I wish the ape a lot of success.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Echoes & Dust ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Head Heritage ; Heathen Disco/Doug Mosurock ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Landline/Jay Babcock ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Perfect Sound Forever ; Quietus ; Science ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU (R.I.P.) ; XRRF (occasionally resurrected). [If you know of any good rock-write still online, pls let me know.]
Friday, October 11, 2019
Firmly established by this point as one of the best live bands in the UK (or if they’re not, they damn well should be), the release of a new record from Grey Hairs is always a happy event around these parts, and, just like second LP ‘Serious Business’ from a few years back, third proper full length ‘Health & Social Care’ is both a huge leap forward for their recorded sound and clearly their best one yet, suggesting a happy future for the Hairs as one of those groups who just get better and better, doggedly honing their craft as the years go by. (As I get older, I like those bands the best.)
Opener ‘Hydropona’ is an absolute f-ing kaiju monster of a track, swinging on a slo-mo wrecking ball groove that any contemporary doom band would kill for. ‘Piss Transgressor’* is a more concentrated blast of dissonant, unholy multi-tracked chaos, Chris Summerlin’s guitar-work as always delivering consummate, imaginative brutalism, and third track ‘Ghost In Your Own Life’ finds them opening up into a weirdly menacing kind of wavo pop, speaking distantly perhaps to the band’s oft-mentioned veneration of the B-52s…? I mean, it’s always been lurking in there somewhere, but they’re pushing it to the fore here, and it… works?
Compositionally, the band apply themselves here to conveying the challenges of working in the boiler-rooms of the increasingly crippled NHS whilst keeping body and soul together on those bleak winter trudges between work, pub, practice space and home. I love Nottingham dearly, but, spend a few hours there, wondering beyond the city centre, and you’ll get the idea. More than ever, frontman James – tightening up his Proper Rock Vocalist delivery here without losing any of his compelling idiosyncrasy - hedges the precise verbiage of his lines with impressionistic obscurity, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the intended feel is communicated loud and clear.
Just take ‘Tory Nurse’ for example, which defuses the easy polemic promise of its button-pushing title with hazy evocations of “slowing switching off”, “the sun keeps spinning” etc – yet still somehow leaves us in no fucking doubt as to the content of the spiked ball of mixed up emotion the band wish to lob in the direction of said nurse. There’s a gnarled kind of alchemy here, an avoidance of the obvious fused with a desperate howling of the totally-fucking-obvious, which has informed the best electric guitar n’ drums type music ever since Chuck Berry was first put in handcuffs.
At the risk of repeating myself from past reviews, Grey Hairs make proper modern rock music, reclaiming that horribly loaded phrase from a place of the map which finds it bracketed between moustache-twiddling sub-genre re-enactment societies and shit that sounds like The Foo Fighters. In doing so, they stare down cold the expected bandwagon of influences, they address the world in which we live with honesty and insight, they conduct their band business with integrity, and, they rock, in a manner both profound and disconcertingly literal.
If you find yourself sick of a life full of dodgy cabling and dented speaker cabs, crowded dark rooms full of pints and germs, please listen to ‘Health & Social Care’, and remind yourself what the point is.
Grey Hairs bandcamp is here.
Buy this record directly from Gringo here.
* This song’s grindcore-esque title was eloquently elaborated upon in the text of a now-difficult-to-link-to press release, as follows: “..seeing yourself in failing men. Standing next to each other in pub toilets dispelling your body waste together. It's a symbiotic moment that is rarely comfortable. It's about the fear of becoming the other. The lines get blurred as we remember our younger selves and times when pop culture was less prescient and that the streams should never cross. The streams have crossed and what now?”
Thursday, September 05, 2019
Before we move on, you will doubtless wish to know how the bar at Supernormal holds up before you start queueing to blind-buy 2020 tickets. Well, it may not have the myriad of cask ales offered by more high falutin’ boutique festivals (and the one I sampled was disconcertingly warm), but the fest’s own ‘Super NormAle’ is a richly hopped, super-refreshing keg IPA; a really nice brew if I’m any judge. £4.50 for a refill of your sturdy, reusable pint pot, served near ice cold, and it never seemed to run out. So that’ll do me nicely, thanks very much. (I’ve been passed a note saying that some people like to drink other things at festivals, but I don’t know anything about that.)
Several hours before that becomes an active concern however, Saturday kicks off with a breakfast of camping stove coffee and supermarket croissant, a game of 3 sided football (spectating, not playing), and a disconcertingly early set from Notts bruisers Bloody Head, playing what I imagine must be their first (and quite possibly last) pre-lunch gig.
Featuring two members of nihilistic doom titans Moloch, Bloody Head play an unremittingly filthy brand of downtuned, metalloid thug-punk, somewhat akin to ’82 demos era ‘Flag with a severely bad tummy. On both occasions when I’ve seen them previously, their vocalist has been… a bit ‘off message’, shall we say…? This time however, he’s locked in and engaged, spitting out tales of nocturnal, urban misery in that Sleaford Mods type manner which for better or worse seems de rigour for all midlands-based bands at present.
It’s probably the best set I’ve seen from the band to date but reaction from the crowd is a bit muted, presumably due to the difficulty of having to deal with this sort of thing at such an early hour, as the sun beams down and birds twitter in the trees an’ shit like that.
After a rousing set from the aforementioned Stanfield, who will not be reviewed here as a result of Conflict of Interest regulations, things get considerably more rousing in the shape of Liverpool’s Horse Bastard. Yes, Horse Bastard. I think that calls for a paragraph break, don’t you?
Not only do Horse Bastard play absolutely shit-hot, old school grindcore, absolutely acing that early Napalm Death vibe I love so much (just a bit more relentlessly frenzied n’ trebley perhaps, and shedding some of the remaining rudiments of common-or-garden metal?), they do so with a great sense of humour and bonhomie to boot. Bloody marvellous!
The dreadlocked drummer – who looks as if he was cryogenically frozen at an Extreme Noise Terror gig in 1988 – beats seventy eight shades of super-human buggery out of a single kick drum kit, whilst both guitarist and bassist make inspired use of those ‘total cut off’ pedals that I will never again question the existence of now that I’ve seen what they can do for grind’s ‘short sharp shock’ aesthetic. An extremely endearing fella, Horse Bastard’s vocalist still seems delighted with his band’s choice of moniker (and why wouldn’t he be?), telling us how much his dad was impressed by it. As indeed are the Supernormal crowd - by the half-way point of the set, an impromptu call and response chant of “Horse? BASTARD!” has taken hold. Not bad for 4pm, but by god they’ve earned it. What a top band.
Sadly, we don’t make it into the packed Vortex in time to see The Utopia Strong, depriving us of the no doubt inspiring sight of snooker legend Steve Davis hovering beatifically above his brace of analogue synths, but the sounds he and his cohorts make are clearly audible from outside, and comprise some extremely fine Ash Ra / early Tangerine Dream style kosmische business.
At around this point, my decision to gawk at a table covered in effects units waiting to be wheeled into the Vortex leads me into conversation with a member of Psychological Strategy Board, who are on next therein.
Of course, going in to see them is a no brainer, and it’s nice to discover that – as their name implies – these chaps seem keen to pull the somewhat over-stretched “hauntology” aesthetic back to its more primal roots, using contact miced pieces of metallic detritus (including, I’m told, a little bit of soil from the garden to add a particularly vital crunch), mechanical doo-hickeys and tooth brushes to create a squeeking, grinding, whirring field of sound, expanded into fathomless realms of uncanny wind tunnel atmos via their aforementioned miniature city of LED-flashing delay units.
I’m reminded of some of the earlier, more abrasive, GhostBox releases (Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s revered ‘Séance at Hobbs Lane’ in particular), and I also greatly enjoyed Psychological Research Board’s back projection, which utilised the techniques of a classic oil n’ water ‘60s light show, but drained the images of colour, leaving a muted palette of greys, creams and browns which sometimes resembled a set of tea stains on an old paperback taking on a psychotropic life of their own; and it doesn’t get much more ‘hauntological’ than that, I’m sure you’d agree.
Back outdoors and over to the ‘Red Kite’ tent stage, it proves impossible for those enjoying a late lunch / early supper to avoid Acid Cannibals’ cacophonous sound check.
This Glaswegian duo’s steadfast dedication to the gospel of high energy rock n’ roll may in theory be admirable – and their use of Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ as intro music is inspired – but I confess I find their set pretty trying once it gets underway. Taking a kind of objection-flattening “hey hey it’s party time” approach to their craft, these guys’ determination to be 100% ON, ALL THE TIME, leaves their music feeling airless, compressing their material into a kind of meaningless mulch of Big Rock Gesture.
