Sunday, 19 December 2010

Moments of 2010: Relief Gives Way To Delight

It might be the skew of the media, for it is a famous skewer of personality, but I've always got the impression that Win Butler's a bit of a sneery, high-minded type of fellow, that he's someone who looks down on anyone he gets chance to. I don't know what formed this opinion, but listening to the lyrics of Rococo, as he declaims 'the modern kids' for being 'so wild, yet they are so tame', it's hard to find him any less anyone. What, the youth aren't rebellious any more? I hope he's not trying to be John Lydon or something – we all know what happened to John Lydon, don't we? That's right, he ended up gurning on TV, looking like a cunt and selling fucking butter. (As opposed to before, when he was gurning on TV, looking like a cunt and selling an overrated anarchist ideal.)

A chump selling butter. Wish I could claim credit for this graffiti, but google image search says it's via

Which is a roundabout way of saying that while Rococo's lyrics might be loathsome, they're pretty much the only thing wrong with Arcade Fire's latest album, The Suburbs, of which the relief of going “oh phew, it's good” gives way to the delight of “fuck, it's amazing”, and which is definitely a moment of the year.

There's always this fear with successful bands who essentially get their rep on the basis of an oustanding debut album that they'll just produce diminishing returns that, while they might sell better, are painfully unsatisfying to the fan who fell in love with the debut. Coldplay are the example that spring instantly to mind for me, I'll defend Parachutes to the hilt but weep tears of despair over Viva La Vida. And yeah, after Neon Bible filled me with feelings of “well yeah, it's quite good, but...”, I figured Arcade Fire'd go the same way.

WRONG! And shut up.

I think my first feeling, upon hearing the first few seconds of The Suburbs, was relief. Most specifically, the “phew, this sounds a bit crisp and clean, thank God they've ditched that slightly muffled, arch timbre that Neon Bible had”. And yeah, it's true, for the most part The Suburbs' main strength is that it's clear – it gets across the point of Win Butler's lyrics, and of the band's music. One issue I had with Neon Bible was it just seemed a bit too allegorical, like it was all cloaked in metaphor upon metaphor, and with the music that little bit fuzzed, like a band who're tentatively experimenting with the 'shoegaze' effect on a guitar pedal, it just seemed a little exclusive.

And the relief continues, when you realise they can still write barnstormers of songs – the opener creeps up on you over a few listens, but “Ready to Start” was there straight away, and it was the kind of statement-of-intent which littered Funeral, and which made it such a bombastic treat too. And this is probably why I instantly warmed to it – it wasn't that it had an instant effect on me (though “Ready to Start” did), it was that I could tell it was going to really grow on me. That sounds odd, doesn't it? Hell, music's all about feelings, isn't it? And I admit it baffles me, but a lot of my favourite albums I didn't fall in love with straight away, but I could tell I was going to, like the first time you saw Clemence Poesy in the fourth Harry Potter film. Or when you go to your first football match; win or lose it kind of grips you enough to want to return, but the love, the loserish fascination, that comes later.

It came later with The Suburbs for me, too. This entry's called Relief gives way to Delight, and sure enough that's how I feel listening to this album now. There's just so many treats on this album. Some, like the obvious “Sprawl II” (that it seems like everyone – accurately – has compared to “Heart of Glass”), grab you by the shoulders and shake you bodily every time you listen. Some, like the arpeggio-driven “Suburban War” only kind of hit you half way through the song each time, and wash over you in floods. It's probably my favourite album of the year. And it's such a delight to realise that this isn't a band victim to diminishing returns. Yes, it could've done with being trimmed a little, as it is it's a little overambitious and – ha – sprawling, but that's part of the charm. There's enough fantastic songs here to keep anyone happy. But you know that, don't you? This album's sold by the bucketload. Arcade Fire have sold out the O2 multiple nights in a row as far as I'm aware. They're a massive band, but between this and Funeral they massively deserve it. And that's why the relief and delight of this album's quality, and the glee seeing how megagigantic they've become is one of my moments of the year.

Arcade Fire? The Arcade Fire? One of those two? Yeah.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Moments of 2010 - The 15 Fame-Filled Minutes Of The Fanzine Writer

Three things are pretty much a given these days when I go to Manchester. Firstly, I’ll misjudge the time it takes between my house and the station and will be stood on the platform freezing my bollocks off for 20 minutes and more. Secondly, I always seem to arrive earlier than expected, necessitating a lonely pint in the Deaf Institute while furtively watching the door and waiting for other people to arrive. Thirdly, when travelling back, usually hungover, I'll will be found clutching a fanzine, fighting my bleary eyes in an attempt to read it. That fanzine is Pull Yourself Together.

Before assumptions are made that this is another 6-page ramshackle affair written in permanent marker, copied down the local ProntoPrint on paper with the same consistency as Izal toilet paper, it isn't. Some people love that sort of thing for the character and all that jazz, but I personally prefer a bit of substance, something which too many fanzines sadly don't offer on either the design or the content. See, I'm actually not as twee as people make out (or indeed at all, but that's a debate for another day)

But I digress. What PYT (as it shall henceforth be referred to) in fact is, is what some people would consider an oxymoron – a professional fanzine. Look, it has a design! Interviews with established artists! It's printed at a professional printers! Something approaching a business model (which allows it to remain free for you and I to pick up)! It feels like I've been reading it for ages, but a quick look at my bookshelf shows that I possess only 3 issues (and indeed didn't know about its existence until July), and in a way it feels like someone you've only just met but simultaneously feel you've known for years. Aside from guides to scenes away from Manchester (I have in front of me guides to Leeds, Cardiff and Brighton written by local DIY exponents), and artists (Standard Fare, Jens Lekman, Dutch Uncles, and the new one I've yet to pick up contains Neil Hannon and Steve Lamacq – one of their biggest fans), PYT also offer a great city guide to Manchester for those looking for something off the beaten track; with its bar guides, independent quality places to eat, or details of changes to the city landscape you may have missed (as well as a gig listings page), it's a handy little guide to what's going on.

But to dub Dan and Hannah as merely fanzine writers would be doing them a great disservice, for theirs is a cap of many feathers. Aside from also running a PYT night at Common Bar where popkids can come and have a natter with their friends while the whole PYT ethos gets condensed into a 4hr DJ set, they also put on some pretty great gigs too.

How many promoters can claim to have put on pop legend Darren Hayman, in an observatory? Not many, that's for sure. If anyone at all. But if I'm being honest, it's not what or who they put on, or where, but the way it's done. You may think the concept of promoters looking after bands and actually, well, promoting the gig and providing them with what they want is a given but trust me, having heard the horror stories from one venue in particular this is clearly not the case. I won't get myself into hot water by publicly outing the venue in question, but let's just say comparing their practices to those of PYT and Underachievers (who I wrote about yesterday) would be like comparing Night & Day. As with Underachievers though, PYT putting on a gig is a bit like your best mate bursting into your room frantically waving a CD around and saying 'LOOK AT WHAT I FOUND!'. Either Dan & Hannah are the best actors in the world or they genuinely believe in/love everything they're involved in and put on. It's no surprise to learn that Underachievers and PYT can be found working together under the near-unstoppable Postcards From Manchester banner, culminating in September's great day out that was Postcards Festival (reviewed elsewhere). I said in my Underachievers piece how you feel you're being willed on to have a good time, and it really was a strange feeling dancing at the clubnight afterwards and feeling the organisers watching you – to quote PYT's Dan - 'tear up the dancefloor' from the overhead gantry.

The morning after the Postcards festival holds perhaps the most enduring PYT memory of mine to date. It found Dan and Hannah working out who to showcase at the In The City conference, organising their fanzine, and a myriad other things. Me? It was all I could do to not fall asleep into my bacon sandwich. Their workload is, I imagine, comparable to most paid professionals from what I've seen, and to do it while also fitting in part time work and attaining merit-grade Masters degrees as well is nothing short of remarkable considering PYT is, to an extent, nothing more than a hobby.

