Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Winged Victory For The Sullen

As anyone who reads my posts on here, I'm someone fascinated by context and association in music. The way that a certain song or album suddenly makes sense under a set of circumstances, often forming associations that may live with you for the rest of your life, provides an incredible insight into the interaction between sound and conscious.

As a result, I've absolutely adored The Guardian's 'My Favourite Album' series. Not once did they rest purely on academic dissection, but rather interweaved musical analysis with a glimpse into the associations they still have behind their album choice, almost a glimpse into their life at the time. It made for faultless reading. They nearly always fell into two categories: coming of age, or sad/major events in their lives, and as one writer put it when we discussed their piece the strongest associations come out of the saddest situations (in fact, my own nomination falls into that category, but remains shrouded in secrecy on the offchance someone spikes the drinks of either Mr Jonze or Mr Petridis over the holiday season and they come a-knocking. I appreciate this is pretty much guaranteed never to happen, but a man can dream.).

It's certainly true of my album of the year, A Winged Victory For The Sullen's self titled effort. I came back from this year's edition of Indietracks a broken and confused man, having experienced a bout of extreme exhaustion that had left me in my tent by 10:20pm on the Friday night, necessitated a 3 month rest period upon my return and left me unsure if I'd see my friends again before the year was out. Part of me would like to think it was totally unexpected, but looking back the signs were there in the week leading up to it. They must've been. My calendar shows that on top of my normal work I'd made 5 trips to Manchester in a month (including attending the penultimate edition of Pull Yourself Together and being awake for 32 out of 34 hours). Something would have to have given eventually.

Quite what possessed me to tackle a 14 mile walk halfway through the aforementioned 3 month self-imposed rest period remains a mystery - one of the legacies after arriving home from Indietracks was the 2 mile loop that gets trodden on (at least) thrice daily lay untouched. But as the miles got ticked off one by one, and the vast, widescreen soundscapes created by Dustin O' Halloran and Adam Wiltzie's masterpiece were matched only by the sundrenched shoreside vistas nearby the concerns that had blighted the weeks prior were suddenly no more. It was as glorious a feeling as the sounds that were permeating my ears.

The album itself is something of a curious beast. It's somehow escaped the Achilles heel that always seems to have afflicted other ambient albums; that feeling that the listener is being kept at arm's length from the sonic goings on – a sense of being allowed to hear the creations contained within instead of being in some way included. This is an album full of instrumentals which possess a surprising amount of warmth and emotion on top of a beauty verging on – and I know the use of this word is considered poor form, but I can't communicate it any other way – ethereal. At times (especially on Requiem For The Static King Pt. 2 and All Farewells Are Sudden) it feels quasi-cinematic, but never at any point does it feel as though it would work only in that sense. So inviting is the music, so easy is it to bask in, that it becomes the soundtrack to your own little film. You become the film. As an immersive listening experience it's almost impossible to fault.

I've also found that it has this innate ability to extract beauty from surroundings and situations. Views that I've seen countless times a day and become indifferent to suddenly make their qualities known again. Looking back, pretty much every occasion I've listened to the album while having access to scenery has been a special experience – be it the sunset over the endless fields of Southern England while on a train to London in November (which fittingly marked my return to travelling and exploring), or the surreal and odd experience of wandering through the maze of Sheffield's vast Park Hill estate on a bitterly cold December afternoon with the winter sun fading over the city. I can honestly think of no other record in my collection which has created so many potentially indelible associations between sound and vision.

The fact of the matter is, however, that no matter how hard I try I'll never be able to accurately sum up why I love the record, or how much I do. The inexorable links it's formed in the short time it's been in my life have become too complex and too personal to properly document. Why waste time elaborating any further on mine when you could be somewhere forming your own? What I do know is that these associations are merely garnish on a sumptuous and rich musical platter that the record has brought to the party solely on its own merits. If you find yourself at a loose end over the festive period, get yourself a copy, head off for a winter wander and see where the record takes you. I'm willing to wager you won't regret it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Observations From An Arts Council Of Wales Consultation

Time for something new. While we over here usually just muck about posting comments on a 6-track shuffle on the mp3 player or blathering on about our favourite records, when the opportunity came about to sit in on a public consultation for the Arts Council of Wales' draft proposal for Funding for Music Industry development....well, you just have to, don't you?

