Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, January 31, 2011
…Or Does That Even Sound That Cool to You?
Fergus & Geronimo – Wanna Know What I Would Do
Listen in awe as Fergus & Geronimo spend track #2 on their debut album systematically destroying their chances of attracting positive critical attention.
Even if the points they're making about bad/irresponsible music criticism are arguably pretty justified, their attack is so startlingly vicious, so scatter-gun in its approach, that it’s difficult for anyone who writes stuff about records not to feel at least a bit defensive.
That said, it’s a really great tune that’s been echoing around my head for weeks, and the album as a whole is great too – not quite the non-stop soul-pop explosion I was expecting, but a lot more varied and thought-provoking than their singles might have suggested. Uh.. how’s that for a review guys?
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Pointless Lists Week # 3:
The Five Most Disappointing Records of 2010.
A counterbalance to all that damned positivity.
1. Roky Erickson & Okervill River – True Love Cast Out All Evil
”The guy from Okervill River presents manipulative, saccharine alt-country arrangements of Roky Erickson’s most boring songs, featuring vocals from Roky Erickson”, more like. Always nice to see an official Roky release on the shelves, but if you like music, download some ‘70s/’80s Aliens/Explosives bootlegs instead and send a generous donation straight to the man.
2. Jonathan Richman – Oh Moon, Queen of Night on Earth
It breaks my heart to say this, having seen Jonathan on such great form a few months back, putting across some of the songs from this record so well, but… this is really not a Jonathan Richman album that needed to exist. For the record, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that.
3. Pastels/Tenniscoats – Two Sunsets
Again, I thought they were sublime live, but what’s going on here? Self-satisfied dinner party vibes all round.
4. The Strange Boys – Be Brave
I liked their last one a lot. Dunno where they’re going with this thing, but I’m not buying a ticket.
5. oOoOO – Ooooo
Dude, Morcheeba might not have had a cool, unpronounceable witch-house name, but at least they had tunes and pleased people’s mums.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Pointless Lists Week # 2:
Thirteen Old Records that I Wish I’d Had the Time to Write About during 2010.
1. Rodriquez – Cold Fact
2. Black Flag – 1982 Demos
3. J.D. Blackfoot – The Ultimate Prophesy
4. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus & Max Roach – Money Jungle
5. Saint Vitus – Born Too Late
6. Alternative TV – The Image Has Cracked
7. Black Devil – Disco Club
8. John Cale – Fear
9. Randy Newman –Sail Away
10. The Deviants - Disposable
11. The Coup De Villes – Waiting Out The Eighties
12. The Ventures – The Ventures in Space
13. The Endtables – reissue CD on Drag City
Monday, January 24, 2011
Pointless Lists Week # 1:
The Thirteen Best Live Performances I Witnessed in London during 2010.
1. Chain & The Gang, Cargo
2. The Ex & Brass Unbound, Tufnell Park Dome
3. Those Dancing Days at the Lexington
4. Jonathan Richman at the Amersham Arms
5. Zola Jesus at Camp Basement
6. Dick Dale at the Luminaire
7. Hard Skin at the 100 Club
8. Betty & The Werewolves, all the times I’ve seen ‘em this year
9. Calvin Johnson, what was that youth club place in Dalston called again?
10. Bracelettes at the Birds Nest, Deptford
11. Pastels & Tenniscoats at Bush Hall
12. Sylvester Anfang II at Cargo
13. Horowitz at Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes
14. Best Coast at the Old Blue Last
Thursday, January 20, 2011
To prepare you for the impending tedium of this year’s Pointless Lists Week, here are a bunch of utterly redundant yet strangely satisfying statistical findings culled from my Top 40 count-down..
USA – 25
UK – 9
Canada - 3
Australia – 2
Exciting USA/UK crossover – 1
Hmm.. bad night for the non-English speaking world. What can I say, I suck..
Not Not Fun – 3
Goner – 2
Sacred Bones - 2
Other small indie labels – 18
Other medium/big indie labels – 13
Self-released / no label - 2
Major labels – 0
Yay! Die lame corporate “music industry”, etc etc.
MUSIC BASED PRIMARILY AROUND GUITARS?
Yes – 30
No – 10
Y’know, I think for me this is probably a record.
SIGNIFICANT FEMALE SONGWRITING/SINGING CONTRIBUTIONS?
Yes – 19
No – 21
“Hey, that’s almost like real life!”.
HIPPY OR PUNK?
Punk – 19
Hippy – 11
Could go either way – 7
INDIE, MOTHERFUCKER – 3
I am frankly terrified by this resurgence of hippy in my contemporary music taste.
Friday, January 14, 2011
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Eight
Really sorry for the unacceptable delay to this final instalment, which comes even later than last year’s much delayed final instalment. Some unanticipated work deadlines are to blame. Think back to 2010 everybody, and let’s go…
5. Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Rush To Relax (Goner)
Unlikely winners of some kind of Australian equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize for their previous album, Eddy Current are another band who can easily seem like a music writer’s worst nightmare. Four no nonsense fellas who play drums and bass and guitar and sing, making undeniably compelling and imaginative rock music, the strengths of which are sufficiently self-evident to require no further explanation. It’s exciting music, but it’s hard to communicate as much on paper. It’s really great, but I mean, god knows what the world’s few remaining legitimate music journos will do with themselves if this sort of thing catches on.
Just like 2008’s “Primary Colours”, “Rush To Relax” has proved a steady grower over the past nine months, a real staple of my trudges to and from work and round-town jaunts, regardless of season or mood. See, I’m already making it sound dull. And it’s scarcely gonna get less so when I give in to my urge to describe Eddy Current as a “real solid band”, but basically, that’s what they are, in the best possible way. The rhythm section sound amazing here, and do sterling work throughout, not being silly or drawing attention to themselves but anchoring the flow of the music perfectly, just the way they should. As on previous recordings, guitarist Eddy Current has a great, abrasive, treble-heavy tone and is always up to something interesting.