I guess in the last 2 posts what I've said in a convoluted – and by convoluted I mean 2000-words levels of convoluted – is that this year I came across the Manchester DIY scene and almost instantly fell in love with it. Having spent years in an area where no-one does anything, or stands around bemoaning the state of things and saying how they could do better while achieving sod-all, it was great to see people not only doing things, but doing things they so clearly love. Of course, it'd be foolish to suggest doing thing like these is all plain sailing. We've already detailed the Underachievers venue struggles, and I'm sure money has been lost and audiences have been disappointing on occasion. But they keep coming back for more, and that's what's important.

I wish I could say I'd been inspired to do something similar, but ultimately I know there are neither the venues nor the like minded individuals around these parts to make something similar work, but what it was done is opened my eyes to what could be achieved if the elements missing from here were to be present should I move to a city. Why not go have a gander, it might have the same effect on you.

Pull Yourself Together occurs on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month at Common Bar, in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Fanzines are released on a bi-monthly basis, and can be picked up in various Manchester outlets for free, and selected record shops nationwide (though if you ask nicely, Dan and/or Hannah may post you one, who knows). To keep up to speed on all things PYT – and trust me, you'll need all the help you can get – bookmark

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Moments Of 2010: Finding Clubnight Utopia

You may not know this but – shock horror – North Wales isn't really known for its music scene. In fact, I can only think of: Super Furry Animals, Feeder, and the fact that Lemmy used to work in the Hotpoint plant at Llandudno (sadly now closed) in regard to what it's ever achieved.

This extends to ANYTHING related to music, be it good local gigs, or even clubnights. I could try and theorise as to why there isn't any form, but that's not what I'm here to do. The only 'alternative' music night that I had was the Student Union-organised one at Bangor University. The trouble with SU nights though is that it's inevitably – for want of a better word – diluted. This is especially true in Bangor where, owing to a lack of anything else to do at night, a lot of people would go purely for a night out and somewhere to go. The night would then have to cater for these audiences, playing Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian rather than what a big city alternative night in a decent venue would play. I still can't listen to 'Deceptacon' by Le Tigre (a rare highlight) without thinking of standing in an SU with sticky floors that stank of spilt cider and black while looking at my watch wondering if I could realistically leave yet.

I should stress that while it would be easy to shoulder the blame for my dissatisfaction on the DJs, but ultimately they were only playing to their audience and having spoken to a couple of them, they seemed to enjoy playing Kaiser Chiefs' 'Ruby' on weekly rotation as much as I enjoyed hearing it. There is though the story of a friend who went up to request 'Ghost Town' by The Specials and the DJ hadn't heard of it, never mind brought it.

So, in all this, I must have had some utopian vision of what my ideal alternative clubnight experience should be like. During the bleak January of this year (I have a memory of the snow from my shoes melting onto a pub floor and re-freezing during a pre-drinks session) I found the nearest approximation to the aforementioned utopia in Underachievers Please Try Harder. Yes, it's named after a Camera Obscura song, no it isn't a twee night.

What it is, is instead a perfect combination of clubnight and place for discovering new bands. Even if you've never met Dave and Kirsty, you always get the impression when you attend that everything is done with genuine enthusiasm, not something cobbled together with a 'that'll do' type atmosphere that can sometimes happen at the more commercial clubnights. The band choices always feel like you're being let into someone's great new discoveries, not some cold and callous exercise in drawing an audience. In a way, it feels like you're at a giant listening party, with 200 other likeminded souls. After years of mediocre-at-best clubnights, what might sound quite normal for the average city clubnight attendee came as something of a revelation.

The same applied to the clubnight upstairs post-bands. 3 years of Peter Bjorn & John and Maximo Park (I'm not kidding. I went Рfor what I believe was the final time before I graduated Рduring fresher's week in 3rd year and found Young Folks and Apply Some Pressure still being played, as they were in first year) gave way to what amounted to hearing my record collection, plus a few forgotten gems and new finds, being played loudly over a PA. Let's face it, that's what most of us want from a night out. I still remember belting out The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Weezer et al at the top of my lungs, giddy at having finally found my calling. As an incidental aside, months later I still don't know what's more fun, being part of the mayhem that ensues when Motorhead's Ace Of Spades goes down at 3am, or standing back and watching the assembled rag-tag collective of the client̬le going absolutely bananas. I've done both, and each in their own way brings about a grin of shit-eating proportions.

Underachievers' determination to give Manchester a great alternative Saturday night out was underlined by persistent venue issues throughout the year. Spiritual home – the characterful but calamitous and chaotically-run Saki Bar in Rusholme – saw its licence revoked, with an appeal expected later in the year and the bar allowed to trade until that point. Underachievers stood by its venue throughout proceedings, urging people to sign petitions etc until the matter was resolved in, if memory serves, early October. Having won their appeal (to, it has to be said, some surprise), the alliance of Saki and Underachievers looked set to continue until barely a month later fate struck another cruel blow when bailiffs cleared it out for outstanding debts. This, understandably, was the last straw and after a couple of weeks of uncertainty it was with relief that a new permanent home has been found in the Northern Quarter.

I appreciate a number of you will read this and go 'oh look, small town boy goes to the city and discovers something that isn't shit and second-rate and raves about it', but I genuinely believe this is one of the finest nights out I've come across. Then enthusiasm of the organisers, and a sense of wordlessly being willed to have a good time (something other people have said, not just me) make it stand out in a year where I've experienced other nights in Leeds and at festivals. With a new location seeing it nestled snuggly amongst the celebrated pubs of the Northern Quarter ( not to mention the promise of an Underachievers ale at said venue, and promises of 'the gig booking being a step above' for the new year), perhaps it's time to brave the weather come the new year and find out for yourselves what it's about. I defy you not to leave with a smile on your face.

Underachievers Please Try Harder is held at Gullivers, in Manchester's Northern Quarter, every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month. Further details can be found at )

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Moments of 2010: I Danced on Stage with Salif Keita

So, it's already that time of year again, when all the obsessive collectors, freaks and weirdos of the musicsphere start ranking everything and reminiscing about a year that's still in progress. And that's just the Tones of Town staffers!

Seriously though, the end of year phenom is something you can't really escape if you're at all interested in reading anything your contemporaries are writing about music. For better or for worse, it's here to stay. But of late I've started finding it a tad unimaginative Рgreat, you listed five albums that either a) everyone's heard of, or b) no-one's heard of. Well done, collect a medal for taking part on the way out. So, I hear you ask, how do you plan to escape the clich̩ of the end of year bollocks? Well, I don't think I can. No, I hear you add, what I meant was, you're obviously leading into what you're going to do for end of year whatever, so why don't you tell us all.

Thought you'd never ask.

Just thought I'd mention a few pretty cool musical experiences I've had this year. Granted, I'm not the most widely-cultured, -listened, and -gigged, but hell, this whole blog's about personal feeling and personal experience.

So, I thought I'd tell you all about Salif Keita. Not just generally Salif Keita, you understand, but hey, have a bit of background. Salif Keita's a musical icon, a legend of Malian – of 'African' music, famous worldwide, all that. He's a sixty-one year old albino, and as such a campaigner for the world albino community, who are often victims of human sacrifices (you do hear news articles and charity press releases along these lines from time to time, generally referring to Africa but hey let's not generalise here). He got worldwide attention for the first time in 1987, with the release of Soro, which demonstrated his sound – that marriage of traditional Malian sounds with European and Western production and musical styles. The album that introduced him to me was 2002's Moffou, which is generally one of my absolute favourite albums ever. Go listen to it, in fact hell, here, I'll embed “Yamore” for you.

(That's not the official video - the official video's to a single edit four-and-a-bit minutes long. This is not a song that should be heard in shortened form.)

How does this link to 2010? Well, on 7
th April, I went to see Salif Keita perform the second date on his world tour, playing the Barbican. Quite frankly, it was incredible. The audience isn't really like one I've been in before, there's everyone from people my age up to people of probably pensionable age, we're all sat down, it's terribly civilized but there's this buzz in the atmosphere, or maybe it's just the first time I'm actually going to see a gig on these terms. It's not me and a mate or three, in a dingy converted theatre drinking £4 cans of Red Stripe, I'm sat in this epic hall (and the Barbican is a wonderful looking venue) waiting to see a musician the like of whom I've never seen before.

