Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Sound of Boards of Canada

Okay, Christ, here comes the pretentious music blog faux-writer that is going to talk about an artist that is outside the mainstream but critically acclaimed beyond their years and adored by fans and musos alike. But there's a difference here because I am not going to try and preach to you about why you should like them but instead going to explain why I like them so much and why they make such a difference in my musical life.

They are Boards of Canada.

From Scotland and Canada (a good mix, if you ask me) they infused TV show samples, organic musical noises and sounds to create three of the most lauded electronic records of all time - Music Has the Right to Children, Geogaddi, and The Campfire Headphase. They also created some fo the most sought after EPs; Trans Canada Highway, Twoism, Boc Maxima and the Peel Sessions. Throw that output into the mix with two rare, unofficial, not even release 'tapes' that have been Torrented since they discovered, A Few Old Tunes and Old Tunes Vol. 2, and the fact that very little has been heard of them since 2006 and you have the makings of a indie hard-on.

But that's not what I love about them. Their output is something that is an ever presence on my playlist because of the sound. The albums have a dream like quality to them, a perfect balance of melody, bass, hooks and floaty production that cools, soothes and calms me. The records have this strange space between the tracks, almost like room to breathe, with each piece and track so meticulously pieced together, balanced perfectly like a great building designed to look like an illusion.

The songs have an ethereal style to them. There are the trademarks of Boards music - something that's sometimes missing from other bands' outputs. The trademark children's voices invoking a sense of insane innocence, and the swooping synth fade-in-and-outs that back ground an almost icey front melody or sound. It sounds like like a flowing back and forth wave of water that soundtracks the comings and goings of life and the way the universe is built.

I found Boards of Canada late in my musical life and like most of my recent finds they are so different to what I used to listen to it belies my youthful rock sounds that I demanded so heavy handedly during the first decade. Boards are almost the antithesis of my Nu Metal mindset that I used to carry with me everywhere I went. Now, growning up, I didn't ever expect a band or artist to affect me as much as the angst ridden songs had done in my teenage years. However, I was wrong.

Take the track Dayvan Cowboy, which appears on both The Campfire Headphase and the Trans Canada Highway EP - the song is regarded by most in the BoC community as the true mainstream single, and it is a great track, but to call it mainstream obscures the fact that it doesn't "start" until one third of the way through the running time. The EP In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country is with out a doubt in my mind my favourite EP ever released by any artist. The EP opens with a swoop synth base and a rattling rim shot sound effect that is slowly accompanied by drum rhythms and further swooning waves of slowly, brooding synth. The effect that it creates is something akin to watching rain fall down a pane of newly installed glass as a lightning storm rumbles on in the far distance.

It is this sound that makes me love Boards of Canada so much, and slowly ingest everything they have produced and that I can find. By obtaining their sought after tapes from their early years that were simply made for friends and family, I can see the genesis of a strange eye for the unusual and marking them and making them into something greater than before. The slow build up is a stylistic love letter to the art of pace and restrained craft that I admire so greatly.

So, I am going to try and get my friends to discover the band? No, I am not. When I was younger there was a strange nee for validation, the requirement to get my friends to enjoy, love and appreciate the bands that I love in tandem with me. This left me frustrated when my attempts to make my friend understand Rage Against the Machine ("I hate rapping") and Mars Volta ("Sounds like he is just going mental on a guitar") to the point of high blood pressure diagnosis. So, no, I am not going to force my friends to listen to them, and nor am I writing this to try and covnince you that you are wrong to dislike them or to have no listened to them. No, this is not a article to recruit members to the fanbase, but something that I want people to understand, take in, and accept that they are above and beyond some of the other artists I may off the cuff say are my "favourite artists of all time" because, and this is ture, very few can create such an incredible sound, and an incredible thread of consciousness through that very sound.

The worst thing I can say for Boards of Canada is that you don't need to focus on their music. It can be played in the back ground of almost anything and sit there, unobtrusive. This is why when listening to the albums I can almost say with absolute certainty you will hear something that you will have heard before. It's most likely going to be Roygbiv, which has been used almost endlessly by Charlie Brooker and others as background music for TV shows. The strange thing about this, whilst it could be seen as a problem, it has in fact allowed me to enjoy their music more and interpret their sound and style more fluidly than other artists I have listened to.