Whilst remaining broadly within the parameters of punk rock, the surprises ECSR throw our way are simple, bold and extremely effective ones – stretching one song out to seven minutes, compressing another one into fifty seconds. Dropping the bass and drums out of the mix for a verse to keep us on our toes, or ending the album with twenty minutes of the sound of waves crashing against some antipodean shore (er, somewhat less of that on the vinyl version, obviously). In a way, it reminds me of something like Alternative TV’s “The Image Has Cracked” – an attempt to move things forward and provoke new response from listeners, without alienating anybody or compromising the basic appeal of the music.
At the centre of all this, vocalist Brendan Suppression, whose contributions to previous outings sometimes seemed a tad obtuse or overly repetitive, really comes into his own as a distinctive frontman, riffing on some surprisingly personal themes in characteristically funny, straight up fashion. Although his grating, Ozzie-punk delivery is about as different as can be imagined, Brendan’s performances on this album actually reminds me a lot of Jonathan Richman on the first Modern Lovers record, spinning earnest yarns about his feelings and his exploits against the band’s rolling backing. Unlike Jonathan’s heart string-tugging teenage dementia though, Brendan seems like a classically easy-going, agreeable sorta bloke, and listening to these songs, it’s easy to imagine him strolling around his home town, mulling over the problems life throws his way, doing his best to be do good by everyone and generally live a balanced, grown up existence. Quite a refreshing stance for a guy coming from a genre whose lyrical concerns typically revolve around the hyperbolic expression of anger, misery, excess and abuse.
Given his voice and physical performance style, it would be all too easy for Mr. Suppression to lean on Rollins-style aggression as his default position, so it is nice that he has the balls to take the opposite route. It’s really sweet to hear him outline his chivalrous approach to relationship politics on “Gentleman”, and to candidly admit his failings in such on “I Can Be a Jerk”, whilst his more conventionally punk confessions of social awkwardness on “Anxiety” and the perfect under-a-minute blast of “I Walked Into a Wall” ring very true. He begins “Burn” in more of an aggro frame of mind, attacking some unspecified person for their craven untrustworthiness, only to turn things around at the halfway point, apologising to the subject for his lack of awareness of their apparent mental problems, and wishing them the best for a full recovery in the future! An astonishingly disarming gesture, and perhaps an all-time first in the long history of generic punk rock dissing songs. It is a testament to his talents as a great singer/lyricist/frontman/whatever that he manages to pull off such a self-conscious and musically unnecessary move so well, and perhaps a testament to his standing as a decent guy that he felt the need to change the song to make things clear.
I realise this probably isn’t the most thrilling review I’ve ever written, but regardless: it’s really great to have band like Eddy Current in the world right now. They don’t make one false move here, and I enjoy listening to their records a lot.
Mp3> Tuning Out
4. Overnight Lows – City of Rotten Eyes (Goner)
From November 2010:
Overnight Lows are a three-piece band out of Jackson, Mississippi, rocking that ever-popular husband/wife/drummer configuration. Their album “City of Rotten Eyes” came out on Goner Records earlier this year, and it totally destroys.
That’s about all you need to know really, and this music makes me feel like being BRUTALLY CONCISE (some hope), but it’s the least I can do to at least try to use words to sell you on a record I’ve listened to all the way through about, say, five days out of every seven for the past couple of months.
Comparable in both form and execution to the spirit of that first Thermals album, crossbred with an accidental nod or three to the “world’s fastest strumming average” ideal of Reis & Froburg’s Hot Snakes, Overnight Lows play punk rock stripped of all fat, devoid of bullshit – twelve loud, memorable, breakneck-paced songs about being angry and hating stuff. Five of them make the two minute mark. Not a clunker in the bunch, and not a slow bit or room to catch a breath either. Best walking to work music ever.
Drummer Paul Artiques plays about as is humanly possible without lapsing into hardcore/metal double kick drum territory – hi-hat going like a metronome and heavy on the ride cymbal. He is a great drummer! Marsh and Daphne Nabors correspondingly lay into things with a crazed ferocity, rather akin to the spirit of a guy on super-charged two-stroke motorbike, randomly hurling dynamite and trying to overtake a train. Recording quality is pretty good, but with everything in the room mixed WAY UP, rough edges in the playing swallowed by the feedback… and by the next verse, which has probably finished before you’ve even clocked what the hell is going on.
Like most great punk rock, each song here begins as a monomaniacal tirade about some aspect of singer’s life that s/he feels is simply intolerable and, well, just sort of continues as one really. “You’re well read / big words stuck in your tiny head / you’re well read / can’t understand what you said”, shrieks Marsh Nabors at some scholarly antagonist in ‘So Well Read’. Wait dude, what's so bad about reading books? Nothing, obviously, but if you read books and you're a JERK, well - fair game. “When I kiss your lips / all I taste is lies / I know what I’ve gotta do, and that’s sad”, responds Daphne in ‘Static Scars’. After a few dozen listens, both singers’ lyrics stand out as genuinely excellent – direct, imaginative and dryly funny, however random and unprovoked the fury with which they’re spat out may seem.
It’s funny, I could spend all day listening to contemporary albums by bands of musclebound guys effortlessly playing ‘punk rock’ music of similar volume and velocity to this, but none of it would hit me like the Overnight Lows record. What we’ve got here I think is he sound of people who WEREN’T born to play music like this, straining themselves to the nth degree to keep up the pace and take the damage, sounding like they could fall apart any second – which is fantastic, and exhilarating, and yeah – punk rock.
