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 )