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, December 13, 2019
On days like this, it might help us to stand together for the real national anthem (which got to number 15 in 1985).
Labels: Billy Bragg
Thursday, December 12, 2019
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
If you’re reading this and you’re a UK citizen, I’m sure you know what you have to do tomorrow, and I’m sure you’ve already been bombarded with this ‘advice’ from a hundred different sources, but what the hell, y’know?
Tactical voting is clearly the only way a decent and humane agenda is going to get anywhere near the finishing line on this one. So, if you’re registered in a seat where one of the main opposition parties is in a position to challenge the Tories, please vote for that party. If you’re unlucky enough to reside in a Tory stronghold, please vote for whoever’s coming second. And if you live in a safe Labour / SNP seat, please vote for them anyway, because some wise-ass will doubtless be on TV crunching the nationwide voting totals within 48 hours of this message, and the bigger that total is, the better. Clear? Good. Many thanks.
If you live in the UK but you’re not a UK citizen meanwhile, please be assured that I share your frustration – granting suffrage to the people who actually live in the place being governed would be top of my own personal agenda, but whatcha gonna do, eh?
And, if you don’t live in the UK, have never been to the UK and don’t give a hoot about the UK – I’m sorry to have wasted your time. Normal service will be resumed imminently.
Monday, December 02, 2019
Many months late and countless dollars short (trying to meet crazy, self-imposed horror movie reviewing deadlines will do that to you), here is a quick run-down of new-ish things (some drifting back a year or five, but as I say, my ears, like my posts here, are OFTEN LATE) which have won my attention and to some extent admiration during the latter half of 2019.
A discovery via the ever-reliable Terminal Escape blog, this Saskatoon-based instrumental heavy psych combo seem to have been toiling away in relative obscurity for quite a while now. I’m not entirely sure how best to frame the smeary, slo-mo space-rock grooves found on their ‘Street Rock’ tape (2014), but despite the apparent simplicity of the band’s approach (guitar, bass n’ drums banging it out, with occasional dubbed out echo noise and samples thrown in for the pure heck of it), their sound feels thoroughly hypnotic and entirely unique within its field – enveloping, like flying slowly into a big, dark cloud.
I’ve not yet had a chance to wade into the group’s wider oeuvre, but this murky ol’ tape rip alone seems liable to find me head-nodding my way toward a blissful coma for many months to come; the opening ‘Feelings (Dub)’ in particular is an absolute monster, blown-out bass gradually becoming pure mist as the sky caves in and vision narrows… keep it coming.
Infinity Forms of Yellow Remember.
And if all that seems a bit too weird for you meanwhile, say hello to this cumbersomely named Cardiff six-piece, whose recent double LP on the Cardinal Fuzz label delivers eighty minutes or so of comfortably ungrounded space-rock, doled out the way the blind idiot god at the centre of the cosmos intended, helmets respectfully doffed to Hawkwind and The Heads; which is not to say that they fail to to establish their own niche within this closely-guarded sub-genre, but I suspect they’re well aware that their chosen idiom comes with a certain set of expectations, and basically they aim to please.
To be honest, the reedy, reverbed vocals and hippy-drippy, ‘random gnarly phrase generator’ type lyrics here do sometimes get a bit too close to the Primal Scream Zone for my taste (it’s sort of the psyche-rock equivalent of the “dog piss zone” when you’re out picking blackberries), but such suspicions are quickly annulled by a sturdy, ‘Space Ritual’-worthy rhythm section and some superb, noise-spiralin’ grue from the guitarist, who’s got a wah-wah pedal and is heroically unafraid to use it (seriously, this guy must have the most muscular left ankle in South Wales on the basis of his foot work here).
As the album ploughs on and the track times get ever longer, Infinity Forms.. settle comfortably into their predominantly long-form business, with the full-on rock band sections buffered by long stretches of analogue electronic bliss-out, which are very enjoyable if yr in the mood. Closer ‘Sun God Grave Goods’ (cor blimey) is the best of the bunch I think, opening with a can’t fail combo of electric tamboura and harmonica, before momentarily recalling one of Bong’s more recent, distortion-free jams, as a massive, gong-like crash cymbal heralds the entrance of the rhythm section for a further expanse of delightful ‘Star Gate’ type ceremonial, head-nodding ambience. (Not sure that the extended acoustic outro and field recordings of soggy footsteps add a great deal, but hey, they’ve got four sides to fill and they’re stretching out – I can dig it.)