They have soundtracked walking in the snow home from a night out at the pub, driving to meet my girlfriend at the airport, sitting in the sunshine outside next to a pool in 90F heat, and the most productive and decisive moments in my day job. These moments are all linked to the music of Boards of Canada, and the sound of the artist, and they are the moments that make these albums the most important in my regular listening rotation. They are like a clean white room with a glass of cold, fresh highland water, whilst a blue sky and bright sunshine is outside and I can see sweeping rolling hills and trees moving in a slow breeze. There are birds flying, probably kids cycling. And occasionally a large 70'' metallic robot walks by fighting off an alien species of invading aliens.

If I were to force you to listen to the artists, I'd just wholesale tell you to head to the Warp Records store and buy everything. But that's un realistic. Unfortunately, they are not on Spotify, so I am going to have deal with faulty Youtube links.

This track is the title track from In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country.

This is one of my favourite peices of music of all time, 1969 from the album Geogaddi.

This track is called Turquoise Hexagon Sun from the album Music Has the Right to Children. The voices in the background are incredibly effective, and almost decipherable.

This is '84 Pontiac Dream. Taken from the album The Campfire Headphase, this album features no children voices, and a little guitar. This was a major change in design but the album kept the style and sound of the other albums. It is much maligned by the fan base for this, but I love it for the differences.

And finally, something a little different. From the EP Twoism, this is the title track.

The Strange Feeling of Wanting to Leave a Gig

I love live music and it’s something that I'll forever want to keep going in my life – a friend once stated to me that the moment I realise that I am old will be the moment I stop going to concerts. I don’t see that happening in my near future, but with responsible things like children, cars and houses in my distant future, maybe I will have to give it up at some point.

The strangest thing happens though when I'm at gigs – I have this weird inclination to want to leave. This is not because I hate the band (quite the opposite, in the most recent cases) but for some reason the actual act of being at a gig sometimes feel tedious, or boring. I love seeing the artist play, and hearing them strut through their hits, but the feeling that creeps in is that I’d like this to be a memory, so I can sit and think back to that time I saw Belle and Sebastian play rather than the act of actually being there, in the warmth and sweaty Barrowlands, trying to ignore the crowd.

You see, in my older age, I have had a slowly increasing contempt for my co-gig goers. This is one of a disabling feeling, brought on by a sheer distaste for people who are there to make up numbers, talk, or to just stand in the way of people that are there to see the band. I know, they paid the same price as me, but I hate it. For example, at the afore-mentioned Belle and Sebastian gig, there were such terrifyingly moronic folks standing next to me and my beau. They stood, chatting, laughing, standing with their back turned to the stage, and exclaimed loudly when Belle and Sebastian asks, rather tactfully and with good meaning, that they were wanting to ask for a charitable donation.

They really pissed me off. Unbelievably, however, when the band struck up perennial favourite, and not-that-easy-to-have-heard classic The Boy With the Arab Strap the boys who had not paid any attention to the whole gig thus far knew every single word, syllable perfect, even recanting the fade out ...”set of the smoke alarm” and “list of your ten biggest wanks”. It shocked me. Someone who knew that song so well should never be standing facing the mixing desk talking about work with a friend.

So maybe I'm older now, and that person inside me that used to jump and scream at the first chord of any song now looks down on those doing the exact same. Maybe I'm growing up. Maybe I'm running out patience with the gigs that I go to. And maybe I do prefer to remember rather than experience. Maybe that makes me criminally insane.

Is Spotify Killing the Mixtape?

Or has it already killed it? Because I'm a kind-hearted soul, I'm currently in the process of making a mix CD for, well, for anyone who took up my offer of a mix CD of tracks from my favourite albums of 2010. It's a fun process, making a mix, trying to make sure all the tracks flow into each other, that there's some kind of natural progression. I like to group all my mix CDs into halves, essentially, and the halves into another, less well marked half. And there's a lot of fun you can have with it, messing around with the format, or just feeling smug when you unwittingly create an amazing link between two tracks.