Mp3> So Well Read
3. Personal & The Pizzas – Raw Pie (tape on Burger / LP on Bachelor)
Thousands of groups at any given point in post-’76 time may claim to take inspiration from The Ramones, or else just flat-out imitate The Ramones, but how many can honestly say they succeed in capturing what The Ramones were about? I mean, beyond the basic template of playing fast, loud, short songs called “I Don’t Wanna do such-and-such” or “Somebody is a something”, how many bands have there been who are really able to replicate the uniquely strange feeling of that holy first album, with its weird, thudding, midtempo rhythms, its instinctive melodic bass lines and its sullen, special ed kid black humour? The sound of The Ramones before they became “The Ramones”, if you will.
I’m not saying Personal & The Pizzas are the only ones to achieve this by any means, and I guess this band have an advantage over most of their peers in that their New Jersey pedigree allows Mr. Personal (as we sadly must call him, I suppose) to mimic the distinctive cadences of Joey’s singing to an uncanny degree. But still, I am continuously amazed at how much love and attention to detail and genuine feeling P & The Ps put into their Ramonery, and how often their song-writing instincts lead them beyond simple imitation, and straight back to the source.
Ok, so I realise they’ve got a stupid, in-jokey name, and probably make their (extremely small amount of) money playing dubious scenester beer busts full of coked up, destructive duh-brains and whatever, and I know that Mr. Personal’s cringeworthy, sub-Fun Lovin’ Criminals inter-song banter is utterly beyond the pail, especially on a *recorded album* (at one point he wishes someone “a big ol’ muchos gracias”). But seriously guys – I think these songs really stand up.
Just listen to the tough, deadpan pathos of the acoustic & tambourine-based “I Ain’t Taking You Out”, the way it shifts key for its heart-rending middle section (“I took you out yesterday / and all you did was cry-ay”), or the way that hit single “Brass Knuckles” follows in the footsteps of “Loudmouth” and “Beat On the Brat”, turning the threat of violence from something alarming and sinister into a kind of hilariously unlikely affirmation of purpose (“..gonna pop you in the mouth”). “Don’t You Go in the Ground” too is a sublime piece of minimal songcraft, its poignant chant of “retard, retard, such a little retard” rising triumphantly to the declaration of the title. I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean, but the warm, welcoming feeling that emanates from the song mitigates any suggestion of malicious intent. It reminds me of hearing The Ramones for the first time, on a slightly degraded ‘best of..’ tape a friend lent me, not being able to fathom what in the hell Joey was going on about most of the time (‘Cretin Hop’? ‘Pinhead’? WTF?), but loving it anyway on some kind of instinctive, pre-verbal level.
There’s more to life than The Ramones though – there’s The Stooges too! And, as per the record’s title and cover, Personal & The Pizzas pay extensive nudge-wink homage to the James Williamson-era band here on exultant cuts like “$7.99 for Love” and self-penned theme tune “Pizza Army”, to the extent that I’m surprised Mr. Osterberg’s presumably eagle-eyed legal people haven’t been on the phone to get this shit shut down. Still, this is clearly all to the good. When in Stooge-mode, The Pizzas rock like bastards, and whilst I know you’ve gotta love Iggy sometimes, I think I’d far rather listen to these genuine carefree loons welding hunks of “Shake Appeal” and “Pretty Face..” to proclamations that their love is “..cheaper than a pencil case” than sit through whatever cash-harvesting ventures everybody’s favourite car insurance salesman / self-proclaimed great-grandfather of whatever currently has in the works.
So in conclusion: ‘originality’ be damned, there’s enough good times and good feeling and good tunes and rock n’ roll blather crammed into the extended tape version of “Raw Pie” to last a decade, and if there’s a buncha pointless crap alongside it too, well, that’s just the way they roll I guess. Along with Mean Jeans, I vote Personal & The Pizzas as the most genuinely worthwhile band to emerge from the whole late ‘00s Nobunny/party-punk wave. If you find their whole shtick a bit off-putting, well, I can’t say I blame you, but seriously – if, like me, you’re dumb enough to still have Joey and DeeDee and Iggy and Ron on the brain in the second decade of the 21st century, give this lot a shot, and I hope you won’t be disappointed.
Mp3> I Ain’t Taking You Out
2. Dum Dum Girls – I Will Be (Hozac/Sub-Pop)
When I first got this album, I was worried that maybe its appeal would kinda prove fleeting, that with a shiny sound and everything on the surface I’d kinda lose interest, despite all the attention I’d lavished on the earlier DDGs material.
But no – it’s really stuck with me. Nearly a year down the line, I think these songs are excellent, and sound amazing. I think this is a great album.
Back in May, I said some stuff about it:
“Now that we can hear the lyrics a bit better, old songs and new both reveal an unexpectedly compelling narrative aspect, transforming “I Will Be” from merely a collection of really cool pop songs into… well I hesitate to say it, but it’s sorta almost a concept album, or at least a record whose themes and images have been so carefully formulated that each track appears part of a greater whole.
From the narrator of “Jail La La”, who wakes up dazed at a strip club and winds up in jail yelling the chorus through the bars, to the rather more self-assured protagonist of “Yours Alone”, who’s known exactly what she wants out of life since the age of five, to the paranoid would-be starlet of “Line Her Eyes”, each song here seems to represent the first person statement of a different woman in a different phase of life. Factor in the brilliantly fierce 70s-era cover shot of DeeDee’s mum and the statement-of-intent title-track and “I Will Be” perhaps, kinda, sorta stands as something approaching a tribute to the struggles and achievements of 20th Century American femininity.
