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.