As mentioned, these guys aren’t exactly re-invented the afterburner here, but if you’re planning on firing up the ol’ interstellar freighter to an excursion to some distant moon-pyramids any time in the near future, you could do worse than jam this one in the eight-track, especially now that Blown Out are permanently on ice.
I tried listening to some stuff from young U.S.-based composer and PhD student Sarah Davachi a while back and couldn’t really get into it, but her recently repressed 2018 disc Let Night Come On Bells End The Day really hit the spot (and as a result, hit my wallet).
Regular readers will recall that I’m always in the market for a good drone or two, and this humble LP boasts five of the buggers – three reasonably lengthy, two short – which represents admirable value, I’m sure you’d agree.
The sounds herein seem to have been sourced entirely from keys of all varieties (organ, synths and piano), although the woozy, uncertainly pitched tones conjured during the opening minutes of the first side’s exuberantly blissful ‘Mordents’ sound uncannily like strings in places (that’ll be the Mellotron, I’m assuming).
Natural instrument tones seem to dominate here, insofar as they can with synths involved, and there are no obvious treatments or effects in evidence, yet the resonance and range Davachi wrings from her gear, aided by a few consummate overdubs adding over/undertones, is profoundly effective.
The feel here is nuanced, timeless, eternally resonant – like mainlining the form and contents of a small yet beautiful Alpine chapel through your ears. Emotionally speaking, we run the gamut here from ‘Buhrstone’, which flirts with indulgent, melodic melancholia, not a million miles away perhaps from one of The Dirty Three’s piano-led tracks, to the twelve austere minutes of ‘Hours in the Evening’, as cold and affectless as the ancient, clammy stone wall of that aforementioned chapel.
At this point in my life, music like this performs an important function, keeping me calm and grounded, and creating an appropriate atmosphere in my quarters during that all-important lead up to bed time. It’s therapeutic in a sense, I suppose. As such, I’m always thrilled to discover a great new practitioner whose work I can keep close to the turntable, so thanks for this one Sarah – it’s out here in the world, doing great work.
Once again, I’m severely late to the party when it comes to digging into London / the globe’s rewarding new funk/electronica-informed jazz scene, and in this case in particular I have NO excuse, given that a friend dropped me a link to Kamaal Williams’ 2018 LP The Return in an email over a year ago - but hey, at least I picked up on the repress, so hopefully I’m getting at least a little bit closer to getting a handle on all this exciting shit which appears to have been going on literally just down the road from my f-ing house for a number of years now.
Formerly one half of duo Yussef Kamaal (with drummer Yussef Dayes), Williams fills all available space here on keys, and also produces under the auspices of his sharply-monikered alter-ego Henry Wu. Spare some applause too though for Pete Martin and Joshua McKenzie, who do flat out fantastic work on bass and drums, pulling back from the downtempo/hip-hop inspired grooves often favoured by this scene and instead laying down some sinuous, quick-silver playing which delivers all the muscle of yr ‘70s fusion favourites with none of the off-putting show-boating (well, ok, maybe just a little bit, here and there).
Williams likewise seems to be daring us to start pulling comparisons to Herbie and Stevie out of the hat at some points here, but unlike the old masters, he seems deeply concerned with texture more-so than technique, seemingly ripping his organ and synth through a chain of effects that would make a guitar shop employee blush, building up deep, tidal washes of wah, tremolo and delay which keep the music sensuous, multi-layered and engrossing, bringing a disorientating psychedelic swirl to proceedings, whilst his tightly wound, hand-brake-turn interplay with Brown and McKenzie adds a sense of swaggering danger, undercutting any accusations of mere dinner-jazz noodling; you can almost feel the cold eyes of Miles overseeing this shit when things get way out there on the second half of stunning opening cut ‘Salaam’.
This is, I’ll freely admit, probably the most totally-fucking-Gilles-Peterson thing currently lurking in my record collection, but the older I get and the wider I listen, the more I’d inclined to suspect that the old boy has actually been holding the keys to the castle all along, and to start regretting the rube-ish years I’ve spent projecting sneers and roll-eyes in his general direction.