The rhythms kick in and they just keep going, it's not relentless or anything but there's this pulse, this fizz in the air coming from the music, from the grins and the energy in the performance, all while the big man himself holds court in the middle, letting that wonderful tenor of his just cut through it all and do the spine-tingly thing that we all love in music. He's playing songs I've never heard before, but that's no surprise, not only is this promoting an album I've not listened to before, but I only own two of his back catalogue – I've heard one more on Spotify but I don't think he plays anything from it. But hey, who cares? The point of this isn't to sing along to the songs you love, it's all sung in Bambara anyway, and I don't know about you but I'm not fluent in it.

Then, still on a high, it's the last song of the set, and ah – I know this one! It's “Madan”, from Moffou. Love this song, it's a real rip-snorter, full of energy, packed full of melody, this celebratory feel. And hell, it looks like I'm the only one who the music seems to have gotten under the skin of, look, there are people on there dancing! They're just ordinary folks, probably commuted in from god knows where, and they're dancing on stage with Salif Keita, getting grins from the backing band and stuff – why can't I go on there? I'm close enough to the front. Hang on, Salif Keita's leaning forward to get more people on stage, I could totally go on stage.

Yep. Salif Keita just dragged me on stage to dance with him, his band, and the 20-odd other randoms. The big man himself. I'm a little starstruck.

Aside from that, I'm dancing – no, flailing, trying not to look too indie and trying not to care that I'm dancing on stage in front of about 3,000 people, 3,000 strangers. Because, that's one of the overriding traditions I take from African music – it doesn't really give a fuck if you look a bit foolish as long as you look like you're having fun. This isn't about irony, or affectations or worrying about how cool you look. It's you, it's music, it's you giving in to the power music can have if you let it. It's the sort of thing that's got a timid soul like me out of that seat, grasping a world-famous musician's proffered hand, dancing and laughing with a professional djembe player. It's one of my moments of the year not just because it was a hell of a lot of fun, not just because it was a fantastic gig dancing notwithstanding, and not just because it's an experience I'm unlikely to repeat in a hurry, but because it reminded me why I love music. What could be better?

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Walkmen - Lisbon

There's a question that is constantly floating about the worlds of computer games that goes something along the lines of this: "Are computer games art?". The answer, of course, is impossible to even consider because Art itself is subjective, and the broad brush strokes given to anything that is suddenly proclaimed to be artful is nothing short of redundant these days. If suddenly, someone, somewhere was to figure it out and understand if or if not the latest Gears of War title was Art then would anything change? Would it be a validation of the medium? Would it change people’s opinions of gamers and games to any degree? My sceptical mind says no, but that day will come. To some, it already has - I would say it has came close; in certain games, such as Okami and Mass Effect, where the uniqueness of the medium is shown unabashedly, with artistic merit, to say that the work and sales of all these people who work on these massive projects needs recognition from people outside the medium is not required.

I say this because it is related to the music industry as a whole, in a way. You see, bands recently have became almost corporate entities - the actual market forecasts of massive multinational companies are dictated by the performance of the albums that they have invested in. Does the recent album by Coldplay feel artful because it is music, or is it less artful due to gestation period upon which millions of pounds were spent on production? Are Hollywood films still artful when they are staunchly formulaic to make money? As I stated at the start, it is neither here nor there for me to say, nor is it for anyone else to define. Art is just something that is and in this 21st century world we live within, like it or not, we need to have a definition of something we cannot define. I like to think of it as Quantum Criticism.

This relates to the Walkmen ever so slightly, so I'll admit that we have gone off topic even before I have started to discuss the band, and the album, so we should probably start I think. Firstly, let me explain the Walkmen as they are to me. I saw them away back in the hazy days of 2002. I guess it was by accident rather than by design, but I had been exposed to them via the way of The Rat which, I guess, is how most people back in those times would have as MTV 2 was playing the hell out of the video. The song was all I knew. That cold night in Edinburgh where, after a few illicit beers, we missed our last train back to Glasgow and my friends and I waited for a father to pick us up and take us back home. I didn’t persue the Walkmen after that gig.

In full circle I rediscovered them again in my adulthood just before the release of You & Me was announced. I picked up the three albums prior to You & Me and started to pick their subtleties apart. Then, with one swoop, You & Me came along and gave me one of my all time favourite albums. The slow, measured, slick build up from all the songs actually gave me one of my first ever amateur reviews. In this short, badly written, and well misspelled review (I gave it 8/9, an arbitrary scale not needed anymore) I quite surprisingly made a valid point that “I feel that if I had been involved with them any early [sic] ...I wouldn’t have understood the point of The Walkmen”.

With this, their sixth studio album, Lisbon, the band has the problem of having to follow up their masterpiece. There is no doubt that You & Me is their most impressive body of work to date and it feels like the album the rest were written to allow for, Lisbon is the sound of a band realising that they have managed it, and they can relax and spread out in their new found peace. However, don’t mistake that observation for it being complacent – straight away on Lisbon there is an immediacy of difference. More brass horns and less dark piano crawl over this record, and the vocals are sounding warmer with every track. If this album was to be described as a season it would be spring, but a dark, twisted, malevolent spring in which the flowers are all blooming and the trees are back in colour... but the flowers are blues and blacks and the leaves have grown back in autumn colours.

Inside the album there is a feeling that the album is artful. This bring me back to my first point, in a round a bout way. There’s a sense that the band are working their way through a plan, an almost mapped out journey of destinations and like most journeys there are blips and bumps along the way. The scenery is beautiful and the album soars beyond it’s early forefathers in most, if not all, the tracks, but is solemnly covered by its direct predecessor. Imagine that the first albums where cityscapes; the tumbling suburbs and the hostile industrial landscapes, the last two albums are the wonderful countryside of calm. Whilst the band are making music that feels timeless, like an old band used to, the rest of the world is screaming ahead into Autotuned Soylent Green futures, and this timelessness is present in not only the instrumentation, or the vocals, but right in the Walkmen’s life blood. The album feels artful because it is not new, it’s old, and it feels like an album used to feel. Lisbon is as good as You & Me without being You & Me again, and that’s some of the highest praise the album can be given.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Postcards From Manchester Festival and the Rise of the Independent Promoter.

The piece contained within was actually originally destined for a leading internet review site, but owing to an editing backlog it somehow got lost. So, just over a month since the festival itself, it sees the light of day.  Apart from a great day/night out with great people, it also demonstrated what a well run event by small, local promoters can achieve. I was going to write a summary of my thoughts on the matter, but I genuinely believe that I couldn't put it better, nor any more succinctly than my original concluding paragraph does.  Enjoy, and don't forget to check out the bands mentioned within, and indeed the organisers' other interests, all of which are awesome.

With the festival season winding down and the nights fast drawing in, it was good to see that the enterprising spirit of the Postcards From Manchester collective brought its second Postcards Festival to the Deaf Institute. The collective comprises clubnight/fanzine organisation Pull Yourself Together, and clubnights Underachievers Please Try Harder, You! Me! Dancing! and Young Adult Friction. The festival saw an ambitious smash-and-grab type schedule featuring 13 bands over 2 stages in 9 hours, with the collective providing a 3hr clubnight afterwards

As an opening statement, the raucous Brown Brogues make an arresting proposition. The simplified riffs and barked staccato vocals make comparisons to a scuzzier-sounding Fall inevitable, but they're also capable of more melodic songs recalling 60s surf pop with an overall feel not a million miles away from press darlings Best Coast. Along with Slow Club they also push the boundaries as to how much noise two people can make on stage. Making it a double bill of local bands were Patterns, whose driving basslines and chiming melodicism combine to produce a full rich sound reminiscent of The Chameleons. The urgency and confidence inherent in the songs suggest the band are ready to take the songs to a larger audience - an audience which the sons genuinely deserve based on this performance

D/R/U/G/S, an electronic two piece, continue the Postcards local bands showcase shortly afterwards. Their nocturnal sound was at odds to the level of light being let in by the venue's skylights early on in the day, the compositions nonetheless showed great promise and provided a fascinating insight into the local electronic scene. The eclecticism of the line-up continued with London's Internet Forever. Their short, sharp fuzz-pop songs seemed to encapsulate the frenetic (but never rushed) feeling of the day as a whole. Particular highlights were former single 'Cover The Walls' and an inspired cover of Dire Straits 'Walk Of Life'

Deaf To Van Gogh's Ear (another local band) sound like Foals hyperactive cousins, with their stabs of treble and simultaneously inventive and incredible tempo changes and timing signatures. While these unorthodox timing and tempo changes may not be to everyone's taste, they certainly command attention and respect. From math-rock to the experimental post-Electralane project of Verity Susman, Vera November. Haunting and beautific, the set worked whether playing at its most atmospheric (live saxophone played over a pre-recorded sample) or at its most accessible and pop-y. Certainly one to catch in future.