And, interestingly, it’s one that doesn’t seem to emerge from the overtly feminist perspective of [the good bits of] contemporary indie rock, but instead looks back with bittersweet glee at the kind of subject matter – starry-eyed teenage marriage, vicious fashion/fame-related rivalry, defining oneself as the adjunct to a male partner – that is (maybe, hopefully) less of an inevitable part of the female experience than it used to be back in the ‘50s-‘70s, the aesthetic golden age where Dum Dum Girls make their spiritual home.
So if you’re looking for a bit of honest-to-god content from your neo-girl group fuzz-pop, well look no further, but beyond all that blather I’m sure many listeners will be more concerned with the fact that just about every song on “I Will Be” is a hit in the established three chords / three verses mold, with a couple of great new rockers, and in particular, a handful of straight up love songs sweet enough to make you levitate through the skylight. “Rest Of Our Lives” in particular is incredible, with crashing percussion, swoon-inducing emotional heft and huge, swinging, r’n’b-influenced chorus-line coming together like the best bits of ‘60s and ‘00s chart pop crashing head-on and creating a song capable of reducing workplaces to dust as it blares over the AM radio in the staff-room. Or something.”
Mp3> Rest of Our Lives
1. Betty & The Werewolves – Teatime Favourites (Damaged Goods)
Well, here we go.
In all honesty, it took me about a split second to decide what my favourite record of 2010 was. Betty & The Werewolves, obviously!
It’s great to have an unquestioned favourite band (favourite contemporary band, at least) based predominantly in the same city as me, so that I can go and see them, like, twenty times. When I first saw them, supporting Holly Golightly at the 100 Club over three years ago (!!), I was all, like, wow – Betty & The Werewolves! They’re amazing! That band is just too perfect to exist! But exist they did, and when I saw them return to the 100 Club just last month, my enthusiasm had not waned in the slightest. During the interim, “Euston Station” and “David Cassidy” proved two of the best singles issued in recent years, and both of them can needless to say be found of this exceptional, instant classic, long-player from Damaged Goods.
Time and time again I’ve read venerable music journos going completely overboard in their praise for bands and local scenes to which they have some tenuous connection, so let it be said that whilst it was a massive honour to be able to appear on the same bill as them several times this year, I would love the Bettys just as much even if they were to punch me in the face and tell me never to darken the door of one of their performances again.
What more can I say that I haven’t said before? Doug is the best drummer in the world, and Emily and Laura and Helen’s distinctive styles of shouting and singing and guitaring and bassing are equally peerless. The band’s collision of hardcore punk and indie-pop remains more fun than life itself, and if one or two of the slower numbers don’t quite float my boat so much when they start to lose the former half of the equation, well at the same time you’d be hard-pressed not to recognise “Should I Go To Glasgow?” as one of the most perfectly executed Shop Assistants/Tallulah Gosh-style numbers of recent years, or that at least twelve of the album’s fourteen tracks are total killers.
Really it’s a bit like having their live set pressed on a record so I can listen to it whenever I like, and it’s great to be able to finally make out the words to songs like “Purple Eyes” and “Heathcliff” and "Francis", and, er, yeah… I’m about to grind to a halt here, so just do the decent thing and buy it already. Have a happy 2011 everybody! It’s Friday night and I’m gonna go… stop.. writing stuff. For now.
Thursday, January 06, 2011
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Seven
10. Yellow Fever – s/t (Wild World)
I bought this album at a Vivian Girls gig last February. I’ve been meaning to write something about it ever since, but… god, what to say? Yellow Fever are like pop music’s final checkmate against blathering critics like me. Songs reduced to such an elegant, self-explanatory simplicity that the act of describing them seems absurd.
If Yellow Fever remind me of anything, desperately scrabbling around in my big book of possible comparisons, I suppose it’s probably Young Marble Giants, or unfairly forgotten Athens, GA duo Oh Ok.
Yellow Fever’s female participants are gifted with the kind of crystal-clear voices that in a different world could be belting out the trad arr hits down Cecil Sharp House of an afternoon. Here though, they also assume the function of a great, swinging rhythm section, realising a series of brilliant, elliptical pop songs. Some of the tunes also add guitar, but that’s not very interesting. Like a strange, art school ESG, it’s the bass and drums and mechanized group vocals that carry it.
“The cutest boy / I ever saw / was drinking cider / through a straw”, they sing on ‘Cutest’. “My brother and me / went to a show / we saw every / one we know”.
“Donovan’s pretty famous / he’s got a suitcase full of songs / he dug up old Atlantis / and know everybody’s growing their hair long”, they sing on ‘Donovan’.
It’s almost as if, by stripping these songs to bare musical essentials and emotionless statements of fact, Yellow Fever are questioning the way in which songs – dumb rhyming words set to repetitious, formulaic melodies – can make us so absurdly happy. It’s as if they’re testing the formula under laboratory conditions, to see how easily they can make it work.
And they can make it work extremely well – I’ve listened to this album dozens of times. Its numerous moments of dry wit make me grin and cackle as I walk down the street; “Why won’t you recognise / how psychedelic I am / and love me?” runs the chorus to ‘Psychedelic’, in between perfectly executed verses of flowery, acid trip imagery – the perfect riposte to five decades of paisley-clad sitar-botherers.
For all the irony though, there is also a vein of sorta dark, anthromorphic cartoon-folky imagery running through these songs that I rather enjoy, perhaps reminiscent of the weird majesty of Michael Hurley’s early songs, although they’re far, far, far removed musically speaking. I like the way that the protagonist of the song ‘Donald’ seems to start off as a household pet (“you were such a happy baby / now you’ve grown up old and lazy”), but seems to transform into an untrustworthy friend/lover whom the singer repeatedly warns not to “go downtown”. Maybe it’s nothing, but that uncertainty is kinda interesting, and uneasy, a feeling that extends into the odd campfire singalong vibe of “Hellfire” and “Joe Brown”.