It’s theoretically the kind of stuff I should like of course, but a few songs in I find myself desperately wishing that they’d ease up on the gas a bit, drop that snare-hit-on-every-beat crap and lean back on the groove, just to check whether it’s still there or not, cos I can’t really tell anymore. But then, I’m not much of a Party Dude, so what the hell do I know?
(Incidentally, did you know that Winnebago Deal are still going? A friend told me the other day. I had no idea!)
A somewhat more nuanced take on the good ol’ heavy rock white-out can be found back over at the Shed stage, where Japanese quartet Qujaku (that’s “peacock” to us English speakers) have been perfectly scheduled for what I would like to think is the highly-coveted ‘sunset slot’.
Fitting neatly into a lineage of Japanese heavy psyche bands who have reached for the high branches of the elegant / ethereal (think White Heaven or Overhang Party just for starters), Qujaku could easily have found themselves at the forefront of a “third wave” of PSF-type rock bands had they emerged a few years earlier, joining groups such as Shizuka and Up-Tight in their tendency to marry the gnarled intensity of their predecessors with a slightly more accessible, Western-orientated dream-pop/shoegaze agenda.
Would we be getting into iffy territory if I were to suggest that there is something distinctively, nay classically, Japanese about Qujaku’s music that sets it apart from their contemporaries in other corners the globe? Well if so, too late, I’ve done it now. The long song which opens the band’s Supernormal set, with bassist Hiromi Oishi setting aside her thunder-broom aside to play a mournful, repetitive riff on saxophone, feels uniquely evocative of rain and neon splattered Tokyo nights, whilst the ominous, stentorian rolls and marches favoured by drummer Ryo Habuto seem to draw to some extent on traditional Japanese percussion, summoning visions of a blood-thirsty samurai army marching forth in a Kurosawa flick, even as guitarist Shuya Onuki’s rather strained, feminine vocals stretch out syllables, howling and cracking like the cry of some icy-skinned kaidan ghoul.
Naturally, a swathe of reverb covers all, but despite their studied professionalism, when Qujaku rock out, they really go for it, fuzz n’ feedback spiralling into pure noise in the last gasps of sunlight as the feathers fly and the jams run free. It’s fucking brilliant, marking the band out as a worthy addition to the storied tradition I was picking through a few paragraphs ago, and it feels like a privilege to have caught them on such rare form. None of this I daresay is lost on the Supernormal crowd, as they reception they receive is little short of rapturous.
As the applause continues, I’m hoofing my way back up the hill to catch up with Supernormal’s annual drag karaoke showdown – billed as ‘Madonna vs The Stooges’ - and to see whether my wife got her name down on the list in time for a Madonna number. She didn’t, but I did arrive in time to hear Amy from Grey Hairs belting out ‘1969’, having naturally chosen the right side of this particular argument. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Madonna well enough, but there’s only one way for the pure at heart to go here, y’know?
As you might well imagine, the world according to drag karaoke begs to differ however, and a degree of cultural friction is soon in evidence as the third Madonna song in a row is met with a belligerent shout of “MORE STOOGES” from the contingent of sturdy, band t-shirt men standing impassively at stage right. I stand with you my balding brothers, but this isn’t really our scene, let’s face it. Trip to the bar?
It has now been about fifteen years since I once saw Blood Stereo (or was it one of Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance’s other groups – I forget) supporting Sonic Youth at Brixton Academy, and drew a comic strip review of the gig in which I cruelly wrote off their performance as a boring and desultory waste of time, resembling, as I recall, “the sound of a busy crisp factory”). There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then however; my ears have opened and my tastes widened, and these folks are after all stalwarts of the particular strain of early ‘00s UK underground psyche that I dearly love, so…. it’s high time I gave them another shot, right?
Sad to report therefore that the few minutes I manage to witness of their performance back at the Vortex stage proves just as obtuse and unengaging today as it did back then. Morose, rats-in-the-walls scuffling and squeaking door hinges seem to be the main dishes on offer here, insofar as I can tell from poking my head through the black curtain (I’m reminded of Chris Morris’s “DJ Boiled Mouse” with his “creepy wisp of a noise”). Whatever, man. Sitting by the fire watching gangs of feral kids burn marshmallows proves considerably more rewarding.
A considerably less esoteric prospect, Petbrick comprise the duo of Wayne Adams (Melting Hand, Big Lad, the Hominid Sounds label) on synths, vocals and samples, and Iggor Cavalera (Sepultura) - no less - on drums.
With thick-framed glasses, carefully trimmed goatee and a tasteful short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, Mr Cavalera certainly looks pretty far removed from one’s mental image of “the drummer from Sepultura” this days, but his ‘brick shithouse’ physique nonetheless attests to the kind of muscular prowess necessitated by such a role, and indeed, the intermittent outbursts of cyborg-level hyper-blast he delivers during Petbrick’s set are jaw-dropping.
Taken as a whole, their set is an anxious and rather punishing affair, predicated on “tension and release” principle which sees Cavalera’s onslaughts, together with Adams’ industrial noise white-outs and post-apocalyptic battle-cries (which reminded me more than anything of Alec Empire’s Teutonic theatrics in Atari Teenage Riot way back when), interspersed with murky, brooding passages of hissing abstraction, whirring rotorblades and incomprehensible sample chatter.
The tightly packed crowd react to this… weirdly. There is a wild, unhinged feeling running through the tent, as the unpredictable malevolence of the music leaves would-be moshers uncertain whether they’re coming or going, whilst a number of people meanwhile seem to be peaking on something which I would imagine is probably best avoided, on the basis of the effect it seemed to be having on these poor test subjects.
Through much of the set, a wild-eyed woman dances at the front of the stage, Stacia-style, initially earning looks of alarm from the band, although she seems to be maintaining a greater degree of physical co-ordination than is traditionally maintained be those who are tripping balls. As arms and legs writhe in the front rows, assorted worse-for-wear freaks join her at various points, and the whole thing basically seems a hairs-breadth away from collapsing into chaos. Which suits the music just fine, to be perfectly honest. Slight ‘Mad Max rave’ vibes creeping in around the edges…
After this hair-raising spectacle, a more-or-less headlining set from Belgium pop-punks Cocaine Piss is not exactly what I am looking for, pretty much confirming my knee-jerk suspicion of a band who would willingly name themselves after the two substances which I least wish music to remind me of.
They certainly bring a ton of energy, I’ll give ‘em that, and if they’d popped up six or seven years ago, when I was still working through the queasy hangover from whole 2010 garage- pop wave, I’d probably have loved the little fuckers, blanket barre chord distortion, hectoring air raid siren vox and all. These days though, their music feels like drinking a bottle of tomato ketchup for dinner – a content-free toxic burn of refined sugar and salt that I can well do without.
Thereafter, our evening comes to a traumatic end as we follow an ominous sign-post pointing toward the unlit depths of the woods. Here, we end up selling our souls to Satan, ruining my favourite t-shirt in the process as we are baptised anew in vile, demonic emanations. Which is frankly the last thing you need when you’re camping.
Keenly aware that I’ve not yet managed to sample the wide variety of activities and events offered at Supernormal beyond the realm of rock bands (and Satanism), I make a relatively early start on Sunday in order to catch some of the festival’s spoken word programme.
Perhaps known to some as a member of ertwhile Pickled Egg records stalwarts Oddfellows Casino, David Bramwell has apparently now won himself a rep as a “master storyteller” (quoth the festival programme), with a number of books to his name, and his audio-visual enhanced lecture ‘The Cult of Water’ indeed supports this contention, presenting a approachable, engaging and rather touching take on the kind of thing that back in my day we used to call “psychogeography”.
Leaning more toward the kind of mythic/romantic magical realism pioneered by Alan Moore (who is indeed consulted and quoted during the presentation) than the gnomic abstraction of Iain Sinclair, Bramwell smooths things out here to the extent that one can almost picture him fronting one of those presenter-focused, “my journey to the heart of…” type documentaries on BBC 4. And indeed, consulting his website reveals he has indeed produced programmes for Radios 3 and 4.
Too mainstream for Supernormal? Well, the content he dredges up for ‘The Cult of Water’ is uniquely interesting, honestly presented and generally legit, losing nothing for the comparative accessibility of its presentation, so no such accusations from me.