And on completely the other end of the spectrum meanwhile… FUCK YEAH! Infernal Hails! It’s been a long wait since Manchester’s Aggressive Perfector unleashed (because music in this vein can never simply be ‘released’) their accurately named ‘Satan’s Heavy Metal’ EP in 2016, but they’re finally back this month with their debut LP, ‘Havoc at the Midnight Hour’, and the consciously grotesque, Lucio Fulci-inspired cover painting certainly bodes well.
Well, I mean, I say that, but in fact I’ve started to suspect that contemporary metal bands’ devotion to awesome, eye-catching album covers and OTT retro aesthetics can often be inversely proportional to the actual quality of their music. Aggressive Perfector however provide a glorious exception to this embryonic rule, continuing to attack their admirably non-denominational Awesome Old School Metal (does that merit an acronym..?) with punkoid energy and an infectious love of and dedication to their chosen craft which should get them over the spiked railings erected by even the most discerning of self-appointed NWOBHM gatekeepers.
Higher recording fidelity and more ambitious song structures have for-better-or-for-worse diluted the Venom/Motorhead booze n’ fags vibe which defined Perfector’s first EP, but guess what – the tighter studio playing and clearer, more compressed production showcased here actually suits them pretty well, with the band’s core essence retaining enough piss n’ vinegar to immediately give ‘em a sharp, serrated edge over the legions of festival-clogging, mid-table outfits whose broadly unexceptional work fills out the reviews pages of Metal Hammer each month.
Re-reading the paras above, they sound a bit dry, so I’ll give it to you straight – I *love* this shit, and it’s been on my earphones for the double-speed trudge to work every morning since the weather turned cold and the band put the record up for download (perfect timing guys). If the mid-tempo, chug-riffing churn of opener ‘Onwards to the Cemetery’ – complete with soaring, Mercyful Fate leads and flaming torch-waving chorus – doesn’t serve as an effective refresher course on the reasons why metal is awesome, you’re probably in the wrong classroom, you non-metal loser, and the full-on thrash of ‘Chains of Black Wrath’, ‘Devil’s Bastard’ and ‘Vengeful One’ repeatedly hammer home the same core message with a relentless singularity of purpose.
Beginning with one of vocalist/guitarist Dan Holocausto (I kid you not)’s several attempts to top Tom Araya’s legendary falsetto-to-growl scream from ‘Angel of Death’, the latter track in particular is an absolute banger, correcting a discrepancy which blights much 80s metal production, in that the mix allows us to hear the raw buzz of the bass strings as they’re subjected to what I take to be the thrashing of a lifetime.
To recap, then: METAL. If you like it, you’ll like this.
The Vacant Lots.
I realise I’m pretty behind the times on this one, but since when did Anton Newcombe cease to be a fucking maniac and become a reliable architect of top drawer retrogressive guitar music? He is not in this band, but he produced their ‘Exit’ EP, and, in stark contrast to much of the older material available on their bandcamp page, opening track ‘Bells’ verifiably rules.
The vocalist here is going for that Peter Perret / Nikki Sudden frail, drugged up insouciance kind of thing, but basically ends up sounding almost exactly like the bloke from The Psychedelic Furs instead, which seems in some ways like an even better result. The backing track meanwhile takes a boilerplate JAMC/Shop Assistants rhythm track, adds one of those lovely, permanently ascending chord progressions and lets it all pound along for five and a half minutes without variation, whilst the production layers guitars on top of guitars on top of guitars on top of guitars on top of guitars (and indeed, some bells, way off in the background somewhere). It’s not clever and it’s certainly not new – just more of that old ‘boys with haircuts lined up on stage like shooting gallery ducks, glumly strumming away’ type shit really – but it is BIG, and as such it does the business.
Disappointingly, the rest of the material on the EP is basically pretty unremarkable – second song is ok, but it’s really just more tenth gen Mary Chain cast-offs and, god help us all, some cod-Suicide electro poetry jamming towards the end; real try-hard, eternal support band shit. But that one song, man. I sure hope you’ve got a few more like that in you, boys. Make your mothers proud!