‘Original’ seems an odd word to use in relation to an album that pilfers its melodies from playground singalongs and hymns ‘60s pop singers, but I guess I must be perfect guinea-pig for Yellow Fever’s experiments, because this one of the most charming and unexpected records I heard all year.
9. People of the North – Deep Tissue (Jagjaguwar/Brah)
My favourite Oneida record in years, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not even by Oneida. The history of People of The North dates back, I believe, to some time early last decade, when the duo of Kid Millions and Fat Bobby would tour under that name when other commitments prevented Baby Jane from being present to complete the mighty O.
The project also has its origins though in the song “People of The North”, which appears in different versions on Oneida’s “Anthem of the Moon” and “Each One Teach One” albums. That song has always been one of my favourites in the band’s repertoire, a perfect synthesis of their strangely-scaled medievalist psyche-rock song structures and their yen for assaultively repetitious space-rock hypnosis. It is also a brilliantly evocative song for me, never failing to bring to mind visions of future-earth cyborg-Nordic warriors enacting fierce, pre-voyage rituals amid frost-covered standing stones, and undertaking mystic quests through never-ending vistas of barren, Arctic coastline.
Yeah, it rocks that much.
And happily, the album that has eventually emerged under the People of the North moniker sees Kid, Bobby and collaborators taking their cues directly from that by-now-venerable mother-song, spreading the ‘People of the North’ aesthetic out into forty minutes and four tracks of icy, martial cosmic journeying music.
In general, I like to make a habit of punching myself in the face every time I use the term “krautrock”, but there’s no getting round it as an easy shorthand for music like this – long-form stretches of buzzing/propulsive minimalist rock, driven on under the twin sails of KM’s legendarily energetic/imaginative rolling percussion and FB’s brutalist analogue keyboard stabs, swathes of heavily ‘verbed guitar feedback cutting in for purposes of depth and texture.
“The Vastest Island” is particularly great, beginning with a mysterioso echoed vocal lament set against shimmering synth-strings and electronic noise, building up into a lethargic jungle march through unknown zones – a stirring track, reminiscent of such landmark O jams as “Antibiotics” and, well, “People of the North”.
It’s hard to really explain why I enjoyed this album so much, when last year’s “Rated O” still lurks in my CD pile like a triple disc mountain of smog-blackened, perilous terror. “Deep Tissue” certainly does little to assuage my worries that Oneida have abandoned their fine song-writing instincts, shifting more toward a morose, heads-down power electronics jam band kinda vibe. I think it probably comes down more to an overall feeling. “Rated O” and “Pre-Teen Weaponry” both hit me as very anxious, bilious records – claustrophobic and urban and kinda punishing. “Deep Tissue” on the other hand sounds clear and wide-open, like a Viking sunrise, as the longboat powers STRAIGHT AHEAD. I dig that.
Mp3>The Vastest Island
8. The Extra Lens – Undercard (Merge)
Another year, and, with no new Mountain Goats LP immediately forthcoming (don’t worry, he’s got the next one out in a few months), another dubious extra-curricular release from John Darnielle was definitely on the cards. This one is based around his long-standing writing/recording partnership with Nothing Painted Blue frontman Franklin Bruno, the two having previously billed themselves as ‘The Extra Glens’ (no, me neither).
What we have here is not quite an equal partnership I fear, with Darnielle taking lead vocals on all songs, and with recognisable Mountain Goats themes and song structures predominating throughout. Much as I love John D, I’m sure he’d appreciate my instinctive support for the underdog in wanting to hear Franklin stick his oar in a bit more, but well… pure conjecture on my part here, but I feel Bruno’s contribution to this record’s success is just as great as Darnielle’s, but perhaps more… subtle. I mean, like, I think he’s bringing some serious quality control to the table – perhaps helping to highlight the moments in JD’s song-writing that tend to get a bit over-familiar or undercooked when he’s left 100% in charge, and maybe tweaking them into something a bit more vital or unexpected.
Anyway, whether there’s any truth in that suspicion or not, the fact is this is probably the strongest sets of songs Darnielle has ever turned in outside of his primary Mountain Goats albums, all the more so for the fact that these songs’ various characters and situations seem comparatively, well… easy-going, compared to the weighty, heart-on-sleeve themes explored on the last few Mountain Goats records. If not exactly frivolous, songs here are refreshingly concise and to-the-point, each one making use of Darnielle and Bruno’s mighty skills in the field of narrative song-writing to create a whole world for itself, a cross-section of a whole feature length presentation compressed into two or three minutes of perfectly measured wordplay and melody.
‘Cruiserweight’ for example investigates the inner-life of a struggling boxer, doggedly pursuing his dreams against the uninspiring background of Cleveland Ohio, 1985. Even when deep into the realm of story-telling, it is rare to find a songwriter who can deliver a line like “take two shots straight to the liver / and remember what the food was like in prison” with a quiet authority that bypasses Springsteenian bluster.
Sticking with the noble theme of fruitless struggles in the 1980s, ‘Only Existing Footage’ takes a straight-forward look at the pitfalls of low-budget international filmmaking (“red-eye back to Belgrade with the footage that we’ve saved / end up with one can because / the baggage claim’s an unmarked grave”), whilst the more oblique ‘Communicating Doors’ injects anxious horror movie imagery into the dreams of a worn out political candidate trying to catch some sleep mid-campaign (“I know people who dig up graves / just to label the bones”).
For whatever reason, some of best songs here seem to a)deal with adultery, and b)cheerfully recall old Mountain Goats song-writing strategies we’d assumed were a thing of the past. Electric guitar and pro production aside, the frenzied “Adultery” could easily double for one of the atom-bombed male ego classics from 1994’s ‘Zopilote Machine’, whilst the wryly titled “How I Left the Ministry” refits the sexy car-wreck thrills of ‘The Sunset Tree’s ‘Dilaudid’ to present the ninety second history of a civil servant, his neighbour’s wife and a sticky end for everybody.