Essentially, Bramwell tells the story here of his life-long interest in England’s lost rivers, ranging back to the experiences of his own childhood and re-framing the story of the Industrial Revolution as an extended conflict between the matriarchal power of the pagan river goddess Danu and the masculine forges of Vulcan. Intriguing historical/cultural side-bars and head-spinning gobbets mystic imagery are pulled willy-nilly from the landscape of the North of England along the way, but Bramwell somehow never lets the linear flow of his fanciful yet tangible central narrative slip, making for a rich, rewarding and thought-provoking trip – highly recommended, should he be popping up to perform it near you at any point in the future.
Next up is The Quietus editor John Doran, who has certainly come a long way since the days when he was merely a struggling music journo hosting DJ nights at the Mucky Pup in Islington. According to the Supernormal festival programme, he has attained the status of a “modern seer”, no less. Good on you John.
Its existence justified by the sublime pun in its title alone, Doran’s presentation ‘Selected Ambient Walks’ takes the form of a good-natured ramble through the strange, subterranean mythology of Cornwall, and the myriad ways in which it has informed the work of Aphex Twin over the years.
Whilst the tangible links to Aphex output sometimes become strained, Doran nonetheless makes an excellent case for the age-old traditions and provincial isolation of Richard D. James’ native county have helped define the knotty menace and impish surrealism of musician’s unique aesthetic and public persona. In the process, he delivers a vivid picture of the dark and psychotropic undercurrents of Cornish culture, ensuring that we will never look at St Michael’s Mount, pasties or the ruins of some old tin mine in quite the same way ever again.
Feeling rather like the contents of an old “Haunted Cornwall” paperback ripped apart and soiled with noxious party drugs, sea-side deprivation and ear-rupturing bass, ‘Selected Ambient Walks’ is loads of fun, and again, comes highly recommended should Mr Doran ever pitch up in yr area for a spoken word slot.
Later on Sunday afternoon, I continue to eschew loud music, instead turning up to attend a guided tour of the Brazier’s Park house – essentially a 17th century farmhouse transformed into a nigh-on fantastical monstrosity of Strawberry Hill gothic by a Vice Lord of the Admirality in the 1790s - conducted by a member of the “intentional community” which has abided in the property since it was purchased by social reformers and progressive psychologists Norman & Dorothy Glaister in 1950.
For the sake of brevity, I will direct you both to the house’s Wikipedia page and the community’s website to learn more about this strange and remarkable place, but needless to say, tramping around the building’s cramped and dusty corridors – their vibe pitched somewhere between a stately home, a private psychiatric institution and a destitute rural art school – with a large group of booted, unkempt festival-goers proved an extremely strange experience.
Unfortunately, circumstances (such as work on Monday) dictated that my ride back to The Smoke departed Supernormal only a short while after the house tour concluded. I dearly wish I could have stuck it out to have stuck it out till the end, but hey, such is the fate of us last minute hangers-on.
As we hefted our bags and trudged back to the parking area, Glaswegian duo Verba Mansa were warming up over in the red tent, their wah-wah drenched improvised psych rock reverberated across the rolling hills and fields bordering the festival site. Damn, it sounded good. [UPDATE 12/9/19: It appears this band is actually Yerba Mansa, and their music can be found here. Thanks Jona! - see comments.]
Attending Supernormal last month was an extremely uplifting experience; a rare glimpse of a possible future that temporarily defies the black plummet into dystopian oblivion that our society otherwise seems dead set upon. For all the greatness I’ve duly reported above however, I can’t help but weep for all that I missed. A reportedly great set from experimental guitarist Jon Collins in the beatific back yard ‘Barn’ area; a performance of Eric Satie piano pieces in the Brazier’s Park house; an incendiary late night DJ set from London’s Proteus, and, on Sunday night, electronic Ugandan wedding music from Otim Alpha followed by a closing set from one-off Iron Maiden tribute band Electric Matthew. Just imagine.
Next year, I’ll be endeavouring to make it on-site ASAP and stay put to the bitter end, but so will many others, so… let’s see how it goes, eh? (I hope someone drops me a reminder soon as tickets are on sale.)
Labels: Acid Cannibals, Blood Stereo, Bloody Head, Cocaine Piss, David Bramwell, festivals, Horse Bastard, John Doran, live reviews, Petbrick, Psychological Strategy Board, Qujaku, Supernormal, Verba Mansa
Friday, August 30, 2019
Please note: most of the following festival report was written immediately after the event, at the start of August, but completion & posting was delayed due to mourning. I hope a touch or two of the post-fest glow can still be gleaned at four weeks remove.
Few a few years no, I’ve had a yen to attend the Supernormal festival, but sadly other life responsibilities prevented me from doing so – until last year that is, when the summer calendar was looking free n’ easy, but the fest itself didn’t happen. So, I was thrilled to have finally made it to idyllic environs of Brazier’s Park in Oxfordshire earlier this month, thanks entirely to the generosity of performing rock band Stanfield, who wrangled me a guest pass. Thanks Stanfield!
Eyebrows may have been raised in some quarters when Supernormal’s 2019 tickets entirely sold out months in advance of the line-up / programme being announced, but despite grumbles of cliquery and elitism in some quarters, the reasons for this early sell out became immediately obvious upon our arrival at the festival site late on Friday afternoon. The plain truth is: 1,500 or so ticket-holders plus performers, volunteers and shameless hangers on such as myself have Brazier’s Park packed to capacity.
By the time we arrived, the allotted camping area was already pretty much fully occupied, creating a treacherous labyrinth of overlapping guide-ropes ready to fell late night stumblers, and leaving us splitting the difference between tramping down a nettle-patch in the field’s far corner or scoping out the space surrounding an ominous, buzzing hole on the ground to which some helpful soul had affixed a homemade sign reading “WASPS”.
I should stress that, as with just about every aspect of Supernormal, things turned out great in the end and we all enjoyed a swell camping experience, devoid of chaos, discomfort or noisy neighbours - but nonetheless, it is clear that putting even a few more tickets on sale could have significantly upset the festival’s fragile eco-system, perhaps prompting actual pushing and shoving at the entrances to popular performance spaces, and tipping the site’s peak-capacity composting toilets and locally sourced but somewhat over-stretched fresh water supply over the edge, creating a potential hygiene disaster.
Many festivals of course find themselves wrestling with the tricky issue of upscaling as they build up steam over the years, but in this case, I wholeheartedly commend Supernormal’ s organisers for their decision to stay put, even in the face of greatly increased demand.
As I came to learn first-hand on Sunday afternoon, the Brazier’s Park site itself belongs to an “intentional community” (“commune” to the likes of us) which has maintained itself within the adjacent house and gardens since the late 1940s, promoting what for the sake of brevity I will simply term a set of proto-hippy ideals, which find an echo even today in the inclusive, communal spirit, “live and let live” ethos and admirably high environmental standards which characterise the atmosphere of Supernormal.
In terms of race, age, gender & sexual identity, subculture and social class, the festival was almost certainly the most diverse experimental music event I have ever attended. At any given point, neo-primitive, post-gender freak-flags could be found flying somewhere on the site, whilst elsewhere young (and not so young) parents enjoyed comfortable pockets of domestic, camping stove calm with their offspring. Divisions and generalisations based on any of the aforementioned categories temporarily felt far, far away. I realise this is Festival Cliché # 1, but for a few days here, it was nice to exist in an environment in which everyone seemed to be on the same page in the big book of possible futures.
Moving Supernormal elsewhere would not necessarily change this, but it would inevitably entail higher prices, more formalised security arrangements, more rules, more waste, more stress, fewer pungent aromas drifting cross the breeze, and fewer opportunities for young children to play perilously close to open fires (hey, it builds character, right?).
So… yeah. Just get in early for your tickets next year folks, and rest assured, whatever ends up on the bill, it will be good. Which brings us neatly on to…. I dunno, some music reviews?
To my great regret, I’m still trying to hammer tent pegs into unyielding ground during David Terry’s allotted set time on Friday afternoon. As a great admirer of the Bong bassist’s solo and collaborative work, I was very much looking forward to getting to see him perform. But hey, it’s fair enough – I’m not here on my own dime, so the timetable for turning up was out of my hands. Just happy to be here, etc.
Thus, the weekend’s music actually begins with Crumbling Ghost, who are holding forth upon Supernormal’s comically small (about 10’ x 6’ maybe?) yet impressively loud & well-mixed “shed” stage, as we sup our post-tent assembly pints.
I have, somehow, remained unaware of this group’s work up to this point, but their mixture of earnest Trad Arr English folk, malevolent doom metal thunder and unapologetic, Bevis Frond-style psyche guitar workouts is nectar to my parched palette. Though the combination of the genres and aesthetics they’re wrangling here could easily emerge as precious, cloying or contrived, the band walk the line with grace, rocking out with a gutsy energy that allows their music to soar and shriek with the Red Kites swooping above the surrounding fields, rather than becoming mere aural comfort food for aging white men such as myself.