Golden Glow come armed with a sound suggesting a determination to progress, and certainly wouldn't have sounded out of place in an arena or an academy-sized gig. The infectious 'Adore Me' proved a set highlight, and although towards the end of the set the songs began to sound the same, it was reportedly only the band's 7th ever live performance, meaning there is still plenty of time for the songs to develop. Trailer Trash Tracys' nocturnal sound suited the darkened venue, their airy sounds and sense of melody making comparisons to The xx inevitable. A solid if unspectacular performance on this occasion. Americans Here We Go Magic provided the penultimate entertainment. Despite throwing in nods to David Bowie and Talking Heads, the songs seemed to go on for far longer than necessary and at the same time seemed to go nowhere. A frustrating listening experience.

'Allo, Darlin'end the evening with a stunning display that (following on from their Indietracks performance) only reaffirms what a formidable live act they are. Joyous, beguiling, and grin-inducing, they're the first band to have the entire venue on its feet, openly dancing, and singing along. Elizabeth Morris' way with a melody remains without question, while new songs show that the barrel is far from dry on the songwriting front. Singles Polaroid Song and If Loneliness Was Art pass through in a blaze of energy. Ignore them at your peril.

In closing, three things have come out of the Posctards festival. Firstly, you don't need to be Tony Wilson and have a So It Goes or a Hacienda to showcase local talent - the festival put on 5 acts from the Manchester area alone. Secondly, a dedicated team of enthusiastic people who actively promote can, with the right venue, do as much to promote and nurture new talent as say, a record label tour or an NME radar tour. Lastly, if this event is anything to go by, the professionalism, enthusiasm and dedication demonstrated will ensure that the Postcards collective will certainly be something to write home about.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Summer Camp: The Bunk Bed Tape

A couple of weeks back I did an interview feature with Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey, better known as Summer Camp, for (which can be found here: in its abridged, narrated form). But while transcribing it afterwards I realised that 1) I was never in a month of Sundays going to fit everything I wanted to be included, plus my comments, into my wordcount limit and 2) that it seemed a shame and a pity for the full transcript to never see the light of day. I felt there was a wealth of material which couldn't be condensed into a 2-sentence soundbite, so with Elizabeth's permission - for which I'm grateful - we've decided to run the full transcript - unabridged, unedited - here.

Given the near-unanimous praise the EP has garnered so far, does it justify the unorthodox route you've taken so far, especially given the backlash from some corners of the online community, who suggested that your anonymity was little more than a gimmick?

Jeremy: 'I think what needs to be said is that praise we've had, or haven't had, or could have or could not have had, is really irrelevant. Forming the band, which was something of an accident, has been nothing but enjoyable so far, and what the critics make of it is not really top of our list of priorities.'
Elizabeth: 'It doesn't really matter. People are going to like it or not like it whether you've come from a manufactured boyband background or whether you've been raised in solitary confinement for the last 24 years....' (Jeremy: 'Raised by wolves!') '…....You can't start worrying about these things. The way we came about is the way we came about.'
Jeremy : 'It's like if you were adopted and you were ashamed of it, there's nothing you can do about it, don't be ashamed about it'
Elizabeth: 'Because we never thought that anyone would think it had been done on purpose, we don't really feel justified or unjustified in the praise that the EP has or hasn't got'.
Jeremy: 'It was all an accident, unfortunately. Maybe we should start forward planning! That said, it's been nice to get some positive feedback from people at gigs as well as the nice reviews we've had, which is awesome.'

Did you feel that there was a greater pressure on you to remain anonymous or did the space to do what you wanted in the way that you wanted allow you greater freedom?

Elizabeth 'I think it acted in our benefit, yeah, but everything's a double edged sword. If we'd come out and said 'It's Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey' most people wouldn't have cared, but some people would've gone 'that's ridiculous', some people would've written us off because of that, some people would have liked us more because of it. It got to the point in our small world that it became quite a big deal and we were worried what people were going to say. It meant that it gave us the space to come to terms of being in a band, but it also meant that people had really high expectations of who we might be, or some people did, and we were worried about disappointing them. There isn't really a definitive 'Yes! We're glad we did it like that' or 'No, we're annoyed we did it like that.''
Jeremy: 'Starting the band was a happy accident, and in a way it's meaningless talking about having done it another way. If we'd sat down and worked out how to use our talents we'd have, I don't know, probably ended up writing a musical!'
Elizabeth: 'The worst musical in the world!'

Was there a eureka moment as to when you were going to 'go public' or was it more a gradual change in mindset?

Elizabeth: 'We were outed by a magazine. We didn't have a plan of how to announce it. We thought that when we were ready to play gigs people would come and see us and it'd spread through word of mouth. We weren't going to make a big announcement because to be honest, we were scared of what people might think when they knew it was us. So the day we were outed was horrible. We didn't know it was going to happen and suddenly everyone knew. In a way it's ridiculous, we're talking about such a tiny fraction of people.....
Jeremy: 'Hundreds of people, at most.'
Elizabeth:'........who know about us now that didn't then, so in a way it's not a big thing, but at the time it was pretty intense.'

Was there ever any danger, in your opinion, that the backstory could in any way have/has overtaken the music? The Arctic Monkeys' first album couldn't seem to get mentioned anywhere without talk of them being a 'MySpace band' given their route of self-publicity.

Jeremy: 'Yeah, but that didn't really overtake their music; they sold millions of records and have a huge fanbase that love what they do. I would suggest that anyone who called them a MySpace band probably never listened to their record. In any case, I think with us, or in fact with any band, if you don't have an interesting story for the press to write about, they don't tend to write about you very much. Look at Bon Iver, who had that fantastic, mythological story, hibernating in the woods and beavering away on this project while in the crux of a massive depression. There was a great singer-songwriter record that wouldn't have got written about as much without that story behind it, yet deserved to be written about as much. Certainly, we'd like to be asked questions in interviews other than 'you used to be anonymous, what's that about then', but I don't think the people who turn up at our gigs, or indeed some interviews, are concerned about it. It's not really that big a deal. We used to talk about this quite a lot – how with Twitter and blogs people now have so much information at their fingertips about bands. If you look back 20 or 30 years you'd buy a record and scrutinise the credits, just to find out who played what. I think we came out at a time when there were a couple of other bands such as jj who were a bit mysterious and that worked in our favour. But as we always have to say, we're not clever enough to have been able to have orchestrated anything like that. Our names are now out there and no-one's ran away screaming. If this was a blind date we'd be ordering dessert and talking about the next date.'
Elizabeth: 'We wouldn't be on the dessert! We'd be getting drinks and ordering a starter!' Jeremy: 'I was thinking our first album was our first date......'
Elizabeth 'We'd still be talking about our exes and weird fetishes. We've still got a long way to go'

Your music can't seem to be mentioned without talk of 80s nostalgia and John Hughes imagery. Is this pigeon-holing and categorisation something you agree with or is it becoming tiresome?

Elizabeth: 'I'd say it's correct pigeon-holing'
Jeremy: 'I wouldn't really call it pigeon-holing'
Elizabeth: 'It's cited as one of our influences. I mean, looking at the EP, Young, John Hughes and the photos we use are both a big part of what we've been doing with that EP. But the whole thing with being written about as part of a scene or in a particular context of X and Y isn't a bad thing because these are things we're really proud of. I mean if we'd been named 'Best Shagger' or 'Shagger Of The Year' in The Sun and that kept being brought up when we were trying to launch our religious campaign to be the next Pope, then yeah, that would be annoying. But these are things that we really care about and to a degree we don't really mind what people think about them. In a way it's good because they're not directly related to us'
Jeremy: 'I think you'd make a great Pope, Elizabeth.'
Elizabeth: 'Thank you. But basically we're talking about things that we really like. We like those fan photos, and we really love John Hughes films, but we didn't make them, we didn't star in them. We're just talking talking about the things that we love......'
Jeremy: 'There's this weird thing when you're in a band where people keep asking you what films you're into, which is nice......'
Elizabeth: 'I don't think that, I think it's that we talk about those films'
Jeremy: '…..well yeah, but certainly being asked what music you're into always crops up in interviews. Which is cool'

Is it not slightly strange having a portion of your audience celebrating a decade which they weren't even born in, never mind lived through? I was born at the arse end of the decade and have no knowledge of it, and some of your audience will be younger still.