Astonishingly, Wikipedia informs me that this EP reached number 9 in the UK singles chart in June, and whilst I’m not sure exactly what that signifies these days (plus, do they let EPs in now - WTF?), it at least suggests I’m not alone in my strange infatuation with this number. Mainstream-a-go-go!
Feels like we definitely need a bit of a palette-cleanser after all that, and, though I’ve been feeling pretty disconnected from contemporary punk music recently, if it sounds like anything in 2019-20, I believe it should probably sound like this. Hyper-energised, unadorned practice room blasters from this all-female Mexican trio, who, weirdly but wonderfully, sound as if they could have leaped straight through a time-warp from the late ‘70s, when this stuff was still exciting and new and not buffered by four decades-worth of back patch scenester posery and contrived micro-genre suspicion.
Bass and drums are basic but righteous, but the guitarist by contrast has some real Robert Quine / East Bay Ray type shit going on. We’re talking SHREDDING here folks, with shrieking nah-nah-na-nah-nah type anti-melodies every which way, and it’s never been so welcome. Vocals meanwhile are strained, way in the red and don't give a fuck about your spit-guard, continuing to make me ponder why Spanish (or Portuguese) language punk sounds about a thousand times more crucial than the anglophone variety these days. Ten songs in marginally more minutes and all of them fucking brilliant, in short. (Well, personally I prefer the ones in ‘punk rock’ tempo to the flat-out hardcore efforts, but that’s just me.)
Quite why the entire post-MRR community didn’t fall to their knees and hail Soga as the new queens of the waking universe when this demo first appeared on tape in 2018 I can’t possibly imagine, but…. maybe they did and I didn’t even notice? It’s so hard to keep track these days. Regardless - hitting my own knees right NOW, because to all intents and purposes, this is THE BEST.
Monday, November 18, 2019
With the departure of heart n’ soul members Jon Slade and Kay Ishikawa, the dissolution of long-time record label Fortuna Pop and a more general fading away / changing-of-the-guard within the London indie scene which had nurtured them for so long, 2014’s wistful and subdued ‘Paperback Ghosts’ felt like a natural farewell for the bedraggled old beast of a band that is Comet Gain; a dignified wave goodbye as they stride off into a golden, autumnal sunset.
But, it was never quite going to happen that way, was it? Like a long forgotten mate knocking on your door one rainy midnight with a six pack and something on his mind – like that teenage fave LP you gave away to charity, then re-bought years later for £20 because you’re an idiot – Comet Gain are back in action, sounding wilder and more impassioned than they have since, well… since kids now taking their GCSEs were busy being born, let’s put it that way.
The band’s members have, it is safe to assume, been significantly exercised by outrage arising from the circumstances surrounding the U.K.’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (I refuse to humour this kick to the head of civilisation with a six letter contraction that makes it sound like a fucking breakfast cereal) – and who in heaven’s name can blame them?
Being hearty, good-natured folk, Comet Gain are not exactly leaving us in any doubt as to where they stand on the current sorry state of affairs, as opening track ‘We’re All Fucking Morons’ makes abundantly clear. Herein, vocalist Rachel Evans pleads with her hypothetical opponents; “I just want to understand you / before I go to war with you”. The hectoring, enervated punk rock stomp which follows suggests that, like so many of us, she did not receive a satisfactory response to her entreaty.
Second track, ‘The Girl with the Melted Mind and the Fear of the Open Door’ is classic Comet Gain, a surging rush of knotty guitar n’ organ textures, breaking against the wall of Woodie Taylor’s ever-steady drumming, its flowery lyrical conjurations seemingly addressing mental illness, social anxiety, drug freakout or some combination thereof. It could fit in nicely next to career highlights like ‘Why I Try To Look So Bad’ or ‘The Ballad of Frankie Machine’. Man, this new burst of anger is really paying off.
Next up though is the real reason you need to listen to this record, and why the idea of a revised Comet Gain line-up fighting their way through the tail end of 2019 suddenly seems like a good idea. Over five and a half seething minutes, the unpromisingly titled ‘Bad Nite at the Mustache’ finds David Feck/Christian’s poetical alter-ego Charlie Damage unburdening his splenetic soul, and it’s a beautiful, terrible, horribly necessary thing to behold.