A Fairport for the Baba Yaga’s Hut generation, perhaps? Well, maybe not quite, but I really liked it anyway. I’ve got their 5 Songs 12” from 2016 on the turntable right now, and, if the wisdom of recording ‘roided up rock versions of arrangements originating with Shirley Collins, Mike Waterson and Bert Jansch sometimes feels questionable, I certainly can’t deny that vocalist Katie Harnett’s voice does the business, or pretend that listening to ‘Omie Wise’ or ‘Swansea Town’ with additional searing solos and distorted crunch is anything other than an extremely enjoyable prospect.
A heavy paradigm shift next, as we drift into the pyramidal wooden “Vortex” building to catch London-via-Bristol (natch) MC Manonmars, representing the latter city’s Young Echo collective, whose sub-aquatic, perma-stoned and admirably multi-faceted take on UK hip-hop and associated generic terrain is certainly worth a listen.
The two DJ/producer guys lay down an immersive, massively spliffed out backdrop to proceedings here - loping, gravity-defying slo-mo beats, bass hits sinking beneath moss-filled swimming pools of reverb as woozy flute and wurlitzer samples turn to static beneath inches of dust. It rather puts me in mind of that ol’ cLOUDDEAD CD from way back when, but, thankfully, Manonmars delivers a far more convincing flow that that group’s nasal timewasters; indeed, he’s hitting up pretty much the polar opposite of the nerdy/back-packing clichés usually associated with more experimental strains of hip-hop, instead sinking waa-ay down into some ancient, stygian depths, fronting with the kind of repressed aggression and raw, evil-eyed lingo of yr favourite mid ‘90s killers (a youth spent deeply immersed in the Wu is evident here, I’d venture), but blending it somehow into the more anxious, self-doubting currents of the genre’s 21st century underground. Signature line: “I’m from London, shit’s CONGESTED”.
It’s potent brew; sonically, it feels like walking into the wrong dorm room and getting hit with a contact high that’ll knock you on your back, but there’s a weird, fearsome depth here too that demands further investigation.
Heavy duty head-nodding continues, along with the same ineffable balance of aggro and melancholy, as ‘underground’ hip hop mainstays Dälek headline Friday night. A long-running concern whose work I have, up to now, remained largely unacquainted with (perhaps the Ipecac connection put me off?), Dälek is an intense business and no mistake. The blown out, industrial noise-infused maximalism of the group’s backing tracks somehow manages to convey a sense of pure, crushing sadness, even as they simultaneously resemble clouds of orbital detritus raining down on some desolate, nocturnal cityscape. Looming trees glow green and purple against the night sky as MC Dälek spits out twenty years-worth of tributes to fallen warriors, cries for post-human unity and excursions through the blasted hinterlands of urban America. This is heady, heavy stuff, reaching far beyond the aforementioned clichés of the reductive “alt hip hop” tag, and after a solid hour of it, I can scarcely do much more than trudge around a bit and mumble good nights before hitting the sack. To my surprise, I sleep well.
Part # 2 of this review coming within days.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
As I get older and my history of – cough – “musical appreciation” correspondingly stretches back further, I’ve found myself developing a Ten Year Rule for the purposes of wheat / chaff separation.
Many people, I’ve noticed, tend - broadly speaking - to continue to enjoy the same music throughout their lives (hopefully adding a few things to the pile along the way, god willing). In their youth, they will discover a bunch of artists or bands or sub-genres or whatever that strike a chord with them, and they will continue to follow them across the years, and find them rewarding in perpetuity.
I have no problem with this. In fact, I envy these people. I wish I could do the same, rather than tempestuously embracing and dismissing different styles and performers every five minutes based on inexplicable whims and emotional impulses. It’s hard work sometimes, let me tell you. Sometimes I’ll be stuck for an answer when people ask me whether I want to buy a ticket for some band that I’d rather drink battery acid than listen to again, whilst other friends are apt to scan my recently played records and retreat blankly with an “uh…. yeah…”.
I’m certainly glad I don’t feel the need to manage my personal relationships the same way I do my mp3 player anyway. I’d be a right unmanageable, duplicitous, affirmation-chasing bastard.
Thus, the Ten Year Rule. This informal arrangement involves me thinking back on records that I liked a great deal ten years ago, and deciding how I feel about them. If the feeling is good, perhaps I will even listen to them. Perhaps, in the best case scenario, I will not have even stopped listening to them (but this is rare).
If I still find these records enjoyable and edifying - if I can approach them from a new angle and pull new meaning and nuance from their recordings from my vantage point of, uh, slightly greater maturity – they have passed the test. Having survived a decade amid the rapids of my treacherous tastes, they must surely contain some indelible, undeniable good stuff, and I can be confident that they will stay with me for life.
The Ten Year Rule, it should be noted, largely applies to song-based rock/pop/folk kind of stuff. Psych, drone and jazz records do not need this kind of fire & brimstone treatment; appreciation of them will either grow and deepen across the years, or it won’t. It’s cool, either way. Likewise, more formalised genres such as metal, country, soul and funk simply abide. They either are, or they are not. They do not change, and for this I love them most of all.
For reference then: Richard & Linda Thompson passed the test. ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ passed the test. Everything Neil Young recorded in the ‘70s passes the test. ‘Nebraska’ passed the test. You get the picture. These are the records I will build my fort around, and defend against all comers, should they make it across the flaming moat of free psych improv and cosmic doom.
As it happens, I was very, very big on Silver Jews in about 2008/09, which puts them back in the ring to fight it out with my ears, Ten Year Rule style.
Conveniently of course, David Berman aided this process by disappearing from view for exactly ten years, re-emerging right on schedule for what we now know was a horrifically short final act to his public career as a cult singer-songwriter type.
Most of what follows, it should be noted, was written before Berman’s death, but it still reflects my feeling on his work pretty accurately. At the time of writing, the messy, depressing and generally awful circumstances of his passing have neither endeared me to the parts of his catalogue I have issues with, nor soiled the swathes of it which I love.
2008/09, I should note, was a bit of a funny time for me, full of minor league stupidity and pointlessness. As such, the Silver Jews records carry associations with times that I do not remember fondly. Combine this with Berman’s tendency toward toe-curling public confessionals and self-mythologising drama of one kind or another – a tendency I am now apt to regard with distaste and uneasiness, particularly in view of its ugly conclusion – and, well, let’s just say that, on the surface of things, the band’s chances of making it through the gauntlet of the Ten Year Rule do not look good.
Such though is the beauty of the Ten Year Rule. Any roving, forgotten set of mp3s can be a contender. All they’ve got to do is get by attention with a good left hook, back it up with something solid in the gut, and they’re in with the immortals.
In 2012/13-ish, I found myself sitting in an airport departure lounge, listening to the sketchy, slightly naïve first Silver Jews LP, 1994’s ‘Starlite Walker’, and was deeply moved by the opening song, Trains Across the Sea. Next time you’re travelling, I’d recommend it. It’s a good one to listen to in an airport (and not merely because it had literally been “evening all day long” at the time of listening either).
Keeping the album around, I subsequently got pretty fixated on the strange, fourth wall-breaking, somewhat horror movie-ish song New Orleans, and could easily have composed a whole rambling blogpost unpicking its allusions and twists and turns (not at mention the creative disjuncture it reveals between Berman and his more collegiate Pavement buddies), had time allowed.
Actually, the airport is often a good place to listen to Silver Jews, I feel. So many of those Berman lines take on a strange, new resonance when you’re lolling about in transit in an atmosphere of enforced neutrality, subliminally prepped for sudden emergencies or emotional wobbles. Try it out!
As luck would have it, I was actually supping beer alone in – where else? – an airport bar earlier this year, when I received an email on my magic 21st century telephone from the Drag City mailing list, announcing David Berman’s return with the Purple Mountains record. Streaming the proffered lead track through headphones, I made the mistake of treating the exceptionally downbeat lyrics with far more irony than we now realise their author had intended, and found myself somewhat won over by the rich, whisky-soaked character of our hero’s voice, and cheery, country-rock caste of the accompanying tune (tad over-produced tho, but never mind).
Overjoyed, I was inspired to wander around the departure lounge for a good half hour, ducking those luggage carts with the flashing lights and listening once again to my favourite Silver Jews album (see below). It worked a treat. I found so much it it that I had never previously considered. The band’s chances in the big ten-year bout were suddenly looking considerably brighter.