Jeremy: 'I think it's really cool! There are good things in every decade which are worth celebrating'
Elizabeth: 'The thing with John Hughes films, everyone says they're just these 80s films, these 80s teen flicks, and they're not. They're timeless. The thing I love about them isn't the fact that they're set in the 80s, sure I love the fashion of the 80s, but what I love about the fashion of the 80s is this whole post-punk thing where kids in the suburbs were being really adventurous with their clothing and it was a really exciting time of just being experimental and creative and there were so many amazing bands because of that, and so many amazing teen icons. What I love about the John Hughes films is not that they're 80s teen flicks, it's because they're funny and edgy and raw, and they talk about things which are universal, they talk about humanity let alone being a teenager, and they deal with it in this really amazing way. John Hughes was just this incredible man – you know, he wrote The Breakfast Club in two days – and he took this group of actors and created these masterpieces. I was born in the mid-to-late 80s, I wasn't a teenager in the 80s, but I watched those films when I was a teenager and they meant so much to me and I think that they would to any teenager in any decade because they're just brilliant films. I could talk about other films that influence us just as much, but I think with those films and the photos I can see why there's that sort of connection. We're not a band trying to live in the 80s or trying to recreate it, but it's just a really interesting decade for us. But it was a decade where loads of things happened, and we're still feeling the reverberations of it now as a culture'
Jeremy: 'Yeah, definitely'
Elizabeth: 'And it mirrors a lot – politically, economically - and a lot what happened then is happening now, so I think it's more that'.

Given your past professions (Elizabeth as a journalist, Jeremy as a solo artist), and the way that to an extent they're quite solitary roles, did you find it difficult to collaborate and compromise with each other at first? Did it necessitate a change in mindset at all?

Jeremy: 'For me it was exciting finding someone who I was on the same wavelength as and who I really trusted, and who complimented the stuff that I wasn't really very good at, like the lyrics and all the melodies, and all the pictures and stuff. It's nice being in a band who gets it and gets as excited about it as I am. It's great'
Elizabeth: ' I was only writing about music for about 3 months before we started the band so I don't really consider myself a music journalist. I went to drama school so I'm used to working as a team, but I've never found someone who I can collaborate.....that sounds so pretentious....collaborate so effectively as I can with Jeremy but I think there's more the factor that we know each other really well and we get on really well and we're really close. I think it's more that than our previous professions. The fact we trust each other, and trust each other's instincts.'

Depending on who you talk to, the current climate within the industry either makes it one of the worst times to make music, or one of the best due to the way that the internet has brought about a post-punk style DIY culture and ethic. As a new band putting out music, which side of the argument do you agree with, and why?

Elizabeth: 'If you're in the music business to make money, then yeah, you're screwed. If you're in it because you really want to make music and you really want to play live then it's really exciting, because it's like an economic crisis where everyone's sharing their bread. I personally really like the advent of blogs and sharing because there's this worldwide community...that sounds so lame....but there is. All the bands are into stuff and there's this (*long search for a phrase, culminating in blitz/war spirit*) ...we're all in this together. I think there are people who are now recognising that the industry is changing and those are the people who are going to do really well out of it, because there will be some sort of resolution. The industry isn't going to die, it's just a matter of finding different way to do things.'
Jeremy: 'People aren't going to stop making music'
Elizabeth: 'People I hope will still find value in music, whether it's less than it used to be or whatever, that's fine.'
Jeremy: 'One of the things I'm finding, just anecdotally from people I know, is that people are spending the same amount of money on music as they used to, it's just they are getting far more from that amount of money. You know, that music was going to be made anyway, that money was going to be spent anyway. I know people who don't spent any money on music but still listen to music whereas before they would've just been listening to music round their friends', or taping music off their friends....well, you know, 20 years ago!'

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Belle and Sebastian - Belle and Sebastian Write About Love

If Belle and Sebastian were sexual intercourse, there'd be a lot of wining and dining, loads of foreplay and the actual love making would be fireworks on the 4th of July incredible but, annoyingly, the sex would stop being so frequent, require a lot more effort and after a while dry up entirely. Then, last year, you find out that they have been having an affair with some "girl" recording loads of other songs and having a second wind of sexual intercourse that's similar, but not quite the same as before. After a fraught session at councilling you suddenly remember why you love each other all over again and suddenly, bam, you finally have that incredible sex you have not had in a long time.

I guess it's obvious that Belle and Sebastian would take this long, and take this route, to get back to a point where they could start to write songs that would not only sit perfectly on their first three seminal records but also, in the case of the song The Ghosts of Rock School, can actually be mistaken for songs from those albums. Write About L... I mean, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love is one of those blinding moments of surprise Nostalgia, like seeing that Who Wants to a Millionaire is still on the TV, that BBC's Formula 1 coverage still uses Fleetwood Mac's The Chain, or that Scotland will woefully not be able to qualify for the next big tournament because they screwed up the first set of games in the qualifying.

This album serves as a reminder that age is best embraced when recording an album that is so far into the future that you sang woefully about on your debut EP. Some other bands should take heed as to exactly how Belle and Sebastian have managed to keep such a high level of quality output. Save for the foray into Soundtracks (with Storytelling) and the hit-and-miss (grandest highs and lowest of lows) Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, the band have maintained an impeccable level of album craftsmanship ranging from the debut trifecta of the mid 1990s to the 2006 bolt of populist reinvention that was The Life Pursuit. It takes a good band to take these changes and nuances and move them beyond the trap of making the first album 10 times over.

The problem with Write Abo... Belle and Sebastian Write About Love is that there are a few misses. And, amongst the back catalogue of the songs that Belle and Sebastian have fastidiously put out with almost impeccable control, these misses are so far reaching and stand out it is not surprising that it lets the rest of the album down. The sweet piano and drums intro to I Didn't See It Coming and the gorgeous slow wander of Calculating Bimbo are destroyed by the horrible vocals that Norah Jones puts on the record. Indeed, this is not only the low point in the album, but also an indicator of the band forgetting that they don't need to use Norah Jones - listen to the sweet vocals that appear on the album elsewhere - even, for goodness sake, the other womanly vocal guest, Carey Mulligan of movies fame - she is used to perfection and as a great accompaniment in the track that in all honesty really shouldn't be the title track. It's a good song, but compared to other title tracks in the history of the band, it ranks as one of the weakest there.

I am a sucker for the similar. For example, the best track on the album, The Ghost of Rockschool, in my opinion, and as I have already mentioned, is so obviously Belle and Sebastian it actually feels like it is taken from an old recording session... for all it is worth it might as well have been. Indeed, this is a highlight that not only sees the speed that was rarely let up on The Life Pursuit slow down to a crawl and you are suddenly more comfortable in the shoes of this 21st Century version of the band. As with The Life Pursuit there are a few new sparkles to the repertoire but they feel a lot more natural here and more polished, and not in that Autotuned perfection kind of way, but in that way that actually compliments the album. Now that they have done a trilogy of pop infused albums embracing the new techniques given to them by their success, Belle and Sebastian are probably the greatest band Scotland has ever produced. Remarkably still the band that does this kind of music the best and still the band that slips underneath the mainstream clouds.

The question remains - if I find Belle and Sebastian to be so great, why the fuck would I ever give this a bad review? Could I? Would I? Well, yes I would, as not only would I disappointed, but it'd be a luscious "Told You So" after the "God Help the Girl" episode. Write A...Belle and Sebastian Write About Love isn't the best Belle and Sebastian album, it never could be, but it again works and proves that the collective is a grand thing. The only worrisome feature of the album is the long gestation period and the implications that we are now another album closer to the bands Final Album. When that day comes Scotland will be a tiny less sunny.