The proposal is being jointly developed between the arts council and Welsh Music Federation (WMF), an organisation dedicated to helping organisation and people involved in music, funded solely by the Welsh government. Having already branched out to include international showcases at SXSW it has also been instrumental in bringing world music conference WOMEX to Cardiff in 2013, it has now instigated an investigation into the live music scene in Wales with a view to identifying and potentially solving problems inherent in the scheme of things at present and will provide a key role in dispersing money once the scheme gets under way.

I'm not going to discuss the document itself as such – it can be found here ( doesn't especially constitute a vast amount of reading. I personally found it to be a surprisingly wide-ranging and comprehensive long term strategy, and most of my questions were addressed during the meeting. Those that weren't will be dealt with below. Instead I'm going to discuss the points made during the 90 minute consultation itself.

Given the current economic situation, there's a lot to admire about the creation of this proposal. The first is that it exists at all. The second is that its creators are prepared to venture out and talk to people 'on the ground' to gauge reaction and seek improvements. The third is that it's truly a Wales-wide venture, taking in cities across the South as well as pockets of activity in the North, such as the consultation I attended in Caernarfon. The ACoW from the outset has made it clear that this is to be a collaborative process between the industry and itself, and is actively encouraging the industry stakeholders – whatever they may be and however their interests may differ – to talk amongst themselves on the matter as well, in order to find a cohesive and comprehensive development package for the area. The body itself described the proposal during the meeting as an 'industry-led project focussed on music'.

With the Welsh being fiercely proud of its culture and identity (or parochial and small minded, depending on your point of view), the two most immediate issues of the meeting concerned Internationality and language. There appeared to be some element of contention of what exactly constituted an international outlook, with some people present suggesting it should constitute the rest of Britain, while others thought it more appropriate to attribute it to a global outlook (a suggestion was made for the two ideas to become in effect two separate levels of consideration). It was acknowledged that being truly international presented a wealth of new opportunities not only for artists and the production of records, but also for distribution and and marketing opportunities and formed a key component of any future long-term plans. This was matched with an element of caution, citing the market saturation of the Welsh literature market, where Welsh language books are being produced at far greater quantities than shops can ever hope to stock them, never mind sell. The mood in the room suggested that exposure for the Welsh music industry needed to be matched with sustainability in the long term, and suggestions were made regarding tie-ins for marketing and distribution solutions between the literature and music sectors.

The topic of language proved a complex and divisive topic, with the main point of contention being that at no point is it mentioned in the proposal. Delegates were quick to point out that language shouldn't interfere with the aims and objectives of the draft, and that it didn't want two separate systems to exist. One point that drew unanimous agreement was that language would inevitably form a central point relating to marketability and that the promotional needs for those end products would need to be altered accordingly. The ability to identify and address the issues and concerns to the choice of language an individual or organisation chooses during their application process will form a part of the selection process. It was noted – perhaps somewhat worryingly – that irrespective of language, the ability for small independent labels to get airplay of any sort was especially troublesome.

The attribution of funds to local, traditional forms of music also drew a strong reaction, with mentions of financial quotas to be created in order to ensure they get a fair say. ACoW and the WMF appeared reluctant to set these on the grounds that they didn't want to have to turn away projects based on the fact that a quota had been met, and likewise having to accept second rate projects in order to meet them. However, The discussion did bring up the possibility of greater links between local and traditional forms of music and the tourism industry.

