver showed a maturity Murphy had previously lacked, or perhaps been scared to show. All this time one of his main concerns has been aging, about gradually feeling like he was getting too old to party. Now forty years old, we can't be ironic about it: the kids are coming up from behind, and James Murphy just might be losing his edge.

There are four Sound of Silver-worthy songs on third album This Is Happening, which is a pretty good ratio considering that high standard. Yet, the flaws of This Is Happening suggest a regression back to the naivety of the debut self-titled album. The central inspiration here is David Bowie: four of the nine songs could be traced closely to Bowie's late-70s Berlin period when he worked extensively with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop; another song is very similar to Iggy's Nightclubbing (written and produced by Bowie), and there's still more Eno, Byrne and Can references. Even the cover is like that of Lodger, Bowie's final Berlin album. But Murphy is no longer just a talented fan with great taste. He crossed that bridge long ago.

The best segment of This Is Happening is a stretch of twenty minutes or so in the first half which features three consecutive keepers. One Touch builds in bizarrely with sharp silver scratches and wet slapping synths, but it really takes off in the chorus when Murphy's automatonic vocal is counteracted by a childlike yell from keyboardist Nancy Whang: rough noise and fluid bass, the girl and the robot all complementing each other. Then it's All I Want, which initially prompts a cringe because of its e-bowed guitar line that's instantly recognisable from Bowie's Heroes. It's the backbone of the entire song and, as Heroes is such a universally known and loved song, it feels kinda cheap, especially when Murphy's vocal melody hits a corresponding "Heroes" note. Nevertheless, the way All I Want progresses with neon-bright keyboard flashes towards Murphy's pleading climax makes its second half irresistible. Finally in this stretch is the piston-disco of I Can Change, a sweetly heartfelt offer to compromise sung gracefully over what sounds like an extended mix of something from Low's Side A.

The closing track, Home, is another success, combining cowbell and mobile phone interference for percussion, and building into a celebratory groove supporting Murphy's David Byrne-like vocals.

Unfortunately, between that ecstatic twenty minute spell and the triumphant finale are three of Murphy's weakest songs yet. Hit is a nine-minute-long grumble about label pressure for a hit song, which definitely won't be a hit itself because it's intentionally flat and tuneless. It's just petulant: the way to react to undue influence is to ignore it, not to propel yourself in the opposite direction. Pow Pow isn't much better: it's a Losing My Edge-style rambling monologue over a rolling groove, except without any of the the wit, and with an inane chorus of "pow, pow pow pow pow, pow pow pow pow" yelled repeatedly. Then there's Somebody's Calling Me, a heavily sedated version of Iggy Pop' Nightclubbing that drearily plods along under the occasional brightly flaring drone.

These songs give credence to the notion that Murphy is doing the right thing by hanging up his LCD Soundsystem boots with this album. That LCD would resort to the third-album cliche of whinging about the music industry, for almost ten minutes, would've seemed so unlikely to early fans: he made jokes about Captain Beefheart, he surely must know about these well-trodden pitfalls? And This Is Happening's reliance on familiar sources of inspiration is not what you expect from an established artist. But, though Murphy crossed that bridge long ago, he remains a talented man with great taste, and that results in a clutch of thrilling tracks. Like the album that inspired its cover, This Is Happening is a fine – if flawed – end to a largely magnificent trilogy.


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Introducing: Sparrow & The Workshop

Introducing: Sparrow & The Workshop
(well, not if you've been paying attention here already)

feature for Clash

The Scottish live music scene is about as healthy as it's ever been right now, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of new young bands trying to live out rockstar dreams based on little more than the ability to detune a guitar. Earplugs are always recommended, to protect your ears and to protect your sanity. But sometimes you catch one: a new band several steps above the others, like athletes where sloths went before, and it all becomes worthwhile. I knew Sparrow & The Workshop were special from the moment I first saw them live in late 2008. Now they're releasing their debut album and, whaddaya know, I was right!