The Greedy Ugly People

Alright, time for an admission. Until a few years ago most lyrics passed me by. Well, actually, that might not be entirely true. I can't decide if they – generally speaking – passed me by out of my ignorance or if the music I listened to had lyrics so uninspired and so insipid that they passed me by out of their sheer....well, nothingness, and then tuned me out of lyrics entirely. Probably a bit of both.

This used to surprise a few of those around me who'd ask me how I could listen to stuff like Pulp and indie pop (or twee pop if you're so inclined) and all other kinds of music where lyrics are such an integral part of the experience. I can't say if there was a eureka moment when everything clicked into place and lyrics started to mean something to me, or if it was a gradual frame-shift over time, but since then, deciphering and/or visualising lyrics has become a real joy. Whether it's alternating between the despair and romanticising of the blue collar worker (Springsteen), quotable, pithy one liners (Craig Finn, Howard Devoto, Edwyn Collins, Jarvis Cocker), abstract narratives (David Tattersall) or emotive, genuine odes (Stuart Murdoch, Bobby Wratten, Jeremy Warmsley, Elizabeth Morris)

But I never thought that a lyric could have such a profound effect on me as one which I rediscovered yesterday. Darren Hayman is without doubt one of the nation's finest lyricists, a man able to paint vivid technicolour landscapes to his songs, which at the moment focus on finding love in loveless places (see my review of Essex Arms on musicOMH – proof if ever it were needed that his abilities remain undimmed by time). When I was no older than 17 or so a friend lent me a Hefner best of, and having listened to it a few times returned it. The songs were alright, but nothing special. Only when Pull Yourself Together spun 'Hello Kitten' at Manchester's Postcards festival in September did I go back and reappraise the back-catalogue, and I'm glad I did. Despite not hearing some of the songs for around 6 years, there were several which I could recite word for word. I can't think of any other instance where this has happened. It demonstrates the quality of lyrics when they're to songs which at the time you don't even especially rate, yet still become so engrained into your subconscious. Oh, and yes, I concede, Hefner songs are indeed something special.

But yes, profound lyric story time. After finishing work and getting home at lunchtime, I was greeted by news of the spending cuts. Probably because of the reference to greed, I decided to put on 'The Greedy Ugly People', which contains the line:

'The greedy ugly people are not like us
They don't feel the love that she and I would die without'

Now, I'm not saying I sat there in floods of tears (not that there's anything wrong in doing so, it's just inaccurate), but I suddenly felt compelled to hear the song again, and again, and again, and to hell with my severely skewed charts.

I think the resonance may have to do with the fact that the people currently running our country at this present time seems to have little or no compassion. The sudden nature of the cuts feel like we've all been thrown into a car with a brick on the accelerator, the brakes severed, and a brick wall looming on the horizon. But we really shouldn't expect much else from a cabinet where 22 of 29 cabinet ministers are millionaires,19/29 were educated at private,fee-paying schools and 19/29 are Oxbridge graduates. Darren Hayman's words seemed to encapsulate my fears about the future of society under the current government and its oppressive cuts. A future where the country will potentially not only be divided into the haves and the have nots, but into those of two differing mindsets: those who look at the bottom line and nothing but, and those to whom deeper things – such as love, empathy, compassion - take priority.

The song as a whole feels like it could soundtrack footage of the miners' strike in 1984, the poll tax riots in 1990, redundant staff carrying their desks out of soon-to-close offices in boxes or in fact any other instance where a fixation with the bottom line has shrouded judgement at the expense of society. As far as I'm concerned, Darren Hayman's words are bittersweet. They either offer a beacon of hope that even in the difficult times ahead people can still proudly exude such emotions in the face of adversity, or signal a time of great misery, where a government's obsession with number-crunching with little regard to the consequences will mean it's all the populous will be able to do to keep its head above water. What it does show, unequivocally, is that even without the overt view of 'The Day That Thatcher Dies', Hefner's 'We Love The City' may just offer a surprise soundtrack for the turbulent times ahead.

'Love, don't stop no wars, don't stop no cancer, it stops my heart'

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

(The) Phantom Band – The Wants

Get a grip, popular music. I mean, look at the fucking state of you. Seriously, come on. We gave you such a long length of rope in the 1990s and for parts of the 2000s you almost were breached by some of our “darling indie bands” but they themselves fell under your spell. These days popular music is nothing but a pastiche, almost a parody of it’s self – it is indeed beyond parody now with clones upon clones of the same music entering at number one week in week out and labels are constantly looking at the internet to try and predict exactly how the tide will turn. These days of Twitter and instant feedback suddenly we are all the same collective hive mind and those fans what would’ve just bought the records are suddenly able to sound off about how much they “luv Bibier omG fukin luv him” in a cacophony of intense infinite and incessant imbeciles.

So pop music, get a fucking grip. Check into rehab, gather your thoughts, and come out next year ready for a change. In the meantime bands like the Phantom Band are quietly producing some of the decade’s first exceptional songs and collating it into an, almost archaic, best-of-the-year list album. For the demise of the album just look at the EA Sports style releases of the Lady Gaga, Rihanna and the aforementioned “Bibier”, with their 2.0 and 3.0 versions of “Art” for the required evidence needed for the cultural cease and desist.

The Phantom Band hail not only from my city of birth but also from the record label that has given Scotland and Glasgow some of the greatest home grown wing-spreading in the past 15 years. With the release of their debut album Checkmate Savage there was a glimpse of a band that for a short while would be playing and creating music as wild and speculative as any imaginable. There was a rugged feel to the album and it had it’s moments and to be honest I didn’t see them releasing anything like it again – and I was right and I was wrong. The Wants is the perfect sequel to Savage but unlike most Hollywood sequels this album isn’t more is better but different is better. There are lines drawn from here to there that will tell you this is a Phantom Band album, with the crooning vocals and small electronic signature bleeps here and there, but in essence this album is like what we were promised music would be like in the future. This is the future and it’s not like this all the time. The Wants is not going to be for everyone for several reasons:

- Everyone is an idiot.
- It’s a difficult album to easily understand
- And it will consume your life like a Japanese demonic spirit.

So, polarising it might be for the unlearned masses, but whereas Arcade Fire might’ve fucked up their new album by missing the mark entirely, coming under Be Here Now syndrome and forgetting to install an editor as well as a producer, this album’s concise nine track length forgoes that need for more and gives us more. If that makes sense then I have made my point.

Pop music, get a fucking grip. Until it is discharged with a clean bill of health we can enjoy this album, this band, and their little nugget of anarchy while no one is looking. The Wants is exactly what we need.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

My 'Favourite' Song

I have over six and a half thousand songs in my iTunes library. But I only have an all consuming obsession with one of them - 'The W.A.N.D.' by The Flaming Lips.

Never mind Flaming Lips I hear, more pursed lips. Lips pursed with indignation. 'It's not even very good!'. Quite right, it isn't, within the grand cannon of wondrous, splendid and thrillingly moving couplets in Wayne Coyne's armoury, no one's reaching for 'you got the power aw yeah, waving that wand in the air' to sum up how they feel about the big questions. No one's life is affirmed by the synth chord progression in a way that it is by, say, the bullish sugar hit of 'Race for the Prize'. It's not my favourite Flaming Lips song. It isn't even in my top ten.


But every time I'm at a want for which of those six and a half thousand to turn to, it's there in my head - 'play The W.A.N.D. again', and fuelled by sheer instinct I've clicked through. And then it finishes. And then I play it again and I think to myself, whilst waving my hands aloft, 'you don't even like this fucking song'. And then I play it again. Normally four or five times before I get bored and that bassline turns up ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. It's in all six and a half thousand songs in my iTunes library.

On occasion as my brain idles (which happens relatively often) it's there too 'dum, dum, duh-duh, der' , raising the same approximate feelings as the embittered realisation that you've just been caught humming 'Go Compare' at the water fountain. On boring phone calls, it's there, 'sorry could you just go over that again. Was inwardly humming the all pervading bassline to The W.A.N.D.' My brain even has a clever little trick it plays - starting me off on the intro to 'Marquee Moon' which it knows I adore and lures me into thinking the unthinkable - 'wow, this isn't the fucking W.A.N.D.' But then, of course, it is The W.A.N.D. again. For at least an hour.