The album in question of course was Berman’s second under the Silver Jews name, 1996’s ‘The Natural Bridge’, and you know what? Upon reflection, it doesn’t merely “stand up well” or some crap like that; approaching it cold, emotional baggage checked at the door, it is an absolute, 24 carat masterpiece – a statement in sound as complete and timeless as any of the untouchable, classic rock singer-songwriter holy-of-holys you’d care to name. Seriously - front to back, whether considered as a collection of songs or a unified entity, it is just great.
The leap forward from ‘Starlite Walker’ here is vast. That earlier record retained the feel of Berman simply mucking around with his college buddies, giggling over football trivia and long forgotten indie-boy in-jokes as they jammed away a few afternoons; its intermittent moments of poetry emerging despite rather than through the circumstances of its recording.
On ‘Natural Bridge’ though, Berman’s lyrical / poetic ambitions are front and centre as he gives the orders to a coterie of essentially anonymous backing musicians. For the first time, he doesn’t have to hold back for fear of embarrassing himself in front of his college pals, and the results, simply put, are astounding.
The opening trio of How to Rent a Room, Pet Politics and Black & Brown Shoes largely set the blue-print for the kind of sardonic, aphorism-filled rambles through the realm of literary-poetic evasion tactics that would come to define Silver Jews for most listeners, but whilst I would contest that they deliver on the promise of this formula more perfectly than anything Berman recorded subsequently, they also dip their toes into a dark twilit netherworld beyond the easy pleasures of mere eyebrow-arching lyrical zingers.
One could easily listen to the former song a dozen times before noticing that the outwardly sardonic lyrics – rather queasily, in post-August 2019 hindsight - largely centre around the narrator’s fantasy of his ex-partner learning about his death and realising she was responsible for it, even as Berman carefully sidesteps the kind of autobiographical solipsism that would increasingly characterise his later output.
The disconcerting, room sound-drenched crepuscular drift of ‘Pet Politics’ meanwhile swings even darker, breaking through the curtains of its predecessor’s vague, break up-related ruminations, forcibly shaking listeners out of their indie-rock complacency, introducing them to something else entirely;
“Adam was not the first man
Though the bible tells us so
There was one who came before him
Whose name we do not know
He also lived in the garden
But he had no mouth or eyes
One day Adam came to kill him
And he died beneath these skies”
Beat that, Leonard Cohen. Whether this heretical twist on the creation myth was somehow drawn from Berman’s apparent interest in Talmudic tales and parables, or whether he just pulled it straight from his fevered brain whilst in search of some good rhymes, who knows, but it certainly does a good job of setting the tone for what follows.
As the album progresses, the range of Berman’s lyrical trapeze act becomes broader and more audacious - and frequently more disturbing too. As the gentle humour of the earlier cuts blackens and burns to a crisp, the effect he and his band achieve on central tracks like Dallas and Albermarle Station leaves me entirely in awe. There is a bleak, slouching immensity to these songs’ psychotropic vision of mid-American daylight that is impossible to trap within this kind of easy, critical lingo.
There are several things which I think readers unfamiliar with ‘Natural Bridge’ should be made aware of.
Firstly, as mentioned above, very few of the lyrics on this album can be said with certainty to be directly autobiographical. I’m sure that Berman had all of the usual dilemmas and torments that defined his life hanging over him when he composed this material, but, like so many great artists, he seemed to realise here that, by burying the signifiers of his troubles within fleeting, third person dioramas, fictionalised projections of self and fragmented fields of abstract detail, he could hit at a level far deeper and longer-lasting than the banality of a mere confessional would allow. (Of course, I wish he could have kept this realisation more clearly in mind in later years, but… I don’t want to get ahead of myself.)
Secondly, I feel that, whereas detractors could easily write Berman’s songs off as collections of essentially fatuous two-liner puns and gags nailed together at random intervals atop generic, lolloping country-rock tunes, on ‘The Natural Bridge’ his trademark non-sequiturs feel as if they have been very carefully assembled, hewn into shape across years of trial and error, whilst his mid-verse shifts in perspective are used to create visceral effects – sinister ones, by and large – which reach beyond the scope of the individual lines.
“John Parker the Third, steps over a bird, on a Wall Street window ledge
Little Wilkie, dead cat rotting, deep inside the hedge”
- ‘The Ballad of Reverend War Character’
“We saw B.B. King on General Hospital
In the Oak Cliff dram-house where we stayed
When Clancy beat her with his belt buckle
We cleaned her cuts and then we prayed”
The deeper you get into the album, the more religion – of a more millennial Christian than Jewish bent, oddly enough – seems to intrude into these songs, with the looming spectre of some kind of divine judgement ever close at hand (“don’t you know, God stays up all night?”). During the records’s unsettling final stretch, these images build into a kind of apocalyptic fervour – an all-consuming obsession with The End, cut through with watery-eyed childhood / familial nostalgia, and expressed in terms both religious and secular.
“Bad roads, bad snow, bad bridges
Could turn a once bad man religious
If my kingdom ever comes, you’d better run, run run run”
- ‘Albermarle Station’
“When the governor’s heart fails
The state bird falls from its branch
Icicles on Hell’s higher hills”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Knowing Berman, this End is more liable to be a personal than collective one – self-annihilation, the end of a relationship, or of a way of life – but as the ominous feeling becomes ever stronger through the Beckett-like dead ends of the warped bar room jokes dryly relayed in The Frontier Index (“bartender says, hey, we don’t serve robots / robot says, oh but, someday you will”), the idea of a more tangible oblivion waiting to engulf the cast of fragmentary characters Berman has introduced us to across these songs becomes ever harder to avoid.
“One of these days, these days will end
The kitchen window, the light will bend”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Throughout ‘The Natural Bridge’, it feels as if the kind of unabashed sentimentality that plays a(n arguably detrimental) role in other Silver Jews records has been ruthlessly hammered down and repressed. As a result, when it finally breaks through on the closing Pretty Eyes, the effect is devastating. You can almost see the orange glow of a ‘Miracle Mile’ nuclear conflagration appearing on the horizon over the sedate family ranch house that the lyrics of the album’s final songs keep obsessively returning to, as Berman signs off, “final words are so hard to devise / I promise I’ll always remember, your pretty eyes”.
As the CD player whirs to a stop (I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen a copy of this on vinyl – we're deep in 1996 here folks), you may be apt to think back to the lines which, delivered in a far more flippant, good-humoured tone of voice, opened the album some forty odd minutes earlier: “you know I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes”.
Yeah, that’s right – the fucker only went and made this album circular. Some kind of Mobius strip of phantasmagorical Pan-American despair – every i dotted, every t crossed. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Of course, it is only now, returning to the album again, that I begin to notice just how fixated on more common-or-garden death Berman was here too. From the suicide fantasies of ‘Pet Politics’ to the multiple fatalities of The Ballad of Reverend War Character, to classic zingers like “there must be a pool out behind the church / cos he looks so cool in the back of the hearse” (‘Albermarle Station’), I don’t think there is a single song here that doesn’t touch upon mortality to some degree. Even the otherwise obscure album title seems suggestive of a transition between life and death. Viewed from a certain angle, the whole thing starts to play like history’s most elaborate musical suicide note. We should be glad, I daresay, that it didn't turn out that way.
Before we move on, I also want to throw in a word for the production and musical backing on ‘Natural Bridge’, which is sparse, but exquisite. On the first go-round a decade ago, I largely dismissed the music here as a kind of utilitarian, deliberately unobtrusive backing to the hi-jinx of Berman’s monotone wordplay, but upon returning to it, I can more readily appreciate the understated beauty of the band’s nuanced, alt-countrified playing, drifting and flowing like the tides and rains frequently evoked in the songs. (I’ve seen the term “countrypolitan” thrown around in press releases once or twice… I like it!).
Just those two chiming, clean-toned guitars playing off each other, big room reverb, and some deceptively simple, rolling rhythm-playing keeping everyone on their toes, Berman’s own soft, unsteady acoustic (perhaps drafted in from some solo demos?) drifting in and out of the tracks here and there – that’s all that’s needed. Throw in an occasional gesture of jarring experimentalism (ominous static creeping into ‘Pet Politics’, a “malfunctioning robot” noise solo on ‘The Frontier Index’), and this is a great production which serves the song-writing perfectly. The album’s instrumental cut, The Right to Remain Silent, which I often used to skip through in the past, now feels a highlight.