It takes some guts in the present historical moment for a middle-aged rock band to evoke “another burning tower block / filled with screaming ghosts” without sounding crass, but this track has the hackle-raising, desperate power to pull it off, a freezing rain-soaked dash across some poverty-blighted street almost visible as David/Charlie sneers that, “life is always cheap, always led by the creeps,” the rebel lifer heart beneath his suburban dad exterior rising to the surface as he curses “the tired, dumb fuckers”, a shriek of needle-peaking feedback rise behind him before that shaky, over-driven jangle of yore rises like a practice room phoenix for the chorus, calling upon the abused nation – or the whole abused world, perhaps? – to “cauterise the wounds / with something like fire”.
It’s stunning, frankly – not just a full force reminder of why bands with the kind of wounded, ineffable spirit that powers Comet Gain remain worth persisting with through years of botched gigs and patchy albums, just to catch that moment when the stars align, but also as one of the most devastatingly direct artistic responses to the sickening social malaise we are all guilty of contributing to I’ve heard in this blighted year.
(I realise this probably wasn’t the prescription he had in mind, but in view of the date I’m posting this, I’ll simply note that when you colour in a picture of some fire, you do so with red and yellow combined. JUST SAYIN’.)
Whilst Charlie Damage may insist that “the past wants to make a memory out of the future” though, Senor Feck is certainly not above submerging himself in that past for a bit of comforting wallow, once again reaching way beyond his own lived memories for ‘The Society of Inner Nothing’, a solid jangler which appears to salute the “lavender boys and fireworks girls”, “searching for Horus and Pan” under the auspices of the none-more-rose-tinted ‘60s counter-culture, as well as perpetuating his curious lyrical fixation with Rosicrusianism (perhaps a PKD reference in this instance? – not sure).
Slightly closer to home, ‘The Godfrey Brothers’ is another album highlight, a wonderful, expansive track, very much in the spirit of the ‘Paperback Ghosts’ material. The album’s press release straight-forwardly states that this number is “about the Godfrey brothers”, but this proves a sneaky bit of phrasing, given that the only thing which pops up when you plonk that into your nearest non-Google search engine is the blokes behind late ‘90s chill-out titans Morcheeba.
Even after two whole decades ploughing this particular furrow, it took me a good few minutes of brain-think to recognise that the song is actually a tribute to tragically short-lived siblings Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, founders of Swell Maps, wgo are both given first person voice here, the latter finding succour in his West Hampstead flat with “500 Beach Boys bootlegs”, the former surrounding himself with “scented scarves and imaginary girls”. Key line: “they all thought we were strange / working upstairs at the Music and Tape Exchange”.
There is a real streak of pain running through this song however, undercutting the band’s usual nostalgic drift; the creeping realisation perhaps that the dark shadow of mortality has already started to fall, not only across the immortal scraggle-haired genii to whom the song is dedicated, but the whole warped generation who were making counter-cultural hay when David and co were young and dumb.
Initially, I wished the same verisimilitude could be located within side #2’s ‘Mid 8-Ts’, a pre-fab indie disco romp through the C-86 glory days of “jumper with holes / playing our roles”. Reminiscent of the ‘City Fallen Leaves’ era, it has the potential to feel like pretty weak tea for those of who don’t share these memories first hand, but the admission that “your heart plays tricks on you / forgets about the shit on your Beatle boots” puts a rather different spin on things, and, in view of this album’s angrier, more uncertain meditations on time, nationality and belonging, there’s a pretty ominous undertow to the chorus’s repeated declaration that “you belong here”, and that “you might as well go where you belong”. That, presumably, being the past, or some aging scenester simulacrum thereof, at the very least.
A word is necessary meanwhile about this album’s production, which, surprisingly, must be the messiest, most quote-unquote “lo-fi” set of recordings the band have released since the heady days of ‘Realistes’ and ‘Tigertown Pictures’, in spite of the presence of consummate pros Ben Phillipson (Eighteenth Day of May) and James Hornsey (The Clientele) in the current line-up.