"I'm a Mac. I'm a PC. We look like a pair of total spods." (Please, please come up with a better caption than that. I'm begging you.)

Before I go any further, it's worth pointing around that I'm aware that I'm coming at this from a rather...neologistic perspective. The fact that I've used “mixtape” and then switched to “mix CD”. Yeah, I am aware that it was the casette that really first allowed normal music fan plebs like me to start messing around with all their music. In High Fidelity, Rob creates tapes for girls, and it's that very organic, very labour-intensive process that's part of his rather oddball charm. He sits in front of a tapedeck for several hours, we can just imagine how it is. We get a snippet of it in the film, but you can imagine him doing that for all his crushes, throughout his life. These days, the process is a bit simpler, arrange the tracks in WMP or iTunes or something, then press “Burn”. It's not quite the same thing, and certainly isn't so romantic. There's probably a whole heap of subtext you can read into that, foremost in my mind that of whether the lack of effort we put into things is killing...well, something. But that's for another blogpost.

You could suggest that I should've asked whether Spotify's merely delivering the coup de grace to a rather diminished pastime, but you're being pedantic, and seeing as I'm already in paragraph 3 and haven't started answering, it's time to get started. As I mentioned earlier, the process of burning a mix CD is pretty simple, all told. But you've still got to do the tiny bits of work, y'know, writing the tracklist, actually buying the CDs, CD cases, doing the artwork if you're so inclined. And if you're an awkward gawky teen, nervously hand it over to woman of your dreams, either suggesting that “hope you like some of it”, or promising the Velvet Underground will change their life or something. Generally while your zits are in danger of reaching critical mass.

Spotify just takes all that away, and more. With this programme, you can connect to tens of other friends and with just a click or twenty, you've shared a playlist with a heck of a lot of other people. There's absolutely nothing personal about it, and moreso much less thought and internal conflict involved in the whole process. Despite myself, I enjoy trimming that Beach House track I thought I couldn't do without, or that Neil Young song I'd take a gamble on them having heard already. It's a horrible process, but no pleasure without pain etc etc. But hey, with Spotify, you don't need to worry about time limits, you can put anything on. And you do. You get indiscriminate, and the whole thing numbers 40 or 50 songs. Not in any order, either, because with that many what'd be the point, it's best put on random and just played whatever. No-one tries to put that many songs on an album, except maybe Stephen Merritt. And I really really hate Stephen Merritt. it killing mixtaping/mixCDing? Or am I just getting old. Heck, when I was younger I was said gawky teen, making mixCDs (and yes, it was CDs) for all the girls I had designs on, and it never failed to get me completely and utterly nowhere. In any case, be it because of paucity of success or because these days I seem to know a lot more people already into similar music to myself (because as a teenager you're convinced that it'll be the thrill of discovery that you gets you there – discovering amazing music being tied to you and thus, er, getting you into dreamgirl's knickers. Or in my case, not), but I haven't made a mixCD with the implict intention of getting a snog for ages. And this is the first one I've made for friends in ages, too. I'll check the list of people who want it, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to snog any of them. Actually, that might not be true, but I'm fairly sure I won't be snogging any of them. Stop talking about snogging you loser.

I think maybe I'm answering my own initial question with a “no”, here. I like Spotify, it's hell of useful, and bigger playlists, like the one my friend made prior to Belle & Sebastian's ATP are useful as anything. I use it to discover lots of new music, and listen to odd tracks I don't own elsewhere. I don't know whether teenagers are using it to impress the opposite sex (or maybe same sex, let's not discriminate here), but I'd like to think not, if only because there's something heartening in knowing that future generations will repeat your mistakes (so long as your mistakes weren't like, starting a land war in Asia) and learn from them. Or not learn from them.

The mixCD's got much to recommend it. And I think it's the personal touch, especially in an area when no-one really owns casette players, which really does it for me. I'll admit I was taken aback that people wanted to listen to a CD I'd compiled of stuff from last year, and I took it as a massive compliment that so many people (double figures!) expressed an interest. Hopefully, I'll be making them a good selection, full of stuff they've not heard that they take an instant liking to. I'm definitely hoping for a goosebump or two.