Much to my chagrin, it is ‘American Water’, the 1998 follow-up to ‘Natural Bridge’, which seems to have become enshrined as Thee Classic Silver Jews Album. Personally however, I’ve never really warmed to it, perhaps simply because I’m so fixated on its predecessor. For me, it has that kind of ‘overreaching-follow-up-to-a-classic’ feel about it. You know, one of those records that seems on first glance to give people MORE of all the stuff that made the previous album such a hit, but somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. (T Rex’s ‘The Slider’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ both spring to mind as text-book examples of this phenomenon.)
As with those records, there are some excellent songs on here, of course - Buckingham Rabbit and Smith & Jones Forever in particular are favourites of mine, both absolute highlights of the band’s catalogue, and closing track The Wild Kindness remains sublime.
Elsewhere though, Berman’s writing feels less cohesive this time around, veering closer to the louche assemblages of smart alec couplets that my hypothetical detractors were mentioning earlier, and, although guest star Stephen Malkmus adds some beautifully lyrical guitar solos to the album’s best songs, his over-bearing presence on these recordings frequently proves detrimental, dragging us toward the same indecisive doldrums that were blighting Pavement’s output at around this time, making sprawling, jam-happy tracks like ‘Federal Dust’ and ‘Blue Arrangements’ feel like a chore to sit through. (“‘American Water’ isn’t a Pavement album, but it could play one on TV,” I think I recall reading in a review somewhere.)
Significantly, ‘American Water’ also has the distinction of containing the first Silver Jews song which I absolutely cannot stand to sit through (‘Honk If You’re Lonely’), marking the emergence of the particular strain of cartoon-ish, sing-song self-pity which would sadly go on to make Berman’s 21st century work more difficult to fully get behind.
Which brings us neatly onto 2001’s ‘Bright Flight’, an album which I remember caning relentlessly for a couple of months in 2008, but which now resides comfortably within the “battery acid instead please” category of my music library.
Apparently recorded deep within an abyss of severe substance abuse issues and a set of dizzying highs and lows in Berman’s personal life which culminated in a bizarrely dramatic suicide attempt in 2002, a quick skim through the album confirms my worst fears. It is indeed a tough listen in 2019… and not in a good way, either. Full of wide-eyed, faux-naïve pleas to the writer’s lady love, the album’s moments of jaunty humour feel desperate, whilst its corresponding stretches of k-hole desperation sound like a joke, setting a pattern that subsequent albums would struggle to overcome.
More than anything, ‘Bright Flight’ plays like an unsympathetic pastiche of a Silver Jews album, full of needlessly obscure lyrical convulsions, insincere emotional hand-wringing and morbid metaphysical pronouncements. Even the sound, Disneyfied and EQed to within an inch of its life, is fucking ugly compared to the unadorned room sound of the earlier records, as indeed is the cruddy polaroid sofa pictured on the cover (like, yeah, lo-fi, man). Just say no, kids.
After this, the two Silver Jews “comeback” albums, ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ (2005) and ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ (2008) feel like dictionary definitions of “mixed bag”, interspersing songs which delight me beyond all measure with others which irk me so much I can’t even stand to share a room with them.
Chiefly I think, these two “happy” (in heavy inverted commas) Jews albums are noteworthy for introducing the world to Berman’s previously unsuspected talent as a writer of comedy songs, revelling in a sense of absurdist whimsy that, allowing for a transatlantic cultural translation, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Vivian Stanshall record.
Of the two albums, ‘Tanglewood..’ holds up the best, with only a handful of songs I feel compelled to skip through, including, ironically, ‘Punks in the Beerlight’, the first Silver Jews song which ever grabbed my attention. A chest-beating, cod-Springsteen pre-fab “anthem” for the Pitchfork crowd, it’s romantic celebration of drug abuse now strikes me as woefully ill-conceived.
Aside from that and a couple of other unedifying clunkers on the first side however, the rest of this album remains pretty great. To my surprise, the frantic Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed is still an absolute joy, every couplet a LOL-worthy wonder (“happiness won’t leave me alone says a bird in a nest / get a load of this fucking view, it’s the best in the west”), enhanced no end by the perfect timing of Berman’s slurred, shambolic delivery.
The understated calm of I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You meanwhile sets the blueprint for what a “happy” Silver Jews song could and should have sounded like in a world that no longer needed those inverted commas, and has the distinction of featuring perhaps my single all-time favourite Berman stanza;
“I’ve been working at the airport bar
It’s like Christmas on a submarine
Wings and brandy on a winter’s night
You wouldn’t really call it a scene”
Sadly, we must now conclude that that world without the commas never really became a reality, but here more than anywhere, you can hear bits of hard-won, universal wisdom and warmth creeping through the humour and eccentricity of Berman’s post-rehab writing, nowhere more so than in the splendid opening to How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down;
“Fast cars, fine ass
These things will pass
They won’t get more profound
Time is a game only children play well
How can I love you if you won’t lie down?”
At this point friends, I challenge you to deny that this man was touched by a certain amount of genius.
I don’t intend this piece to be a teary-eyed tribute when I started writing it, but spending some time reacquainting myself with ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ makes me feel like turning it into one.
In the context of what now seems certain to be filed away by posterity as a life blighted by depression, addiction and wasted potential, it’s difficult not to shed a tear upon hearing Berman sounding calm and reflective as that aforementioned bird in its nest on Sleeping is the Only Love;
“Lately I’ve come to find
Life is sweeter than Jewish wine
Give a box of candy or a foot massage
Some people don’t take the time”
All that, and we haven’t even got to the looming horrors of The Farmers Hotel. Another one I could dedicate pages to. Let’s leave it to speak for itself, shall we.
By the time we get to ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ a few years later (the only Berman LP to eschew the tradition of gnomic two word titles, curiously enough), the tentative happiness of the preceding album seems to have hardened into an eerie rictus grin, held in place largely by the twinkly preciousness of the heavy-handed, post-Flaming Lips type Pro-tooled production.
Like a porcelain-toothed convert emerging from a Scientology meeting, the album’s pointed positivity has a weird vibe to it – a feeling only enhanced by Berman’s insistence on foregrounding the presence of his wife (and bassist/co-vocalist) Cassie in the album’s accompanying videos, press and stage appearances, presenting his “true love” to the world as if she were some kind of glittering trophy.
I mean, of course we all sincerely wished them well, but… if ever a guy seemed to be publically setting himself up for a fall, y’know?
I loved this album when it came out (Stereo Sanctity album of the year 2008!), and whilst I won’t dwell further on what I now perceive to be its failings, suffice to say, it all just sounds…. a bit too desperate to be liked, to Keep It Simple Stupid and to entertain. An admirable goal, no doubt, but for a writer as quixotic and introverted as Berman, it can’t help but sound a bit forced, a bit self-deluding.
It is ironic therefore that the only bits of the album I feel the need to revisit ten years on are its out-and-out comedy songs.
The epic San Francisco B.C., as you will probably be aware if you’ve read this far, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A masterpiece story-song for the ages, set to an impeccable ‘Foggy Notion’ groove. At a push, I think I could probably recite the whole thing word-for-word straight off the top of my head by this point, and the fact that Berman apparently never applied himself to giving the world more of whatever this is, instead leaving it an inexplicable one-off within his catalogue, makes me feel desperately sad. (Well, there’s always ‘The Farmers Hotel’ of course…)
To my surprise, I also continue to greatly enjoy two other relatively light-hearted trifles on the album’s b-side. Firstly, there’s the laidback Candy Jail, in which it is difficult to fathom whether Berman’s vision of confinement in an institution “where the guards are gracious, and the grounds are grand, where the warden really listens and he understands” is meant to reflect his experience of married life, his position as a sort-of-famous musician recording for a nice-guy indie record label, or just a wider comment on, like, life in Capitalist America, man. Whatever your preferred interpretation though, it’s one of those cases where the metaphor itself is outlined so appealingly that it doesn’t really matter what it “means”.
If my earlier comparison to Vivian Stanshall meanwhile sounded like a stretch, I refer you directly to the opening lines of Party Barge, an obnoxious three minutes of self-amused, throw-away goofery which, miraculously, continues to win my favour a full decade down the line;
“Father drove a steamroller,
Mother was a crossing guard
She got rolled when he got steamed,
And I got left in charge”
Take a bow, Dave – you’ve earned it.
For the life of me, I can’t explain why I still like this song. By any conventional yard-stick it’s quirky, novelty guff of the lowest order, but hearing the gusto with which Berman announces, “Ports of call! Day-Glo bait! Come see a legend while it’s still being made!”, backed my what basically sounds like a load of bell-ringing, horn-honking gimmicky chaos thrown together minutes before the studio kicked out for the evening, never fails to brighten my day.