Sparrow formed two years ago after Jill O'Sullivan (lead vocals) and Nick Packer (guitar, bass) moved to Glasgow from London. There they met Gregor Donaldson (drums, vocals), and the boys began to put some flesh on the bones of songs Jill was already writing. Since then they've been gigging relentlessly, in support of British Sea Power, Idlewild and others, and they've also released two well-received EPs, Sleight of Hand and Into The Wild, which have now been combined to make the album. Jill's high, agile voice, like Joni Mitchell's but with a Southern twang, has instant appeal, but a great singer would be wasted without great songs, and debut album Crystals Fall has those in abundance.

"People call us 'folk noir'," Gregor says. "They say it's just a wee bit weird, in a good way, or they say it's a new take on a timeless kind of music. We enjoy making it, so I'd like that to come across, that we're having fun." Early reviews have highlighted the dark themes of their lyrics and the folk roots of their songwriting, but guitarist Nick isn't afraid of causing a racket, as in the thrilling crescendos of Crystals and Into The Wild, and the sliding solo of Swam Like Sharks.

Gregor's drumming is crucial too. He's not content to do the basic 4/4 support while the song marches on. Instead, he's always looking for gaps, chances to duck in and out, like a winger using tricks as well as pace to beat his man. It's no coincidence that his drumming takes centre-stage on some of the album's best songs, such as Into The Wild and Devil Song.

"We've had some pretty nice things said about us already," Gregor says, and those positive vibes are only going to continue.


Monday, 19 April 2010

Football in 3-D: The Beautiful Game

blog for the skinny

As it's bright and sunny outside, everyone's wearing shades. But we're indoors, and not sitting-by-the-window indoors, we're deeply hidden away in Edinburgh's Three Sisters' backroom bar, round the corner from any mere vestige of sunlight, watching the telly. It's the Manchester derby, bizarrely now the richest city derby in world football, and we're wearing the darkened glasses because it's being shown on Sky 3-D.

When I was a kid, a 3-D film was an attraction at Universal Studios in Florida, alongside a simulator where you flew into a dinosaur's mouth and a boat that was thrillingly attacked by a giant shark. Now 3-D films are arriving every week at multiplexes, and 3-D football has arrived at the pub, except they don't squirt you with water at the pub for realism (there is an excitable crowd of sweary men though, just like at a real game). It's not a great match, but with the glasses on it was easy to lose interest in the actual football and begin thinking about the way the camera shots are being cut. Most of the game is shown in wide-shot, which isn't very different from how it is on normal telly. But close-ups and different angles show much more depth: you can see the layers of perspective, the sharper focus on near objects than far. It's not quite "like being there", as Sky's publicity says, because your total vision knows you're just watching a flat rectangle on the wall of a dark pub. But it is kinda like a window to actually being there: like you could reach your hand through this window and wave it around and freak everyone out at the disembodied limb shaking above the pitch.

That's probably the kind of silly thing people said about television sixty years ago, I know. Anyway, because it's not a magic portal -- because it's a television -- it's also brighter than real life. It's lit up, and that makes it quite beautiful to look at (unless it's a close-up of Carlos Tevez (above), of course). Instead of pointing to the screen to direct abuse or illustrate a move or tactic, this pub audience points at the screen for the angled crowd shot, to say "look at the layers!", or at a substitution, to see how the sub, the linesman, the dugout and the crowd are arranged. Of course, they're arranged exactly as they always are, but I've never been so enamoured just gazing at a substitution before.

The Three Sisters provided us with free half-time pies, which were nice, but no matchday programme, wind-chill, or deafening tannoy announcements of the half-time raffle results, which would've added to the realism. The next match to be shown is Chelsea v Stoke next Sunday, but you can check the Sky 3-D website for details on upcoming games, and where you can watch them.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Meursault: Escape From Auld Reekie

feature for the skinny
(crappy photo taken by me on my phone about a year ago at The Bowery)

In the 16th century, after defeat at the Battle of Flodden, Edinburgh built a wall around its limits to protect itself from an expected invasion by the English. They never came, but the Flodden Wall proved useful to the city's rulers as a means of penning citizens in, making criminals easier to catch and traders easier to tax. The wall is mostly gone, but some mysterious force still seems to pen the capital's musical citizens in.