A few of the songs on “Undercard” – like ‘Some Other Way’, with its goofy conceit of a guy testing out various forms of suicide only to decide that none of them will quite get the right message across to his ex - may betray this album’s songwriting workshop roots, but the bottom line is that even the least impressive of the songs Darnielle and Bruno knock out together are the ones that every other middle-aged dude with an acoustic WISHES he could have come up with first. An A+ from song school right here, and an easy, no-obligation reminder of how great these guys are when they’re on form.
Mp3> How I Left the Ministry
7. Zola Jesus – Stridulum EP / Valusia EP (Sacred Bones)
From November 2010:
“I was thinking up shit like that in my brain before the metronomic drum loop started thudding, and our man and his brother-in-keyboards start pounding out the ominous, elegiac sustained chords that begin “Night” (although it could just as easily be any of the dozen or so inexplicably gigantic, overwhelming monster-songs Zola Jesus has recorded over the past eighteen months). As when I listen to the recorded version, something clicks to ‘OFF’, and by the time Nika / Zola J herself appears, my mind is pure and empty and defenceless.
Why do I like this music so much, anyway? It’s not like any of the stuff I usually listen to. I don’t feel any emotional connection to any of these songs, I have no cultural baggage tied in with them. All this pomp and darkness and this art studenty girl yakking in interviews about avant garde opera and ‘transgressive’ noise acts – not really my sorta thing, is it?
But, as per The Boss, clearly I like it because I’ve not been given a choice in the matter. I mean, you didn’t think this new world of grand, Wagnerian girl group synth-angst would be a democracy, did you? This is music that saps you on the back of the head and drags you into its cave. The monumentally simple, direct songs Nika Danilova has hammered out since she embraced ‘clean’ production and verse/chorus pop structures last year do not ask questions or seek advice. They’re like alien laser-stares or speeding trains – get out of their way if you must, but if you hold your ground, resistance is futile.
Every one of these songs is the kind of breathtaking fucking awesome, overblown song that plays when people run out of a burning building in slow motion or dissolve into the neon rain in a (yes) ‘80s movie. If you’ve ever spent time pausing the bleary song credits at the end of the video, trying to figure out who the hell that one incredible song was by and decided it was probably by some act with a completely lame/unpronounceable name who subsequently turn up a blank on allmusic – don’t worry. It turns out they were lying to you. All those songs are actually by Zola Jesus.”
6. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows (PeMa)
From July 2010:
“I may have skipped over their past few records, perhaps unfairly, but the songs from “Shadows” that have been creeping into my head via BBC6’s playlist as I do the washing up have stood out as wondrous compositions, full of warm, happy sounds; a veritable embarrassment of sweet, guitary riches.
From Norman Blake’s blinding, Rolling Stones and Go-Betweens referencin’ stadium rocker “When I Still Have Thee”, to “Baby Lee”, like a Big Star acoustic number all grown up without the angst, to the grand slow-burn of Raymond McGinley’s “The Fall” (for the first few minutes you’ll think it’s shit, but if you’re still not digging it by the post-guitar solo choruses, you’re probably a bad person), the whole record has the air of a triumphant, late-period classic from a band a lot of people would have preferred to see condemned to the arena of fading boring-ness years ago.
Naysayers would have it that Teenage Fanclub are doomed to never rise above the level of mere ‘niceness’. ‘Niceness’ of course being the ultimate anathema to all you intense artist cats out there who thrive on the howling furies of humanity pushed to new, blood-curdling extremes, or failing that, The XX.
But c’mon, fuck that. I’m nice. My flat is nice. Friends are nice. The weather in the spring is nice. Breakfast in nice. And as they roll on through contented middle age, Teenage Fanclub have become INTENSELY NICE, so powerfully nice it’s almost frightening. They may have called their album “Shadows”, but I’m not sure why, as I find few dark patches within the words and music of these thoroughly contented fellows.
I know I often put forward the notion that good music always has to be fighting against something, but… I dunno, somehow Teenage Fanclub seem to get a free pass from me on that one. Somehow the exultant spirit with which they seem to be welcoming us into their happy place in these songs overcomes all. Theirs is a fiery niceness that sits far distant from any notion of mediocrity, and only a chump would confuse the two.”
Mp3> When I Still Have Thee
Sunday, January 02, 2011
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part SixI swear, one year I’ll get these damn things finished before January 1st. Happy New Year, everybody.
15. The Girls At Dawn – Call the Doctor (Norton)
Finally acquiring a copy of the Girls At Dawn’s debut LP, my reaction was mixed – immediate confirmation that this is strange and instinctive music that I am duty bound to love, combined with the sad realisation that it is inevitably going to be pretty misunderstood.
I’ve not actually read any reviews of “Call The Doctor” yet, positive or negative, but given the inelegant toings and froings of modern day music crit discourse, I’ve got a feeling it’s gonna be a holocaust. I think that for a lot of people out there who’ve been fuming over the deductive hype accorded to Vivian Girls, Waaves and so on, the very existence of a band like this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
And unfortunately, the fact that Girls At Dawn are really, really good in their own quiet way is liable to be lost as soon as reviewers have grokked their publicity photos and list of the groups they’ve shared bills with, and as soon as they’ve heard the thin, shaky reverb-heavy sound of this record’s first side ring out, flagrantly lacking in the kind of ‘ideas’ and ‘hooks’ by which impatient listeners are understandably want to judge such product.