So, that’s how the Silver Jews catalogue stacks up for me a decade down the line. As I daresay I’ve made clear, this has been a complicated test case for the Ten Year Rule, but the very fact I’m bothering to write this I think serves as its own verdict.
Against all the odds, this handful of troublesome, ill-starred LPs continue to mean a great deal to me, long after the appeal of most of their indie-rock kith and kin has fallen away – and, I would contest, they should probably mean something to you too, if you’re at all interested in the delicate art of writing songs with words.
For better or for worse, D.C. Berman was on a plain of his own; a true one-off. His achievements in the field of song shine through above and beyond all of the wasted potential and self-sabotage.
Originally, pre-August 8th, I was going to conclude here by taking the ‘Purple Mountains’ record to task, but I can’t do that now. I can’t even go near it.
How, as either writers or listeners, are we supposed to approach the shiny new opening salvo of a bold creative comeback that didn’t even last long enough for the band to begin their first tour; whose leading light barely even lived long enough to skim the reviews? It’s an impossible weight for a recording to bear.
I mentioned something earlier about ‘The Natural Bridge’ sounding like an album-as-suicide-note. Well, whether planned or otherwise, ‘Purple Mountains’ has become just that, and it’s not pretty.
Streaming the pre-release videos for the songs a few months back, the sentiments expressed in the lyrics seemed so exaggerated that – in combination with the jaunty, up-tempo musical backing and the videos which seemed to intersperse shots of Berman moping about in his suburban home with footage of him sharing a stage with his wife – I’d assumed the whole thing must be some kind of a gag. I imagined him happily back at home, deliberate attempting to write the most morose, depressing songs imaginable and to playing them in cheery, “triumphant” fashion, as some kind of quirky creative / cathartic exercise.
It was only later, reading this no-doubt-soon-to-be-infamous interview with the Washington Post, that the penny dropped. Was he REALLY living alone in a room above the Drag City offices, marriage permanently on the rocks, looking as if he’d barely got out of bed in the past month...? Oh, come on man, please say it ain’t so!
In the light of this, the full album, when released, was difficult to stomach – and after last week of course, it’s taken on a whole other terrible, toxic feel which makes it impossible to even approach.
How were we as listeners (and never mind all those release day critics saying “yeah, nice comeback album, 8/10”) supposed to have known, when this guy sidled up to us after ten years off the radar and started crooning, “lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go / some of them were once people I was happy to know” and “conditions I wish weren’t taking control / darkness and cold, darkness and cold”, that he was entirely sincere?
Shit, how could we have NOT known? Did I really just hear this man with a well-known history of depression and suicide attempts sing, “feels like something really wrong has happened / I confess I’m barely holding on”? (Sorry if that's a misquote, I’m not going back to double-check.)
A cry for help, a final ‘fuck you’, a sincere attempt at soul-bearing or a doomed attempt to ‘deal’? What were these songs when he recorded them, and what are they now? How are we to possibly understand this thing in years to come?
Maybe in another ten years, I’ll be able to go near it and figure something out.
For now, all I’m able to do is go back nearly fifteen years, to closing song (more of hand-on-heart spoken confession / statement of intent kind of a thing, really) from ‘Tanglewood Numbers’, in which a post-rehab, on-the-upswing Berman told us, “there is a place beyond the blues I never want to see again” - and then experience a very hollow feeling inside.
Thursday, August 08, 2019
God. I only just heard.
In spare half hours recently, I’ve been pulling together a long, rambling blog post laying out my mixed feelings about David Berman and Silver Jews, to sort of contextualise a brief discussion of his recent ‘Purple Mountains’ record. So, I’ve been listening to and thinking about his stuff a great deal, for better or for worse.
All that’s out of the window now of course, but there were some heart-felt words in there I hope, so I’ll try to rake it over with this awful new knowledge, see where it goes and get back to you.
As with so much of his later output, it’s difficult to tell whether the Purple Mountains record represents a troubled man desperately trying to sound cheerful, or a happy man trying to sound troubled, and this uncertainly lent it an unpalatable whiff of insincerity on pre-8th August spins…. but I guess he’s given us a pretty irrefutable answer now.
Basically, I fear there is precious little room here for hope, or serenity, or closure, or whatever the good feeling you’re supposed to have when looking back on the legacies of people who have died is. This is nasty, unplanned, improper. Ghastly in the strictest sense. The new record has a few fleeting breaths of wisdom, grace and charm about it, but they are suffocated by a pall of ugly, clown-ish self-pity most unbecoming for a gentleman of his age, which I did not feel should be encouraged. For an artist who liked to unpack his life story in public every few years, it makes for a weird and terrible epitaph.
Berman was an incredible talent, perhaps the single best lyricist ever to work in popular song, and some of his recordings remain close to me always. For him to go out this way is unspeakable.
What else can you say? I feel so sorry for everyone who cared about him, I hope he’s at peace somehow.
Friday, July 05, 2019
By and large, the past three months of my music listening have been characterised by a wealth of glimmering, phantastical discoveries slouching their way down the Bandcamp / second hand LP highway -- combined with a chronic lack of the time, space and technology necessary to fully engage with them.
Nonetheless, these things, so many things, all demand at least a brief shout-out here, if I’m to hold my head high vis-à-vis dragging out this dinosaur blog’s lifespan. Trying to compress stuff that’s basically beyond words into a reader-friendly para when you’ve basically only had a chance to stick it on once or twice whilst dojng admin is never much fun, so hold on to yr hats, but bandcamp links are easy, so they at least should help to clarify what I’m haphazardly going on about.
As luck would have it, many of the ‘new’ discoveries highlighted below aren’t really all that new, in terms of release date, but god knows, if the idea of listening to a record from 2017 beings you out in a rash, I can’t help.
Les Filles De Illighadad.
I discovered Les Filles De Illighadad via a recommendation link on the bandcamp page of much-lauded Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar, whose work I had decided to investigate after reading that he had starred in the first ever Tuareg language feature film(!), a Saharan version of ‘Purple Rain’ (!!) [it’s for real – DVD and soundtrack are both available here].
Moctar’s music is perfectly good – indeed, it seems to have been blowing minds left, right and centre - but it didn’t really do it for me. I found it a bit too… bombastic and ego-driven I suppose? Maybe a bit too heavy on the cliché Western pop-rock moves? (I know, I know – what did I expect.) Clicking straight through to the calming, communal exuberance of Les Filles De Illighadad though proved the perfect corrective to these (wholly subjective) deficiencies, very much providing a ‘yin’ to Moctar’s ‘yang’ when it comes to the strategies which proponents of North African electric guitar music may find themselves employing as their music gains ever more traction amongst moneyed first world rubes such as myself.
Rather than awkwardly hacking it up into in my own words, it will probably be best if I simply cut and paste a few paragraphs from the notes accompanying Les Filles most recent album, ‘Eghass Malan’ (2017), which I think gives us the gist here pretty well:
“In the past years, certain genres of Tuareg music have become popular in the West. International acts of “desert blues” like Tinariwen, Bombino, and Mdou Moctar have become synonymous with the name “Tuareg.” But guitar music is a recent creation. In the 1970s young Tuareg men living in exile in Libya and Algeria discovered the guitar. Lacking any female vocalists to perform tende, they began to play the guitar to mimic this sound, replacing water drums with plastic jerrycans and substituting a guitar drone for the vocal call and response. The exiled eventually traveled home and brought the guitar music with them. In time, this new guitar sound came to eclipse the tende, especially in the urban centers. If tende is a music that has always been sung by woman, the Tuareg guitar was its gendered counterpart, and Tuareg guitar music is a male dominated scene.
Fatou Seidi Ghali, lead vocalist and performer of Les Filles is one of the only Tuareg female guitarists in Niger. Sneaking away with her older brother's guitar, she taught herself to play. While Fatou's role as the first female Tuareg guitarist is groundbreaking, it is just as interesting for her musical direction. In a place where gender norms have created two divergent musics, Fatou and Les Filles are reasserting the role of tende in Tuareg guitar. In lieu of the djembe or the drum kit, so popular in contemporary Tuareg rock bands, Les Filles de Illighadad incorporate the traditional drum and the pounding calabash, half buried in water. The forgotten inspiration of Tuareg guitar, they are reclaiming its importance in the genre and reclaiming the music of tende.”