Of course, I'll write a piece on the CD when it's done, and hey, if you want, I can send you a copy too. Unless you'd rather wait for the Spotify playlist.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Moments of 2010: Pop's Not Dead

If you've been following our End-Of-Year stuff thus far, you'll have noticed we don't do lists. We agreed that ranking things is a touch too clinical, and this time of year always gets a bit list-centric anyway, so we've been doing it differently. As with so much of what we've posted here all year, it's been about personal experiences, whether it's been dancing on stage with an African dude or some guy from North Wales going to Manchester and falling in love with everything there almost instantly.

Even so, I'm going in indulge in writing about my album of the year. I mean, it's still about personal experiences and talking at length about something that's touched us this year, right? If you were to look back on some of the articles I've written for this here blog over the past year, you'll notice a theme. A eulogy to Sarah Records. A day with This Many Boyfriends. A piece on festivals inspired by me coming back from Indietracks. Basically, I like my indie-pop. Lots. I take issue with being called twee, though. I'm far too hot-blooded a person to be twee, plus I agree with Dave from the Underachievers club I blogged about earlier this month when he said 'I love indie pop but I hate twee culture'. Never a truer word spoken.

If we'd been running this blog last year then The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart would have walked it. But that was last year, and this is this year. Instead, step forward fellow Fortuna Pop! signings Allo, Darlin' for their self titled effort. It's been a while since I've been genuinely, (ridiculously) excited for a new album release. In fact, the only other ones I can remember are: Room On Fire by The Strokes 2003), Lady's Bridge (2007) and Truelove's Gutter (2009) by Richard Hawley, and the Orange Juice boxset (2010), but since hearing Henry Rollins Don't Dance at the beginning of the year I couldn't wait for the (then) forthcoming album. Henry Rollins...... is a cracker in itself, all gloriously smart-arse hardcore references, stabbing brass and a beat that begs to be danced to. As an opening salvo it really did (and indeed still does) grab the attention. The album had one hell of a lot to live up to.

Thankfully, it delivered. I will stick my neck on the line right from the start and say I reckon it possesses one of the finest 3-song opening sequences I've heard for a long time, if not ever. It nearly seems as though the mission statement during recording was to create a masterclass in writing pop songs. 'Dreaming' clatters along, full of momentum, like the musical equivalent of an errant shopping trolley careering down a hill. They say the devil's in the detail, and we can all relate to stories of catching the nightbus with frost on its windows and a desire to lose it on a disco floor. Throw in some boy-girl vocals and you've got it made, act one in the bag. 'Polaroid Song' is rife with ammunition for those fond of lampooning hipster clich├ęs, with all it's talk of the titular photographic instrument, but you have to have a heart of stone not to love its chiming guitar intro, flourishes of flute, and celebration of the simple things in life (a theme which continues throughout the record). A Breakfast Club aping promo video is the icing on the cake. Act two, BOOM. 'Silver Dollars' is a strong contender for best moment of the whole album, with it's joyous, floor-filling instrumental chorus forming an unlikely bond with lyrics about selling your records but still being in debt by two grand. It might also be the only song ever to have rhymed 'platonic' with 'gin and tonic' with gusto.

Aside from the opening trifecta, the album delivers in a number of other places. 'If Loneliness was Art' starts off from quite humble and stark beginnings to be a devilishly simple but no less effective instant pop hit. 'Let's Go Swimming' shows another side of Allo, Darlin'. Amidst delicate instrumentation and haunting slide guitar Elizabeth Morris tells of seeing an enormous lake in Sweden while telling of her pleasure of seeing something so pure and simple that Camden's punks couldn't shout about, Shoreditch's hipsters couldn't style and Moorgate's bankers couldn't buy. I'm sure to some reading it like that it sounds cloying and lightweight and myriad other derogatory terms, but believe me when all the elements come together it makes a stunning piece of music.