Would I be listening to this lazy-ass crap if these guys weren’t pretty girls from Brooklyn recording on a bunch of trendy labels…? I dunno man. Would we be listening to Black Sabbath if they were a group of Mexican women recording in the 1930s? Enough with the meaningless cultural-context choked sneers already.
Fact is, I find a stirring strangeness and subtlety to Girls At Dawns music that may not be immediately obvious; something that may take a receptive listener to appreciate, and something that I’ve avoided trying to talk about thus far cos I don’t know quite how to get at it. To me, there’s something lost and mystical in GAD’s essentialist take on garage/pop dogmas – their ‘Back From The Grave’ guitar, stand-up drummer thud and nervous schoolgirl chorusing – it’s like The Juju’s singing “D’You Understand Me?”, if they’d been raised in a woodlands shack, poring over medieval manuscripts.
They may be a band that lives in the city, but spiritually speaking everything on this record seems to dwell deep in the woods. I dunno which woods – maybe just the adolescent creepo woods that anxious teenagers go for walks in when left alone in their bedrooms, maybe the woods where ‘Sabbath went to do that weird, frowning poster insert for “Master of Reality”, maybe werewolf-haunted woods of Roky Erickson, obliquely hymned here on “The Evil One”.
Whilst there’s nothing here quite as spine-shivering as their amazing “Every Night” single, this album is a definite step up from the Captured Tracks 12”. The songs are simple, strong and knocked out with a stubborn, heads-down determination. The production is also simple, strong and real cool, with some nice underplayed psychedelic flourishes. At different points, Girls At Dawn take a shot at ‘60s girl group naiveté, at mutant Nuggets garage and at chiming ‘00s reverb-pop – but wherever they go, they just can’t shake those woods – and I like bands that leave me lost in the woods.
Mp3> Reach Me (Don’t Forget)
14. Purling Hiss – Hissteria / Public Service Announcement (Ritchie Records / Woodsist)
Oh man, is it time to write about Purling Hiss? Fuckin’ A! I love this guy!
I know Ron Asheton wisely kept off the smack during his time in The Stooges, but if we imagine what a perfect Ron opium reverie might have sounded like circa “Funhouse”, that’s what “Hissteria” delivers – flying fingers of fuzz-wah flame spazzing out endlessly across a sea of primeval delinquent stomp whilst some dude yelps stuff like “shake, c’mon” and “UGH” through a ceiling fan in the distance. The ambience may be strictly stoner/psyche 4-track overdub-land rather than a true live-band beatdown, but basically this stuff is pure distilled rock n’ roll, delivered in absurd, elephant-killing doses. And hopefully I don’t need to tell you that it’s fucking brilliant. I’m sure we’ve all got plenty of examples in our record collections of lead guitarists blundering around interminably for ten minutes, so to find a guy who can lay it down for that duration over a locked groove two chord boogie and have us floating to the ceiling throughout is surely an event worthy of celebration. A wager for any Hawkwind/Razilles/Allman Bros devotees out there: “Down On The Delaware River” for the most ass-ripping fourteen minutes of cosmic, eternal-now choogle you’ve heard this year, or your money back.
“Public Service Announcement” meanwhile is somewhat of a different proposition, but perhaps one of wider appeal. Opener “Run From The City” is a short-form cosmic hard rock masterpiece, with a central guitar hook to die for. It is painstakingly assembled and period appropriate, but recorded at what sounds like mono 4-track quality. If someone had told me it was some long-lost acetate from 1973 dug up from the vaults of a derelict studio, not only would I have believed you, I’d still have put it on just about every mix CD I make for the next eighteen months. It occurred to me for the first time today that maybe, just maybe, that riff gets a bit monotonous and he should have varied it a bit more. Apparently that was on my sixteenth listen.
The rest of the album regrettably does not follow suit, but it does at least sound like a highly creditable demos/odds n’ sods collection from a very talented guy, mixing instrumental noise sketches with a handful of dazzlingly groovy ascousitc-ish psyche rockers, gaining Purling Hiss a bonus merit award for song-writing alongside his peerless achievements in the fields of fuzz guitar mastery and all-purpose noise oblivion, as “Dpm” and “Beautiful Earth Creature” in particular fly by blissfully, distant kin to Gary Higgins’ “Red Hash”, The ‘Elevators “Splash # 1” / “Tried To Hide” soul stirring, or maybe even some particularly blitzed Posies/Lemonheads power-pop.
Mp3> Run From The City
13. Modern Witch – CDR (Disaro)
From June 2010:
“Creepy and lifeless as it may initially sound, I think that a hell of a lot of attention and imagination has been invested in this Modern Witch record, and a wealth of effective and chilling moments are the result… if you’re ready/able to pick up on ‘em.
Why has “In Your Eyes” – a hypnotic disco blissout that could have been pulled from a Larry Levan DJ set – been deliberately muffled to the extent that we could be listening to it through a brick wall in the alleyway next to the club? And what are we to say to the dot matrix printer that rampages in far higher fidelity over the end of the track? What dark secrets lie behind “Not The Only One”, in which an emotionless narrative of “buying food items” with a unnamed an co-conspirator is paired with an impossibly sinister Zombie Flesh Eaters backing track, while the singsong chorus states “I was not the only one / who believed what you said to me”?
“I Can’t Live In A Living Room” is the ‘hit’, swaying closer to punkoid reality by way of sounding like Niagara from Destroy All Monsters fronting a New York claustrophobia-wracked version of The Screamers, but even here they’re very knowingly playing to a crowd for whom descriptions like that actually make sense, almost DARING you to mute your enjoyment long enough to call foul on such internet-era retro-plagiarism. I don’t wanna do that though, cos the song f-ing rules.