Got all that? Good. In practice, those of us tuning into Les Filles De Illighadad whilst lacking the necessary background to appreciate the finer subtleties of their place within Tuareg musical culture can expect to hear the following: complex, intuitive circular melodies, elegantly picked out on the buzz-free strings of a Fender Stratocaster (or off-brand equivalent); gentle acoustic strumming supported by the propulsive, rhythmic web of hand clapping and the unique forms of percussion outlined above; unison female voices delivering happy-yet-world weary call and response type tunes that could be as old as the dawn of time for all I know, interspersed with joyous, animalistic cries that make it sound as if some big, brightly plumed flightless birds have rocked up to join the party. It’s absolutely brilliant!
The second song, ‘Inssegh Inssegh’, with guitar-work that almost recalls Junior Kimbrough, stands out as a particular favourite. If you don’t like this… well, I don’t know what to say.
A trio hailing from somewhere in the vicinity of County Leitrim and/or Cork, Woven Skull seem to be keeping the spirit of the early ’00s kneelcore/proper psyche/new-weird-whatever CD-R scene alive, wringing out a sound that sometimes resembles a more slightly more rock-orientated take on the hive mind cacophony of Vibracathedral Orchestra… but, equally, sometimes doesn’t. To say I approve would be something of an understatement.
‘Exile of Warren Street’, the opening cut on their self-titled record from last year, mixes buzzing, insectoid fuzz guitar strum-drone with shrieking bowed strings and clamorous, collapsed kit drumming, suggesting an alternative history in which the EPI-era Velvets had kept Angus Maclise on board and swung behind Cale’s avant/minimalist impulses rather than Reed’s songwriting, but then further complicates matters by bringing in a hulking great, quasi-Arabic doom riff. Crazy, man!
On subsequent tracks, the group push the furthest reaches of the sound available to them within their guitar / mandola / drums trio set-up, sometimes delivering ecstatic webs of picked string-drone that wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Blackshaw record, whilst delving elsewhere into full-on Sun City Girls ethno-forgery territory, like a ritual wedding dance devised by a tribe of post-apocalyptic cyborgs.
Much of the time, the band emphasise dense, knotty and rather punishing textures, full of stabbing high-end and seething, granular chaos hoovered straight off the forest floor – and speaking of which, I myself am basically floored by the extent to which Woven Skull have managed to conjure up such a unique and powerful sound for themselves; out of time, out of place, and touching gossamer-light on their (presumably voluminous) sphere of influence as much by accident-of-coincidental-greatness as by design.
Given how many of my personal sonic fetishes Woven Skull touch upon, I’m horrified to discover that they’ve actually been playing together since 2008. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to ignore their existence for so long (I fear I may have been confusing their name with that of garage-pop also-rans Woven Bones), but if for some reason, they feel inclined to cross the water to our exhausted br*xit netherworld at some point in the near future, they are liable to find me glowering in the front row, making up for lost time.
I confess it’s taken me a while to get my head around the recent explosion of interest in smooth/soulful jazz. I mean, it’s just been so… unexpected, y’know? Well, actually, perhaps not. I mean, all these young people with their music schools scholarships, their inclusive politics, good manners and vast quantities of marijuana…. I guess we should all have seen this one coming, right?
Anyway, the weather’s getting warmer, summer solstice has come and gone, and I’m finally feeling it; finally managing to overcome that instinctive distrust borne of a lifetime of being told that legitimate music must be aggressively idiosyncratic and disdainful of formal technique, and that anything ‘new’ that won’t upset attendees at a hypothetical dinner party should treated with extreme suspicion. And, I’m happy to report that this remarkable double album bearing the name of Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven has proved a great help in this regard. (Another thing that has helped: this video.)
A uniquely ambitious venture, ‘Universal Beings’ feels almost like a kind of a primer for this ascendant scene. Each of its four LP sides was recorded in a different city (New York, Chicago, London, Los Angeles), and each features a different group of players, with McCraven the sole constant.
Like many musicians within this mileau, McCraven plays as if he is as much influenced by hip-hop and electronica as ‘classic’ jazz, but his smoked-out, head-nodding 4/4 style, occasionally diverging into patterns of skittering, Ninja Tune-y rim-shots and weird double-time experiments, remains well-judged, never degenerating into cheese, and always serving to enhance, rather than detract from, the fine work of his collaborators. And, make no mistake, accessibility should not be confused here with any lack of depth or legitimacy in the performances showcased herein, which, I would contend, often hit a level that even the most hardline free improv/extended technique partisans will find difficult to dismiss.
The New York side, in particular, is absolutely sublime, recalling the blissed out vistas of the kind of early ‘70s session that Don Cherry or Alice Coltrane might have slipped right into, with Brandee Younger (harp), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dezron Douglas (bass) all delivering contributions which deserve to be (very melodiously) hymned from the rooftops. Elsewhere, the Chicago side a little more fiery, with tenor player Shabaka Hutchins (appearing courtesy of Verve Records, I’ll have you know) blurting out the kind of proudly dissonant, clustered chords that will forever put me in mind of late-period Coltrane (John, that is). [I grasp at these old timey comparisons simply because it’s my natural instinct as an old timey guy, you understand, not because the players here necessarily stand up and demand them.]
The London side meanwhile dives straight into deep Gilles Peterson territory, with McCraven knocking out a rhythm that seems to be drawing on some kinda local grime/trap influence, but the session soon settles down into a hypnotic, sizzling kinda headspace, with Ashley Henry (electric piano) really clicking into place. Recorded at the home of that hot young hipster, Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, meanwhile, the L.A. side features a slightly larger ensemble, with Parker himself contributing some fragmented – but not overbearing – shards of disembodied fuzz guitar to proceedings, but it’s still just as much of a compelling and – dare I say – inspiring listen as the rest of this monumental document; an album I can easily imagine be fetishized in years to come as the sound of a very particular, and I’d venture, very positive, set of cultural time & place circumstances crystalising – temporarily, at least - into something really special.
Word to the wise: if any of this appeals to you, get on this soon, because vinyl copies are now sold out from most UK retailers, and this one of those albums that *really* benefits from the format, so pay what you have to, and happy hunting. I apologise for the fact that I was too dumb-headed to tell you about back when stock was fresh and new about nine months ago.
And, at completely the other end of the musical spectrum meanwhile – hold the presses folks! Here’s our new lead: Welsh metal band fronted by Russo-German antifa / feminist activist play unbelievably intense tech-grind / battle-ready DM addressing frightening, taboo-skirting subjects of real life concern. As you might imagine, the results are impossible to fuck with, but more surprisingly, they are also super fun to listen to and don’t give me a headache! Whole world rejoices! Story at eleven.
That’s all the info I have to report at present, but this interview should help fill in some of the gaps. For now, I’ll merely say that, whilst I usually find the more technical side of contemporary metal a huge turn off, the members of Venom Prison channel their post-human level virtuosity into such a raw, cathartic head-rush of sound that my usual gripes about muscle-nerd precision and faceless production find themselves righteously flattened.
Crucially, there is a tasty core of real Rock Pleasure Principle stuff retained here. Those riff break-downs and soaring lead lines are totally “sick”, as I believe the kids are saying - as much Arch Enemy as Meshuggah - and, combined with the flesh-shredding rage Larissa Stupar is putting across here (channelling pure Lee Dorrian era Napalm Death, in spirit if not in actual sonic resemblance)… well, this is just too much awesome for me to get my head around right now. My vision’s blurring – send help!
There are, I would suggest, few people in the quote-unquote “civilised” world who currently have as much reason to be irked as Brazilians living in the UK. The three members of Tropical Nightmare do indeed seem to fall within this category, but it would be misleading to tie current geo-political anguish onto the four songs which comprise their ‘III’ EP, given that it was recorded in the summer of 2016, before the situation over here became quite so tragi-comically dire, and before their home country turned around and delivered an election result that the world needs like a shotgun wound to the thigh.
Nonetheless, it is this sort of thing which came to mind when I eventually hit ‘play’ on their bandcamp after seeing them performing live a few times, and being very impressed by the experience. Given that this is ominous, pedal-damaged mid-tempo punk with a heavy, distorted bass in the forefront, I suppose a Killing Joke comparison is probably warranted, but I enjoy these guys a lot more than that grisly lot; theirs is a serrated, nuanced and fiercely unpredictable take on noise-punk – a welcome touch of Big Black/Shellac in the mix maybe? - bolstered by the kind of vein-popping, impassioned delivery which adds further weight to the argument that, for some strange, indefinable reason, contemporary Portuguese and Spanish language punk tends to knock seven shades out of the Anglophone competition.
It doesn’t look as if Tropical Nightmare have released anything since this tape came out in January ‘18, but they’re still active (as of a few months back anyway), still gigging occasionally in London – so please, click the link above and show ‘em some love, and perhaps they’ll get back in the studio / dig out the old eight track [delete as applicable] before long.
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