A major problem for the industry at Wales at present is the aid given to the training of managers. Artists and organisations at present can receive training and development aid, but those wishing to provide a similar role freelance get no help whatsoever. It was acknowledged that this was an issue at the heart of the ACoW as a whole, rather than the proposal specifically. Talk also turned to giving musicians some form of business guidance to help them achieve the greatest amount possible with whatever financial assistance they receive – it was noted that for many young musicians it would be the first time they'd have come into money and guidance on spending to help deliver the greatest benefits may actually reward the Council in the long run if that project became successful.

ACoW are making it clear that they expect value for money for their investments, and have no qualms in stating that their ideal scenario would be for a project in which they've invested a modest amount delivers, whereby they can demand acknowledgement. They're keen on projects that will recycle the money given, allowing it to be used by other elements of the Welsh industry (for instance, an artist given money for recording would use it in a Welsh studio, rather than an English one) in the hope that in the long term, such continued investment will raise overall standards. Industry experts will sit in on panel discussion in order to ensure value for money is gained (tour managers can look at an artist's budget and suggest areas for improvement, etc). Investing in a label with a repertoire will provide better value than investing in a single artist. They're also clear in how they advertise it – not as a free for all to claim for a new synth etc but as something far more cohesive – and the high quality they will expect from applicants (talk of spending weeks, if not months, and a great deal of energy on the most competent, creative, and potentially viable submissions).

On the whole the document, I feel, touches upon most of the key points in the industry and identifies its current shortcomings well. If those involved take on board the concerns of those in the consultations and the process is as collaborative throughout the industry works as planned then I fail to see how, providing the submissions are up to scratch, the proposal can fail. Good luck to them. Granted to many there will be doubts concerning the lack of true 'grass roots' backing, but having been this afternoon it's easy to see how that isn't possible. There will be limited funds available and you can be seen to be giving them out left right and centre to every new band that started last week who may record a bunch of demos and then split up.

As always though, things are always going to be left out during a 90 minute consultation and what I'd like clarification about are the following:

What constitutes a 'strong track record'? What is the minimum required to be classed as having one?

When it talks about empowering promoters, is it talking purely of large-scale entities such as national opera companies – for example – or independent promoters that may be perfectly adept at their work but put on gigs to 200 people, if that?

When talking of giving financial aid to refurbish and improve venues, again what is exactly meant? A pub backroom? A dedicated small gig venue (such as Leeds' Brudenell)? A 1000-capacity venue etc.

These are but 3 small areas of clarification on what is, as I said, actually quite a detailed document. If you've any queries about it, then do as I'll be doing in due course and contact the people behind it via the means listed in the proposal that's linked on here, by 25th January.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


 Working in retail around Christmas poses a problem. Well, not even working in it around Christmas. I started working on Christmas promotions and the like in August. As a result, the past few years have meant I'm so sick of that damn festive period malarkey that I've never really enjoyed it. It remains to be seen whether this'll play out again this year, but one thing is for certain: I've realised this year just how many Christmas songs I bloody love – being subjected to them via a piped playlist means you hear them on repeat in quick succession. If they stand up in that environment, they'll stand up anywhere. Here are some of my favourites (playlisted or not), and some ham-fisted attempts at trying to work out why.

The Pretenders - 2000 Miles

Right, let's get the elephant in the room out in the open so we can move on: most Christmas songs have all the nuance and subtlety of Noddy Holder jumping out from behind your tree as you open your presents and ejaculating into your face while shouting 'IT'S JIZZMAAAAAAASSS!'. Granted, part of the appeal of yuletide pophits is their bombast but it's still refreshing when someone does it with a sense of restraint. Enter The Pretenders. A plaintive guitar line, Chrissie Hynde's soaring vocals, and an overall sense of effortless, sweeping majesty. Behold, a timeless festive classic.

Brenda Lee - Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree

This really is just sonic crack isn't it? I defy anyone to listen to it and not find themselves whistling along by the second verse or so. As ever with songs this simple the devil's in the detail - the trebly guitar lines to garnish, the wall of backing vocals as required. Stone cold classic.