And if the more jarring, fragmentary blurts of sound here sound like they could have been pulled straight off the soundtrack to “Liquid Sky”, then similarly, one is dared to recall how that film’s producers had to queue up for the chance to wrestle with a gigantic, public access synthesizer to realise their impossible dream of a twisted fashionista future, whereas Modern Witch presumably had a pretty chilled out time plugging some cool bits of old gear she/he/they/it got off ebay straight into the laptop and letting rip.
Perhaps *because* of such easy availability, the idea of some untarnished progression and innovation in pop music has seemed pretty dumb to me ever since people got bored of listening to exploding-harddrive post-Aphex Twin music a few years back. What else have you got in the future box? Atari Teenage Riot are getting back together to do nostalgia shows – it’s hilarious. Thirty three years after “no future”, is it any wonder that the most fun way to approach the future is to reimagine a new past and project it forward? Will I break some sort of record if I pose any more rhetorical questions?
And furthermore, the early ‘80s seem a particularly effective battleground for such shenanigans – a period in which the scary proclamations of the original Italian futurists seemed to finally trickle down into popular culture, as people started consciously making their music and movies rich with FUTURE. Even today, bands essentially playing Joy Division-style post-punk get lauded by The Guardian for their bleak, futurist vision, even as their reliance on before-we-were-born nostalgia means they might as well be doing a set of Hollies covers. By contrast, Modern Witch represents a prime vehicle for some more worthwhile re-enactment. Like the British hauntology records, all the jumping off points for a complete sensory experience are right there in the sound. Close your eyes and the visuals will come.”
12. LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus 12” (Not Not Fun)
From July 2010:
“Consciously modelled on one of those classic “so-and-so meets so-and-so” dub platters from the ‘70s, what we essentially have here is the sound of two spooky, stoned 21st century rich girls making a kinda temporally disconnected, neon-midnight stab at a dub record.
I don’t mean that to sound dismissive; after long years in which the thoughts and doings of spooky, stoned rich girls in the USA were nowt but a cruel mystery to me, I feel happy and privileged to live in a world where awesome things like this can exist and filter their way into culture so casually.
[LA Vampires] does the stabbing synth-bass riffs, sliced up ‘80s electro rhythm tracks and cosmic horror echo webs here, while [Zola Jesus] gets to hear some of her distinctive vocal melodies and operatic reveries stretched and laced up across the music, left to float alone in distant wells of mega-delay. Songs are present, and they are cool, but structure swiftly fades in favour of, well, y’know… dubbing it up. Imagine if, god… I don’t know; imagine if Scientist had done a score to ‘The Hunger’ or something. Sounds good? Hop in!
LA and Zola’s reinvention of Dawn Penn’s “No No No” is playing right now, and it’s as sweet and terrifying as you’d expect. You don’t love me, yes I know now (creeping up, knife in teeth.)
It’s easy to wax lyrical on a record like this, but let’s put it plainly – these ladies are so fucking talented they’re making GOTH-DUB sound like a brilliant idea. Think on that for a minute, and then pay whatever Rough Trade are asking for a copy of this.”
Mp3> Bone is Bloodstone
11. Cinema Red & Blue – s/t (What’s Yr Rupture?)
Hard to tell quite what the Cinema Red & Blue project represents in terms of the David Feck songbook – sudden burst of communal inspiration or warehouse clearance exercise? Either way, this collaboration between Feck and assorted NYC acolytes is sterling stuff, and if there’re a few cringeworthy, first thought/best thought numbers that I’d be happy never to hear again, and a few pleasantly obscurist cover versions to make up the numbers (The Chills, Vic Goddard and, er, Julian Cope), the lion’s share of this set is still strong enough to render it at about 50% as exciting as a new Comet Gain record. Which, needless to say, is plenty exciting.
It’s funny that whilst I still find the music of Crystal Stilts simply intolerable (I heard their new single on the radio last month and nearly hurled the set through the window, before I had a clue who the offending band were), their members do a perfectly creditable job here backing up Mr. Feck, emerging with a sound somewhat like a wussier CG who are worried about waking up the neighbours. Which, needless to say, is plenty fine.
Feck for his part is sticking strongly here to the kind of storm-chasing indie nostalgia and morbid self-examination that has predominated in his work of recent years, but as ever, he can invest power, defiance and roaring self-definition into these questionable preoccupations, knocking at least four or five of these fuckers straight into the can marked ‘greatest hits’.
And as usual, I feel like he must be channelling my sub-conscious mind on “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” (YES) and the astounding “Ballad of a Vision Pure” (next in a long lineage of perfect, self-mythologisin’ Feck/Gain classics), such do their respective sentiments stir my dusty loins. I wish he’d stop, it’s getting embarrassing. Elsewhere, “All Night Worker” is a storming, organ-led floor-filler, taking a tip from The Downliner’s Sect, expanding it via a quick sweepstakes of night shift employment woes into one of the most swinging, rambunctious cuts I’ve heard this year. Certainly sounds like everybody’s having a great time anyway, neighbours temporarily forgotten. "Ghost Confessions is the best meandering, self-pitying number about wasting one's life and leaving yr best years behind you etc I've heard this year, and "Jesse Lee Kincaid" with a spoken word coda from Hamish Kilgour is pretty damn special. Of course, every Comet Gain-related record needs one pristine jangle-pop classic so accidentally perfect that every indie-pop chancer around will be kicking themselves they didn’t record it first, and “Melanie Down”, exquisitely rendered tale of the “queen of the feedback crowd” awaiting her downfall on “the back streets of Kentish Town”, delivers.
Face it: most of you fuckers could toil for a lifetime and not come up with an example of the form to match that one. Feck knocks it out in-between beers to fill track # 6 on a side-project album when he can’t think of another meandering, self-pitying number about how he’s wasted his life and his best years are behind him. You do the math, then buy all his records and cry.
Mp3> Ballad of a Vision Pure
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