I've tried W.A.N.D. aversion therapy but I get 'W.A.N.D. hallucinations'. Oh, I think, this sounds a bit like 'The W.A.N.D.' (it doesn't, it's the kettle boiling or a dog farting) and then we're off. My brain's back in it's immovable cycle of 'wavin' that waaaaaaaaaaaaaand in the air' for a good 20 minutes and if it isn't on my iPod I start get facial twitches.

The W.A.N.D. is ruining me. I watch 'Strictly Come Dancing' and I chuckle that Paul Daniels should dance to it - I spend 20 minutes scratching my face - I like it, not a lot, not at all in fact. I walk through a hen do riddled Leicester Square and the spawn descended from my native North wave it in motion. At me. They're fairies but in my mind they're witches and they only know one spell and it goes 'dum, dum, fduh-fucking, der'.

Master wandmaker Mr Ollivander told Harry Potter that a wand picks its owner. It appears that this one's either found me or that Wayne Coyne wants rid and is trying to foist it on me by shoving it into my brain through my ear.

If you want me for the next six months I'll be at home listening to the 'We Buy Any Car' jingle on loop. If you see my hand aloft, do us a favour and put me back in prone.

All Of Your Thoughts *Are* In Tone In Town

Three charming young Mackems. I presume they're charming - I've never met them. Can't imagine them being divas though. Do they look like divas? What do moderately unsuccessful indie rock divas look like?

Is it a bit naval-gazing to write a blog post based on the album that gave your blog its name? Um, probably. Well, whatever. It's naval-gazing time.

It sometimes feels like call centres have invaded every single pore of our lives. Maybe it's just because the rise in social networking, the Internet and instant communication has meant it's a lot easier to vent frustrations, and generally when we do, it's a sight louder too. And god knows call centres make enough people want to vent, often enough. Anyway, there seem to be two different types of call centre – the first, the outsourced, is generally somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent, and company has gone there because it fills one important criteria: cost. This isn't meant as a judgement on that, I should probably add. Anyhow, if they've not outsourced, the chances are you'll be speaking to someone from that forgotten part of England known as “the North East”. Far from the “here be monsters” (unless you're stuck in the Bigg Market of a Saturday night) such far-flung corners generally provoke, apparently it's because the north eastern accents, be they Geordie, Mackem, Smoggie, or whatever the hell else they call themselves, tend to sound friendly, jovial, sympathetic, and most importantly persuasive. If you can sooth the temper of someone calling a call centre and try to put doubt in my mind, I guess you win the customer service thing.

How does this link to anything? Aha, this is where the fact I've put at least a little thought into a blogpost for the first time shows. Field Music, for those not in the know, are a pair of brothers (and occasional support musicians/temporary members), from Sunderland, right in the heart of persuasive-accent land. They emerged during a glut of vaguely angular bands, and in terms of sales sit in the shadows of peers like the Futureheads and Maximo Park. But as far as critical acclaim goes, Field Music have always been right up there, and for me, their peak is their excellent second album, Tones of Town. You may have heard of it. You probably should recognise the phrase from somewhere not a million miles from here. In any case, the Brewis brothers that form the backbone of Field Music have soft Mackem accents, and, gentle and persuasive, they're the perfect kind to lull me, Derren Brown-victim style, into really buying into a message. Especially when it's one I could probably relate to even if Tom Waits were singing it in maximum gruff mode.

The interesting thing about Tones of Town is, for me, the sort of suite of four songs in the middle of the album. Maybe it wasn't intended as a suite, but while the whole album generally deals with issues of the banality, the routine and the apathy you find when embarking on the first few years of adult life – your first job, the drudgery of getting home after annoying commutes and the like – tracks 4 through 7 really nail the feeling.

Music's generally burrowed a snug warren in my heart because it depicts moments I relate to. I imagine it's the same for a lot of you. And it's because of that, that Tones of Town abides so well – it continues to revisit the themes we never escape, and it does it with such deftness of lyric, melody, and most importantly, rhythm, that it's completely irresistible. Take “Kingston”, for example. It's under two minutes, but the ornate strings and drums which eschew the first of the bar to wobble slightly merely set a scene for an eerily accurate description of not seeing your friends enough, because they live not too close or too far away to warrant the effort. The protagonist fails to maintain a friendship, asking “the tube is fast, the distance small – so why should I come?”. The whole song sounds a bit withdrawn, he works hard, gets paid, and it makes no difference to anything, and then the urge to visit a friend passes, and anyway he finds that “you haven't the time”.

Hardly overwrought, flowery prose is it? But it doesn't need to be – a few words here and there, and it's a universal feeling – I have a friend a couple of miles away, why haven't I visited them? And I can say, oh you know, this and that, there hasn't been chance. Absolute bollocks, and the character in the song knows this, knows how ridiculous it all is.

“A House Is Not A Home” sums up the soullessness of living on your own about fifteen times within the one song, observing things that just aren't the same as being somewhere chock full of characters. Tinkling pianos, occasionally emphasised bars, and voice reminding you that “on your own, you only learn to like what you know” - well, of course you do. But you don't always realise that, do you? And maybe “you recognise the smell”, but again, “a house becomes hotel when you make it what you want to”. Yes! Somewhere that has entirely your own personality, it's as creepy as the hotel room that has none of your own personality.

And what about “Working to Work”? Again, it's a rather simple idea, and one done to death by a million bands, mostly pretty crap, but it's not crap here. Jerky guitars, stop-start rhythms again perfectly sitting alongside the lyrics. What are they suggesting? Among other things, that “Leisure is useless/When nothing is easy/When you're working to work”, and that you're “Taken to task/To spend another day going home and/Diving to drown/I'm coming up for air”. It's not really about the time you're losing during the days, though we're all aware of that, it's the effect is has on your life outside work. You're being taken to task, probably in a pretty remedial admin job, and it just leaves you completely unstimulated when you get home, where slumping in front of the telly feels like coming up for air, or when your leisure activities, sports or dancing or whatever just feel like you're putting off the inevitability of work next day.

It's “In Context” that brings these three themes together, marrying them all with all the disconnection of being stuck in that twentysomething rut. And yeah, it's pointing out “you're a long way from home/all of the thoughts you had were not your own”. A simple plucked guitar and off-kilter rhythm rumbles through the song – it's not quite hypnotic, but it's a little bit relentless. The song itself almost sounds like a love song to someone – someone not really alluded to – but the protagonist couldn't quite fall in love because life, mistakes, the feeling of not quite 'getting' their lifestyle, just sort of got in the way.

Music's a personal thing. I can sit back and analyse how good the music is – and it is, Field Music are a bit of a thinking man's band but there's plenty of melody and plenty of “hmm, interesting” moments to take you by surprise on each listen. But...that's missing the point. I've picked the middle third of an album alone here to show how the combination of music and lyrics feel like they're echoing part of my existence, and as wanky as that sounds, that's the appeal of music. Yes, I've felt slightly discombobulated in houses I've moved into – A House Is Not A Home knows how I feel. Yes, I've seen friendships kind of drift into nothingness because I don't see friends for months on end even though they live in the same city – but the protagonist from Kingston's been there too. Yes, I've felt stifled by shite jobs I've had in the past that've resulted in nothing really cutting it as escapism – Working to Work pretty much sums it up for me. And yes, it's all come together to stop me really...settling into life at times, just like it says during In Context. But what's really the key for me is that they feel like universal themes. I'm almost dead certain they are. We've all been in similar positions, and the feeling we have isn't that of tearing our hair out, or collapsing in floods of tears necessarily. It's the sort of vague feeling of impotence – the discontentment from just looking around and asking “is this it?” But not in such a way that it makes us angry, more that it makes us sigh. And that's the feeling this captures for me, and it's why you should probably embrace this album – especially those middle four tracks – into your life.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Emerging From A Barren Spell

This charming bunch are Seattle band, Grand Hallway. I talk a bit about them in this post. Hence the picture. Duh.

Music's not a lifelong obsession for me.

Ah, shit, I've started with a grandiose statement that's not strictly true again. What I'm getting at I – and I imagine most music fans – go through stages where music's barely incidental to their lives, where they listen to about 3 albums a week, and they're old favourites that are more a comfort blanket than a, uh, multi-sensory experience (in a way that, say, I imagine listening to Ladies and Gentleman we are Floating in Space while on DMT/Acid/Other drug I've also heard of but never come remotely near trying, is). I was going through one of these a couple of months ago, and yeah, this is the bit where I pass off the gap in blog-writing as caused by that, as opposed to the more honest answer of a combination of laziness and ennui.

Obviously the gap's done nothing for my tendency to write long, rambling, multi-clause sentences that make about as much sense as any kind of logic trying to explain how that Simon Amstell sitcom got a) commissioned and b) broadcast.

I picked up just one album in that time, by a little-known Seattle-based band called Grand Hallway. Crap name, great band. The album's called "Promenade", which is better. They're very much of the current Pacific Northwest in tone, performing florid, textured indie-pop songs, making use of beautiful melody and an occasional jawdropping grasp of dynamics (just go on Spotify and listen to “Raindrops (Matsuri)”, please!), and creating a wonderful album with the spirit of Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, and anyone else who can use a multi-instrumental backing band/tons of instruments, parts, textures, counter-melodies blah blah blah. I realise this is a bad time to say this post isn't about them, but it isn't; it's just a personal thing about what's going through my head while listening, and other magubbins relating to them. But it's not about them.

(Though before I go any further, I should say that one of my favourite things about Grand Hallway is that when you mention them – recommending them to a friend, say – on Twitter, they always retweet your tweet. And as I'm a creature of shallow, easily-placated ego, that appeals to me. Hell, even though most of my tweets are complaining the album's not available in the UK – I don't know who I'm complaining to – they still retweet. There's going to come a point where I'm like “hey, why don't you follow me”, and then the circle will be complete, and my life will have officially become classified as 'pathetic'.)

First things first, it's the first album I've ever bought on import. As I said (if you read things in brackets – and if you don't, you'll miss this clause so I don't know why I'm typing it...verbal diarrhoea I guess), it's not available in the UK. And yeah, I was never one of those music fans who Have To Hear Everything First; I remember downloading the first Bloc Party album before it was released, like, and felt so bad about it, I went out and bought the album when it came out. I'm not even sure why. 2005 was a weird year. Anyway, I'm not even sure how I heard of them – in fact, if anyone had heard of them before 27th April this year, tell me, because you probably recommended them and I need to thank you.

I'm emerging from the end of a phase of playing far too many computer games. This isn't unusual for me, but that's something that saps your will to listen to music. It's hard to explain why, but I think there's a couple of reasons for this, so here goes:

  • First one's pretty obvious, that you're listening to the in-game music to add to the atmosphere; it's part of the all-important immersion. Any activity, from TV to art galleries to music or computer games, requires you to buy into the vision it's trying to create in your head in order for you to get the most out of it. Appreciating this, I always listen to the music.

  • But beyond that, computer games are a pretty overwhelming activity, insofar as you're giving them 100% concentration; all of your mental energy and it's kind of draining. So when you're not playing, you're sort of unwittingly doing whatever you do in relative silence, because it doesn't occur to you to listen to music.

That's really bad, in a way, isn't it? Makes it seem like I don't really like music. But I do, I swear! Sometimes, and yeah, the lives we live, the changes to our daily routine; to work, the people we meet, the activites we partake in socially and professionally, they all affect what we're looking for, and while I'm sat here listening to music and doing no'ver'much this evening, and it's something I love doing, it's not something I've had much compulsion to do. I mentioned Grand Hallway because theirs was the only new album I acquired – yes, bought via Import – during this time, and I'm kinda grateful that I still had some anchor in music. Now I'm buying stuff, going to gigs and proms and having conversations again, and it feels a bit I'm used to.

But yeah, thanks Grand Hallway.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Classical Music Is Something You Don't Think About Enough

The European Union Youth Orchestra's viola section. Did you know there's a whole subculture of jokes about viola players in orchestras? Well there are. My favourite is the one my old A-Level music teacher (a conductor himself) told me:
Q. You see a viola player and a conductor standing in the middle of the road. Which one do you run over first?
A. The conductor. Business before pleasure.

So, classical music then.

Wait, come back! I don't know if I'm projecting, but it seems there's this inherent fear of classical music from most if not all quarters of the young music fan community. Certainly around the music I tend to go for, anyway. I should qualify this a bit, so here goes.

I've been to a couple of Proms this summer, at the Royal Albert Hall. I've got one more planned too, next week, and it's a unique benefit of living in London that you get these 70-odd events mostly fairly affordable (I paid £11 a ticket, you can get them for as little as £7 if you don't mind restricted view). It's a couple of hours, in an absolutely lovely venue, listening to the sort of stirring dramatic music of styles that essentially persevered – and changed perceptibly many many times during this time – for a couple of hundred years. And still does today – not only is a vast majority of computer game, TV and film music essentially influenced by or styled upon various eras of classical music, many many bands incorporate it into their music. Every fucker has a string quartet at some point, and think how bands like Mercury Rev, Sufjan Stevens, The Delgados, Vampire Weekend have built music around it rather than just using the odd flourish.

Where was I? Oh yeah. No-one talks about it. Maybe when I was about to rail about inherent fear, what I meant was this kind of apathy towards classical music that I see in fans of pop music and its derivatives. I want to be ageist and say “especially those in their twenties”, but I have no idea how applicable that is. I remember reading a thread on a music message board when the Prom line-ups were announced. It was full of people getting excited about Stockhausen and Webern. I say 'full', but there were about 5 posts. On a popular site. Stockhausen and Webern are composers of contemporary music, and contemporary classical music is to classical music what modern art is to, er, art. I don't want to detract from contemporary music, purely because I'm a bigger fan of 19th century era music, but 20th century contemporary stuff probably has more in common with what you'd call the most popular experimental acts. Hell, Squarepusher's performed with the London Sinfonietta before. What I'm getting at here is, yes, it's people dipping into classical music, but it's the kind of classical music that probably isn't that much of a logical leap for them from the music they like. I realise this is sounding like criticism; it's not. Or at least, not meant to be.

Later today I'm going to an all-dayer. It'll be a good gig and a lot of fun, but I'm quite tempted to try and start up conversations about Prokofiev, Haydn, J.S. Bach. Mainly this is because I'm a contrary fucker, but just because no-one'd be bothered to get involved, or maybe some would express sort of vague intention to go to a Prom in the future. Now, my taste in 'indie' music is pretty narrow, I'm more than willing to admit that. So, why do people who have more diverse tastes than me have a classical music blind spot?

Well, maybe they don't. Maybe it's just something that never comes up; if you're getting enough joy from a relatively diverse area of music, you're in your mid-twenties or something say, there's not really any need to think “whither classical music?”. People come to classical music later in life, perhaps. Or maybe it's the fact that there's a different atmosphere that emanates from classical music than say, going to see The Thermals or something. That's a no-brainer. And yeah, you don't really want to be stuck watching the Proms surrounded by Talkers, people who aren't interested but just want to say they were there.

What do I get from classical music? Well, I'm a bit of a beginner, but I can be stirred by the wonderful swooning motif from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasia Overture; I can thrill and be entertained by the joyous Barber of Seville. Popular classics like Ravel's Bolero, Beethoven's Symphony No.5. But it just gradually seeps in, the vast dynamic differences, the changes in mood and the way it rises and falls, whether you've got a stirring, dramatic piece, or something light and whimsical. Sure it's not as full of hummable tunes but everyone knows fucking...Peter and the Wolf, or Dvorak's New World Symphony or something. It soothes the soul.

I seem to have lost the run of myself a bit in this piece. I'm just...I just don't really know why classical music isn't even considered by the people I talk music with, that I see at gigs. Yes, it's a different atmosphere and type of appreciation of music, but it's – okay, not valid, but I think more people would appreciate classical music earlier than they expect they would. Are you in your 20s? Never considered giving classical music a chance? Well, maybe I wouldn't either. And yes, maybe I wouldn't choose to listen to it while sat at home or something, but the unique experience of sitting in the Royal Albert Hall, as a whole host of amazingly talented musicians create such a vast collage of moods, it's a wonderful experience.

So, classical music then. Anyone fancy giving it a go? Proms next year?