The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping


Julian Casablancas - I Wish it Was Christmas Today

Yes it's a Saturday Night Live song turned into a single, but as Smith and Burrows have proven rather comprehensively pious Christmas songs just souund downright awful. As such, perhaps it's time to celebrate a Christmas song that has its tongue wedged so firmly in its cheek that it looks like a precocious teen insinuating a blow job. You can almost see the knowing winks betwixt Casablancas and the studio engineers as he drawls out every last letter of the 'heeeeee-uhhhhhh/cheeeeee-uhhhhhh' rhyme. It almost sounds like he's having FUN, which is not only what Christmas should be about, but is a welcome surprise from someone who recently appears to believe the only present becoming of his Strokes-mates would be a faceful of sherry glass after Christmas dinner.

The Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)

The Ramones doing a Christmas song poses a problem. Yes, they adored all the 60s pop and what have you, but Christmas is usually about love, and the kind of weird fucked up romance that masqueraded as love on a Ramones record doesn't really fit the bill. Answer: make a Christmas song where one half of a (I assume ordinarily) volatile and tempestuous relationship makes a plea to the other to have a nice, pleasant day. Slightly warped Ramones relationship, and a cosy concilliatory normal Christmas get whacked by the same stone. BOOM. Also manages to do all of the above while sounding unmistakeably Ramones-y. Wall of guitars? Check. Sub 3 minute song duration? Check. Pop sensibility? Check. Cracking.

Darlene Love – All Alone On Christmas

Four words: Clarence Clemons saxophone solo.

Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Just to rub it in everyone's face, Darlene Love made not one, but two incredible Christmas songs. While the last one was built around a behemoth of a saxophone line, this one does it all by itself (despite having a decent sax solo itself). In a moment of madness I almost chose the Slow Club cover over the original, before seeing sense and realising you can't really pick a cover over a Phil Spector original. Behold as the wall of 'CHRISTMAS!' that gets wheeled out throughout the song buries itself into your subconscious, and the way the drums go all staccato and the brass builds as each passage ends. Quite the intoxicating mixture. Altogether now: CHRISTMAAASSSS!

Badly Drawn Boy – Donna and Blitzen

In the same way that The Pretenders is understated brilliance, so Badly Drawn Boy's festive offering from a few years ago in unwavering in its class and majesty. From the opening strings of the intro you know it's going to be something special, and from the gentle, lilting piano line to the cascading strings building to a crescendo it never stops being anything else than staggering. To take what's actually a simple, repeating melody and turn it into something so complete is an incredible achievement. To me, it's a criminally underrated Yuletide record.

The Pogues and Kirsty McColl – Fairytale Of New York

So then, here it is. The veritable DADDY of Christmas songs. I remember a few years back staying up late, well into the small hours of the morning, to watch a 90 minute documentary on its creation. I may have almost been falling asleep into my dinner the next day but by Christ it was worth it. It's also the only song to have led me to join in on a sing-a-long comprising an entire pub (a Scream pub. Winter 2008. Drink, I can only guess, must've been involved somewhere). There's not a vast amount to be said that hasn't been said before – McGowan's heartbreaking intro sets the scene for the tale, before the towering behemoth of a chorus steals the show. It's utterly immense and it speaks volumes that a) nothing has come close to matching it in well over 20 years and 2) the public outcry when the BBC threatened to ban it from the radio a couple of years ago for using the word 'faggot'. Cue a lot of backtracking.

But it also raises the issue of how sad some of the most famous Christmas songs actually are. We've already covered Darlene Love's odes to lonely festive days, but you'd have to be totally heartless not to be moved when McGowan's character pleads to MacColl's for forgiveness, citing 'I've built my dreams around you' as proof of his dedication. Even Wham!'s Last Christmas gets in on the Christmas heartbreak train, being the ultimate quasi-Bullseye 'here's what you could've won' tale; the musical equivalent of Den Watts serving Angie the divorce papers in arguably Eastenders' most famous moment back in 1986.