Were I to take the role of a whinging contrarian, I could make the argument that the urgency of those earlier albums resulted from the fact they were recorded in a time and place - pre-pro-tools, pre-internet – in which the band simply lacked access to a proper studio and someone with the necessary brains to push the buttons in it, and that their hair-raising magic resulted to some extent from the group’s struggle to transcend their limited means, their inspired material and enervated performances punching through the murky mix as if it were a wet paper bag.
Such a ‘feel’ is difficult to recreate however, twenty years down the line, in a room where all the drum mics have clearly been set up properly and the clean-toned guitars are allowed to jangle just so when required to do so on the quieter songs. After all, when it comes to stuff like this, you can never go back, and, here in 2019, the decision to include bulbous, clipping bass frequencies on ‘Victor Jara Finally Found’ and muffed/submerged vocal takes elsewhere simply seems weird and lazy, rather than feeling like unavoidable collateral damage incurred in the midst of a wild, spur-of-the-moment taping session.
Returning the mic to the part of me which is not a whinging contrarian however (hi, fans), I can’t help but observe that the rawer, looser, noisier performances captured on ‘Fireraisers Forever!’ – presumably laid down with a bare minimum of either rehearsal or over-dubs, prioritising ‘feel’ over tuning or fidelity - are a real breath of fresh air after the finicky professionalism and try-hard, garage-rock pastiche of recent years; an honest and raucous reflection of band’s essential essence which propels the anger and desperation of the album’s best material safely over the finish line.
Reverting to more tired Pitchfork-isms meanwhile, I’m also duty-bound to report that ‘Fireraisers Forever!’ is shamelessly front-loaded… but perhaps in the end that’s not such a bad thing? Whereas the album comes out swinging with the single best side of music the band have recorded since David’s return from exile in the late ‘00s, the material on the flip fails to maintain this intensity, soon veering off in some weird, meandering directions which are at best, uh, interesting..? (the organ-dominated rebel fashion exegesis of ‘Werewolf Jacket’), and at worst pretty hard work (the on-the-nose “true confessions of a fuck up” litany of ‘Life On Your Knees’).
Pointedly titled closer ‘I Can’t Live Here Anymore’ likewise doesn’t quite “come off” in terms of conventional song-writing, but you know what? It really doesn’t need to. Seemingly a far more personal take on the damage inflicted on our narrator’s family life by the world’s recent turn to shit, there is no way I could look this band in the eye as David sings “and if there’s no tomorrow / I’ll be right here, holding on to you”, and tell them that this song is anything other than exactly what it needs to be, especially once a small child – David’s kid, perhaps? – enters the mix, nervously singing along on the last few choruses. Not a dry eye in the house, I’m telling you, and no dry tinder either post-Dec 12th, more than likely.
Comet Gain have made a few damn-near-perfect records in their time, and this certainly isn’t one of them – but again, do we really need it to be? Certainly no more so than we ever needed The Mekons or Swell Maps or Alex Chilton to release LPs which played front-to-back satisfactorily without getting lost or making a mess.
Now more than ever, it’s the continuation of the spirt which counts, more than watching the clock, monitoring the meters, gauging the melodicism or counting the verses, and in this sense, Comet Gain’s unexpected resurgence is scarcely half a shade less than a fucking grand achievement – both a painfully necessary reclamation of our current moment reflected through a sprawling, kaleidoscopic past, and a potent source of fuel for some way-fucking-worse moments yet to come.
Buy a download via bandcamp, buy on vinyl direct from Tapete, or listen in full via youtube.
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
Obsessive Velvet Underground fans may recall ‘The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes’ – an extraordinarily ragged live bootleg distinguished by the fact that the accidental genius responsible for taping a series of Boston concerts placed their recording device on top of the guitar amps, resulting in hours and hours of churning Sterl n’ Lou strummage, hanging disembodied in space, almost entirely disconnected from the soothing context usually provided by songs, vocals, drums, and Doug Yule’s smiling face.
The results proved a bit too much even for me to be perfectly honest, but the person or persons behind mysterious Parisian outfit Hôpital De La Conception apparently deemed these absurd recordings the ne plus ultra of rock n’ roll’s grand mission, subsequently recording and releasing ‘The Electric Rockin' Chair’, in which two lonely electric guitars hold down the musical equivalent of a dead-eyed stare for just over half an hour without blinking.