Penultimate track 'My Heart Is A Drummer' shows up a bouncy Bill Botting bassline (there are many peppered throughout the album, but this one's especially good) backing vocals in just the right places, and chiming guitars to set up some of the album's best lyrics. Who can argue with 'It's like loving Graceland, it's not allowed to be but we know it's everybody's favourite where music makes you happiest'. Especially good because, let's face it, we all love a bit of Graceland.

What's even more impressive is how the songs work no matter the size of the venue. You'd be forgiven for expressing doubts about them working on a festival stage, but anyone who saw the performance on the Friday night of 2010's Indietracks can testify that they make the transition flawlessly. Set them in a small venue, though, and they take on a life of their own. Truly a live force to be reckoned with.

It's not a perfect album, but it's pretty damned close. There are a few rough edges here and there such as the missed beat at the start of 'Kiss Your Lips', the fact that The Polaroid Song seems to speed up halfway through, and you'll need to be a film buff to get most of the references in 'Woody Allen' (right over my head). But in a way these little defects are charming in - an overly polished album can feel detached and cold, while ones with defects appear more human and organic.

If you like pop music, you need this album. It'll charm you senseless on first listen and draw you in further and further with each subsequent listen as you become more and more acquainted with the songs and their characters. The themes of flawed happiness resonate wherever you go, transcending barriers and making this record as relevant and pertinent as any you'll find this year.

Allo Darlin's S/T debut is out now on Fortuna Pop!

A free download of 'Tallulah' can be found here

Monday, 3 January 2011

Moments Of 2010: A Band Who Weren't A Dick To The Dictaphone

(This is one of two posts that should've gone up before the new year. However, from just before Christmas onwards I was near bedbound with ilness, so they never got posted. Better late than never, right?)

The human condition is an odd one when it comes to people we admire – I'm going to avoid the pitfall of using the word heroes. It's overused and to me it's meaningless. Bowie had the right idea when he put it in quotation marks. In this instance it's not especially accurate either. But yeah, the human condition is an odd one. We put people on such unrealistic pedestals and place such emphasis on wanting to meet them, that when we do they never – or indeed are simply unable to – live up to the ridiculous expectations placed upon them. It all ends up feeling like you finally get the chance to drive the sportscar you've dreamed of, and you discover you can't fit into it. Or the mansion at the top of the hill you've coveted comes on the market and you find out the roof leaks and the indoor pool is full of used sanitary towels. Or being told that the poster that kept you busy during your formative years is in fact a tranvestite. (NB: just to clarify I've never had such a poster on my walls. They've been too busy hosting bits of F1 car. True facts.)

But we'll get back to that. First some introductions (no doubt interspersed with some personal history). I've been a fan of Jeremy Warmsley for years. I loved his first album, The Art Of Fiction. since it came out. Not just because it soundtracked the final semester of a first year at university where I'd successfully traversed the minefield of making friends while being a live-at-home student – it probably is a part of it, but the album stands up on its own. I loved the second album too, How We Became – I defy anyone to listen to Dancing With The Enemy and not smile or do a jaunty dance to it.

I'd heard various rumblings of 'Summer Camp this' and 'Summer Camp that' for months but had never checked them out. I'm one of these insufferable people that always has to discover something for themselves and in their own time, irrespective of what the hype machine is pedalling. The fact that I knew that one half of Summer Camp was Jeremy Warmsley shows you how far behind the times I was. For a while, y'see, Jeremy and his-then unknown to me partner in crime Elizabeth Sankey (of Platform magazine fame) had, for a little while at least, been laying low. Having put a couple of tracks on MySpace the duo, unsure of what to do and where to go, laid low for a time while maintaining a cloak of anonymity. Soon, the blogosphere went into overdrive, with everyone trying to be the first to find out the identities of Summer Camp, with a favourite rumour of mine being that they were some perfect Swedish pop entity. Eventually it all got a bit much and they were outed by a publication, which while sad was, I believe, to our - the public's - benefit.