Every August, Edinburgh becomes the cultural capital of the western world, yet its own contemporary music rarely travels far. For two years, the chatter around these parts has been dominated by Meursault, and if you've been to a small-scale gig here recently, you've probably seen them. Meursault have performed live hundreds of times now and won new fans every time. Our readers poll saw their debut album, Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues, qualify as one of the best Scottish albums of the last ten years. But despite their obvious talent, the hype has remained dispiritingly local.

It's time they burst through the wall.

For the uninitiated, Meursault are a six-piece (formerly four-piece) led by singer-songwriter Neil Pennycook, a big bald guy with a breathtaking boom of a voice. Other members combine autoharp-strumming with Ableton-programming, korg-playing and banjo-picking: they play modern forms of indie-rock and electronica, but with strong roots in Scottish folk. Pennycook has a versatile voice, but when he yells, jaws drop.

We caught up with Neil to hear more about Meursault's upcoming second album, All Creatures Will Make Merry.

How did you want your second album to be different from the first?
The main difference would be that I'm a lot more certain of what it is that I'm trying to say with these songs compared with those on the first record. If I've learned anything, it's to trust my own opinion and to work at my own pace. Also, playing with a full live band has helped shape this record considerably.

Do you mean - expanding to a six-piece?
Yeah. The two new members, Pete on cello and Phil on guitar, have opened up a huge range of possibilities with these songs. As well as other less obvious benefits such as Phil also acting as our booking agent which brings a whole new level of organisation to things. With Pete joining it gave me the opportunity to work closely with someone who understands music from a completely different perspective than myself, what with his being classically trained and his ability to understand every facet of a song as he hears it.

What would you say your influences have been for this record?
I've been listening to a lot of The Microphones, Mount Eerie. And I guess that's influenced my production style a fair bit.

How do you expect people will react?
I hope people get what I was trying to achieve with the production and arrangements as well. It's this idea that just because a song has a grander arrangement, or is more than just guitar, bass and drums, that shouldn't necessarily entail that it needs slick production, which always seems to be the case and has been for as long as people have been making records.

Edinburgh's happy to have Meursault, but logistical problems have undoubtedly played a part in keeping them here. They're signed to a bedroom-sized local label, Song By Toad, better known as a blog run by Matthew Young, and there's only so much he can do. And with six members, co-ordinating time off work to tour has proved extremely difficult. Hence most of their gigs in the last couple years have been in the homely Bowery basement, downstairs at what is now the Roxy. They were able to rehearse there regularly, and played so often they became like an unofficial house band. Just around the corner from the Bowery, on Drummond St, is a still-standing portion of the Flodden Wall. They're very close to getting beyond it.


Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Caribou: Selling Live Water

interview feature for the skinny (revised)

"I thought everybody was going to hate this album," Dan Snaith aka Caribou tells The Skinny over the phone. Incorrect, red pen, cross. Show your working! "I've never been one to play it safe or want to not-rock the boat, but this is a big left-turn, there's much more dance influence, there's much less in the way of poppy songs." OK, so you follow up an award-winning breakthrough album with something very different, and you risk alienating fans. But no-one's going to hate Caribou's magnificent new album Swim.

Snaith is a very open and articulate talker. After half an hour's chat, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his brain responds to music in a mathematical way. Partly that's because his back-story involves a lot of maths and it's hard to resist a good narrative, but partly it's because of the way he talks about music: like a song is a set of problems that can be solved, expressed in sound instead of numbers.

Dan Snaith's back-story (involves a lot of maths)

The Snaith family could hardly be described as multi-talented. "My dad was a maths professor, my mom was a maths teacher, my sister's a maths professor, my grandfather was a maths teacher, my brother-in-law is a maths professor." According to Wikipedia, his sister Nina works in random matrix theory and quantum chaos; just so you know. Dan himself has a Ph.D. in maths from Imperial College, London, where he now lives.

The very talented Snaith family were based in a little Canadian town called Dundas, in Ontario, population 25,000. Without a music scene, Dan's musical education lacked the constraints of received wisdom. "When I was in high school I was listening to Plastikman and Yes. Maybe if I'd grown up in New York or London or somewhere there'd have been a sense of context to the music, like 'oh yeah people are part of a scene here'. For me it was just like: this sounds exciting, I dont care if it was made fifty years ago or yesterday, I dont care where in the world it comes from. I didnt have any context for anything I listened to, because there was nothing musically going on in the little shithole town where I grew up."

About ten years ago Snaith began releasing glitchy, Warp-like electronic music using cut-up and re-worked samples, under the name Manitoba, but he had to change the name after a legal threat from the lead singer of The Dictators, Handsome Dick Manitoba. "Manitoba is a Canadian province, so it was irksome being told by an American asshole that nobody could use the name of a Canadian province apart from him! So Caribou is the North American name for reindeer and as a word it evokes the same kind of things and places as Manitoba does, to me." It has nothing to do with the Pixies song. "No, I was into Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and really horrible, terribly unfashionable progressive rock when I was a teenager!"

Manitoba's second album Up In Flames (2003) was the first to catch a prevailing wind, because it contained more accessible melodies smudged by reverb and echo, exactly as the bright, blurry cover art suggested. Having approximated his aesthetic, The Milk Of Human Kindness (2005, as Caribou) improved on it, and Andorra (2007) was better again, winning the 2008 Polaris Prize, the Canadian equivalent of the Mercury. Continuing the pattern, Swim is even better again, though it's far more based on rhythms than melodies. As he said.

The way Dan Snaith talks about music

Stuff like this: "I'm influenced by hearing someone else's music and thinking 'How the fuck do they do that, technically?', and trying to do my own take on it." If you add these notes, and these sounds, in this order, at this tempo, do you get this emotion, every time? And this: "I'd already settled on what I wanted to do for Andorra, I wanted to figure out how to write pop music, how to compose and arrange it," as if pop music is a quantifiable thing, a science that can be learned, with right and wrong answers at the end. And this, about lyrics: "Rather than on Andorra just sketching some hypothetical scene of two people falling in love, say, just this kind of format for lyrics to mirror what was going on musically in the song, this time it just felt kinda natural that the lyrics had more to do with things going on in my life." If I'd misheard that word 'format' as 'formula', it wouldn't change the meaning, would it? This is what a pop song looks like, now see if you can solve it for x.

And this all begs the question: is that how more of us, or all of us, respond to music, even if we don't realise it? Some people hear a power ballad and recognise the melody as being dramatic and emotional, and then feel the emotion and feel the drama; others hear the same melody and recognise the same formula, but refuse to be led to the same conclusion. What causes these opposite reactions? In an interview last year with Eye, Snaith said "Once I feel like I can do something, it becomes less interesting to do it again." He's found x.

"In high school I was in an indie rock band and all my friends were into that kinda shit but I hated it" Snaith says. "I didn't see the attraction to it until I got to university and then it totally changed, it became this very creative, abstract, more imaginative thing." OK, I cheated there. In the first quote he's talking about music. In the second quote he's talking about maths. Where do you draw the line?

Swim isn't about maths, at all. According to the press sheet, he wanted to make "dance music that sounds like it’s made out of water rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does". "The last track on Andorra [Niobe] is essentially an attempt to rip off James Holden's music," he said on the phone, "to figure out how it works, music where elements seem to breathe and grow and then fall apart. It's a very non-machine-like process and I couldn't figure out how he did it, but I loved the idea".

"On a song like Kaili, all the synthesisers are constantly washing around, nothing sits still, everything's moving, appearing and disappearing. So there's this back and forth idea of musical fluidity." So that's why this record is called Swim? "And also just for the totally naive reason that I became obsessed with swimming over the last year, which probably had an influence on me wanting to make the music sound liquid."

So is the clanging percussion on Bowls really made with... bowls? "They're Tibetan singing bowls," he says. "You know you can run a stick around a glass with water? I picked up these bowls while I was in Asia cos I'd always liked the sound of them. I did this kind of thing a lot with this album: I sampled the sound of these two bowls individually and then played them on a keyboard as if they were the starting point for a synthesiser, changed the filter, changed the envelope. So it's kind of a hybrid between a bowl being hit and it being a synthesiser."

Even when Snaith shows his working, he still gets remarkable results.


Sunday, 28 March 2010

Super Adventure Club - Avoid Zombies

Super Adventure Club - Avoid Zombies (****)
album review for the skinny

In theory, Glasgow (via Livingstone) trio Super Adventure Club could be a nightmarish proposition: they have a singer/guitarist, Bruce Wallace, who screeches, wails, screams, howls and croons; sometimes he sings too; and they have a drummer, Neil Warrack, who shifts between rhythms in a song like a girl trying on dresses in a shop. It could add up to a hellish noise, but in fact their second album Avoid Zombies is a scarily imaginative and hugely amusing trip, the most incongruous thing about it being the final track, a pre-emptive self-defence against anticipated criticism that really isn't necessary.

Before that final track, Super Adventure Club have spent the preceeding half-hour being totally unselfconscious, showing a buoyant disregard for any sensitivities that might get in the way of their fun. Some bands don't seem to know it, but making music is supposed to be fun. The intro to Avoid Zombies' first song -- Hip Hop Hot Pot Pot Noodle -- is five seconds of fast n' mindless single-note pinging, before an unexpected eruption of noise as Wallace and bassist/singer Mandy Clarke crazily rave "If you can read this, your head's on fire". The mania of it is startling: a few bars into the album, they've already asserted their presence, declared their intentions, and shown more personality than some bands manage in a whole hour.

When the singers aren't ranting and the guitars aren't in overdrive, SAC like to slow it down with some breezy, light-hearted laments. Pick Up Sticks provides such a counterpoint to Hip Hop etc's abrasive full-tilt intro, as Wallace wonders aloud about being stuck in a rut, and in My Other Brain he considers extreme measures to deal with sexual frustration: "...but John Wayne Bobbit did alright, and his looks like it's stuck on with Araldite." Best of all is SAC Attack, sung sweetly by Clarke over a fantastic leaping bassline and a scratching, scathing guitar: "phone your mum, make the tea, avoid zombies," she reels off her to-do list for the day, "lock the door, feed the cat, avoid zombies". Always set achievable goals; that's just good advice.

And don't worry too much about what other people think of you; that's implicitly advised throughout too. When a band is described as inoffensive, it doesn't mean others go around abusing the ugly, it means this: others, like Super Adventure Club, take risks knowing they might lose as many fans as they win, and they don't much care about that. Nosferatu is the seven-minute multi-part centrepiece of Avoid Zombies; it's very funny, full of ideas, and honestly a little baffling on first listen: it's Super Adventure Club in one song. Starting with an incomprehensible rant over a quick-breathing bassline, it slows into something eerie about spontaneous combustion, before shifting gear again in time for Wallace and Clarke to abuse someone for looking like Alan Carr (wait, what was I just saying?), then calming again for a guitar solo that fades to almost complete silence halfway through the song. For no apparent reason, just because they want to, and then they fade back in again and there's another twenty parts before the song ends.

But SAC's indulgent tendencies -- like beginning an album with a heart-attack-inducing shock and fading out to near nothing halfway through another song, not to mention the soloing and tempo shifts -- aren't a negative, they're intrinsic to the band's appeal. Other apparently good-time bands would be too self-conscious to try half this stuff, so it wouldn't be convincing. On the contrary, you know Super Adventure Club are having the time of their lives, because they're not stopping to think it over, analyse it, write down their options, arrange a meeting, draw a graph, run it by the boss. Time flies when you're having fun because you don't stop to check the time. Super Adventure Club's brio is natural, most of their risks pay off, and the joy is contagious.

Until we get to the appendix, the apologetic Pointless Self-Indulgence, ironically their least indulgent and most pointless song. It's like a new best friend saying sorry for one corny joke. It's actually quite charming, when taken on its own. Two minutes, no big deal.