Evoking an enervated, teeth-grinding, urban-subway-sound, the clean-toned rhythm guitar clings maniacally to a single chord – pure white heat, with ABSOLUTELY NO syncopation, slack or string-bends allowed in the building (Hôpital De La Conception SPITS upon your stupid ‘blues’).
Lead line over the top meanwhile gets busy with some hideously malformed practice amp wah-wah pedal shit, later reining it in in favour of finger-slicing, overdriven high end explorations, hitting that same peak of ‘Run Run Run’-at-the-Gymnasium nirvana again and again and again, then circling back ‘round for more. Occasionally, a man mutters slurred, potentially saucy, off-mic exclamations in French. Sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
From whence did this music emerge? From the austere bedroom of some finely tailored, smack-smoking gallic super-snob who wears shades 24/7 and will insist to the point of death that this is THE ONLY TRUE, LEGITIMATE ROCK N’ ROLL MUSIC? From a couple of bored music students casually marking out an intriguing historical dead-end? From some former garage band dude gone wa-ay off-piste in pursuit of room-clearing devilry? Who knows. Beyond the clues provided by this tape’s intriguing, headless cover shot, perhaps we will never know.
For most of the human race, this music will prove about as appealing as dental torture, but for those of us who’ve already had our palettes thoroughly scoured by the merciless wire-wool of The V.U., Rallizes, Black Time and Jim Shepard, there’s a fine, evil draught to enjoy here, worth drinking to the dregs. I’m not really sure why, but then, I’m not sure why I stuck my finger in the socket of that light-fitting when I was eight years old either, and a few decades later here we all are.
Listen & download via Opaque Dynamo bandcamp.
2019 vinyl pressing on Cardinal Fuzz / Feeding Tube already LONG SOLD OUT by this point, but hey, it exists.
Friday, November 08, 2019
Though I was too slow on the draw to pick up a vinyl copy for an affordable price, I’ve been listening to my mp3 version of Joshua Abrams & The Natural Information Society’s ‘Mandatory Reality’ album nigh-on religiously in recent months - the 25 minute opening cut ‘In Memory’s Prism’ in particular. And yet… I’m pretty much at a loss when it comes to trying to find something to say about this wonderfully calm and organic hybrid of minimalist composin’ methodology and ethno / jazz instrumentation.
As others with more authority to write about such matters than I have pointed out, the most relevant point of comparison here may be the “fourth world” approach to music pioneered by Don Cherry during the ‘70s, as captured on equally brilliant and intangible records like ‘75’s ‘Brown Rice’ (also reissued this year and well worth the investment, incidentally). Potentially dozens of instruments and textures drift in and out of these tracks across their mammoth duration, strings and keys droning away as they are apt to do, whilst unnervingly dissonant washes of brass and bowed cymbals crashing through the mix like spectral, horn-blaring New York cabs, yet for the most part, proceedings here feel entirely relaxed, eminently measured - entirely under control.
Central to this music’s appeal is the fact that, rather than drifting off into abstraction, the tracks remain anchored around simple, almost child-like melodies – endlessly appealing harmonic phrases picked out on some string bass and glockenspiel-type things (practically none of the instruments my ears tell me are present on this record are actually listed on the credits), lending the music a feeling of warmth and accessibility that any open-eared, human listener should be able to appreciate.
If this can indeed be deemed a ‘drone’ record (and the proposition is questionable, though ‘In Memory’s Prism’ has tended to get played in the time and place I normally reserve for drone records), then it’s certainly not a “cold depths of interstellar space” type proposition – more of a “come on in, make yourself at home, would you like a cup of tea?” kind of deal, like walking into a stranger’s living room for the first time and immediately feeling so much at home that you feel you could spend your entire life there. There is a sense of no-strings-attached generosity and comfort within this music that temporarily makes one’s surroundings feel full of hope and new possibilities whilst it plays. And this, incidentally, is quite possibly the most hippie-ish paragraph I have ever written. You see what you’ve done to me, Mr Abrams?
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.
- 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004
- 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004
- 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004
- 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004
- 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004
- 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004
- 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004
- 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005
- 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005
- 02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005
- 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005
- 04/01/2005 - 05/01/2005
- 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005
- 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005
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