Having been released into the public domain, Elizabeth and Jeremy unleashed a cracking record, which were I were to include EPs when evaluating my album of the year (always a contentious issue at the best of times) would have been a strong contender. I love the way that the record acknowledges its influences and wears its heart on its sleeve without ever descending into parody or carbon-copy imitation tactics in order to get its point across. If I were to state that it was unashamedly indebted to the 1980s, and unashamedly pop-oriented I imagine a large proportion of people would run a mile. It is as foolish a response as my summation is simplistic. It's intelligent pop music, with an atmosphere of woozy romanticism. It sounds simultaneously familiar and new and different, which in a musical climate where – to me anyway – the charts are full of identikit bands bouncing around a number of limited ideas is just what's needed.

So, when they played Manchester in October and the opportunity arose to interview them, I naturally took it. Who wouldn't jump at a chance to talk to the people behind their potential record of the year? Problem is, think back to the hype bands of years gone by. One of the Klaxons being denied entry to the BBC for an interview on account of being too inebriated (to be fair, he had just won the Mercury prize). The Twang being locked in a hotel room with booze and Oasis DVD's until the drummer dropped trou and bared all before the NME's cameras. Glasvegas' James Allan's attempts to look cool coming across like a pathetic, petulant bequiffed child in a pair of Raybans. Raygun's infamous interview clip (which can be found here, with hilarious musical overdbubs The formula seemed to be: musician plus hype = bellend.

There was another problem. I had a rare spate of disorganisation, which resulted in two catastrophic incidents which I haven't actually owned up publicly until today. I accept no responsibility for the rise in Michael Hubbard of musicOMH's blood pressure when he reads this (he doesn't know either). The first technically wasn't my fault. My phone got stolen at, meaning I gave the Summer Camps PR team a contact number a mere two hours before I left the house owing to my provider's incompetence re: sending me a new phone. One way ticket to stress central. The second was my fault, though. At somepoint, and for reasons unknown, the date of the gig and interview changed from the 5th to the 7th in my head. If it wasn't for the intervention of Hannah from PYT (see my previously article) 36 hours before the date in question I would've been in Manchester when Elizabeth and Jeremy were in Glasgow. It's funny now, even for me, but believe me it really wasn't at the time. I doubt Frank Spencer could've made a bigger ham fist of a simple job as I did on this occasion.

So then, we've established hyped bands don't usually make the best of interview subjects owing to their egos. Couple that with an interviewer who in the build up endured more cock ups than the Viagra trialling sessions, and it isn't looking good, is it? Glad you agree. The same thought crossed my mind. So, imagine my surprise when they turned out to be possibly the ideal interview subjects. Chatty, attentive, and intelligent, the worries and stresses of the week prior dissipated. I'd have understood if they got annoyed about the inevitable questions about the back story. I'd try to come at it from new angles, but these things always feel like reheating the same meal in a microwave and adding a different garnish to it every time. The contrary sod in me loved how they shrugged off their unorthodox birthing period with talk of 'how we did it is how we did it, it feels redundant talking it about doing it any other way' without a hint of attitude, more a sheepish smile. In a day and age where everything is so styled and manufactured, it was great to see a band talking enthusiastically about things they love, whether it was Jeremy on Bon Iver, or Elizabeth delivering what can only be described as a verbal supernova on John Hughes and the 1980s (that girl should go into politics. Seriously. Persuasive didn't cover it). When time ran away with us and we ran late (delaying the next interview), there was no 'right, that's it.' moment, instead there was a near apologetic 'erm, shall we do a couple more questions and then we're going to have to call it a day'.

What the experience taught me is that the music industry continues to contain nice people. Being hyped by a select few people doesn't instantly turn you into an egotistical gobshite. Musicians still exist who enjoy talking about what they do and their influences, and sharing it with the world. Truly a great moment. It also taught me to be bloody organised next time. I may have got away with it that time, but I hope to never tempt fate by pulling something similar again anytime soon. Idiot. If 2011 isn't Summer Camp's year then the world has gone wrong somewhere. Don't believe me? Check out the EP in readiness for this year's album.

Nice people who make great music? God I'm fucking jealous.

Summer Camp's Young EP is out on Moshi Moshi.

The eventual write up of the aforementioned interview can be found here:

The full transcript can be found here: