07 CONTENTS / CREDITS
09 Editorial 10 10 12 12 14 14
Live Reviews Dirty Projectors Electric Soft Parade Efterklang Matt Berry Stars of the Lid Black Mountain
16 The Bearded Sluice Box 18 20 24 28 32 40 44 46 50
Features KateGoes kotki dwa Adele West Midlands Music Scene Stiff Records Figurines Sound of Cities Black Mountain Plug Awards
Reviews 52 Record Reviews 68 Singles Round-up Coming Soon 70 The Ruby Suns 72 Diary Dates 74 Competition
Words Anita Awbi, William Brett, Kat Brown, Amanda Farah, Jamie Hailstone, Simon Harper, Sam Lusardi, Adam Mabena, Gareth Main, Norman Miller, Alex Ogg, Jonathan Pearson, Stephen Pietrzykowski, Andy Price, Ashleigh Rainbird, Matt Robinson, Jeremy Style, David Winstanley, Ben Wood. Photography Pete Ashton, Simon Birk, Bradley Fafejta, Paul Holmes, Marion Koob, Annette Lee, Sebastian Loyn, Jessica Miller, Cyril Moya, Katja Ogrin, Maeve Rolston, Hege Saebjornsen, Nic Shonfeld, Alexander Wagn, Mic Wernej. Illustration Aesthetic Apparatus – www.aestheticapparatus.com Craig Atkinson – www.craigatkinson.co.uk Amy Brown – www.amyillustration.com David Callow – www.davidcallow.co.uk Paul Davis (cover) – www.copyrightdavis.com Kenn Goodall – www.bykenn.com Karin Hagen – www.karinhagen.com Bob London – www.boblondon.co.uk Kevin Summers – www.thisismakebelieve.co.uk Sarah Walsh – email@example.com Zeroten – www.zeroten.net Roll of Honour All our contributors, Pete Ashton, Ben Ayres, Geoff Baker, Lara Baker, Mary-Anne Baldwin, Rich Batsford, Nathan Beazer, Andrew Bennett, Joolz Bosson, Paul Bradshaw, Lisa and Jenny at Capsule, Jez Collins, Matt Cooper, Austen Cruickshank, Jon at Darling Dept, Geoff Dolman, Lisa Durrant, Seb Emina, Carl Fysh, Leslie Gilotti, Garmon Gruffydd, Sofia Hagberg, Simon Harper, Kerry Harvey-Piper, Nick Hollywood, Ian at How Does it Feel to be Loved?, Ryan Hoxley, Mark Husak, Antony Inglis Hall, Kaplan Kaye, Will Lawrence, Annette Lee, Belinda Liversedge, Hayley Longdin, Alex, Vanessa, Stuart, Nikki and Samuel Main, Ed Mason, Ryan McCann, Anna Mears, Alison Millar, Ashley Minto, Tony Morley, Joe Murphy, Sean Newsham, Richard Onslow, Ryan Oxley, Ben at Outpost, Luke Page, James Parrish, Ruth Patterson, John Peel (RIP), Stephen Pietrzykowski, Paul at Plug Two, Kate Price, Math Priest, Simon Tasse, Kiera Poland, Zoe Price, Steve Rose, Mark Sampson, Laura and Tasha at Scruffy Bird, Sam Shemtob, David Silverman, Sam Smith, Stephen Smith, Chris Stone, Ryan Taylor, Paula Tew, Jonny Trunk, Rich Walker, Elise Walton, Alison Wenham, Alix Wenmouth, Sam Willis, Tony Wilson (RIP), Ben WinboltLewis, Steph Wood, Fiona Wooton. Environmental Credentials Bearded is printed on 100% recycled paper, produced using 100% post consumer, de-inked waste. Please help limit the impact of climate change, get bearded. Publisher Fleeing from Pigeons Design & Art Direction Kevin Summers – www.thisismakebelieve.co.uk Website Design Stuart Main Address Bearded Magazine 18 Woodbridge Road Moseley Birmingham B13 8EJ Telephone 0121 449 8546 0773 822 6580 Email firstname.lastname@example.org Art email@example.com Website www.beardedmagazine.co.uk
Illustration Collaboration between Sarah Walsh & Kevin Summers
Illustration Karin Hagen
Welcome to the first Bearded of 2008. Of course, it has been 2008 for a while now and already you will have had the chance to listen to plenty of outstanding records coming out from the independent sector. One thing that has struck me in the past year since Bearded began is the rapidly increasing number of artists who are now releasing their music themselves. In our second issue, we featured Misty’s Big Adventure who were gearing up for the release of third record Funny Times on their own Grumpy Fun imprint. Similarly, one of Bearded’s favourite records of 2007, Dead Heart Bloom’s Chelsea Diaries, was self-released and Welsh band attack + defend, featured in the Bearded Sluice Box in our December issue, release their material through their own Shape record label. Towards the end of 2007, I went to the Association of Independent Music’s ‘meet the media’ event where I met a huge number of artists who were their own label bosses. Some of their music was fantastic and would easily be snapped up by a label but the promise of creative control made the daunting task of managing your own finances somewhat more appealing. It is a trend that will continue into 2008 and it is largely due to the pressure some labels exert on their artists. Interestingly, in this issue of Bearded, we feature some artists who want to do it themselves and others to who the task of running a label is something they do not have the finance or necessary knowledge to start. One band going it alone, and going it alone in the very strictest sense is kotki dwa who, after knocking back lots of major label interest, decided to release their own records and go so far as to have their parents managing their affairs. Read more about their antics on page 20.
On the other side of the coin is unsigned Birmingham band KateGoes, who have recently released their debut EP via the PRS and are now on the lookout for a label. With a unique live show and even better songs, it surely won’t be long before labels come sniffing. Read our interview with the band on page 18. Someone who is already big this year whose star will continue to shine is Adele. With a Brit award category invented for her, her album 19 has been flying off the shelves. We chatted with the extremely grounded superstar on page 24. With great records released this year, we met up with The Ruby Suns (page 70) and ingenious Danish stars Figurines (page 40). Also featuring in your issue of Bearded is the amazing story and revival of the classic Stiff Records, the label that gave us Madness, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello (page 32), an analysis of the exciting Birmingham and Coventry music scene (page 28) and the usual news, views and reviews. This might be a good chance to plug the fantastic new Bearded website – launching on 1 March – that will offer visitors a new insight into the independent music scene – www.beardedmagazine. co.uk Enjoy the latest issue of Bearded! Gareth Main Fleeing from Pigeons
10 LIVE REVIEWS
11 LIVE REVIEWS
Dirty Projectors Words Jonathan Pearson Photography Annette Lee Electric Soft Parade Words Sam Lusardi Photography Nic Shonfeld
Dirty Projectors 27/11/07 Dingwalls (London)
Electric Soft Parade 25/11/07 The Faversham (Leeds)
The queues of people standing in the rain on a drizzly Tuesday in Camden are ostensibly there to see Canadian rockers Caribou, headlining tonight’s bill, but the buzz in the air is about Brooklyn four-piece Dirty Projectors. Propelled by word of mouth and glowing review after glowing review, the past few months have seen the band’s profile in the UK slowly swell and there’s no doubt who people are here to see tonight. As the band wander onstage, the crowd crush forward full of curious anticipation. With, until recently, limited exposure on this side of the Atlantic and a recorded output that is difficult to come by, the band are something of an enigma, so the crowd’s imagination is piqued. The cadaverous, impossibly tall frame of frontman Dave Longstreth emerges, face shrouded by a hood, flanked on one side by beautifully saucer-eyed bassist Angel Deradoori, and on the other by pint-sized guitarist Amber Coffman. Finally, drummer Brian McOmber who achieves dizzying heights of rhythmic intricacy as the set progresses, emerges to kick off proceedings. Inevitably, the highlights of the set are from the band’s latest record, Rise Above, a reworking of US punk band Black Flag’s debut album, Damaged. Quite what Black Flag fans will make of this is unclear but the vision of these songs could not be further removed from the originals. Two minute ear-splitter, ‘Depression’ is transformed into a bluegrass stomp complete with Deliverance-style duelling guitars, while ‘Rise Above’, regarded as a Black Flag classic and tonight’s final number, morphs from a visceral call to arms into a gospel choir’s anthem to spiritual freedom; it’s like hearing Marx read by Gandhi. Dirty Projectors sound so unlike anything else that they leave with you no point of reference to even begin discussing their music. Shattering, beautiful, challenging and downright weird, each song in tonight’s set is dripping with mercurial energy. The overall effect is something curiously aggressive, their sound creeps into every crevice of the venue’s dark corners, yet they never feel overwhelming. For every twenty seconds of white noise, they deliver a minute of soothing, soaring sounds that take your breath away. Part of their beauty is their ability to mesmerise you with less than ten seconds of melody before tugging themselves in another direction. After a sadly brief set, the band retires backstage. Audience members turn to each other eyebrows raised, slowly exhale and compare notes: “Fucking brilliant,” opinions a bespectacled girl behind me. You’re not wrong lass, not at all.
When I heard that the Electric Soft Parade were to play their recent album in its entirety on this tour I was undecided as to whether it was a wise move. One of the reasons bands don’t do this kind of thing more often is that the majority of albums, unless they are of the highest order, contain a few duffers. A brave move by Brighton brothers then, to put their recent long player No Need To Be Downhearted to the test, especially with Muddy Suzuki drummer Damo Waters drafted in for only his second gig with the band. Going to a gig is a completely different experience to listening to an album. Clearly it’s not something you can switch on and off, or skip through, so I was interested to hear how some of the unobvious tracks from the album would cope, and if the gig could be viewed and enjoyed as a coherent whole. Complete with full visual accompaniment the set kicked off, unsurprisingly, with piano-led album opener ‘No Need To Be Downhearted (Pt 1)’. The band proceeded to work their way through the album with singles ‘Misunderstanding’ and ‘If That’s The Case Then I Don’t Know’ both providing some great melody and riffage respectively. However, it was on the more expansive cuts such as ‘Woken by a Kiss’ with its slowburning opening and understated bridge leading to a furious climax of drums and keys, and the insistent backing of ‘Shore Song’ – complete with footage of Brighton Beach, that the decision to play the album through was more than justified. The encore consisted of early b-side ‘Broadcast’, voted for inclusion in the set on fan demand through the ESP website, old favourite ‘Silent to the Dark’ and a bizarre Bond-esque theme tune with guest vocals from tour partner Dear Britch, which gave a surreal but amusing end to proceedings. With no obvious candidate amongst any of the live-version tracks for the ‘duffer’ tag, the gig showed a UK band with the balls to try something a little different and the talent to pull it off. Keep up the good work.
12 LIVE REVIEWS
13 LIVE REVIEWS
Efterklang Words Ben Wood Photography Pete Ashton Matt Berry Words Andy Price Photography Maeve Rolston / Paul Holmes
Efterklang 23/11/07 Bush Hall (London)
Matt Berry 18/11/07 Thekla (Bristol)
Bush Hall is a beautiful Edwardian dancehall with a great history, gorgeous plasterwork and wonderful acoustics – and this gig was just as special as its setting. When Efterklang hit the stage to breathless expectation, many are gawping at this peculiar troupe’s outthere aesthetics. No anonymous stage duds for this bunch: the chaps (everyone apart from cute-as-a-button keyboardist Rune Fonseca Mølgaard) are rocking black dress shirts and white plus-fours – accessorised, in the case of their supercharismatic front man Casper Clausen with a sparkly waistcoat. There are a couple of moustaches as well, with the aforementioned Clausen looking like a cross between a consumptive World War One flying ace and a Morris dancer halfway through an all-night rave. The stage was festooned with peacock feathers and bells, and the two main singers both have extra drums to bash when they feel like it. Don’t you love it when bands make an effort? While the band’s current album Parades flatters to deceive, live the band really comes into its own. The formlessness that prevents many songs ever getting off the ground on record is cured by the band’s live multi-percussive attack, while the rousing voices of the self-styled ‘choir’ give each song the feel of a revivalist meeting. It is genuinely heart-warming to see a band so obviously thrilled to be on stage, and the feeling is mutual. A positive feedback effect sets in where band and audience cheer each other on to further heights. The songs – sometimes stompy, sometimes quiet and reflective – don’t necessarily stand out on their own, but together they make for a truly uplifting experience. Starting strongly, Efterklang build the atmosphere so that by the end people are virtually gibbering with joy. There’s a timeless feeling of pagan celebration in the air: this is music that appeals to your soul rather than your body or your mind (although there’s something extremely sweet about the unselfconscious jerky, bouncy dancing on stage). Before the encore brings the house down again, a fellow punter tells me he reckons that bands like Efterklang are making truly European soul music: in terms of spirit it isn’t so different to what Charlie Parker was doing. He may be right – many of the current crop of Scandinavian acts are reaching for the sublime to create truly spiritual music. Maybe it’s the climate, the isolation or the stunning landscapes. I’m just glad someone is.
Primetime television has done little to serve independent musicians in recent times, but Friday night comedy The IT Crowd has served Matt Berry an ace into the wider audience as a popular television actor. Despite writing and performing music for a number of the television shows he stars in, his skills as a musician are less known and half a year previously, Berry was seen up and down the country playing to small but packed out venues. This time around, at the Thekla in Bristol, this wasn’t the case. Whether the crowds had been put off by music rather than comedy is unknown, but one thing is for sure, his music is still just as tight, powerful and original as last time around. Playing a heavy amount of music from his TV career, including a song originally performed for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and the theme to his own project Snuff Box, there were few additions to the set that largely comprised of material from his solo record Opium. New appearances in the set were more than appreciated, but they didn’t include any new material per se. Instead, Berry chose to perform a musical tribute to John Inman with the theme from Are You Being Served? Also, bizarrely, the Neil Hannon written IT Crowd theme tune was performed with Berry spending the duration of the song sprawled on the floor. The set continued to lag as the majority of the hour, which also included material from the AD/BC rock opera (with a quick plug for its DVD release) was performed with an almost uneasy autonomy. Perhaps conscious of the same tour being performed twice, Berry did interact with the crowd a little more than usual and stood tall and proud in a pilot’s outfit. His backing band, Jonas 3 – although appalling when performing Berry’s little mid-song routines, were certainly tighter this time around – with improved vocals. Berry himself also outperformed himself with yet more confidence and grace in booming out the lyrics – whether sung or spoken. Set highlights did include a commanding ‘Lay your love On Me’ and a more emotionally resonated alternate on the Snuff Box theme tune called ‘The Hangman’s Song’. Berry’s themes of drinking, hanging and general authoritative vulgarity were still there in all their glory – and we most certainly wouldn’t have it any other way – but we do hope he puts out another record before he ventures out on to the gig circuit for a third time.
14 LIVE REVIEWS
15 LIVE REVIEWS
Stars of the Lid Words Matt Robinson Photography Cyril Moya Black Mountain Words Ben Wood Photography Mic Wernej
Stars of the Lid 17/12/07 Naunynstraße Ballhaus (Berlin)
Black Mountain/Miracle Fortress 05/12/07 Cargo (London)
A solitary blood-red heart shaped balloon hugs the ceiling, guarded by two maiden statues – perched high either side of the balcony in the main hall at Naunynstraße Ballhaus. I’m wondering whether the presence of the balloon has been orchestrated for effect, and whether anyone else has noticed. At the candle-lit bar, a 7ft tattooed szenequeen waits patiently at the front of a chain of cardigan wearing emo daddies for the bartender to finish pouring a glass of red wine. A cloud of white – the collective work of some rollup smokers defying the no-smoking sign – drifts towards the stage. Berlin’s public smoking ban is not yet law; it will probably make little difference here anyway. Listening to Stars of the Lid is always a cerebral experience. The name is derived from the patterns of light that can be seen dancing on the rear of your eyelid. The projections of VJ Luke Savisky are subtle and elegant, broadcasting what seemed to be the shadows of faces in moments of bliss or agony, and spherical movements resembling as of yet undiscovered planets. Although SOTL is best consumed by following the instructions of the packet (eyes shut, ears open), Savisky certainly does enough to keep those with empty cardboard box head syndrome occupied. As the group descend into the droning sanctuary of their first piece it’s obvious that the acoustic instruments are having a hard time adjusting to the cold Berlin climate. At one point McBride mutters into the microphone, his brow furrowed at the spotlights cast on the stage: “It’s really cold in that van, and all the instruments have gone…” trailing his sentence off in frustration as he steps away from the microphone, and back to the right side of the stage. Valentin Chernykh once wrote that “Moscow does not believe in tears.” Well Berlin has a well-documented historical right to a little self-loathing and despair, and Stars of the Lid’s performance presented the perfect opportunity to wallow in the comfort of it. The duo, plus strings, play five songs from …and their refinement of the decline and tired sounds of…, all of which received enthusiastic applause. SOTL document some of the saddest moments in time, without reprieve. The droning ambience of life accelerating towards one ultimate certainty, tapping out hypnotic variants of soon extinguished melodies along the way. It’s music to explore the hinterhöf of your skull to, soaring bass movements chasing treble, void of any percussive accompaniment. Those absent missed the chance to hear one of the most inspiring performances of womb music, on one of the calmest of Berlin nights.
In the recent BBC drama Life on Mars, John Simm went into a coma and appeared to wake up in a perfectly realised facsimile of 1973. The audience for Black Mountain will know the feeling: looking and sounding like they’ve been beamed direct from that very same year with Deep Purple-meets-Black Sabbath riffs, hair falling over face in listless bangs and endless solos. They even have head banging and gig posters featuring wizards. Somehow it works. Opening act Miracle Fortress have a completely different approach… they’re trying to recreate 1991 instead. They’re blessed with almost the ideal small venue: Old Street’s Cargo is a sold-out 500-capacity square box, large enough to create an atmosphere, with great acoustics (well, they were for Black Mountain). But something just doesn’t click. Graham Van Pelt’s Canadian crew are apparently keen to channel the blessed-out pop visions of the sainted Brian Wilson through an FX-heavy blender. Unfortunately, their live incarnation seems to have the arrangements all wrong. Vocals and melodies which sounded strong on record are reduced to a background hum, as a shoegazey sameness envelops almost every song. Most of their songs sound like they are being played from next door, or underwater. Even a John Cale cover doesn’t cut through the formless sonic mush. The one exception to the rule is the single ‘Have You Seen in Your Dreams’, a lovely piece of shoegaze pop, with beautiful male-female harmonies. The swooping dynamics somehow remain intact, and we are left to ponder what might have been. Black Mountain are happy to remind people of an often unfashionable era where being able to play well was something to celebrate rather than hide, where long hair and bong-smoking were ever-present, and ‘you rock, man’ was the highest compliment. Some of these ingredients are pretty familiar for those of us who have always been partial to early ‘70’s rock, but the band seems to have chosen a good time to form. After several years of tinny post-punk, where tunes and musicianship were low on the agenda, what seemed dated now seems timely again. After all, if you’re not seen as ‘cool’, you won’t sell out a venue in Hoxton in mid-week.
16 THE BEARDED SLUICE BOX
17 THE BEARDED SLUICE BOX
Ratface Ratface is one man – one man armed with a four-track and a microphone. This recipe has been cooked up before and it usually ends up on a rarely visited Myspace page. But someone slipped some dirty amphetamines in this mixture because Ratface, filled with neurosis, crass humour and disgusting tales laden over some particularly grubby beats is going to make a serious impact with his punk influenced hip hop. Bizarrely, he has slotted in with the likes of anti-folkers and dirty rockers rather than any kind of beatmakers – but he never fails to land on the right side of praise. Yeasayer According to them, they make ‘Middle Eastern-psych-pop-snap-gospel’, which is rather accurate, but a bit of a mouthful. Although it’s probably understandable given that they say they’re based in the future – maybe every modern rock band talks like that there. Pretensions aside, Yeasayer’s cultural influences fuse with classic rock in a quirky aural discordance that doesn’t sound too tasty in writing, but genuinely pleases those whose ears ornament an open mind. Arabic infusions seem out of place in a sinister track titled ‘Wintertime’, which just adds to their peculiar charm. Simultaneously catchy, haphazard and haunting, their odd amalgamations deserve your attention. Lykke Li Just cos 2007 was the year of the female singer-songwriter, north European avant garde pop and Scandinavian svengalis, does that mean Lykke Li is yesterday’s news? No way. Even though she’s Swedish (yawn), writes her own stuff (so?) and her new album was produced by Bjorn Yttling of PB&J, there’s something new and wholesome about her. Bleepy indietronic rhythms, a pure voice and grittily honest lyrics are all in place, and the overall effect is like a whispering icy breeze straight from the fjords. Her debut album Youth Novels is a crackling set that perfectly offsets the New Year’s infatuation with X-Factor droll pop.
Ratface (At the Library) Arsenal Ratface... On Ice! LP / Ratface Wins! EP Words Andy Price Photography Courtesy of Ratface www.myspace.com/ratfacemuzak Yeasayer (We Are Free) Arsenal All Hour Cymbals LP Words Ashleigh Rainbird Photography Alexander Wagn www.myspace.com/yeasayer Lykke Li (LL Recordings) Arsenal Little Bit EP / Youth Novels LP Words Anita Awbi www.myspace.com/lykkeli Dumpstaphunk (DP Records) Arsenal Listen Hear EP Words Jamie Hailstone www.myspace.com/dumpstaphunk The Whitest Boy Alive (Bubbles) Arsenal Burning EP / Dreams LP Words Jamie Hailstone Photography Courtesy of Scruffy Bird www.myspace.com/thewhitestboyalive
Dumpstaphunk When it comes to funk, people like Art and Aaron Neville wrote the rule book. First, there was The Meters, one of the most sampled bands of all time. Then there was the Neville Brothers – the greatest band in the history of New Orleans. Now the next generation of Nevilles are making musical waves of their own. Dumpstaphunk was put together by Ivan Neville, the son of soul singer Aaron, and also stars Ian Neville, the son of Art. Although they have played together for several years, Dumpstaphunk have only just released their first EP, called Listen Hear and it’s a corker. The guitar riff on ‘Livin In a World Gone Mad’ will get the party started each and every time. The rest of the EP rocks and funks harder than the Red Hot Chili Peppers on speed. No one is going to stand still when this record gets played. It’s time to shake that bootie people! The Whitest Boy Alive This Berlin-based indie and disco house are not just hip. They are über hip, even the Sunday Times thinks they are going places. Their most recent appearance in the UK was supporting the New Young Pony Club at the Astoria in London, when the venue was packed with punters getting down to their support slot. It was fast, funky and drummer Sebastian Maschat was a dead ringer for Napoleon Dynamite. No wonder the crowd loved them. Their debut album Dreams was also released in the UK for the first time also in November, and a 7 inch single Burning was also put out. The group may have started out in 2003 as an electronic dance project, but today they have a laid back vibe with hypnotic vocals by Erlend Øye. Like a sleeker and sexier version of Interpol, their music quickly gets under your skin. Resistance is futile.
KATEGOES... AND TALKS TO BEARDED
BIRMINGHAM HAS ITS OWN BURGEONING LITTLE POCKET OF FEY MUSICAL WONDERFULNESS IN THE SOUTH OF THE CITY. WITH A LARGE ARRAY OF LOVINGLY DEVELOPED COSTUMES AND AN EVEN MORE IMPRESSIVE ARRAY OF POP SONGS, KATEGOES ARE A JOY TO BEHOLD. GARETH MAIN WENT FOR TEA AND CAKES WITH THE BAND TO SEE WHAT THEY ARE ALL ABOUT.
If you went to see Misty’s Big Adventure at Southampton’s Joiners towards the end of last year, you may have been slightly bemused by the sight of an odd-looking mixed-sex five piece in support whose singer was sporting a pair of deliciously unfashionable woollen hot pants. This was Kate who, along with her band, performs delightful pop songs that sound like they’ve come straight out of children’s storybook. Well, until you really listen to them and realise they have some lewd imagery and lyrics about swapping tongues – ikk. Over the course of the tour, those hot pants developed steadily into a lovely pair of woollen trousers and the band had taken further steps to turning the curious legion of Misty’s fans on to their weird and wonderful world. Meeting with the band at Kate’s house in Birmingham, the woollen trousers sit calmly on the back of a chair. The clues to the origin of the original, quirky sound of KateGoes start to reveal themselves: Kate’s favourite song is ‘We all Stand Together’ by Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus. Slowly everything starts to make sense. For a reason unknown to Bearded, KateGoes remain unsigned and, despite building up a loving following in their home city and charming people wherever they go on tour with their amiable brand of beautiful music mixed with themes and theatrics, their only release to date is their debut Happy Dancing EP, which came out via the band winning a competition with the PRS. Nonetheless, a bright future is ahead for a band simply concerned with having fun, rather than being wacky. Bearded: Kate, you started writing songs when you were nine, your songs still sound like what a nine-year-old might come up with, has much not changed since then? Kate Thompson (vocals, keys): It would be more entertaining if we were a band of nine-year-olds. I do write about silly stuff now, when I was little I used to write about how depressed and angry I was, now I write about animals. It’s good though, that’s a positive thing! Where did the idea of the themes and costumes come from? Kate: I think something is more entertaining the more bits you can
tie to it. The one thing I never want to do is get stuck where we’re just playing a gig over and over again and there is nothing new about it and we’re not enjoying it enough. But if we change everything we do we can look at each other and say “ha look at you, you’re wearing a tin foil hat!” It’s just more fun. Beth Hopkins (clarinet, violin): We were trying to think of names for ages and that prompted it. Our old bassist Ollie suggested calling ourselves We Are Wearing which started the idea and then came up with KateGoes. Bird (drums): Half the idea is that it is an ever-changing name, an ever-changing presentation. This way we don’t have to settle on one name. KateGoes... whatever. The possibilities of phrases that make you laugh are more than what you can actually do on stage though. Kate: It takes up a hell of a lot more time and effort to prepare for a gig as well. We’re getting quite good at it. For our photos we had to think of a theme and on the day we decided it was touristy and everyone got their best touristy outfits it was brilliant. Susie Minnear (bass): I brought my actual passport, it was like, ‘where are we going guys?’ Do you ever think the dressing up is detrimental to the music? Bird: I can understand it could be but I’ve never met anyone who has been seriously put off by it. Kate: I’ve had people say that they see it as a whole show and people comment quite frequently on the music, the way we play and the lyrics. Thinking about it, people rarely talk to me about the costumes. Bird: Sometimes the themes are quite subtle so people don’t even get that there is a theme. If Kate doesn’t explain it, people just think it’s just a band. We’re doing the theme for us; it doesn’t really matter if nobody else gets it. Kate: The main thing is that, if it can make us give an exciting performance, it doesn’t matter how we’ve got excited about it, the audience doesn’t need to know. Is it a case of if you’re having fun with it, you’ll play more passionately and the music will come across better? Bird: Definitely. Beth: It’s nice because it makes each gig its own event. Kate: I have been thinking about the music more, if we practice and practice and get good at
the music we’ll be able to play around with it more. The music is really hard to learn. Bird: What we do at the moment is very tightly arranged and there is not a lot of room to explore. It isn’t like traditional song structures. Any musicologists out there will see that it isn’t too complex but Kate is trying to fit 20 ideas into a three minute song whereas most people will settle for three or four ideas. Kate: I’m trying to strike a balance between trying to not make it too complicated or too mish-mashy because you might lose from the actual tune. I don’t do it so I can say “look, aren’t I clever for doing this?” I’m doing it because I can’t help it! I’m just trying to write as good music as possible, I’m not trying to be quirky. Isn’t there a sense of trying to be different in the style of music in the dressing up? Kate: Well it’s almost what happens when people rebel against something that is happening. It’s good and it just so happens that nobody else does it. Susie: It comes out of a lack of trying to be like anyone else rather than trying not to be like anyone else. We’re not trying to not be like anyone else, we’re just doing what we would do if we were left in a room on our own. Kate: It’s the opposite of people with trends and fashion. You get told your kitchenware is out of date so you have to get new stuff – it is just a way to make money. Similarly with music fashions, it is just a way of getting people to like the same thing, get everyone to spend money on it and then wipe the fashion out a make a new one so more people can buy this other stuff. It shouldn’t be about things like that, it should be about... ...having fun? Kate: Exactly. Well not so much about having fun but getting excited and being interested – being stimulated. Illustration David Callow www.myspace.com/kategoes
20 KOTKI DWA
AAH AAH KOTKI DWA
INDEPENDENCE REALLY ISN’T INDEPENDENT NOW IS IT? STEPHEN PIETRZYKOWSKI DRAGS KOTKI DWA AWAY FROM THEIR PARENTS TO DISCUSS THEIR TAKE ON THE INDEPENDENT ETHOS.
Illustration Zeroten Photography Sebastian Loyn / Courtesy of kotki dwa www.kotkidwa.com
I don’t like the word independent. The word is dirty, distracting and now stained with the desperate bloody paw marks of a thousand A&R executives trying to secure their own beach front holiday home. Long since assimilated into a marketing dream of skateboards, tattoos and any other piece of cultural paraphernalia deemed ‘cool’, the current conception of independence is a long way removed from the ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ maxim of its progenitors. As soon as a band shows any signs of communicating with a wider audience, they’re swallowed up by the industry, dressed in the emperor’s new clothes and spat out all shiny and rounded, propelled by the weight of press, promotion and perfect hair. Yet somehow that woefully inadequate ‘independent’ moniker remains attached, independence has become another brand, a depressing clarion call for careerist chancers who are anything but. Enter kotki dwa, a somewhat different proposition. Hailing from Buckinghamshire but spread amongst higher education institutions across the country, the impossibly young three-piece have been slowly building a devout fanbase over the last 18 months through the propagation of a distinctly hands-on DIY aesthetic.
Worn like a badge of honour, their staunch independent ethos has seen them decline numerous record contracts in favour of retaining complete control over what they do and how they do it. Not so much difficult as clear-sighted control freaks, independence, in the meaningful sense of the word, allows them the freedom to indulge in ideas that commercial demands just wouldn’t see as viable. Not content to emptily espouse the virtues of independence, their sense of autonomy is underscored with a refreshing pragmatism, as lead singer and chief songwriter Alex admits “we are not totally self sufficient – to achieve some things we need to interact with people/services/ institutions outside of the band such as journalists, sound technicians, promoters and printers. It is impossible to achieve what we have achieved in complete isolation.” And they’re far from humourless zealots too, just coyly attempting to sidestep that capricious mistress that is the music industry by placing fate in their own fingerpaint stained hands. Couple this focus with a homemade studio and a parental management team and kotki dwa is very much an in-house operation that in its naivety shows up the industry as the humourless, money-driven boys club that it is. No doubt now used
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23 KOTKI DWA
to having to discuss the self-evident, Alex explains this unique approach: “Dad does a great job managing us and happens to be a live sound guru too. They get their hands dirty with anything from wiring to screen printing, it’s awesome – everyone loves them! There’s nothing cooler than dancing to Clor with your parents till you can’t breathe and have to beg for bedtime.” Attending a recent London gig, I was privy to this working relationship in action, as the entire family and an assorted throng of close friends helped turn a Polish club function room into a Technicolor delight, replete with paper butterflies, dancing daisies and a chorus of fans chiming in with every word. Add this familial ethos to what may be the most awkwardly unpronounceable moniker in the western world and you’re left with the feeling they’re not playing the fame game too consciously. Indeed, there aren’t many new bands around with the temerity to admit that their name descends from a childhood lullaby, something which Alex takes noticeable pride in gleefully recalling: “When we were little our grandpepe used to sing to us an intoxicating lullaby which would plunge us into the whirly world of dreams, where nothing is as it seems
and everything... gleams. It went ‘aah aah kotki dwa, szare bure obydwa, nic nie beda robily, tylko Alex bawily (or Tristan bawily)’. It was called kotki dwa, now we are called kotki dwa.” It’s a little twee, a little cutesy and the least rock n roll thing I’ve heard in years, and thank God. Having self-released an EP and two selfrecorded albums in just two years, they’re clearly no strangers to hard work either. And it is this combined work ethic and desire to achieve on their own terms that separates them from the unimaginative hordes whoring themselves towards NME Radar notoriety. Mid-December 2007 marked the release of their debut single ‘Robin’s Clogs’, naturally through their own newly formed imprint, Mily Records. They’ve already found fan-boy worship in the venerable Huw Stephens and a certain Mr Zane Lowe isn’t too far behind either. The future may look bright (apparently consisting of “sunshine, lollipops and rainbows”), but in this industry, it’s unclear as to what it might hold. One thing is for certain though, if kotki dwa continue down this path, they’re sure to be deciding it themselves. See the homemade animated video for ‘Robin’s Clogs’ at www.kotkidwa.com/ robinsclogs
THE RISE OF ADELE
HER RISE TO STARDOM HAS BEEN PUNCTUATED BY BEING THE “CRITICS CHOICE” AT THE BRITS. SHE WAS SPOTTED THROUGH MYSPACE AND WAS TIPPED FOR SUCCESS BY THE SUN’S EVER INSIGHTFUL BIZARRE COLUMN. KAT BROWN KEEPS HER DRESS ZIPPED UP LONG ENOUGH TO FIND OUT WHY ADELE DOESN’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.
Illustration Bob London Photography Hege Saebjornsen www.myspace.com/adelelondon
You’re probably sick of hearing about XLsigned Adele Adkins by now. Every man and their dog has put the 19-year-old from Tottenham on their hit list for 2008, and if I see another Facebook update from a cranky journo whingeing about how they saw her first, I’ll break the internet. Then again, the music world is such a murky place that it’s not very often that someone you really believe in makes it, which makes the times it happens worth shouting about even more. In a Tilly and the Wall support slot at the arse end of 2006, I saw a short girl with a guitar sitting on a bar stool at the Luminaire in Kilburn looking depressingly like she was about to sing something meaningful about boys. I couldn’t tell you whether she did or not, because the minute she opened her mouth was like a jazz foghorn going off. Welcome to Adele Adkins, the North London girl who is busy making up for the existence of Camden by being bloody brilliant. “I was kind of forced to play because I got loads of label interest through MySpace,” she says of what turns out to have been only her fourth gig ever. “I wasn’t doing gigs so I had to for them to come down. Then I really enjoyed it and got booked again.” The ensuing rise has been almost disgustingly fast. After touring with Devendra Banhart, Amos Lee and Keren Ann, she had her own headline tour in October. Two months later she had a Brit category created for her (in common with every other hit list, the Critics Choice award
for new talent dubs her “one of 2008’s most exciting new talents”), Radio 2 acting as her official Rottweiler and has made every ‘tipped for’ list going. If that list has you running for the exit, let’s make no bones about this: while she’s got the MOR press clambering all over her like toddlers with jammy fingers, Adele’s about as bland as an earthquake. The girl can sing like a drunken duchess, and armed (to trot out a phrase from back then) with a voice that could unzip a dress at 50 paces. This makes it really rather reassuring that she’s got the attention that she has, particularly from XL whose history of signing unique artists (White Stripes, M.I.A.) bodes well for Adele’s soul songs. Author and genius Neil Gaiman says he only realised how famous he was when someone pointed out that he was the internet’s top answer for ‘Neil’. Eighteen months after leaving school, it’s the same situation for XL’s newest goldmine. “That’s quite funny really – it’s good though,” she says, in the tones of one who is entirely unfussed about being the internet’s top anything. It doesn’t occur to her to get that bothered: not in the fake modesty way trotted out by so many new acts, but because it’s not important. In the same vein Adele “didn’t really realise” when her first single – ‘Home Town Glory’, released on Jamie T’s Pacemaker label – nabbed the Hottest Record and Pet Sound accolades from Zane Lowe and Jo Whiley’s Radio 1 shows. “I was in New York at the time,” she points out. “It was
amazing! I couldn’t believe the amount of coverage it did from only 500 copies. It really shocked me how much people wanted to champion it. I don’t have time to listen to the radio, or watch TV so I never know about that stuff.” She admits, slightly sheepishly, “I haven’t got that aerial thing in your stereo.” Happily raised in North London’s Tottenham – the praises of which are sung on Home Town Glory – at 14 Adkins went to the BRITS performing arts school attended by Amy Winehouse and members of Morcheeba, Athlete and The Kooks. “I don’t know if I’d have started writing if I hadn’t gone there,” she says philosophically. “I’m quite academic. I’d probably have been a young mum the crowd I was hanging out with.” As an only child who had always been confident – her childhood had her singing Spice Girls songs with her aunts while her mum rigged up the lamps to shine in her direction, the school helped her shape herself while letting her hang out in rehearsal rooms and listen to music everyday. “It was an outlet to go and have a laugh and not be at a normal school,” she says. “It helped me find out who I am. I fell in love for the first time and I’ve got my friends from there, and listening to Etta James and Jill Scott helped me find out what kind of sound and which lyrics were best.” Sweetly, one of her class projects – a collaborate soul song called My Same – is still up on the site (www.brit.croydon. sch.uk/music/Albums/05/05.htm).
“I didn’t know it was on the internet!” she protests in mild embarrassment. “Obviously I’m very different now, back then I was trying out being in a band. I didn’t really enjoy being part of a band. It’s easier for getting to rehearsals and gigs when you’re relying on yourself without organising five people. I wanted to go out on my own.” Despite her distinctly un-Joss Stone soul songs, her solo gigs with her guitar and support slots with the likes of label-mate and friend Jack Peñate have often had her classed in with London’s folk scene. “I’m not really,” she says. “Everyone at the gigs knew I was doing was quite different, it was quite folky with acoustic whereas I was doing soul. People kind of thought about it as a London scene, like we all go to the cinema together, but we don’t, we just say hello!” While slightly more involved than the back-of-a-cereal-packet attitude to songwriting trotted out by fellow BRIT grad Kate Nash, Adele’s lyrics are just as full of feeling, if stuck on the broken record of difficult relationships. “I don’t really write happy songs because I’m doing something else,” she points out reasonably. “When I’m a bit miserable, sad and heartbroken, I’ve got loads of time on my hands.” And unlike her 2007 equivalent Mika, her album 19 has nary a character in sight. As she freely admits, “I can only write about myself. I can’t make up subjects to write about, or other people’s problems. Not in a self-obsessed way, I couldn’t do it about my friends’ relationships either.”
Whatever she did, it worked. Last year saw her being asked to appear on the notoriously picky Later With Jools Holland show. “It’s probably my highlight forever to be honest,” she says, giggling at the ridiculousness of being asked to perform alongside Bjork and Paul McCartney. “It’s really pathetic: mum and I used to move around a lot, and watching Jools Holland was our stability. I’ve been watching it since I was four.” With appearances on every chat and music show of note having followed, it will be interesting to see whether this sudden rise in her appeal affects her plans to move on – and whether XL will let her. Touring is where the money’s at, after all. When we speak, she’s not foreseeing hanging around. “I’m going to move to the States,” she says. “If I stay here I’ll probably go on about the boy this album’s about, so I need to get away from friends, family. I’ll go there for four or five months and write an album about something new.” Touring, she says, is the enemy of writing songs that mean anything. “When you’re an artist you travel and live in a hotel room. So many bands flop because they assume their life is real, and it ain’t.” Despite being labelled as Winehouse mark 2, she has more in common with the former Nouvelle Vague chanteuse Camille, who rightly enough she cites as an influence. Both have a loopy way of zipping around the tune of their songs without ever quite sticking to it, which is as infuriating as it is mesmeric. Listening to Adkins on 19 shows just as much
confidence in taking a melancholic route to uplifting her listeners as Camille’s last album, Le Fil, did. In keeping with the no-nonsense French singer, Adkins has no intention of being sucked into the celebrity black hole that has claimed Winehouse. “People that work around me don’t lick my arse, I lick theirs if anything,” she laughs, horrified at the prospect of becoming a tabloid diva. “I’m not into the celebs. I like strong people who are people that nobody knows.” Her years at the BRIT school, and the support of the other young singers on XL have helped her see the music world through less rose-tinted glasses than other people who’ve become as famous in such a short space of time. “I don’t have any role models in the industry,” she says. “So many people play up to that celeb image. “I look up to my mum loads. She was really young when she had me, but if I had a baby I’d be really selfish. All my aunties are really great, and young mums as well. Ironically, it looks like the girl’s just talked herself into a role model slot of her own.
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HANDSWORTH REVOLUTION: THE REBIRTH OF THE WEST MIDLANDS FROM BLACK SABBATH TO STEEL PULSE, THE WEST MIDLANDS HAS ALWAYS PRODUCED ECLECTIC, MULTI-CULTURAL MUSIC. TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AFTER OZZY OSBOURNE BIT THE HEAD OFF A BAT, NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED, SIMON HARPER TELLS US ABOUT HIS REGION.
Photography Katja Ogrin
Grey, austere and crushed beneath a weight of expectation that comes from being a second city – for an uncomfortably long period, you could have been talking about both Birmingham’s post-war architectural landscape and its equally unglamorous music community, both seemingly short of glitz, adventure or reasons to be cheerful. Perhaps all it took was a suspiciously bulbous behemoth glazed with shiny silver discs, like icing on a particularly post-modern cake. Whisper it softly, but Birmingham is cool again – it had never really gone away, but while the national media turned a blind eye, the city’s foremost innovators toiled away in the background. With the spotlight turned back on Brummie bands, a new generation of musicians are slinking out of the shadows cast by the likes of Black Sabbath, UB40, Duran Duran and Napalm Death. Aside from Selfridges, the revival of Birmingham’s musical fortunes has revolved around a few key buildings. Some of these are new venues and some – like the terrifically ornate Town Hall – have been refurbished, with Pram and Modified Toy Orchestra helping to re-launch it as a going concern amid bleeps, glitches and beats. That particular evening was curated by local promoters Capsule, who are largely responsible for bringing some of the most exciting and innovative bands worldwide to Birmingham, and their annual Supersonic festival, headlined in 2007 by Mogwai, has given rise to a fearsome reputation. Assembling showcases at
festivals worldwide – including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas and Sonar in Barcelona – Capsule have harnessed their love of all things weird and boundarypushing (especially when it comes to metal), Capsule have tapped into an audience who were long crying out for such experimental bands to call in at Birmingham while on tour. They’re quick to support bands hailing from the city too. The first release on their fledgling record label came from Bee Stung Lips, whose searing and abrasive punk is joyously addled; an unholy combination of the Cramps, the Birthday Party and Jesus Lizard, it spews and careens until each perfectly-formed climax. Snotty, furious punk is also the order of the day for Bearded favourites Untitled Musical Project, who channel the unhinged venom of mclusky into a dirty cocktail of bass, thunderously heavy drums and vocals which can only be described as ‘splenetic’. Focused anger that you can dance to? Make mine a double, please. Another Capsule-championed act are alt-folk troupe Shady Bard, whose gentle pastoralia chimes with gorgeous intent. Their staggeringly mature debut album, From the Ground Up, garnered radio airplay and more than a few column inches in magazines across the land (as well as pixels if we’re talking about the web), and the more ecologicallyastute among you may even have heard them soundtracking an MTV campaign about global warming. With a series of limited edition releases already under their belt, chief songwriter Lawrence Becko and the rest of the band are busy working on
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songs for their second full-length outing which – judging by their splendid festive offering at the end of 2007 – will be a record not to be missed. The five-piece are signed to Static Caravan, a record label based in Solihull which has become famed for developing local artists before they move on to bigger things. It’s just one of a myriad of labels in Birmingham which have caught the ear in recent years, fiercely independent, they have an uncanny knack for unearthing superb sounds. And the watchword is eclecticism – while Different Drummer pulls together dub, hip-hop and breakbeat wares, labels such as Experimental Seafood and Bearos plough their own singular furrows, releasing records by inventive electronica acts and lo-fi avant-rock artists respectively. In the latter category, Bearos have been synonymous with the likes of Einstellung, who have reinvigorated krautrock and drone with their Neu!-inspired swathes of noise, and Mills and Boon, the Beefheartchannelling post-folk act who profess a curious fascination with meat. Probably best to not ask any further questions. While many round these parts will mourn the split of lo-fi darlings Distophia, Birmingham has been busy generating press interest via the likes of Deluka and Johnny Foreigner, the latter of which are being tipped by many as a band to watch in 2008. Their brand of spiky, keyboardand guitar-driven pop songs are distinctly frothy and a tour of all ages shows with Los Campesinos! looks set to put them firmly on the musical map. And how can we forget lovable pop alchemists Misty’s Big Adventure? A riot of
kaleidoscopic fun, demented songs and multi-hued shenanigans, Grandmaster Gareth and co are symptomatic of everything that is good about England’s second city. Eclectic, forward-looking and heart-warming, Misty’s have paved the way for many Birmingham bands with their happily eccentric pop, not least acolytes KateGoes and Sunset Cinema Club, whose rubber-limbed indie-funk sets pulses racing at the kind of speeds that even Formula One racing drivers would think inadvisable. It’s not all hot-wired rock action though, folks. At the more introspective end of the scale are acts such as the scuffed singersongwriter shtick of Richard Burke; Rich Batsford’s meditative piano compositions, which recall Philip Glass and Michael Nyman; Vijay Kishore’s soaring acoustic laments, and the poignant folk-tinged offerings of Chris Tye. Birmingham is far from short of record shops for you to seek out and splurge your hard-earned cash in. Sadly many of these are chains, but not all of them by any means. Swordfish, a short walk from New Street station, is a lovable haven of CDs and rare LPs; Tempest is a one-stop shop for all your indie rock and metal needs; Polar Bear, in Kings Heath, and Jibbering Records, in Moseley, are also worth checking out, far removed from the many soulless high street stores which adorn the city centre – statistics (possibly made up for the purposes of this feature) suggest that you’re never more than 5.7 metres away from a branch of HMV in Birmingham’s bustling shopping precincts. Venues are equally numerous – the city encompasses the big (the cavernous NIA and the Symphony Hall, scene of an
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amazing Nick Cave performance not so long ago), the small (the Sunflower Lounge, the Flapper and Firkin, the Hare and Hounds, the Bull’s Head and the Cross) and the in between (the Carling Academy, the aforementioned Town Hall, the Barfly and the Custard Factory). Unsurprisingly for a city with such a large student population (it houses three major universities) there are plenty of club nights such as Panic! at the Barfly, the Academy’s assorted themed evenings and the scuffed excitement of Snobs, an atmospherically grimy club which remains a firm favourite among students. For anyone who still needs convincing, let us turn your attention to Binary Oppositions, a compilation album of Birmingham acts assembled to accompany an exhibition of the same name. Featuring the likes of Broadcast, Mike In Mono, Magnetophone, Seeland and Dreams of Tall Buildings, it’s a strange whirl of electronica, psychedelia, postrock and folk-inspired textures, which rub alongside musique concrete and Kraftwerkian robot-pop. Birmingham’s West Midlands neighbour Coventry is probably more famous for its two Cathedrals, an illustrious motor industry past, a naked woman riding a horse and a brilliantly unexpected FA Cup win in 1987, than for the music which has come from there. In the plus column, there’s the Specials and 2-Tone. In the minus column, there’s Pete Waterman. There has been little to write about until recent years, where an unbridled surge of creativity in the city has seen a wave of bands come crashing onto the proverbial shore and to widespread attention.
For there are several reasons to venture past the concrete maze that is the city’s ring road and head out into the city centre to watch some of Coventry’s finest bands. A central hub to the city’s best musical activity, the Tough Love Records label has been pivotal in dragging these acts into the public domain. In among their growing portfolio of releases is the work of The Sequins, a Smiths-influenced blur of literate tales and a punk-pop rush of blood to the head. Having released a host of singles and their debut album, The Death of Style, on the label, The Sequins have taken a singleminded approach and it looks like paying off, crafting imperious pop songs which stick in the mind. Tough Love is also home to the magnificent musical magpies that comprise Honeytrap. A quartet with a dazzlingly progressive outlook, their slowburning opus ‘Mussolini’s Son’ – taken from the brilliantly titled Naked Dancing EP – found its way into David Bowie’s record collection, with the chameleon of pop declaring it one of his favourite songs. Intersecting vocals, taut guitars, violin and a touch of melancholy magic make this a band to cherish, although don’t let that fool you – there’s an arch humour at work here too, akin to Stephen Malkmus in all his wonky pomp. Little Dan from Honeytrap also features in the line-up of The Empty Set, a violindriven acoustic act who deal in fey folkpop, sometimes sung in French. Imagine if Stuart Murdoch decided that Belle and Sebastian had just too many members, and opted for a spectral, stripped-down affair instead – these songs really are that
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lovely. Similarly, drummer Brendan Casey from The Sequins also takes to the stage with Church of Tawt, a messy melange of krautrock, hardcore, folk and blues. Elsewhere, other delights to look out for include post-rockers The Hearing, the new wave bounciness of The Rrrs, the stonewashed Delta blues of Mommas in the Kitchen, The Coolabahs’ lilting psychpop, The Ripps’ buzzsaw punk-pop, and Shakes and Shivers’ wiry dance-punk party. The two venues most commonly associated with all that is great and good in Coventry, are Taylor John’s House and the Tin Angel. The former, situated at the city’s Canal Basin, is a former tapas bar and regularly plays host to local and international acts, with the likes of Faust, Akron/Family and Twilight Sad having played there in the past year. It’s also the venue for such charmingly-monikered club nights as F*ck Art Let’s Dance and Ginger People Are Wizards. Sister venue the Tin Angel is impressively intimate, like having lo-fi wunderkinder setting up in your living room. Well, if you had prime European lagers on tap next to your sofa, that is. The other focal point for live music is the Kasbah. Formerly the Colosseum, it was a magnet for students from the city’s two universities and a haven of cheap drinks and sweaty walls. Earliest reports say that not a huge amount has changed at the recently refurbished premises, but it still has a reputation for staging high-profile gigs. It’s not surprising in a city with such a large Irish population that there is a defined grassroots folk scene, with scores of troubadours pitching up in bars, pubs and social clubs with just a battered
guitar and a stool for company, in front of attentive audiences. One of the most acclaimed is burgeoning performer Kristy Gallacher, a welcome sign that a city swamped with tribute bands is still home to emerging talent. If that’s not enough, every summer sees the city’s War Memorial Park hosting the Godiva Festival, a heady weekend of music, comedy and assorted entertainment, all contained within a lush green space. Previous festivals have seen the likes of Mercury Rev and Super Furry Animals performing headline duties, backed up by a host of local acts and a few nostalgia-tinted popsters. On the back of the success of the Enemy, Coventry is apparently one of the places to be. There’s still plenty of work to be done if the city’s music scene is to properly nurture the bands wandering towards the mainstream, but there are already small communities of musicians and fans bonding together over a DIY aesthetic and a shared love of imaginative pop. But at the moment it looks as if the kids are alright, so why spoil the fun? It won’t be too long before Coventry has another piece of history to shout about.
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THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY LEFT
THE STIFF RECORDS STORY, LIKE ANY GOOD MUSIC STORY, IS LACED WITH MAD CHARACTERS, MAD ANTICS AND GREAT RECORDS. IN THIS ABRIDGED EXCERPT FROM HIS FORTHCOMING BOOK ON INDEPENDENT RECORD LABELS IN THE UK, ALEX OGG RECOUNTS THE TEMPESTUOUS TALE.
Illustration Amy Brown Photography Courtesy of Stiff Records www.stiff-records.com
Ah, Stiff, home of a thousand slogans, and a bunch of songwriting mavericks who came to define the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s (Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, and later, Madness and The Pogues). Not to mention their small but perfectly formed contribution to punk rock (The Damned, The Adverts). The label has been revived recently, with the signing of The Enemy, Trannzmitors and others, and been the subject of a major BBC documentary. Now here comes the box set, as stout of girth as many of the original Stiff artists must now surely be and of course, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s doubtful if any record label outside of the majors was able to pursue such a diverse A&R policy, touched by madness, genius and silliness in equal proportion. The ethos of the label combined selfdeprecating and provocative humour, embodied in their defining slogan, “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck”, a highly individualistic A&R policy and a can-do work ethic. Stiff was most remarkable, however, in terms of innovation. They were an independent who held major labels in complete disdain, yet displayed globe-conquering ambition. Certainly their package tours in the late ‘70’s, which featured almost their entire artist roster on a shared platform, were huge logistical exercises that defied the homespun, DIY ethic that grew out of punk. There was none of the timorous hiding behind fringes or aesthetic pretension that characterised some later independent labels, or any shame in hyping records in what was then an otherwise uneven playing field. It was the Feelgoods’ Lee Brilleaux who loaned Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera the initial £400 to establish the label. Or at least, that became the cover story. “We never cashed that!” confirms Robinson. “The cheque was on the wall for years. It was very nice of him to do it. We gave him shares, actually. At some point we gave everyone a few shares in Stiff – very valuable in the final analysis, but there you are!” As important as their own business savvy was, both Robinson and Riviera were aware of a pool of unexposed talent
that the majors were effectively ignoring. Robinson: “When I ran the pub thing in 1972, there were an awful lot of bands and musicians – we’re speaking pre-computer or digital music – and... although I’d made some efforts to get A&R people from major record labels down, and although the pubs were heaving with people, they would just say ‘it’s a pub thing’ and weren’t interested. So there was a lot of very good stuff at that time drawing big crowds, with A&R people ignoring it – the majors having decided that theatrical rock and platform shoes were where it was at. So we were diametrically opposed to what was happening musically and stylistically on the major record labels. We were anti-major as a result. We resented them and laughed at them generally.” The first release came from Nick Lowe. His ‘So It Goes’ (its b-side ‘Heart Of The City’ kicks us off here) has been written into the fabric of the punk story. But in truth is a much more restrained endeavour, indebted to the artist’s long established credentials as a songwriter on the pub rock scene with Brinsley Schwarz. It wasn’t until the release of BUY6 in October 1976 that Robinson and Riviera’s tiny independent gave the world its first taste of punk on vinyl. The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ beat the Sex Pistols to the punch, providing irrefutable evidence that a new breed of independent could now respond quicker to events than hidebound majors. The Pistols’ delay in reaching vinyl, though only a few months, was decisive in this fast-moving timeframe. Despite their unconventional billing and reputation, the Pistols were put through the same ‘development’ rigour as other EMI artists – different producers were assigned to perfect the sound, discussions were held between management and label as demo tapes were circulated, etc. “We were much faster,” agrees Robinson. “At the end of the day, we could do everything very, very quickly. And we planned to. We did plan to have the first punk album [a feat Stiff duly achieved with the March 1977 release of Damned Damned Damned]. There were a load of punk singles about, but
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obviously getting the first punk album out was an effort that was worthwhile. There was a huge crowd of people who wanted to buy an album but nobody had made one. That was a big moment. To begin with, you couldn’t press records. There were very few records made outside the majors’ manufacturing factories and they weren’t that fussed about doing other peoples’ records. The whole basis of the majors is that they would be distributors and manufacturers. Because they had factories, they signed up their own groups – that’s how they started. Originally they were manufacturers and distributors and essentially that’s all they were ever fucking good for, in my book. Even to this day, look at the chaos they’ve caused in the music industry – the fact that people are downloading for nothing and feel that music is free is all down to the attitude of the majors. They’ve buggered up everybody’s game here in the record industry. They’re still thrashing around not quite knowing what to do and allowing Apple to run their businesses. They can’t last much longer. They weren’t that clever then either.” This was indeed revolutionary stuff, and others took note. “All the indie labels started calling us saying, ‘How do you do it?’ We did a sheet that gave them the in-roads of how to make labels, and what to do and how to get your records made – your 7-inch or whatever. We sent out loads of those. I suppose, to a degree, you’ll find that Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, all those kind of labels, essentially got their start in life from a photocopied sheet from Stiff. We started saying, ‘We’ve no time to be dealing with your stupid questions, but here are the details.’” Meanwhile, Stiff’s greatest asset had been kept under wraps – principally because it took a little while for everyone to recognise its potential value. MacManus’s first recordings for the label had been made with Lowe back in September 1976, but the proposed titles, ‘Radio Sweetheart’ and ‘Mystery Dance’, had lost their place in the schedule. In the event, his first single for the label, ‘Less Than Zero’ (BUY11), failed to sell. The same fate befell a follow-up,
‘Alison’, which led to a revision of plans. Stiff asked Costello to give up his job as a computer programmer at Elizabeth Arden and turn full-time professional. Meanwhile Ian Dury was growing frustrated, as the rest of the pub rock pack seemed to be overtaking him. Indeed, he had produced and drummed on the b-side to Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’, which finally emerged in August 1977. Licenses were signed and his ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was released the day after Wreckless Eric’s single as BUY17. New Boots & Panties followed at the end of September. Meanwhile, plans were being hatched for arguably the key moment in establishing Stiff’s identity. The 5 Live Stiffs tour started out on 3 October 1977, just after the release of New Boots & Panties, featuring Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis and Dave Edmunds. Over 24 dates, mainly on university and polytechnic campuses, the Stiff bandwagon rolled, each performance concluding with a sozzled choir augmenting the finale of Dury’s ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll’. The personnel was flexible: Dury would drum for Wreckless Eric, former Kilburn & The High Roads saxophonist Davey Payne would back both Dury and Wreckless Eric, etc. Kosmo Vinyl served as MC (and the bus driver, Trevor, would naturally become ‘Clever Trevor’ in honour of the Dury song) while everybody got a flat £50 a week fee. It was a zeitgeist-grabbing tour and did much to make Stiff’s identity something more tangible than Barney Bubbles’ superb artwork or the Stiff logo (designed by Chris Morton) alone could achieve. Of course in later years it has emerged that serious rivalries rippled just below the surface among the label’s leading acts, especially concerning the abandonment of the original plan whereby the acts would alternate for headline status. The tour’s Olympian levels of debauchery, and the notorious ‘24-hour Club’ of hardcore drinkers – are thought to be the inspiration behind Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ single. Costello and Ian Dury became natural figureheads for Stiff, but very much in that order. Sadly, Costello’s potential was only
glimpsed at Stiff. Following the end of the Live Stiffs tour, Riviera moved on to form Radar Records with A&R legend Andrew Lauder. In the settlement eked out, he took Costello, Nick Lowe and recent Stiff signings The Yachts with him. Barney Bubbles would continue to work for both labels. The split sprung from a confrontation the two protagonists had on 24 September 1977 at which Riviera was said to have thrown a bunch of empty cider cans through the office window. The incident was later cheekily referenced in Nick Lowe’s first hit for Radar, ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’. “Essentially it was about 14 months, really,” Robinson remembers of the first phase of Stiff. That’s how long it lasted. It seemed an awful lot longer at the time!” It’s tempting to assume that this was a natural conclusion for a relationship between two very strong-minded people; that it could only have worked for a set amount of time “There was a bit of opportunism,” Robinson states. “I struggled quite a bit and got my foot in the door with CBS to get a record deal in America. The deal we were talking about would have moved us up several notches. But the major interest at the time was Elvis and Jake saw an opportunity, I think, and wanted to do his own thing.” Both Alan Cowderoy and Paul Conroy were now Robinson’s first lieutenants and also helped out with A&R, with Cowderoy setting up a series of international licences. Jake’s departure was also “a bit of a shock” for Cowderoy. “I have to say. I was enjoying the working relationship, sitting in on meetings, and I felt with my major label experience that I had an idea of what may or may not have been successful on radio,” he recalls. “Then suddenly one day Dave said Jake was going to leave and he was going to take Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello with him. And that was a shock. That was everything we’d been working towards.” “Jake had a much higher visibility than Dave,” notes Nigel Dick, who had joined the label as a motorcycle messenger. “Jake had done all the interviews whereas Dave was the man behind the curtain
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– the bad-tempered, Irish, charming, crazy, wily man behind the curtain. He was a brilliant, insightful, difficult man, and I hated and loved him. He was the reason Stiff lasted so long and also the reason the label crashed and burned so brightly. When I joined it seemed every week as if the company was going to implode. There was never any money to pay bills. Soon I reached the conclusion that my £14 a week wasn’t enough money to make me lose sleep about whether the company would survive. I figured that was Dave’s problem and started sleeping much better.” Dick’s brutal initiation involved “just jumping in and paddling as hard as I could. ‘Take this here. Take that there. Now! Faster! Go!’ As I said, the company was frankly a mess on an organisational level. When I rang in from the road (this was an era before cell phones and pagers) to ask for my next assignment, Captain [Sensible] would answer the phone and say, “Dick? Fuck off, cunt!” and slam the phone down. This led me to think that maybe he was taking the punk attitude a little far as I was spending half my time working on his career.” Crucial respite was derived from the slow-build success of New Boots & Panties. Robinson: “Dury’s album hadn’t really been promoted. Jake was biased towards Elvis quite a bit, I don’t think Dury got a fair crack of the whip. He’d sold a few records, but then the album had pretty much stalled, and I thought it had more mileage. So we put the budget that we had left into that, and did a whole series of ads. The major theme was ‘give up smoking and give us your money’, if I remember correctly. That got going, and then Dury and Chas Jankel produced those great singles, ‘What a Waste’, ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ and ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’. So things moved on.” “I always liked and respected Dave,” ZigZag founder and early Stiff press guy Pete Frame notes. “I still do – even though I haven’t seen him since 1989. He had a piece of advice for every occasion – and one I remember particularly was ‘never expect someone to give you 100%
if you’re only prepared to give them 80%’. I always kept to that one. He also said that whenever he got a contract, he struck out several clauses as a matter of course – but I’ve never managed to pull that one off. Anyway, I did okay at Stiff, got tons of good press, even though I wasn’t there long. I was never a hustler kind of person and therefore not really suited to PR, and I went back to scratching for a living. Dave and I were always mates, and I knew Paul Conroy very well too. Great bunch of people, everyone who worked there, everyone on the label.” Another to help fill Riviera’s shoes was Andy Murray, who took over from Frame. Murray was specifically delegated the task of organising a follow-up Stiff package tour in July 1978. Sweet, Jona Lewie, Wreckless Eric, Mickey Jupp and Lene Lovich, who had been recruited via a recommendation from Charlie Gillett, comprised the line-up. The original intention had been for Devo to headline before their defection to Virgin, yet the tour proceeded under the title Be Stiff, borrowed from their final Stiff single. Murray worked a quintet of album releases by Mickey Jupp, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie and Wreckless Eric’s second album. Finding it hard to break these new artists, at least temporarily, Dury steadied the ship with the label’s first number one single, ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’, in January 1979, which sold nearly a million copies in the UK. It established Dury as a major star – at least until the release of the fine but critically frowned upon and singles-free second album, Do It Yourself. Of course, the label would maintain its maverick reputation (see the release of The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which sold 30,000 copies despite, or rather because, it contained absolutely no sound). There were also promotional doormats, roadmaps and jigsaws. Murray: “In January 1979 I presented the Be Stiff tour as Marketing Campaign of the year for the Music Week Awards and won – against all major company opposition. The judges were impressed by the strong tour branding, the planning, the
merchandising, all the press we got, the different formats, including coloured vinyl and picture discs on every album, etc. But they felt that since we’d only sold 10,000 of each album, it couldn’t actually be given the award for ‘Best Marketing’. So they invented a new category, ‘Top Promotion of the Year’, for us especially (they still spelt my name wrong on the award). Paul Conroy made the acceptance speech, for which he, Alan and myself were dressed as undertakers. We were each meant to say a line; ‘Thanks for the award / we couldn’t have won / if you hadn’t lost’. Paul changed it to: ‘We won this award because we’re the best fucking record company with the best fucking acts,’ which shook up the room a bit. It was all black-tie and very formal.” The good auspices were cemented later in 1979 when Robinson signed arguably the best English pop band of their generation, Madness. “I could really see the sense of humour they had. I saw them as London folk music; songwriters who have a social lyric that covers their situation in life, that’s the ideal group. But that’s pretty much what we signed throughout. We were always looking for that kind of songwriter. We signed songwriters rather than good front people – obviously, if you look at some of our front people. Chrysalis were keen to sign them, but were very slow.” In fact, Madness would release their debut single, ‘The Prince’, through Chrysalis subsidiary 2-Tone, but didn’t commit to them. “Someone told me Chrysalis had seen them eight times,” Robinson remembers. “I felt, well, if we’re going to sign them, we’d better hurry up! It takes a major about twelve gigs before they sign anyone, so we’ve only got a few more gigs and they’ll get signed. That’s the reason I auditioned them at my wedding.” Indeed, the deal was thrashed out at Robinson’s nuptials, at the Clarendon Ballrooms in Hammersmith on 17 August 1979; an impressive feat even by his multi-tasking standards. Robinson booked them because, alerted to their popularity in London, he’d not been able to find a date to catch them live. As he would later relate, “I was getting married and I thought
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that’s my chance to see them. Why don’t we ask them if they’d play the wedding? And they said they would. They came and played at the wedding and my wife gave me hell afterwards saying ‘you haven’t spoken to me all night, you’re up there watching the band.’ They were very good.” Despite accelerated levels of success, close bonds between the artists and the label continued to be the norm at Stiff. “There was always a Stiff spirit, but of course everyone wanted a hit,” remembers Dick. “However, having worked at other labels, I would say that there was more friendship between the acts than any other place I’ve worked at. Dury was sometimes aloof and at other times enormously friendly. He once bought me a huge bunch of flowers! Wreckless was, frankly, a drunk, and I never forgave him for ripping one of my shirts while I was still wearing it. His book [A Dysfunctional Success; published in 2003] was enormously entertaining, but I felt so sad that, to this day, he is convinced everyone wanted to rip him off and sabotage his career. Despite his whining and difficult behaviour we all worked tremendously hard to try and get him some hits. He wrote great songs and he really had something. But in the end the public didn’t want to know. If he wants to get angry he should get angry with his public. The ‘mavericks’ at Stiff were really no crazier than most of the other artists I’ve worked with over the years. The difference was we let their personality shine rather than trying to turn them into ‘stars’... and if they didn’t have something idiosyncratic about them we invented it!” Andy Murray remembers Dave Robinson’s favourite moan was about “the English disease”, where people would rather spend time and effort on perfecting an excuse rather than get the task at hand completed. “I’ve never understood it,” says Robinson now. “People will trot you out a good excuse. You just say, ‘Look, never mind the excuse, why haven’t we done the work?’ It’s an attitude. Nowadays it’s all, ‘one can push the worker too hard’. But if the worker works hard, he learns something – that’s my belief. Andy Murray and I had a few run-ins on this subject early on.”
Cowderoy: “I never remember thinking, ‘God, I’m really bored, what are we going to do?’ It was very full-on and Dave never stopped. Dave’s attitude was ‘a tired band is a happy band’. And I think he also thought that ‘tired workers are happy workers’ too.” While gripes were not uncommon, other artists respected Robinson’s ability to get things done, accepting the fact, though often in hindsight, that his belligerence may have enhanced their careers. “Well, we had a need to have a high percentage of what we did work at the end of the day,” Robinson reflects now. “Somebody has to have a vision. There’s no place for committees in a small record company that is constantly reinvesting in the music of that label. You have to have somebody who says yes or no and sticks to it, and that’s pretty much me, really.” And Robinson’s focus on the bottom line was one set by example. For example, his decision to direct many of Stiff’s videos was an act born of both parsimony and pragmatism. “Well, the other people would listen to you, and then go and try to make their entrance into Hollywood on your money. Fuck that.” “I used to master all the records,” recalls Cowderoy. “Once the records were finished in the studio, I would take them to the mastering studio, where we would tweak them to suit Dave. And then I’d bring them back. I remember going back to Dave with records and saying, ‘I’ve tweaked this, and I think you’re going to like it.’ And he’d listen and go, ‘No, no, no, I don’t like that.’ And in the end he got a graphic equaliser in his office. He always liked a lot of top-end, because he thought that would cut through the medium wave, which was the radio transmission medium at the time. And sometimes you’d think it was too much, but radio would add it and it would cut through. He invariably wasn’t wrong. And he had a good eye for art. The sleeves were always good. We had a great art department. They were doing their thing, but at the end of the day, it would have to get past Robbo. And if he didn’t approve it, that was it. You’d try to steer the ship, and Dave was the captain.
Occasionally you’d try to sneak up behind him and try to distract him, and turn the rudder whichever way you wanted it to go. But essentially he steered the ship.” Nigel Dick would also discover the downside of Robinson’s perfunctory approach to human resources. “I left for exactly the same reason that everyone left. I was fired! Robbo grew tired of me. I knew it was coming and tried to leave but Robbo asked me to stay. Then one bright and breezy day I was summoned to his chamber and given 15 minutes to get out. After five years of working round the clock and phone calls in the middle of the night, it was all over. Behind his back one of the staff showed me how to fill in the forms to take him to the industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal. Robbo got wind of it pretty quickly and he paid me off.” Murray was never fired, however. “Oh, he tried about three times. But Alan wouldn’t let him!” Towards the end of 1983, Island Records purchased 50% of the label. Robinson was now in charge of both Stiff and Island. He enjoyed immediate and spectacular success with Island, through Frankie Goes to Hollywood and U2, while Bob Marley’s Legend became one of the all-time surefire catalogue sellers under his stewardship. And yet, he now reflects, it was a “mistake”. I didn’t want to do it, quite honestly. You look back at things, and you think, what made you make a decision of that nature. I was so happy. Stiff had a new building in Bayham Street [Camden; in September 1982] that I was really happy with. It was a bigger building. It had a recording studio and a big warehouse. So we had everything under our own roof at that time, and I was very happy with the things we were doing. It was around that time when Blackwell called me. ‘Why don’t we work out some deal where he bought some shares in Stiff, and I ran Island as well as Stiff, blah blah.’ Quite honestly I turned him down. I thought about it, but, nah, I’m quite happy with the way things are. But he came back, and he’s a very charming bloke. And I’d known him for a number of years and I counted him as a close friend. Island was the model of the ideal record
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company in my mind anyway. Nowadays I’d like to think I would have turned him down a second time and that would have been the end of it, but I took it on. What I didn’t do was I didn’t do any due diligence. Cos Island was a bigger record label than Stiff, on the cards anyway. And it turned out they were totally broke. And I didn’t know that.” Robinson soon discovered that he’d have to lend Island £1 million from Stiff’s coffers to cover the deal. “At that time I really should have said, ‘Look, you’ve sold me a bit of a pup,’ and that’s the end of it. But I stayed with it, and they had their most successful year ever with the Legend album, which was something I really wanted to do. That was part of the reason I went there, I’m a big Bob Marley fan. And U2 – an Irish band whom I originally sent to Island in the first place – there was an opportunity. The thing about Island at the time was they didn’t follow up. They didn’t have the money and they didn’t have the attitude. They were kind of like a flaccid major, and they didn’t promote anything. They had a big staff. They had a lot of potted plants in the place that I got rid of pretty damned quick. So that year, we did £56 million. They’d never seen that type of money. They paid all their debts off. But in order to do that, I had to concentrate on that label big time. “ By the time Madness departed the scene to sign with Virgin they had scored 18 Top 20 hits as well as six Top Ten albums. Stiff was left with Tracey Ulman and Kirsty MacColl (who would soon depart to Polydor) and little else. “Having had a run of singles in the Top 40, there was a time when we weren’t notching up the same success rate,” recalls Cowderoy. “I don’t think Dave’s eye was on the ball at that point.” Robinson would re-establish full control of Stiff in 1985, piloting its return to independent status. At which time he signed the last of the ‘great’ Stiff acts, The Pogues. “Oh, Shane is phenomenal,” he recounts. “There’s no doubt that he was fantastic. But, unfortunately, I led him to Frank Murray to be his manager, which was really a bad decision. Frank
was out of work and I knew his wife, and he needed something to do. And he did add musically to the band, I think getting [former Steeleye Span multi-instrumentalist] Terry Woods in was a very inspired idea. But Frank, generally, I don’t think was the right kind of person. I’d kind of forgotten he was Phil Lynott’s tour manager – and that should have spoken volumes to me. But with Shane being such a delicate little flower – early on we were kind of controlling his drinking. He wasn’t NOT drinking, but he was doing it in a controlled way, we had a grip on it. But as soon as Frank took over, he wanted to get between the record company and the artist, like a true idiot manager. And taking Shane down to the pub was now in some way a managerial duty, and that was really fatal.” Despite significant success with The Pogues over the next 18 months, and a breakthrough with Furniture’s ‘Brilliant Mind’ that they were unable to capitalise on it. The Mint Juleps’ ‘Girl to the Power of 6’ (BUY263) closed an illustrious era and Stiff collapsed in 1987 with debts of £1.4 million (that figure varies with different accounts). The label’s masters were purchased by ZTT, one of the labels Robinson had helped establish at Island. “It was unfortunate,” laments Cowderoy, “we tried to make things happen in a different way. But it did survive and we carried on and we had The Pogues. The ship kept sailing but in the end it sank. It ended up in the arms of Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair. I wasn’t there at the time, but he continued to spend money. And at a certain point Jill just said, ‘I don’t want to spend any more money’ and they took over the company and Dave was gone.” Stiff was revived in 2006 (without Robinson or Riviera’s involvement) with the signing of The Enemy. “We’ve managed the catalogue for quite a long time,” reveals Pete Gardiner. “It was acquired by Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair at the end of the eighties because of a tie-up they had with Stiff at the time. We just ran it as a catalogue concern. But at the beginning of 2006 I met someone from the BBC and I pitched the idea of a documentary, just to give us a bit of catalogue profile, to be
honest. The BBC ended up producing that documentary [If It Ain’t Stiff]. As we were doing it, we realised there was still interest and quite a lot of awareness of the brand. So we thought, why don’t we do some lowkey bits and pieces, in the original manner of the label? We had an A&R guy that worked on the publishing side that went to Warners and came up with this band, The Enemy. So we did the first couple of singles. Suddenly we had more and more interest and people contacting us. So we just thought, ‘this is a good chance now. And it’s something we can manage.’ It’s being run as a relative cottage industry, if you like – we’re not heading for the big time with this one, unless something gathers its own momentum.” The four-CD Big Stiff Box Set provides you with an excellent soundtrack and overview for the story outlined above. I have a bunch of personal favourites, aside from the obvious (singalong-a-Costello/Dury/ Wreckless Eric etc). There’s Ruefrex’s mighty ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ – a fantastically brave denunciation of US-sponsored terrorism in the Troubles, ‘The Lost Platoon’ by the Dancing Did (the greatest ‘lost’ band ever?). Kirsty MacColl’s voice still carries more emotive power than just about any other female vocalist on the block. Department S’s genius ‘Going Left Right’ sits alongside reggae and music hall – the latter two traditions neatly embraced by Madness’s still stellar ‘One Step Beyond’. I must confess, also, to soft spots for Jona Lewie’s quirky pop and the exuberance of both Tenpole Tudor and even the Plasmatics (for services to gaffer tape alone). But really, this is a pick ‘n’ mix job and wherever you find yourself amid the near 100 tracks on offer, you won’t be that far away from a classic.
WHEN FIGURINES ARE PAINTED BLUE
DENMARK IS UNDERGOING A MUSICAL RESURGENCE AT THE MOMENT AND THREATENING TO SLAY THE GHOSTS OF JUNIOR SENIOR AND AQUA IS FIGURINES. THE FIRST ACT TO RELEASE FOR THE INFLUENTIAL MORNINGSIDE LABEL, THEY ARE SET TO LEAD THE DANISH INVASION OF THE UK. ANDY PRICE MET UP WITH FRONTMAN CHRISTIAN HJELM TO DISCUSS DENMARK’S FINEST HOUR SINCE THE 1992 FOOTBALL EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS.
Illustration Kenn Goodall Photography Simon Birk www.myspace.com/figurinesdk
If we take a look back to 2003, we’ll find a little bit of a disco revival in the form of Junior Senior – the Danish two-piece who not only set Danish radio alight, but also stormed the charts in the US, Australia and the UK with ‘Move Your Feet’ being played everywhere from clubs to TV to radio. This was Danish music’s high-point… Going back further there was Aqua. In 1997 ‘Barbie Girl’, the Big Brother contestant covered pop track, was the previous high-point of Danish music… Now, I’m sure if any Danes were to be reading this they would be spitting blood at such blasé analysis of homegrown music – but in terms of international acclaim this is pretty much the way it has gone. Until now that is. Today we have Figurines. These longtime friends started out in the mid ‘90’s, influenced by old rock and guitar based music such as The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young. Singer and guitarist Christian Hjelm is mindful from the beginning about the current legacy of Danish music and sees any recognition of a native act as positive: “The truth is that the Swedish music scene has been very, very strong for the past 10 or 20 years or so. But I think in general that a few bands, like Mew, Raveonettes and Junior Senior have proved that you can get your music outside of Denmark and still keep making the music you like to do.” Whereas many of the Danish bands that Hjelm mentions are ambitious, such as Mew’s atmospheric sounds, which compete strongly against the continuous
high quality of the aforementioned Swedish output, Figurines produce a different sound altogether. The band nod significantly in the direction of many rock bands from the past, including The Beach Boys and The Beatles and although many describe their music as psychedelic, influences appear to be taken more from ‘60’s and ‘90’s rock. Hjelm is positive about the band’s place in Danish music and compares the band to many others trying to break through into the wider market: “In the past five to six years some really good new bands have popped up in Denmark, and I think it’s a matter of time before people would know at least three to four Danish bands. Acts like, Trentemoeller, Under Byen, Spleen United, Oh No Ono etc.” Many of the bands that Hjelm mentions are label mates of Figurines at Morningside Records, responsible for many of the acts beginning to set ears tingling across the waters. The story of the band’s involvement with the label is another story. Continuing the theme of assistance and unity in a music scene that knows it is good enough to perform on a world stage, but suffers without a preceding reputation, Hjelm says, “actually we’ve known them from the time before they started Morningside. We are from the same town and met at bars and our bass player’s older brother knew Jesper Majdall from the label.” By this time the band had already recorded their first record: The Detour EP, a straightforward 6-track record that showed just the bare bones of the Figurines’
talents. It is a simplistic record with simple beginnings: “We handed him the EP. They then did a 100 copies only pressing and that sort of kick started the band and the label. After that we went into the studio to record Shake a Mountain, the label’s first official release.” Their first record shows a lesser range of influences, yet different from those relayed to them above. Rather than a ‘60’s and ‘70’s rock record, Shake A Mountain and its follow up Skeleton both show huge garage rock influences from the ‘80’s all the way through to the 2000’s – like a more aural Replacements, a structured Pavement or like an early Strokes – their guitars lead a steady song throughout. But today we have When The Deer Wore Blue – certainly their most ambitious effort yet, which will both expose them to the mainstream yet perhaps disappoint fans of their first two records. Christian Hjelm fully acknowledges the risk: “What can you do as an artist? We need to paint the picture with those colors we like best. Tomorrow we might like blue better than red and that will most likely affect the painting. But we’re very proud of this album and do hope that people can see the connection between Skeleton and Where The Deer Wore Blue after all.” And there is a huge link between both albums – a listener may need to reexplore the band’s previous material to see it – but listening to Skeleton’s opening track ‘Race You’, a haunting ballad, just guitar and voice that will break even the strongest exterior – daring for an opening
track, confusing even – that is, before the chuggy guitar riff of ‘The Wonder’ kicks in. It’s that early experimentation and first attempt to move away from the guitar as the most important instrument that is the key for an ambitious garage band. Figurines have fully accomplished this on Where the Deer Wore Blue. The album has multiple layers, many tracks are obvious single choices, others are more experimental. The use of well written and well thought out vocal harmonies is here for the first time. The record, co-produced by Jeremy Lemos who is known for working with Smog, among other big names sounds, without doubt, like a commercial album – which is in no way a good thing. After the previous two records – it is almost a reward for Figurines to be able to produce a record in the way they fully intended. When questioned as to whether the change in vocal ability was natural and that the music or opportunity simply hadn’t progressed yet, Hjelm clarifies, saying: “Yes, that actually sums it up pretty well. And I think that we’ve all become way better singers than we were just a few years ago.” But there is still a certain regret in his words at times, it seems a shame that a band might lose fans through musical evolvement before their fourth album. At the same time, it must also be about exploring all possible audiences and finding the fans that will identify with the music in a way that the band does. As for the future, it may not even be too soon to be talking about a fourth album
either: “I’m constantly working on new stuff, actually to the degree that I had a lot of these songs ready by the time Skeleton was being mixed”. Confirming a prolific nature and a constant progression Hjelm continues: “I have some ideas. I could imagine us making a super poppy rock album of eight songs, including 5 singles. It could be something Of Montreal-ish if I would have to refer to a band... but we’ll see how everything turns out. Hopefully we can start recording after the summer festivals.” With a rugged touring schedule constantly in motion, Figurines are just about finding time to make fleeting visits to the UK. It seems that for now the capital is to be the only stop on their sporadic and fleeting visits. “We’ve been to Stoke and Manchester before but to be honest we’d rather wait playing those cities till we’re sure to draw a crowd. It’s the response from the audience that makes it all worth while. In UK, you play very short shows for some reason. But I’d like to think we’re playing a show that is as entertaining as is interesting in a music art sense way.” It is a difficult situation when independent bands are dissuaded to play the UK due to the restrictions we have here – health and safety, tough licensing laws. A product of New Labour and their terrifying “laws solve problems” policy or a poor attention span on our part? This is not a Figurines concern – coping with intense touring schedules is their first obstacle in what will prove to be the exciting chapter of their career so far.
“Touring hard and promo can damage a band very much,” says Hjelm, “I think all bands have been to that point. It doesn’t affect my creativity as a writer but it affects the band as a band to come up with stuff together because you easily get fed up with one another. And coming back from a tour, the last thing you want to do is to smell the other members’ smelly feet and listen to all the bad jokes“. It is these intricacies of band life that affect output and mentality, Hjelm leaves us with how the Figurines’ goals for the future are panning out: “In some ways they’re the same. We still hope to write albums that we’re proud of and that people will enjoy now as in ten years. Maybe we’ve become a bit more realistic over the years as we know more about the music business, but obviously, we still hope to be a successful band in the sense of making a living and affording a car… And maybe even insurance for it.” When the Deer Wore Blue is out now with shows if and when.
44 SOUND OF CITIES
PLOUGHING FRESH GROUND DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ABOUT CREATING CAPITAL THE CHANGING WORLD AROUND US DOESN’T ALLOW TIME FOR US TO STOP AND THINK, PEOPLE MAY DESCRIBE THE SOUND OF THEIR CITY IS ENRAGED DRIVERS BATTLING EXCESS TRAFFIC AND CONGESTION CHARGES, BUT ONE PROJECT IS BRINGING A NEW TAKE ON THE SOUND OF THE CITIES. MATT ROBINSON INVESTIGATES THE NEW OUTLANDISH SOUND OF BERLIN.
Photography Marion Koob www.soundofcities.com
There is mystery to behold that our surroundings could be generating untapped symphonies, algorithms uncaught that could create orchestral genius. Anyone who has ever drunk too much cough syrup by accident, or fallen over in a park and licked the wrong amphibian will tell you that the world isn’t always as simple as it appears. As the lead car of Berlin’s U6 underground drags carriages between the stations of Stadtmitte and Kochstrasse, underneath the city’s traditional shopping boulevard of Friedrichstrasse it rattles past a pipe bomb sized tube buried almost a metre below the surface, which at the beginning of December last year was lying somewhere else. Quite possibly in the hands of an evil genius bent on extracting the very essence of life, in musical form, from the world around us. Close enough from the infamous Checkpoint Charlie crossing point on Friedrichstrasse to kick a cabbage to is the Magix Multimedia Gallery, an exhibition space run by the Berlin-based software production company of the same name. Inside is a computer terminal, permanently connected to the pipe bomb, running a series of VST instruments which receives impulses from the device and then converts them through a WIDI interface into MIDI signals. There are still a huge cache of bombs buried beneath Berlin from the Second World War, left over from the 391 air raids that were carried out during that time. But this one actually happens to be an elaborate microphone, sucking up the aural elixir of the German capital as part of a worldwide project called Sound of Cities. Launched on 14 December last year,
Sound of Cities is the magnum opus of Henry Stag (who is more of a charismatic doyen than evil genius) working in cooperation with some of the biggest names in music production software, including Applied Acoustic Systems, Arturia and MAX MSP. The use of field recorded samples has for a long time been accepted as a staple part of the doctrine of electronic music, actually using these samples or original sounds to trigger something else is a matter of natural progression. The Sound of Cities project has entered this tertiary phase of sound manipulation. Initially, instruments were handmade, acoustic, and had to be played in a different manner to create a different sound; in the world of electronic music this arguably became as redundant when the synthesiser burst onto the scene. Now the technology exists to take this even further. The day before the project launch, Brazilian composer Paulo C. Chagas had presented his 12 channel surround piece ‘Migration’ at the Berlin Technical University, set to be the first release on the record label that will also accompany the Sound of Cities project. Sat cross-legged against the fading pink and white backlit walls of the Magix Gallery wearing a brown teddy bear jumper, he enthused: “If you go to a forest that you’ve never been to before then you never know quite what to expect, with electronic music you don’t have to deal with set instruments and pre-defined sounds, you can make the sounds from scratch.” The system set up for Sound of Cities uses everyday sounds, such as the vibrations of a passing train, and the Teutonic march of shoppers on the
45 SOUND OF CITIES
pavement above, but only to trigger preset instruments. This means that the music can only be heard when it is activated by the surroundings, and that the city itself is leading the music. Robert Johnson would be spinning in his grave to learn that the sound of the train tracks ain’t always about the Blues. The first presets at the Berlin gallery were configured by Joachim Irmler from Krautrock pioneers Faust, Dieter Moebius from Cluster, Markus Detmar from Klangwart and John Weizierl from Amon Duul 2. The whole project is not only going to be hosted in the Berlin gallery, but also broadcast live online at www.soundofcities. com, from where surfers can access the Berlin stream and both play around with the existing presets and create their own. Gallery openings are planned for Zagreb, Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Talks are also underway to arrange a location in Moscow, and the possibility of hosting a stream at the entrance to the Royal Albert Hall. Eventually each stream will be online for independent manipulation, but will also be able to be mixed with streams from other cities. The product of each stream will be individually saved for the entirety of the project, which looks to be a long time, meaning that any moment in time can be retraced, reheard and rediscovered. Charitable donations to both UNICEF and the International Campaign for Tibet are going to be made from any profits generated by the project. Both Universal and MTV Europe have recently relocated to Berlin, and set up their headquarters there, both with suitcases full of money being exchanged in order for the German capital to be
bestowed the honour of their presence. At a time when the music industry is still dominated by cut-throat companies that would eat themselves if their shit could be sold as gold, it’s refreshing to see a project embark on a uniquely provocative journey with a clear conscience in mind. At each location the microphones and receivers will be placed in different locations, so that in Tokyo the receiver may be placed against or inside a window and tuned so it is sensitive enough to respond to gentle rain against the glass. In Los Angeles the receiver may be cast into the foundations of a building and capable of recording and processing the musical makeup of seismic activity. These signals will also be broadcast live in real time on the website, re-interpreting the spontaneous and rhythmic activity of our surroundings. Addressing a room full of curious onlookers at the project launch, Henry Stag raised a glass in one hand and succinctly explained: “the artist provides the colour, but this is the music of the earth.” The term coined by Stag that perfectly describes the product of this project: ‘terrestial symphony.’
46 BLACK MOUNTAIN
HEAR NO EVIL
THE JOY OF MUSIC IS IN THE BANDS THAT SPLIT OPINION AND INSTIGATE DEBATE. THIS ISSUE, ADAM MABENA TELLS US HIS SIDE OF THE BLACK MOUNTAIN LOVE ‘EM OR HATE ‘EM ARGUEMENT.
Discography Druganaut EP (2005) / Black Mountain (2005) / Into the Future (2008) Illustration Aesthetic Apparatus Photography Jessica Miller www.blackmountainarmy.com
Black Mountain had a profound impact on me a few years back when, as a teenage metaller from the midlands with a love for the loud and brash sounds that originated and have continued to come from this region, I heard what I envisioned to be the new sound of heavy rock, what I heard was Black Mountain. Hailing from Vancouver and previously working to help heroin addicts find basic living accommodation, the five piece have released two albums and an EP to date through superb Indiana label Jagjaguwar and, perhaps on a weaker note, have supported Coldplay and written music for the Spiderman 3 film. Of course, criticisms of the band have been related to their development of ‘old’ sounds. The unashamed referencing of some of the greatest names in rock such as Zeppelin and Sabbath may seem blasphemous to some, but the band have taken these epic rock sounds and created something perfect for the modern age. When I first heard Into the Future after what seemed like an eternity (it was three years), I found a new reason to get excited again. You only have to listen to the opening riff to opening track ‘Stormy High’ to hear the Zep reference, added to that the flagrant usage of the AC/DC style pumping guitars, you can tell that Black Mountain have resurrected rock’s oldest, and best, gods. People get frustrated by bands nowadays shamelessly stealing the sounds and structures of older artists (step forward Franz/Kaiser Chiefs). Personally I don’t have too much problem with the concept, as long as you acknowledge where these riffs have come from or at least do something interesting with them. Black Mountain fuse
their heavy sound with more psychedelic elements of the late sixties and early seventies, they have the delicate structures of the quietest and most outrageous Neil Young pieces. They are a band that wallows in its own distinction, and they are all the better for it. And wallowing is something the band does like to do. Their songs tend to edge the needle towards the epic side of the scale, with thumping build ups and big endings. They are a joy to see live and they are beautiful to listen to in the comfort of your home. For a reference point, Black Mountain contained just eight tracks but ran to a stonking 47 minutes in length, Into the Future, meanwhile takes contains ten tracks and adds an extra ten minutes. But whereas their debut had a pretty consistent length of epic, Into the Future manages to widen the scale significantly: shrinking their shortest track to just over a minute on ‘Wild Wind’ before cranking it up with the superb ‘Bright Lights’, which weighs in at a hefty 17 minutes. It is a strange contradiction as ‘Wild Wind’ sounds like something of an epic, and ‘Bright Lights’ just takes the mantle and turns it into a real epic. And ‘epic’ is exactly what you get with Black Mountain. They don’t cop out with short and easy blowouts, they don’t come up with one idea and just repeat it, they cram many parts and ideas into each song, creating stunning walls of ideas, yes, borrowing from some of the greats, but developing their ideas and, in most cases, taking the work of the greats into exciting directions where they themselves couldn’t manage.
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49 BLACK MOUNTAIN
50 PLUG AWARDS
PLUG IN, BABY
ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME INDEPENDENT ARTISTS AND LABELS GOT THE RECOGNITION THEY DESERVE? THE AMERICANS SURE THINK SO, WHICH IS WHY A GROUP OF THEM SET UP THE PLUG AWARDS. NOW SEVEN YEARS SINCE IT FIRST BEGAN, IT IS HOSTING ITS FIRST ‘PROPER’ AWARDS CEREMONY, AMANDA FARAH EXPLAINS:
Britain and Ireland have the Mercury Prize to award the outstanding record of the year. In the US, the Shortlist Music Prize recognises the elite of the ignored – records released in America that haven’t been certified gold (500,000 copies sold) and the only criterion for contenders for the Polaris Music Prize of Canada is a work of great artistic merit. All three of these prizes are awarded by a panel of individuals from different sectors of the music industry. They offer lesser known artists a fighting chance to gain some recognition (and a spike in record sales), whereas such awards shows as the Brits or, dare we mention, that baneful Hollywood bacchanal, the Grammy’s, favour the top selling records and artists. In all cases, a handful of insiders are deciding the best records of the year. In 2001, the PLUG Awards re-evaluated the idea of the music prize when they began looking at not only records from the global market, but also magazines, blogs, record stores, and websites. The focus was the independent market – regardless of how famous the artists, if they aren’t released through the majors, they’re eligible. Unlike other music prizes, the shortlist is determined by 250-300 people who live independent music, known as the PLUG Cartel. “We gather together people from every walk of the independent music industry,” said PLUG co-founder Gerry Hart from his Oklahoma office. “We’re really, really careful about people who make it onto the PLUG Cartel. There are a few celebrities, but they’re primarily people who are in the trenches of independent music.” After the shortlist is determined, PLUG is given over to the fans, who vote online and are the final say on the best in music and media for the year. What started as an invitation to roughly 100 people to cast their votes quickly pulled in thousands of responses.
PLUG has also become more regionalised in the last couple of years, hosting events known as PLUG City Highlights to showcase the talents in local markets around the US. And, bolstered by the strength of voting in the UK and France, Hart says we can expect to see PLUG City Highlights come to Europe in the not too distant future. The award show that has since its inception prided itself on its relaxed approach to patting artists on the back is still growing to keep up with demands. The 2008 show, by request of artists, will feature the first presentation of physical awards to winners. “We never intended this to be a red carpet, black tie and round table affair,” says Hart of the project he referred to as “the un-Grammy’s.” The show, however, will preserve its down-toearth aesthetic with performers slated for the 6 March event including Jose Gonzalez and St. Vincent. There is of course some debate about what is considered indie. Nominees like former Pulp man Richard Hawley, for example, might be discounted because his label, Mute, falls under the EMI umbrella. PLUG’s official comment on what they consider indie and thus what is eligible for the awards is, “Any artist or release who owns their own masters and are not directly distributed by a major.” To break things down, records that are up-streamed through the majors are ineligible, but labels partially owned by majors that are released through independent distributors and artists without label representation are still in the running (Radiohead, despite having sold millions of records, have been nominated for In Rainbows). Hart commented that, “we wanted to try to recognise artists and labels that don’t have the same resources as majors,” or, as he summed things up, “‘Independent’ isn’t meant to be a scientific term.” The main nominations for the 2008 awards are:
Album Of The Year Arcade Fire Neon Bible (Merge), Band of Horses Cease to Begin (Sub Pop), Battles Mirrored (Warp), Beirut The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing), El-P I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (Definitive Jux), Justice † (Downtown/Vice/Ed Banger), Of Montreal Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl), Panda Bear Person Pitch (Paw Tracks), Radiohead In Rainbows (selfreleased), Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone), Spoon Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge), The National Boxer (Beggars Banquet). Artist of the Year Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Battles, El-P, Justice, Of Montreal, Okkervil River, Panda Bear, Radiohead, Spoon, The National. New Artist of the Year Bat for Lashes, Battles, Dan Deacon, Deerhunter, Justice, Los Campesinos!, No Age, Sea Wolf, St. Vincent, Vampire, Weekend, White Rabbits, Yeasayer. Label of the Year Anti-, Arts & Crafts, Beggars Group, Dangerbird, Definitive Jux, Domino, Ed Banger, Jagjaguwar, Merge, Secretly Canadian, Sub Pop, Touch & Go, Warp. Illustration Craig Atkinson For a full list of categories and nominees, visit: www.plugawards.com
52 RECORD REVIEWS
American Music Club (Cooking Vinyl) Words Jonathan Pearson B For Bang (KML) Words Ashleigh Rainbird
American Music Club The Golden Age
B For Bang Across the Universe of Language
It’s nearly 25 years since San Franciscobased singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel founded American Music Club. In that time the band have released eight albums, endured several changes of personnel and taken a ten-year hiatus. Frequently tagged as ‘emo-pioneers’ (a label they refute) or ‘sadcore’, it is little surprise that AMC’s website proudly boasts that new album The Golden Age’s February release date was chosen to coincide with: “When winter depression finally kicks in. No Christmas or New Year to look forward to, just the iron grip of the cold and the bleak endless news reports on the death we bring to the Middle East and to ourselves.” Not an altogether cheery sentiment, though strangely, AMC believe that The Golden Age is lighter in tone than their previous albums. Eitzel claims that he wants to, “fill [his] mouth with sugar and spit it on everyone when [he] talks” and although no one could describe it as sugar-coated with The Golden Age, AMC live up to their reputation. It’s a fabulous album. The Golden Age follows up 2004’s acclaimed Love Songs for Patriots and has all the qualities of its predecessor, a quintessentially American fusion of musical styles and subtle melodies. Eitzel’s lyrics swing between storytelling and beautifully cynical aphorisms – “your heart might be as blue as the ocean, and just as cold” – all delivered in bittersweet deadpan that perfectly complements the lowkey musical arrangements. Adopting the role of cynical outsider, Eitzel calmly commentates on the absurd world around him in a style reminiscent of Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner. Though his style is wordy – absolutely no space is wasted during the jam-packed verses – the lyrical sophistication of The Golden Age is its most compelling attribute. Like Lambchop, AMC’s music runs the risk of being easily dismissed as samey, it’s certainly true that there isn’t a genuine album breaker among the record’s thirteen tracks, but the similarity across the album is down to consistency rather than repetition. There are no obviously weak tracks and, as the album progresses, each successive track raises the bar further and further, culminating in the gloriously tragic ‘The Dance’. San Francisco’s Bay Area, so obviously an influence on the band’s music, forms the basis for another lyrical highpoint, ‘All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco’ replete with glorious harmonies and a soaring chorus. Lost souls they may be, but AMC are very sure of their place in the world, bringing, as they put it their “own version of American freedom to a waiting and willing world.” Musically, it’s much harder to know their place. There is something in this album for fans of so many genres that it’s difficult to say who will or won’t like it, but it is certainly worth taking the risk.
The Beatles were a pioneering bunch of scousers weren’t they? Their reputation exceeds far beyond the realms of the hardcore elitists who dare you to disparage them so they can respond with a Wikipedia depth of knowledge and endless list of reasons why John Lennon really should be more popular than Jesus. But don’t let them put you off. New generations still discover their genius today, occasionally finding something vaguely inspirational within their immense back catalogue. Italians B for Bang have done just that and they’ve pulled the whole Beatles package apart to allow an original perspective to permeate an album of re-workings, demonstrating precisely what they make of the Fab Four’s racket. Undaunted by the prospect of filling such iconic shoes, they isolated the original lyrics to generate a personal response from their content. Using these words alone for inspiration, they developed both a musical and visual interpretation, updating Lennon and McCartney’s process via contemporary classic musicians and modern digital art, culminating in three-dimensional conceptual pieces specifically devised for a modern live audience. They picked up some personalities along the way, with Patti Smith and Daniel Day Lewis part of an impressive list of contributors ranging in style, influence and era. Yet the album as a whole remains a testament to the creativity of the sixties movements. There’s more cabaret rock theatrics than good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, as ‘Helter Skelter’ builds a delicate orchestral crescendo into a frantic explosion of sinister vocals underpinned by a soft drum and bass rhythm quite apart from the original psych-pop elements of the track. But then of course, they’d rather produce innovative interpretations than inferior copies and the album is perforated with imaginative new compositions assembled to perfection, reiterating the essence of the album’s contradictory clash of more modern ‘modern music’ against modern classical music. It is all bonded by the influential figures that sparked the creative process who haunt the tracks in their traditionallycontemporary heartbeat.
53 RECORD REVIEWS
Baby Dee (Drag City) Words William Brett Broadcaster (Red Grape) Words Ben Wood
Baby Dee Safe inside the Day
Broadcaster Primary Transmission EP
This is outsider music at its maddest and saddest. Baby Dee is a transgender pianist, harpist, singer and street performer from New York. Her latest album, Safe inside the Day, is produced by Will Oldham, aka Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy, and released on the same Drag City label that brought us the peerless Joanna Newsom and various leading lights of New Weird America. None, however, are quite as weird as Baby Dee. The album veers from burlesque comedies to tearful, camp piano ballads via plainsong-tinged medieval compositions and drunken shanties. Throughout, Baby Dee keeps her emotional life continuously on show with an extraordinary, overwrought, melodramatic and deeply felt singing style. Whatever this is, it isn’t faked. The highlights here are the raucous numbers, particularly ‘The Only Bones That Show’ (which are teeth, if you’re wondering), and the unintelligible but hilarious ‘Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town)’, which is, as far as I can make out, about how resilient albinos are. In the slower, tenderer songs, Baby Dee’s theatrical delivery can come across as hammed up and overdone. But this melodrama is entirely appropriate – emotional intensity is nearly always indulgent, and these songs embrace this fact with their musical references to the excesses of performance art and diva delivery. Lyrically, there are echoes of Tom Waits’ bluesy, smoky imagery: “Father Son and Holy Ghost / Stole the bacon and burnt the toast.” Elsewhere, Baby Dee takes her place as part of the New Weird America scene, bringing the supernatural in line with the natural world (“And I will live another day / safe inside / where angels soft as kisses ride / on gentle horses”) and revelling in folksy mythologies. But this music defies anything but the broadest kinds of categorisation. What stands out is a heartbreaking melancholy, tinged with hysterical madness. For the duration of the album, Baby Dee’s sheer expressivity forces us to live as she seems to – as an unrepentant, free-living outsider filled with longing for something indefinable.
Broadcaster has come up with the most bizarre and original musical juxtaposition I’ve heard for ages. In this charming curio, a post-war Yorkshire village meets an illegal rave in a field – and somehow it’s a perfect fit. The Primary Transmission EP lays groovy early ‘90’s house and techno, blasts of brass and snippets of traditional folksongs over vocal samples taken from the 1960’s BBC series Radio Ballads by Brit-folk legends Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. A variety of broadly-accented countryfolk discuss love, dancing, loneliness, the beauty of the countryside and the meaning of life, to an eclectic musical backdrop that nods to Fatboy Slim, Mr Scruff and the better big beat records of the mid-‘90’s. It’s amazing – and heartening – how these decades-old musings by people with a totally different way of life are just as relevant today. The record is full of humour, decency, and Englishness in its best sense. Opener ‘England’ is the most obvious potential hit, if any DJ gets behind it. Classic old-school house with bustling, funky bass, organ and brass, this is a righteous Balaeric tune with a lovely folky refrain. Every other line will strike a chord for party people everywhere. As the wise man says, “When the work interferes with the girls, you give up the work y’see.” But despite the partying, the record isn’t without its downbeat moments. ‘Loneliness’ is touching and sombre, as a variety of interviewees wonder if there’s any point living alone, and what it all means. As they talk about being frightened of revealing their true feelings, and needing to be understood by that special person, you want to put your arms through the speakers and give them a hug. Drifting and Moby-esque, this is another cracker. ‘Watch Yourself’ considers being alone with your thoughts as the music goes a bit superfly. Wah-wah keyboards combine with the words to bring us existentialist easy-listening funk. The haunting, dubby ‘Johnny’ concludes matters with its tale of a fatal train crash. It’s not all happy happy joy joy in Broadcaster’s world – but it’s a surprisingly emotional and touching journey you’re happy to make. This ain’t no novelty record. Though if you want to encounter Nora Batty on an E, come on in – and bring your clogs…
54 RECORD REVIEWS
Cat Power (Matador) Words Jeremy Style Cave Singers (Matador) Words Andy Price
Cat Power Jukebox
Cave Singers Invitation Songs
Can a derogatory record review spoil one’s own enjoyment of music? I wouldn’t have thought so back when I believed myself to be a fair, if sometimes pisstaking hack. Unfortunately, a review of Cat Power’s Jukebox in a magazine that managed to get the title of the record wrong has made me look upon the record in a different light to those first two listens. Indeed, the review in question was barely a sentence. It did compare Chan Marshall to Joss Stone though and the vision of the urban lady of Devon with a faux-US accent encroaching on one of the alternative industry’s most acclaimed female vocalists was more than enough to make one shudder. It certainly made the cover of ‘New York, New York’ (yes this is a covers album, mostly, but includes an original song and, erm, a cover of one of her own songs) a tad more annoying. It isn’t the strongest cover on the record but after its slow start, the track starts to grind a little bit more. But fuck it, the record isn’t so bad. In fact, it isn’t that bad at all. The opening track may be a little weak, and the thought of anyone comparing themselves to Dylan and Sinatra – not to mention Hank Williams – may be a little annoying (although not annoying as the concept of covering one’s own songs), but Marshall has made a pretty damn good reworking of plenty of tracks here. Her version of Lee Clayton’s ‘Silver, Stallion’ is haunting and wonderful, whilst ‘Aretha, Sing One For Me’ (originally by George Jackson) is a good one for the end of the night when everyone is a little too heavy under whatever substance to really make much effort than do anything other than chill the fuck out. Unfortunately, ‘a good one’ is all Jukebox ever is, and it never gets anywhere close to being a great record. It is nice, sure, but so is a Joss Stone record if you’re really in the mood for something pretty noninspirational. Marshall should really get back to what she does best and leave classic songs, including her own, well alone and in their own perfect state.
These campfire songs by the up-andcoming Cave Singers sometimes lean towards a folk-tinged aura, sometimes leaning on a slightly tribal nature but always beating away at the brain inducing the foot tapping in line with a maddening hare. The glorious, semi-tuneful vocal of opening track ‘Seeds of Night’ sets an uplifting and melancholic tone that resonates throughout this record. ‘Seeds of Night’ also starts this off as a bit of spiritual affair – but it’s all pretty calming and without front – the line “thinking of heaven” suggests nothing – a characteristic of just ‘putting things out there’ that the Cave Singers do so well. The only negative that seems to arise from this kind of style is that where the song content is highly non-confrontational, it does feel like a somewhat weak structure to their lyrical style – and that the subjects of religion and the earth are a little wishywashy and seen as almost necessary content for their musical style. Though this could simply be looking too much into it and that their campfire sing-a-long nature already bypasses such a thought process. According to their label, Matador, the band have never been particularly interested in folk music, or guitars in general – only learning to play recently. Hailing from Seattle, where post rock and grunge found its home many years ago, the Cave Singers still use influences from hometown contemporaries – vocals are soulful and lyrics as deep as heavier counterparts. The low key percussive tone backdrops this whole deal with subtle poignancy that base a constant bass drum beat around a relentless guitar riff to danceable pleasure. This style of roots felt music is gaining a bit of steam right now, similar to bands like Akron/Family, certain songs feel like they could reach an epic proportion, but stop slightly short – ‘Dancing on our Graves’ is a prime example, whereas the aforementioned band sometimes have an inability to find a suitable end point to a song. The result is a well written, well performed and pleasantly listenable album of fine songs – but with the added promise of great things to come.
55 RECORD REVIEWS
Caz Mechanic The Secret Life of the Wife of the Captain of the Ship in the Bottle on the Mantle Piece Does the world need yet another singersongwriter folk artist? We already have enough amazing female singer-songwriters to shower with praise, it is getting too hard to dreg up more hyperboles and adjectives to champion great new artists. The praise is going to have to come from somewhere though as Caz Mechanic’s mouthful debut record The Secret Life of the Wife of the Captain of the Ship in the Bottle on the Mantle Piece has just put the Cornwall-based singer in pole position to be the most brilliant new artist of 2008. Full of enchanting folk melodies and dreamy lyrics, Secret Life... fails to drop below absolute perfection, from the haunting opening of ‘Elephant’s Song’ through the kazoo-led almost-title track to the soft closing lament of ‘Beat in Here’, there isn’t a single bad point to pick up on. As debut singer-songwriter records go, there always has to be a track that is the standout advert/Radio One track that you’ll never get sick of hearing no matter how much you want to be. On Secret Life... it is ‘Cold Black Eyes’, it is exquisite in its simplicity. Soft, gentle, tear-wrenching, it is the track that The Sun would describe as ‘a future festival anthem’, unfortunately, however much she deserves it, it’ll be tricky to find Caroline Banks in the midst of a sea of quality singer-songwriters. That said, the fiercly brilliant and accessible sing-a-longs of ‘Secret Life of the Wife of the Captain’ and ‘Smell of Last Night’ coupled with the slow and beautiful single ‘Go Home’ and the simply brilliant ‘Can’t Help Yourself’, this outstanding rollercoaster of emotions will easily pick up fans, as long as people get to hear it.
Caz Mechanic (Big Potato) Words Gareth Main Correcto (Domino) Words Ben Wood
Correcto Correcto ‘Franz Ferdinand side-project’ is not a phrase to get normal people salivating with anticipation but this deliberately ragged album, sounding like it was written and recorded in a week in someone’s garage, is at least half a decent record. Looser (and sometimes drunker) than Franz, it’s still as retro as hell – except this time the ‘inspiration’ comes from 1978, not 1981, and everyone sounds like they’re having a lot more fun. This Glaswegian band with the terrible name consists of Franz drummer Paul Thomson alongside singer Danny Saunders, bassist Patrick from the Royal We and Richard Wright on guitar (no, me neither). It’s inspired by such greats as the Buzzcocks, Kinks, The Fall and Ramones and while it rarely reaches those heights, it has its moments. Clocking in at a mere half an hour, this collection of two and three-minute wonders is a schizophrenic beast: an amateurishly played combination of uptempo, scuzzy punk-pop, meandering mid-tempo garage rock and ragged downtempo ditties. It’s generally when the tempo drops that its ramshackle charm is revealed. The quality picks up after a rather pedestrian first three songs. ‘Inuit’ is a grey blur of random lyrics and affected vocals, saved only by some vaguely psychedelic guitar. It raises one of my major problems with Franz: the smart-arse, clever-clever lyrics that leave this listener uninvolved. There seems little chance of Correcto tugging at my heartstrings either, more’s the pity. It would be nice if they dropped the arch attitude, but I can’t see that happening just yet… Before you know it, Correcto have left the building. Their debut album has many faults: it’s brief in the extreme, brandishes no manifestos, goes through the motions on occasions and often sounds as rough as a badger’s arse. But in its shunning of pretension and uncomplicated air of a bunch of mates playing for the love of it, it has a lot to commend. Next time round, the chaps should concentrate on the messy down tempo doodles: these are more affecting and melodically interesting. Have fun before you trudge back to the stadiums Paul…
56 RECORD REVIEWS
Cymbient (Surk) Words Andy Price Dead Meadow (Matador) Words Sam Lusardi
Cymbient Out on the Waves
Dead Meadow Old Growth
Opening this record with a track called ‘Dress the Salad’ is a bit of an experience. It feels like a mid-album breakdown and can be likened to walking in on your mum and her new boyfriend christening their newly purchased mattress. Somehow, it doesn’t even feel like a bad move, as Out On the Waves will draw the listener in pretty instantaneously. ‘Dress the Salad’ is a cheeky little riffy based jaunt – one of many on this record. The vocals in this outing are often reminiscent of a younger Ben Gibbard of Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie fame, but the music is lot further down the quirk path, even gaining a little psychedelia down the line. Cymbient never reach greatness. They have moments of inspiration that could lead to a delicious harmony a la The Beach Boys – but instead of the gracious organ of the ‘60’s legends, they instead opt for an annoying synth a la noughties indie wank. Still – the band are far from fitting in with such a crowd as tracks like December Song’ are too sickly sweet. The well-sung choruses of Cymbient are their strongest asset, but their music is occasionally drab and often recycled, the Cardiff-based 5-piece are clearly influenced by plenty of tuneful ‘90’s rock – Pavement and Elliott Smith in his happier days spring to mind. But there are way too many moments of what feels like selfindulgent and floating twee harmonies. The songs feel truncated at times, often feeling like they cover old ground, or don’t quite fit. It’s quite possible that Cymbient are a band that produce their most inspired moments within individual songs rather than a whole album project and Out On the Waves does suggest this. They are also better placed somewhere in America, West coast quite possibly, whether the band can make a break for it in Cardiff is to be seen. Nevertheless, this record is a strong effort that will go down delightfully on a sunny summer’s evening, if we are to ever see one again that is.
Dead Meadow make unashamed psychedelic rock. That’s a real man’s rock, the type of rock that people with long hair listen to. Hair that’s grown especially to make their headbanging more pronounced. Not metal mind you – just rock. If music could ever be described as a psychedelic sludge, then Dead Meadow come pretty close. Old Growth is a more than apt title for this record, as Dead Meadow have come a long way since their self-titled debut album hit our shelves in 2000. Recorded in the bands first practice space the album (recently reissued) was raw but oozing with character. There have been plenty of changes in the intervening years, singer Jason Simon’s voice is still at the reedier end of the spectrum, but has matured considerably since the opening lines of ‘Sleepy Silver Door’ eight years ago. Although the production values have since improved, Old Growth sees the band back to top form. Reverting back to the trio format after the addition of an extra guitarist for their last album Feathers, the last two minutes of album opener ‘Ain’t Got Nothing (To Go Wrong) see the band straight back into the psychedelic groove of old. One of the standout tracks, ‘Down Here’ is actually pretty far removed from the Dead Meadow standard, with a sparse acoustic melody providing an interesting twist four tracks in. Not everything smells of metaphorical roses, ‘I’m Gone’ is fairly standard rock by numbers, but thankfully just when you think things are starting to get a little monotonous there’s always pleasant surprise just around the corner. The Indian-tinged ‘Seven Seers’ is a classic case in point, with a sudden shift in tempo giving a song that you assume is going nowhere a boot up the arse and a finish Gary Lineker would have been proud of. Plenty of reverb, echo and general squelch, along with almost inaudible surreal lyrical motifs characterise all that Dead Meadow preach, and as such, Old Growth treads a well-worn path, but to characterise this record as merely one for the stoners is to it a disservice. Stoners will definitely enjoy it, but so will anyone with a regard for some chugging riffs and psychedelic fuzz. Even if you’re not why not crack out the mushrooms and join the fun anyway?
57 RECORD REVIEWS
Figurines (Morningside) Words Andy Price Geiom (Berkane Sol) Words Ben Wood
Figurines When the Deer Wore Blue
Geiom Island Noise
‘Childhood Verse’ opens When the Deer Wore Blue and leaves no doubt in old listeners that this is a brand new Figurines. To new listeners, it leaves no doubt that this will be a record they’ll be listening to for a long time. The jangling, nerve tickling group harmony repeats in this introduction before breaking down to the more standard high pitched Figurine vocal but this time with more ambitious guitars and with an added keys element missing on earlier recordings – this fuller sound speaks on a much higher level. It takes more than one song to properly introduce this album and ideas built on in the first song are hit home in the aurally beautiful ‘The Air We Breathe’. A natural Beach Boys comparison comes forward with luscious vocals floating over a prominent piano line. This record comes at a time when Figurines attempt to create a concrete fan base outside of their native Denmark. Out of their three records thus far, this will be the one to break. Taking influences from the more ethereal bands of Scandinavia such as Mew and Sigor Ros, these are brave and broad comparisons to the newer elements of their style. Garage influences from bands such as The Pixies and The Strokes cling on with a slightly poppier edge in ‘Hey, Girl’, the drums hold together the simple guitars and straight up vocal. Now any previous listener of Figurines will notice a vast improvement in vocal style – partly due to allowances in vocal experimentation alongside their growing style, but singer Christian Hjelm has certainly come a long way from the lispy, rasping vocal of their debut, The Detour EP. All this progression might sound like a band that is taking their music out of their league. Few bands can pull an album like this out of the bag when previous efforts have resulted in a couple of good indie/ garage type affairs that simply do the job. This does the job and much more, uplifts, moves and excites the listener through the building and melancholic ‘Good Old Friends’ – one of a handful of songs on this record that likes to deal with drinking, going out and spending time with friends – to the great light-hearted jaunt ‘Let’s Head Out’. This band can’t come with more recommendation – each track on this offering deserves independent praise and assertion – Figurines have taken their sound and upped their game ten-fold for the international market. They’re going to be around for a long time to come.
Geiom is Jamal Koory – a young lad from Nottingham who has been hailed as dubstep’s bright new hope. After several 12” releases on Berkane Sol, this is his debut record. It’s dub Jim, but not as we know it. The tracks on Island Noise have an electro edge and a cold, mechanical sheen, like they are being played by malfunctioning robots. This approach can work sometimes (check out Sly and Robbie’s masterful A Dub Experience), but here it falls between two stools, occupying an unsatisfying no man’s land between dub and electronica. It’s too alienating to chill out to, and too samey and onetempo to really trip out on. Despite a few promising moments, what is left is pretty average head-nodding fodder. Much of the beauty of ‘70’s dub lies in its warm, organic source sounds, played by real musicians; and its spiritual element, expressed though the lyrics and soulful vocals. It has a message (righteousness, unity, universal love, striking against tyranny) which is made manifest through the music. Also, the space between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves. Echo and distortion are key to disorientating the listener and setting them happily adrift in their own headspace. None of these elements are present on Island Noise, where the dub has been denatured, stripped of what makes it dread and deep. The structure, musical progressions, pacing and heavy bass, are the same. But they’re free of the context that provides them with meaning, and therefore feel soulless. And where’s the humour? All decent dubmakers are funny! Where are the giggly moments? Weird noises? Sense of fun? Listen to Scratch and report back me lad… That’s not to say that the album is free of variety: the first side is more straightforwardly dubby, with heavy basslines snaking underneath crunchy beats, spacey keys and skittering percussion. The second side is more sparse and electrofied. Highlights include ‘Canopy Desire’ and the super-distorted bass of ‘Futurerustic.’ Unfortunately, too many tracks plod from beginning to end with an increasingly familiar feel. It’s a shame, ‘cos Geiom has some great influences: Brian Eno, Herbie Hancock, Lee Perry, Afrika Bambataa, 808 State, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cage, Prince… but you wouldn’t know it from this album. The bewildering number of sub-genres in downbeat electronic music is something of a red herring. This may be labelled dubstep, but apart from the occasional beat these tunes don’t sound markedly different from the digidub and ambient dub that was around 15 years ago. The shock of the new? Not to this old reggae-head…
58 RECORD REVIEWS
Hayseed Dixie (Cooking Vinyl) Words Jamie Hailstone Holton’s Opulent Oog (Big Potato) Words Anita Awbi
Hayseed Dixie No Covers
Holton’s Opulent Oog The Problem Of Knowledge
The problem with novelty acts is that even the best joke in the world can wear a little thin after a while. Hayseed Dixie have built a strong live following in the UK over recent years (not to mention the odd appearance on Radio 1) with their bluegrass versions of hardrocking classics by the likes of AC/DC, Motorhead and Led Zeppelin. In fairness to them, they are top notch musicians and their act and previous records have showcased just how well they can play this stuff and included the odd original track. They covered such tunes as ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ because they loved the original songs and they love playing bluegrass music – it was as simple as that. No Covers is a departure for the gang because it is a collection of original tunes and this time they have gone electric. Before you all cry ‘Judas’, the duelling banjos and hillbilly harmonies are still there, but this time they have a drummer and a electric guitar to liven up the mix. It works wonders, particularly on the opener ‘Bouncing Betty Boogie’ and ‘You’ve Got Me All Wrong Baby’, which both crank the all-important rock factor up to at least 12.5! Their wry humour is still their guiding light. Who else but Hayseed Dixie could write a song about trickle down economics (‘Trickle Down’) or religious fundamentalism (‘Set Myself On Fire’). If Noam Choamsky was this accessible, he would be a household name, not to mention a regular on Richard and Judy’s couch. Lyrically, they are as far removed from the cosy world of corporate country music as it is possible to get, but no one else plays traditional bluegrass music quite like this. Plucking hell – this is one great record. Everyone should have at least one Hayseed Dixie record in this collection. Make sure it is this one.
Bearded would like to print a correction for an error in the last Sluice Box for Holten’s Opulent Oog: we do really know what Oog is, despite our claims otherwise. It is a tiny Somalian ever-moving village. All its inhabitants are nomadic farmers. It is a particularly dusty and desolate place, presided over by a nobleman called Nick Holton and his band of opulent music makers. These people have delivered an interesting record and it’s definitely worth a listen. The Problem of Knowledge gently treads the well-worn alt. country and folkyrock paths of Calexico, Bright Eyes and The Lilac Time, yet it still manages to feel genuinely inventive. In fact it’s as fresh as a daisy. That’s because the songs were recorded in one or two takes, leaving little room for all the precious tinkering and well-intended improvements that often seize original ideas and carry them off to pastures new. The whole set was laid down in a dusty old analogue studio for £100, and it shows. But the hodgepodge dust-pit has a respectable track record: it produced the great Neil Halstead album Sleeping On Roads for 4AD in 1998. More recently it has been commandeered for shiny new label Big Potato Records’ unique brand of nostalgic pop that has seen the welcome return of Coley Park and the tentative debut offering from Caz Mechanic. HOO’s first long player hesitantly opens with a 20-second burst of what sounds like a B-movie spaceship landing, before unravelling to read like an old scrapbook of fond memories, heartaches and lazy afternoon ponderings. Anyone with a sentimental edge or an inward-looking disposition will be instantly drawn to Holton’s fragile voice and rich imagery. HOO sound mature, and the band is definitely a sum of all its parts. Combined, they have a lingering musical history that is interwoven in a branch of the indie music family tree that includes Slowdive and Seafood. Songwriter Holton is also in Coley Park, a homespun folky indie band from the Home Counties. Ian McCutcheon, of Mojave 3 and Loose Salute, looks after drums and percussion, maintaining driving beats that rev up the psychedelia and add pace to Holton’s acoustic guitar. He is joined by Mojave 3/ Chapterhouse bandmate Simon Rowe on bass and guitar, and the ethereal Caroline Banks (Seafood, Caz Mechanic) who brings airy backing vocals and added depth to ‘Oaki Room’ and ‘Once Into The Waves’. The solid friendships and combined histories of this productive bunch has finally cemented into a rock solid organic alt. country farm, right here in England’s staid and conservative Berkshire – a million miles away from the dusty states of New Mexico and Nevada (and the tiny village of Oog) that Holton and friends are so practiced at evoking.
59 RECORD REVIEWS
Junkboy (Enraptured) Words Sam Lusardi Kid Harpoon (XL) Words Jonathan Pearson
Kid Harpoon The Second EP
The names mentioned in the press blurb for Junkboy’s latest offering Three include: Elliott Smith, Tortoise, The Wickerman OST, Bert Jansch and Brian Wilson. I acknowledge that promotional blurbs are there to build up the artist in question, but there’s an awful lot to live up to in those names. Thankfully the two brothers that make up Junkboy – Mik and Rich Hanscomb give it pretty good go. The debt of gratitude to Tortoise is immediately apparent with the extended instrumental opener ‘Volcano Mono’, which although jaunty, lacks the precision you would associate with a track off TNT. Junkboy do not claim to be instrumental masters, and part of their charm seems to be in the roughness around the edges. Softly sung vocals characterise tracks such as ‘There is a Light’ and ‘Tonight’ which try their utmost to remind you of wistful summer evenings and, for the most part, succeed. Whether this is a good thing on a cold February evening is up for debate, though I’m not sure where the use of a xylophone fits in the seasonal scheme of things. What is really surprising is that at least two of the blurb references actually ring true, for ‘Seconds’ genuinely does remind me of Elliott Smith, at least in spirit rather than quality. The warmth that comes from Three is apparent, but there isn’t really enough here to tempt the casual listener into really embracing the record. The quality of the tracks is inconsistent, as is the style, with vocal and instrumental efforts creating an even split among the album’s ten tracks. The overall impression is one of frustration rather than inspiration, and although fans of lo-fi noodlings will no doubt find some solace in the record’s unashamed bedroom ethic, the rest would probably be best advised to steer clear. Whilst a few of the references are understandable and recognisable the hype should, in this case be, not be believed.
On this, his second official release, Kid Harpoon, aka Chatham-bred Tom Hull, manages to combine contemporary pop sensibilities with a genuine nod to traditional English folk. From the naturalistic murder-fantasy ‘Riverside’ to the melancholy and imaginative ‘Suicide Granddad’, The Second EP conjures up strange, anachronistic pictures of England where Morris Dancers wear converse, kids in skinny jeans drink lager out of goblets on midsummer’s day and wild-eyed pagans sing about mobile phones and it’s okay for a twenty-something to sing about princesses and castles. One of Hull’s most endearing traits is an ability to invoke the spirit of folk music without sounding whimsical or twee. His intelligent, relaxed delivery and simple musical arrangements transform lines such as “maybe my baby / we’ll run to an island / I’ll catch some dinner / buy you a diamond” into slices of poetic imagery. Hull’s delivery and idiosyncratic lyrical style is endearing, sophisticated and above all, effortlessly simple. Opener and recent single ‘Riverside’, aptly sets the tone. A catchy bass hook powers the track forward as Hull’s vocals become more and more powerful, culminating in a rasping, chanting yell (incidentally, one version of the video for the track culminates in the brutal murder of ubiquitous TV presenter Fearne Cotton – certainly worth a watch). Rhythmically it’s the record’s stand out track, with stomping drums battering out a furious beat while Hull thrashes huge chord sounds out of his acoustic. Lyrically it’s also rather good, falling somewhere between Nick Cave and Syd Barrett, a dark, surreal tale of woodland murder which would be equally at home soundtracking an English heritage weekend in the woods or a trek through modern suburbia. Hull’s talent for storytelling is evident again on ‘Suicide Granddad’, a wonderfully subversive look at old age complete with sardonic, first-person narration; it’s an impressive leap of imagination and hints at a lyrical sharpness that will hopefully become more prominent on subsequent releases. By either accident or design, as one listens to The Second EP, a vivid picture emerges. Each seemingly unconnected track adding to and building on the others. Hull throws everything into the record’s 20 minute runtime, leaving you in no doubt that he is a major talent in the making. How he and his music will develop over the course of making a full-length album remains to be seen, but The Second EP offers a tantalising glimpse of a better future where singer-songwriters churn out something other than slush, mockney singing voices are a thing of the past and there is genuine innovation in acoustic music again.
60 RECORD REVIEWS
Kim Novak (Talitres) Words David Winstanley Malcolm Middleton (Full Time Hobby) Words Gareth Main
Kim Novak Luck and Accident
Malcolm Middleton Sleight of Heart
As much as I hate to perpetuate international stereotypes, it is pretty hard not to use them (only in a positive sense, I hasten to add) when talking about Kim Novak’s debut album Luck and Accident. If you were to give yourself over to the more positive English impressions of the French music scene, you might assume that this French four-piece are a suave group of worldly, espresso-drinking, Sartrequoting Left Bank cafe-dwellers. This train of thought is, of course, a wild flight of simplistic fancy and should not be taken literally. Once their record begins, it is instantly easier to refer to the band not in generalisations but in the manner that this album deserves: it is a snappy, crisp and erudite record that does not compromise or shirk from stopping the listener in their tracks and politely forcing them to appreciate its greatness. The album opens with a run of excellently crafted and melodious tunes, at once graced with sinuous melancholy and layered passion. ‘Better Run’ is powerful and halting, and the instruments in the song are like facets of a diamond. This leisurely track reminds you of the Psychedelic Furs in their saucy ‘80’s finery, but with 21st century awareness mixed in. The jaunty opening of ‘Swallow’ is topped off with an insistent vocal that glances back at the long distant days of the Britpop era; but, this is nothing to be sneered at as the silky French accent creeps through the Ric Ocasek-ian tone to proudly define the song with uplifting lyrics like “I know you can do it...swallow your tears.” Novak’s lounge-friendly art-rock mellowness is etched with melancholy in tracks like ‘Turn a Rabbit’. The songs do not so much grab you as insinuate themselves stylishly into your mind and your surroundings. The lyrics are often faint and almost incidental to the hypnotic beat and insistent drive of the bewitching guitars and tight, uncompromising drumming. The lyrics beckon you in and ask you to listen then feint away without giving you the details at their heart. The Edward Hopper inspired album cover adds to the cinematic, noir tone of the band’s songs, and ‘Crash’ sums the album up beautifully with the words “A moment of reason, a drama for better days”. The album ends in a flourish of insouciance and drama with the song ‘On My Back’ that hints at early Pulp, and uses pauses and lulls to great effect. Luck and Accident is a debut album that sounds like it has been conjured up not just through hard work but through sheer will and skill and as a testament to beauty. As the final notes drift off into a sad and wistful silence, this album proves itself a sublime work of panache and elegance.
Life is good if you’re Malcolm Middleton. Aside from being a phenomenally talented songwriter with three critically acclaimed records and a bizarre challenge for the 2007 Christmas number one slot under his belt, he is now able to craft a fourth record by scraping together the scraps from the cutting floor of his last album sessions. Not that you would be aware that he is a happy chappy. After all, he did challenge for Christmas number one with a track called ‘We’re all going to Die’. The sentiments of the title may be right, but hardly the philosophy of the idyllically happy. With Middleton’s intrinsically uplifting view of the world, you would be forgiven for naively seeing this record as a cheap way for him and Full Time Hobby to cash in on his recent coverage. You would of course be entirely wrong, for the tracks that comprise Sleight of Heart put nearly every other songwriter to shame. If A Brighter Beat didn’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that Middleton is the greatest Scot ever to live, Sleight of Heart certainly tips the wink in his favour. The largely acoustic record is most intriguing in Middleton’s choice of cover songs to fill in the gaps. An (inevitably) more miserable sounding version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin album closer ‘Stay’ segues into a more uplifting (hang on!) reading of fellow Scot King Creosote’s ‘Marguerita Red’ that sounds more like a Madonna song from the eighties than the cover of the Madonna song from the eighties does. A cover of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Just Like Anything’ – included to ruin his girlfriend’s favourite song – ends up being one of the best tracks on the record. Oops. But it is Middleton’s own songs that stand out from the record. Opener ‘Week Off’ is classic Middleton. Sounding almost directly from A Brighter Beat, it is the most developed track off a rather stripped-back record. Seven-minute epic ‘Love Comes in Waves’ is the side of Middleton almost missed in his sea of despair. A beautiful piece, it finds itself as one of the most liberating tracks Middleton has ever put to record, one to put on with the candles at the end of your night, losing yourself in its intrinsic fabulousness. And a review of a Middleton record would not be complete without the obligatory lyric quotation to sum up life. From the superbly sublime ‘Total Belief’: “I hate everything / I hate everything I make / This is shit / That is shit / and being shit is great. “ As long as you keep being shit Malcolm, everything will be just right.
61 RECORD REVIEWS
The Mountain Goats (4AD) Words Norman Miller Realistic Crew (Kitty-Yo) Words Norman Miller
The Mountain Goats Heretic Pride
Realistic Crew Overcome
Now well into their second decade, The Mountain Goats continue to plough a distinctive furrow based on John Darnielle’s quirkily unpolished vocal style and fine lyrics. Though the band has been going since the early-1990’s, they’ve come a long way since they began plying their trade doing covers of Franki Valli songs in Norwalk, California – a town previously only noted on the rock’n’ roll map as the recording place of Metallica’s early demos – with Darnielle’s song writing mixing aching dissections of personal relationships with fruitcake numbers about slasher movies and Chinese lake monsters. While ‘Sax Rohmer #1’ isn’t the strongest album opener, it does at least attune you to Darnielle’s folky declamatory vocal style. But even if his voice isn’t quite your cup of warm brown liquid, persevere for some of the lyrics that follow if nothing else. Whatever you think of Darnielle’s voice, ‘San Bernadino’ is a beautifully constructed song, where sweet cello hums and plucked strings weave through a bittersweet tale of a couple delivering their baby in a rose-petal scattered bathtub in a dirty cheap motel. A string of similarly stark love songs make up the album’s highlights. The catchy ‘Autoclave’ leavens its poppy hooks with lines like “No emotion that’s worth having / would call my heart its home” and a chorus whose refrain suggests we’re all just a “great unstable mass of blood and foam”. ‘So Desperate’, meanwhile, chronicles a strained encounter “in the Episcopalian Church car park” where “moonlight soaked the branches in ever-deepening degrees”. Darnielle is given sweet vocal support on a couple of songs by founder member Rachel Ware alongside Sarah Arslanian – aka the Bright Mountain Choir – but the songs are strong enough that large chunks of the album would probably work fine with just Darnielle’s voice and acoustic guitar. Exceptions include ‘New Zion’ which benefits from Franklin Bruno’s soulful keyboards, and the snappy electric guitar licks on ‘Lovecraft in Brooklyn’ – a paranoid paean to legendary horror writer HP Lovecraft. While songs like ‘Tianchi Lake’ and ‘How to Embrace a Swamp Creature’ aren’t quite up to the scratch of The Mountain Goats’ usual high standard, at its heart, Heretic Pride is an often engaging offering of bittersweet Americana.
If this is anything to go by it’s not only British tradesmen who have to worry about being shown up by canny East Europeans, it’s the hip-hoppers too. Realistic Crew are a Hungarian outfit as cool and inventive as anything coming out of the UK or US. If you’re looking for templates, think of them as a love child of Massive Attack and Portishead, whose abstract cinematic grooves draw on an instrumental palette where trumpet, piano and cello contribute as much as programmed beats. Moody vocals also dapple half a dozen of the fifteen tracks on offer here. Founding duo Chabz (Csaba Kalotas) and Krizo (Krisztian Vranik) earned their spurs in Hungary’s alternative rock scene before deciding to shift into electronica in 2001. Their first release was a double EP whose twin parts were not only recorded independently but in different styles. Chabz’s GrowGrow drew on East European folk and rock, in sharp contrast to Krizo’s urbane electronics on Test Lies. Much of what follows has involved film soundtracks, notably for the awardwinning Hungarian feature film Black Brush, and a love of cinematic moodiness permeates the whole of Overcome, whose eclecticism is aided and abetted by contributions from a quintet of helpers – Dodi Karpati on trumpet, Albert Markos on cello/strings, David Hegyi on piano/ keyboards, Dalma Berger and MC Zeek on vocals. ‘Intro’ and ‘Scenic’ set the eerie late night movie tone before ‘Teletaxia’ offers the album’s first standout track – a funky mish-mash of tight bass beats splashed by little piano splashes and tinkles which give way to see-sawing string motifs. ‘One Year’ contrasts with its combination of slow cut-up beats and whispers of Hammond before Dalma’s sexed-up torch vocal takes over, while trumpet stabs hypnotically through the fine ‘Skunk Feet’. The album has a whole veers between twin poles of the jazzy and the darkly eerie. The former is to the fore in the laidback bass groove on ‘Well New’, while ‘Is It Own’ is altogether edgier, its slow phat beats and Zeek’s gruff hip-hop vocal sounding in equal parts menaced and menacing. But after a strong opening, the record stutters to a close, tracks like ‘Scenic’, ‘Sewer’ and ‘N’ are perhaps a tad too much like film soundtrack background fillers but even though they’re not bad they are shown up by the quality of some of the stuff around them.
62 RECORD REVIEWS
Rings (Paw Tracks) Words Andy Price The Ruby Suns (Memphis Industries) Words Simon Harper
Rings Black Habit
The Ruby Suns Sea Lion
Black Habit is an epic LP that is complex in its simplicity. Subtle, even beautiful, utilising purposeful pianos with great velocity and heightening with sparse guitar work – everything stands out at the front of the stage, without stealing thunder. These guys used to be known as First Nation, a line up change and the arrival of an Animal Collective relative led to the change in name and musical direction. Black Habit is a fitting tribute to femininity – beauty and lots and lots of wailing. The record starts fairly well, opening track ‘All Right Peace’ delivers the standard Rings high-pitch vocal style in a quirky but steady atmosphere with plenty going on to whet the palate. It does go on a rather long time, though – as do all tracks on Black Habit, but as an opener it feels fatal in its repetition – diluting its initial power. Steady bass-orientated drums continue through to ‘Mom Dance’ with some nice faux-harmonies that really shouldn’t work but somehow manage it, just. The record does not have anything that stands out until ‘Is He Handsome’ – the first point in the album where the music strips back to one of the most powerful of many haunting vocals. This hit and miss record does close with two hits, which is essential for a band that teeters on the edge of sloppy – ‘Tone Poem’ makes distracting sense and solidifies the notion of tribal pop that fully escapes during this penultimate number, but it is the final track ‘Teepee’ that provides the catchiest vocal on the record, laden onto an atmospheric canvas. Overall, when the chanting interludes subside the singing becomes quite enticing and has a somewhat whimsical nature to it. It is certainly not going to reach a vast audience anytime soon but it is a lovable soundscape full of connecting beauty. In the end it just misses the mark but holds an underlying but undelivered essence of greatness.
It somehow seems fitting that The Ruby Suns are signed to Memphis Industries, a label which has given us some of the most blissful, unabashedly melodic records in recent years. With a roster that boasts the likes of Dungen, El Perro Del Mar, Field Music and The Go! Team, the label’s track record for releasing sumptuous and exuberant left-field pop is clearly upheld by the latest album from one of New Zealand’s most gifted bands. While some of their illustrious counterparts from the land of the silver fern – most notably The Chills and The Clean – worshipped at the altar of Reed and Cale, The Ruby Suns eschew such Velvets-style inspiration, instead preferring to home in on the sound more commonly associated with California. No surprises there, given that mainman Ryan McPhun is a native of the sunshine state. This sophomore full-length starts out with a markedly different tone compared with their self-titled, Brian Wilson-aping debut. Opening track ‘Blue Penguin’ kicks off with nearly two minutes of Six Organs-ish ragafolk and drone textures, before dissolving into lysergic psych-pop. Comparisons with the Elephant 6 collective are fairly obvious but well-founded – they explore strange sounds and woozy atmospheres, but allied with the kind of perfect melodies seldom heard outside of the US indie-pop scene. Perhaps their nearest sonic cousins are Apples in Stereo, whose jangling psychedelia is faithful to the Wilson watermark, while also being incredibly ambitious. In the time between their debut and this latest offering, though, The Ruby Suns appear to have absorbed a raft of other styles, making Sea Lion a cornucopia of pop. ‘Oh, Mojave’ and ‘Tane Mahuta’ dabble in tribal African folk music, the effect being like David Byrne fronting Surf’s Up era Beach Boys. ‘It’s Mwangi In Front of Me’ approximates Animal Collective’s pop-noise collage, and Phil Spector’s irrepressible Wall of Sound bares its reverb-laden stamp on ‘Kenya Dig It’. But perhaps the most surprising ingredient on the record is McPhun and co’s penchant for synth-pop confection. Album closer ‘Morning Sun’ starts out as a circling Panda Bear-esque labour of love before the gentle waves of feedback give way and morph into brooding electropop reminiscent of New Order. ‘There Are Birds’ is even more blatant, being half-way between Saint Etienne and the nonchalant dream-pop of early Stereolab. Across the course of forty minutes, The Ruby Suns pack in an obscene number of ideas and flourishes, but crucially remember to write some melodies as well – a trick that some of their contemporaries might do well to remember. A welcome progression from their still-excellent debut, Sea Lion is the sound of a band coming to terms with its identity in the most glorious way possible.
63 RECORD REVIEWS
The Rudy Trouvé Septet Songs and Stuff Recorded Between 2003 and 2007 Part One Rudy Trouvé is tricky to pin down, in any respect. Not only in his music, which is often quirky, droll, subtle and swaying – to the point where adjectives fail me, but his person is also a little obscure… From Belgium, Trouvé has been around for an age – featuring in dEUS, Kiss My Jazz and Dead Man Ray, he has recently faded into a simple group that is based around himself. This is their third album proper, named Songs and Stuff Recorded Between 2003 and 2007, which follows on from 1999-2002 and 2002-2005 respectively. All the records are being released through Heaven Hotel, owned, naturally, by Trouvé himself – apparently to keep away from the touring and promotion required of standard or major labels. This may sound a bit biographical, meandering and lengthy for an introduction to a simple review but the genre-bending music of Trouvé is best described by insight into his character. It feels like he only makes music because, at risk of sounding like a hippy, it is his calling and there is no choice in the matter. And there is a lot more to this project than the music. The artworks of these records are always from original pieces painted by Trouvé, his style, often of an archaically French-influenced modernism runs through his music, his personality and anything else he puts his hands to. Songs and Stuff… being a strong example of his somewhat watery and oblique nature. The record is a mammoth 25 tracker, but at the length of an average album, it isn’t too hard to digest. When songs are written over a number of years it can be hard to bring them together onto one record without it feeling all a bit compilation but these songs are punctuated by short junctures and snapshots of random musical spasms that really didn’t belong anywhere except Trouvé’s leftfield imagination. Strangely enough, they do pull the album together into a stream of music, the track list and the track count is almost irrelevant. This all leads to a joyful frolic of jazzy breaks, swooning guitar parts and a very special smidgeon of uncertainty. ‘Target is Approaching (40)’, the joyful and hopeful pop check ‘Till the Next Time Around’ and the sunny frolics of ‘Un, Deus, Trois, Soleil’ are the highlights of a idiosyncratic record made possible by a lengthy recording process with none of the mismatched styling of quality that often tags onto the end. An excellent record, one gritty European jazz pop funk sandwich.
The Rudy Trouvé Septet (Heaven Hotel) Words Andy Price School of Language (Memphis Industries) Words Ashleigh Rainbird
School of Language Sea From Shore Don’t panic, this isn’t a charity single recorded by students at one of Oxford St.’s grottiest education establishments to raise funds for the linguistic coaching of foreign sales assistants. This School of Language is a side project of David Brewis, one of partially defunct Mackem trio Field Music, currently hibernating in an attempt to nurture some fresh creative spirit to follow two-and-a-half critically acclaimed albums with. Though a solitary venture, contentwise, it remains pretty loyal to Field Music’s distinctive sound. Brewis’ unmanly harmonies compliment the floaty but spirited indie-laptop pop. Fellow band members won’t be left bewildered by their omission, making cameo appearances alongside members of long time Tyneside buddies The Futureheads, which should keep the north-east clique happy. The album is bookended by a collection of four ‘Rockist’ tracks, a single of which preceded the release. The series is a “daydream in words” according to our solo hero, though if an incessant frenzy of looped voices constitutes a daydream, his idea of a nightmare doesn’t bare thinking about. Otherwise, Sea from Shore maintains a consistent nautical vibe, swaying rhythmically like the motion of the ocean… or something like that. But you do really get the feeling that you could be chilling by a riverside, watching ships roll by the dock of the bay, or turning green on the deck of a P&O Ferry channel hop. It captures marine life, minus the threat of scurvy. ‘Keep Your Water’ builds the eerily relaxing guitar twangs of contemporary bluegrass into a shuffle style square-dance – well worth a listen. Fans of mainstream’s Maxïmo Park, Futureheads and Young Knives not yet brainwashed by Radio 1’s playlist A-list will no doubt enjoy.
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The Sequins (Tough Love Records) Words Simon Harper Simon Breed (Reaction Recordings) Words Ben Wood
The Sequins The Death of Style
Simon Breed The Smitten King Laments
Maybe it’s a display of irony, or playful humour from a band with an artfully comic streak. Or perhaps they’re merely bemoaning the lack of style offered by countless other guitar bands. Coventry five-piece The Sequins have delivered an album whose cover is stark white, along with a few handfuls of coloured sequins which can decorate the lovingly packaged album – the death of style indeed. But thankfully the exquisitely designed sleeve is but a small talking point when compared with the music contained within. Crafting the kind of kitchen sink tales Darren Hayman and David Gedge would probably be proud of, the quintet boast plenty of romance and pathos at the heart of their slinky new wave-influenced pop. Imagine a world where misfits and charity shop raiders were lauded as deities and The Sequins would probably be on hand to provide the soundtrack. They wear their hearts on their secondhand sleeves, as heard on bittersweet pop nuggets such as ‘When the Flames Went Out’, which could have easily been released on the Postcard Records label nearly thirty years ago. Indeed, a line can be traced from Orange Juice to the Coventry-based act, led by vocalist Hywel Roberts. The record lurches from sensitive, softfocus pop like Les Faux Amis through to relentlessly spiky songs delivered at breakneck pace. ‘The Lost Art of Friendship’ and closing track ‘The French Way of Life’ both fit into the latter category, with the finale being a fine slice of buzzsaw guitarpop with unabashed punk-pop overtones. Or should that be Undertones? It’s the slower, more laidback songs which seem to work the best over the course of an album, building on the graceful promise they showed with their first two singles, ‘Nobody Dreams About Me’ (which came wrapped in a nice screen-printed fabric sleeve) and ‘Patients’. If they’re not as wilfully eclectic and adventurous as labelmates Honeytrap, The Sequins play to their strengths and create some fantastically wistful, shimmering melodies. While Justin Hui and Rob Hinchcliff’s guitars snake and intertwine, everything comes together in endearingly brilliant fashion. One of the most assured debut albums of recent times, and a damn fine indie rock outing at that, The Death of Style is a statement of intent from a band not content to ride on anyone’s thrift-store coattails.
It seems that every five minutes another literary troubadour appears on the scene attempting to emulate the greats (Cohen, Cave, Walker, Brel etc). Fortunately, many of the current crop are good, and original enough not to be embarrassed by such comparisons. Hot on the heels of ex-Jack frontman Anthony Reynolds’ swooningly romantic British Ballads, Simon Breed brings us the ambitious and often startlingly dark The Smitten King Laments. A Liverpudlian transplanted to London, Breed’s sometimes bleak, always intriguing muse has won such illustrious fans as the late, great John Peel and the patron saints of this type of thing, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Breed’s sonorous, posh-butsardonic baritone is reminiscent of Julian Cope in his more reflective moments, and his sometimes bleak, sometimes comic, always poetic lyrics are set off by finger-picked acoustic guitar, understated jazzy drums, piano and an occasional touch of percussion. But the lyrics are the main event here, and the warm, precise, sometimes minimal music serves rather than overpowers them. ‘I Spy the Spider’ is the first of the record’s two fabulist epics, a bizarre sevenminute tale in which two spiders vying for dominance try to freak each other out by wearing fake fly heads. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well, as the pair grapple together in a dance of death. Breed’s bleak view of the human condition is framed in a masterfully slow, drawn-out groove: ‘You can’t hide four pairs of lying eyes’. But Breed can also be surprisingly tender and sweet, on ‘Devastating Sky’, Breed builds a stately guitar piece, augmented with glockenspiel, and builds it up to an epic finish. Almost like Nick Cave-doesColdplay, however horrid that might sound. It is in the self-hating and dark tracks that perpetuate The Smitten King Laments though; ‘The Golem vs The Gentile Giant’ highlights Breed’s ability to craft easy to digest folk songs with lashings of menace. “A litre of self-disgust / hidden in some faded photos / a handful of old benefit stubs / envelope of X’s faded muff dust / Fermented resentment / receipts and taxloss lies” he scowls, the thick medicine just about slips down with Breed’s sweet sugar. With it, Breed has produced an astonishingly rich and well-realised record. For a debut, it takes balls to craft lyrics so dark, and unashamedly ambitious. It may take a few listens to really grab hold of you as there’s a hell of a lot going on here, but the richness of the lyrics and the strong tunes mean there’s enough going on here to keep you going until the summer at least.
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Speck Mountain (Peacefrog) Words Norman Miller The Superimposers (Wonderfulsound) Words Anita Awbi
Speck Mountain Summer Above
The Superimposers Harpsichord Treacle
On MySpace, Speck Mountain describe themselves as Psychedelic/Ambient/ Gospel, though others have gone for a cross between the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star. But whatever the adjectives, Speck Mountain are rather fabulous. Now based in Chicago, the band’s core trio are Marie-Claire Balabanian on vocals, bass and melodica, Karl Briedrick on guitar as well as all-important tape delay (these guys like to echo), plus Kate Walsh tinkling the keyboards and playing sax. The charmingly-named Tim Daisy helps out with percussion. The title track epitomises the languid cool that prompted the Velvet comparisons. Easing into your consciousness with a seemingly effortless melange of slowly jingly guitar, dapples of sax and gentle percussion, it’s nearly two minutes before Marie-Claire’s sweet vocal comes in. And what a voice! Lush and frail at the same time, it’s almost as beautiful as Queen Mazzy Hope Sandoval’s, though perhaps not quite as eerily rich. A track like ‘Midnight Sun’ would also fit onto a Mazzy album without anyone spotting anything untoward. A slow rolling guitar pattern cradles achingly delivered vocals – “Oh, I’m alright,” whispers MarieClaire over and over, but you know it ain’t so as she adds a plan “to be so far away / when I tell you I’m not here to stay”. ‘Hey Moon’ ditches the languid intro, its almost folky electric guitar barely established before the drifting vocal kicks in. And even if the words are what a dope head might say lying spaced out in a field looking at a night sky, like the night sky it’s still beautiful, especially when the hazy melodica comes in. The whistling on ‘Stockholm’ strike a rare duff note in another otherwise fine slice of plaintive shimmering, adorned by a slow guitar riff that’s like a rock solo slowed to quarter speed. Though not on the album, the band’s new single ‘Blood Is Clean’ suggests a further move away from drifting pscyhefolk into something with sharper edges – the guitars more jagged, the organ moodier, the vocal a bit more world weary and world wary. Shoegaze it may be but there’s a genuine unearthly beauty here. With a second album nearing completion, I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
All of a sudden people can’t seem to get enough of The Superimposers again. They’re everywhere. If the affable duo isn’t playing at a pub down the road with the tap-dancing Occasional String Band, Dan Solo and Miles Copeland are hooking up with Lee Gorton to play at one of his folky Red Bricks nights in London or Manchester. Even at the new Rough Trade store in London’s Brick Lane, they are cover stars of the shop’s revived Album Club leaflets. All around you see that misty b&w shot of their coy wee faces smiling back at you. This burgeoning popularity must be because they are the most cordial pair in pop, and a pleasure to watch live. They entered the industry about four years ago, fresh from Bournemouth, with a clutch of heart-warming songs and heads full of optimism. But on contact with London their innocence must have quickly evaporated because the band’s recent history reads like a twisted spy novel. They released their debut self-titled album on independent label Little League in 2005 to much critical acclaim. Soon after they fell out with label bosses over a scrappy second album the label put together from some demos. Little League then cheekily used other musicians and singers to fill in when Dan and Miles distanced themselves, but released the album Missing under The Superimposers name regardless. Little League press releases around the time claimed the duo had gone ‘missing’, creating a media kafuffle that even landed the pair in The Guardian. It all got a bit mean and Miles and Dan, unable to play together in public for legal reasons, secretly set up a new Bloomsbury studio, mastered a load of freaky instruments and created a new label, Wonderfulsound. Along the way they have remixed Au Revoir Simone and Jose Gonzalez, put out an EP of Dan’s solo stuff and now their playful determination and breezy dispositions have brought us Harpischord Treacle – a syrupy album that is as balmy as summer and as crisp as a frosty winter’s morning. Their music oozes trademark Beach Boys harmonic layering and Motown pop craftsmanship. So warm you could catch a suntan just lying on your bed with your headphones in. From the moment you first hear Dan’s enveloping vocals on opening track ‘Anymore’, your senses are awash with the band’s aptitude for delicate chord changes and aching nostalgia. The record is the perfect antidote to winter’s dark mornings and grey skies. With its recurring twinkles and omnichord whooshes it feels like a solid offer, pinned together by its unrelenting good vibes. It is not taxing on your brain or ears and its unchallenging sentiment is pure and simple. Despite all their ups and downs, it seems like nothing can get in the way of The Superimposers’ need to bring sunshine pop and smiles to everyone they meet.
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Talk (Fortune and Glory) Words Jamie Hailstone Various Artists (Counter Culture) Words Gareth Main
Talk Reset Start Again
Various Artists Rough Trade Shops – Counter Culture 07
There are not many debut CDs which can boast samples of everything from a Gameboy to creaky doors, but then Reset Start Again is not your average record. For a start, it is obscenely good, not your normal debut with two decent singles and an awful lot of filler, it is a swirling dervish of hypnotic electronica, rock and pop. Like a post-pub kebab, it is utterly essential and strangely compelling. Hailing all the way from Shrewsbury, the five man outfit spent a year in the studio on this, building on their two previous EPs for Fortune and Glory Records. All the hard work and perseverance has clearly paid dividends because this is one strong record. A fantastic selection of different influences, ranging from Radiohead to Four Tet, from Art Garfunkel to Sufjan Stevens, and David Bowie to Bjork can all be heard in the musical mix. Most of the tracks clock in at less than three minutes, which sounds like a really anoraky point to make, but it proves the material is strong enough to speak for itself and the band have not resorted to padding any of the songs out (other groups, please take note!). Instead they have built up a sonic landscape of samples, guitars, vocals and electronic beats, which needs to be enjoyed as a whole. Don’t download one of two tracks from this CD, get the whole thing and do your ears a favour. 2008 may only still be young, but Talk look like becoming one of those bands that everyone will want to be into.
In a year which saw the closure of Music Zone and its brief saviour Fopp, 2007 really wasn’t the best time to be taking a plunge in the music retail market. So it was bizarre that Rough Trade Shops decided to take a massive gamble and open their massive Rough Trade East store on Brick Lane in London. It paid off and the Bearded stockist has not been any less than heaving since it opened its doors towards the end of the summer. Now we have the first Counter Culture record since this new period in the life of RTS. Of course, a compilation album is always going to have its hits and misses, its latest fashion trends and the truly excellent. Thankfully the folks at Rough Trade Shops have not missed a beat with old favourites Of Montreal (‘Gronlandic Edit’) and Mark E Smith (Von Südenfed – ‘Fledermaus Can’t Get It’) mixing it up with the new big hitters of 2007 Battles (‘Atlas’) and Wooden Shjips (‘Losin’ Time’). As usual, it is a good chance for those who missed some of the really great tracks of the past year to catch up. Arthur and Yu’s ‘The Ghost of Old Bull Lee’ takes the modern obsession with folk and adds a glockenspiel, the lyric “I need to be part of a scene to make a scene,” has never seemed so apt. But if anything, Counter Culture is not quite about what is cool but what is awesome, and with the inclusion of ‘Rights for Gays’ by John Maus, they have managed to big up the most critically mauled record of the year. A good job too, because if the comment that it sounds like, “a man crapping out of his mouth” from Drowned in Sound actually put some people off rather than encouraging their investment, its inclusion here should help satisfy some peoples’ morbid curiosity. Other notable mentions go to 180 G’s ‘Car Bomb’ and ‘Thou Shalt Always’ by Dan le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip. As for what misses on the record, Dan Deacon remains as annoying as ever on ‘The Crystal Cat’ (perhaps this reviewer is just getting too old), Let’s Wrestle rehash the low-fi garage rock formula whilst sounding somewhere between The Fire Engines and The Pixies on ‘I Want to be in Hüsker Dü’ and Glasvegas seal their NME tip for 2008 by being utter toss. But all in all, wildly varied but pretty consistent quality control, if you want to find your next favourite band, only this compilation will be able to guarantee it.
Always growing, ever changing, we at Bearded have heard of this little thing called the internet. Apparently you can listen to music, watch videos and do almost anything with it. Maybe our website isnâ€™t good enough to be part of this revolution so weâ€™re changing it to include all the news, views, reviews and features you would get in your physical copy of Bearded plus a few added extras like videos, exclusive downloads and much, much more. Log on to www.beardedmagazine.co.uk to see what we mean.
68 SINGLES ROUND-UP
Words Jeremy Style
It may be 2008 according to the calendar, but it seems we are still getting bands who sound like every ‘nu-rave’ band the NME decided to talk up at the beginning of 2007. The Pistolas are the first out of the bag, boasting about “specialising in the kind of electronic music that brought such a shower of praise upon The Rapture.” Unfortunately, putting the odd beep in here and there doesn’t make your band ‘electronic’ and Hey, Hey, Hey (Best Before), with its ever insightful chorus of “hey, hey, hey” will probably be a big hit with those indie kids still reeling from The Killers’ ‘innovation’. I fully expect this band to become massive if their PR is done right, just a shame they have to ‘specialise’ in something that has been done to death by much better artists. Thankfully, Josh Weller seems to be a fan of South Park, pretty much stealing the entire subject of their The List episode for Pretty Girls (Yodel). In the South Park episode, it is all about attractive people becoming miserable when they hit 40 and their looks have faded. Weller doesn’t like pretty girls either, they are never nice because they’re pretty and everyone likes them for their looks. He wraps all his 21year-old misery up into a pretty acoustic number and finds a strong outing for a debut single the result. Put down the melancholy son and you just might be on to something.
It seems that everybody loves Radiohead. I personally don’t and was gleeful in paying nothing for my copy of In Rainbows. Unfortunately, I fell for the prank and actually listened to the record out of curiosity. Jigsaw Falling into Place (XL) is one of their strongest singles since ‘Pyramid Song’ and I find myself enjoying it. It is nothing special, but the only special thing about Radiohead has always been their curious ability to be popular despite their lack of being special. Still, it isn’t a song I’d be willing to buy; thankfully I got this one for free also. With the plethora of female singersongwriters vying for attention at the moment, Icelander Hafdis Huld is probably the most underrated. Tomoko (Red Grape) is a beautiful, childlike lament supported with a Casio keyboard and banjo, it allows Huld’s beautiful voice to take centre stage. The follow up to Dirty Paper Cup is expected in the summer, it will be a record worth waiting for. Speaking of being underrated, the folks at Jezus Factory Records have been astounding Bearded for the past year will quality release after quality release. This time around Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences are the orchestrators of outstanding fuzzy prog-rock. The Bigger Bone (Jezus Factory) is inevitably about being a dog, a wannabe big angry dog at that. It sounds horrific, it is actually brilliant. The band has been formed with
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David Cronenberg’s Wife front man Tom Mayne on keyboards and The Beat Maras lead singer Alex Templeton-Ward on bass. I for one cannot wait for more from the London outfit, the release of new record We Are Not Other People, will seem a long time coming. The story of Alice McLaughlin is steeped in tragic periods according to the press release attached to the second single from Alice and the Majesty. Indeed, I Could Love You (Sunday Best) has the bare bones of a love song that really means something. It chugs along with some power underneath Alice’s vocals and picks up speed with some hypnotic xylophone over the top. Not bad, and bside ‘Middle of Nowhere’ picks up our toetapping enough to warrant the purchase. It seems an age since Martina Topley Bird was picking up a Mercury Music Prize nomination for her debut record Quixotic. In fact it was five years ago, since then she has been recording with Dangermouse for her follow-up The Blue God, and Carnies (Independiente) is the first taste of their collaboration. It is an inevitable result as well, Topley Bird’s vocals are paired with the typical over production of a mainstream US artist, and the nicely polished finish sounds somewhat over the top. Throwing everything at this makes ‘Carnies’ a clean listen, but it is Topley Bird’s beautiful vocal stylings that rescue it from the edge of horror, chirping – as her name suggests
– a sound that one would be delighted to wake up to on a Sunday morning. It’s the late 1950’s and Jacques Brel is singing in a smoky club somewhere between France and Belgium. Scott Walker is a fifteen-year-old American boy who hasn’t even heard of Brel, let alone decided to record a large proportion of his back catalogue in English. Somewhere in the audience it seems The Cesarians are watching, learning, furiously translating. Fifty years later, it is time for them to launch their masterplan, starting with debut single Flesh is Grass/Woman (Imprint). It is the best single of 2008 by far, ‘Flesh is Grass’ soars, it swoops, it takes you up, it takes you down from barely spoken verses to great crashes and roaring choruses. ‘Woman’ takes it on with pumping horns and a snarl from front man Charlie Finke. It is classic, dirty rock and roll at its best, a sound missing for at least twenty-five years we’re damn happy it is back.
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THE DAWN OF THE RUBY SUNS
NEW ZEALANDERS THE RUBY SUNS CHARMED THE PANTS OFF THE UK WHEN MEMPHIS INDUSTRIES BROUGHT THEIR EXQUISITE DEBUT RECORD TO THESE SHORES. LUCKILY THERE IS NO WAIT FOR THE RELEASE OF OUTSTANDING FOLLOW-UP SEA LION, WHICH LANDS IN MARCH. ANDY PRICE POPS QUESTIONS AT LEAD SINGER / SONGWRITER RYAN MCPHUN.
Sea Lion (Memphis Industries) Released 03/03/08 Photography Bradley Fafejta www.myspace.com/ryanmcphunandtherubysuns
Bearded: How would you describe the sound of Sea Lion? Ryan: Lush, dense, messy, pretty, eerie, noisy, catchy. How is this record a progression since The Ruby Suns? The first album seemed to have a bit more cohesion, whereas with the new album, you can tell I was going through different phases throughout the recording, with some songs sounding nothing like others. With the first album the songs were perhaps more classifiable whilst I’m not sure where to put the songs on the second album. Where was it recorded? Various locations, mostly in my old basement in Northcote, Auckland and my current bedroom in Grey Lynn, Auckland, with some bits and pieces recorded at various people’s houses. My friend Gus from Architecture in Helsinki recorded some stuff at his studio in Melbourne and then sent the files over. The field recordings were recorded in the US, Europe, Kenya, and all throughout New Zealand. After your first record, you’ve since got involved with Sub Pop over in the States, what is it like working with such an established label? It was through a band I used to play drums in called The Brunettes. I met the president of Sub Pop whilst in that band and kept in touch, kept sending him albums and demos until he offered to release this album and a couple more in the US. It’s just as great working with Memphis Industries too! This new record sounds quite stripped in places, yet still sounds fuller in sound then many larger bands – talk us through the writing and recording process for this record... I guess it’s kind of hard to describe because I’ve got no idea how I do whatever I do. I usually just get an idea and start recording simultaneously,
so I almost always write as I record, and that’s why the recordings are pretty lowfi a lot of the time, because they’re just me putting down my ideas and I usually won’t do things over again with better mic placement or whatever. I usually stack tracks on top of each other until the song feels nice and dense to me, or until I start running out of ideas. It sounds the way it does because I mixed the record myself. My friend who mastered the record tells me that I’m crap at mixing, which is true! The album has many different sounds, going through phases of ethereal to upbeat and sing-along, what were the influences in this? Exactly that – phases. My influences are kind of on an album to album basis. I was blown away by the Congotronics album by Konono no.1, I’m a big fan of Animal Collective and Panda Bear, the newest Of Montreal record really got me going. A couple of years ago I really got into Calling out of Context by Arthur Russell – that album is amazing. I know I’m still influenced by the Beach Boys and stuff like that. No matter what I’m listening to, I’m sure a little bit of that will come through. As a piece of music – Sea Lion can be seen as quite an ambitious – to what extent does this reflect your goals as a working band? I definitely tried to make every song on the album a really good one. Some songs I put on there because I knew other people like them. ‘Remember’ is quite an old song and very basic and I’m not a huge fan of it, but when my sister was living in NZ and coming to our shows when we were playing it, she said it was her favourite song of mine. Making a big, consistently good record was goal number one. Making
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these songs work live has been a struggle because the recordings are so big and dense, where a completely improvisational noise or sound on the recording is a pivotal or crucial part of a song. Talk us through any running musical or lyrical themes on this record – how did they come about? I guess the main theme is travelling – or my observations whilst travelling. ‘Blue Penguin’ is about a blue penguin I saw swimming in a wave at a beach not too far from where I live. ‘Oh, Mojave’ was written when I was thinking about some time I spent in the middle of the Mojave desert in California. ‘Tane Mahuta’ is about the biggest kauri tree in New Zealand which blew me away when I first saw it on a camping trip. ‘There are Birds’ was written while Amee (who wrote the song) was spending heaps of time at a particular park near her house at the time. ‘Mwangi’ is about a guy I met in Kenya and I wrote the song whilst sitting in the back of a jeep at the Lewa Conservancy not too far from Mount Kenya. ‘Remember’ is a little personal but also about spending time up north at the beach. ‘Ole Rinka’ is a guy I met in the Masai Mara in Kenya and was written there. ‘Adventure Tour’ was about a trip round the south island of New Zealand. ‘Kenya Dig It?’ was actually about other personal stuff and I was thinking about my high school. ‘Morning Sun’ is kind of stream of consciousness, with the end bit being something altogether different. Phew, sorry for that rant. You say that Sea Lion is a hard record to play live, how do you get around the problems? Well, I’ve recently changed the band around heaps because I didn’t think the standard ‘rock’ line up worked with what I was trying to do. Now we’re
three people and we have a lot of prepared sounds that we play on top of. We often play on top of recorded drums. When we’re not doing that, we’re using stand up drums with a lot of the drums I used on the recordings. We use a lot of loops and electronic drums now and sometimes we loop drums to allow me (the drummer) to switch to a different instrument. We could be a thirteen piece reggae band in 6 months, who knows? Originally being from the US and moving to New Zealand – has it affected your music? I get that question a lot, and I wonder if it had any effect on my music at all. The people I met here certainly affected my influences. I met some people that were older than me and had heaps of records and knowledge and I just asked them a million questions and grilled them on their recording techniques and that sort of thing. In some ways, perhaps it’s easier to make music in New Zealand because it’s such a small market that no matter what, you’re not going to make a penny and people aren’t really going to care too much about what you’re doing. So perhaps it gets you in the habit of worrying less about media and that shit because you know your music and going to be oddball anyway. You know, those have probably just been my experiences.
72 DIARY DATES
Radio Luxembourg 29/02/08 ICA, London Super Welsh popsters Radio Luxembourg are ready to brighten up your summer. Before then, let them melt away the winter blues with their magnificent array of future pop classics. You may not understand their Welsh tongue lyrics, but their Euros Childsproduced majesty is gentle on all ears. Ice, Sea, Dead People 01/03/08 The Fox, London A bright future is in store for the Bedford three-piece. Following the release of brilliant debut single ‘Hence:Elvis’ at the end of 2007, the band are now ready to start conquering the world with their superb garage punk. Go see them in an intimate setting before the beer gets too expensive. Stanley Brinks 14/03/08 Jug of Ale, Birmingham The artist formerly known as André Herman Düne, Stanley Brinks is a phenomenal music making machine, constantly touring and releasing records to sell at his shows. He comes back to the UK in March thanks to Iron Man Records, expect something very quiet, and very brilliant. Eliza Wren Payne 17/03/08 Jrink Soho, London There seems to be a habit of buskers making records. Thankfully some of them don’t rely on singing Bryan Adams covers and Eliza Wren Payne, having signed to Red Grape Records and releasing superb mini-album Utah last year, has gone from strength to strength. Catch her acoustic splendour before she skips back to the States.
www.myspace.com/radiolux www.myspace.com/iceseadeadpeople www.myspace.com/therealstanleybrinks www.myspace.com/elizawrenpayne www.myspace.com/beestunglips1 www.myspace.com/djscotchegg www.myspace.com/sethlakeman
Beestung Lips 29/03/08 Discover Club, London Blood (possibly), sweat, tears and poor facial hair (most definitely) combine with loud, brash noise and screaming to form the perfect live complement to the perfect EP of 2007 Songs to and from an Iron Gut. The four piece will make any night complete with a bout of tinnitus, just stand well back to avoid the drool. DJ Scotch Egg 23/04/08 Corcica Studio, London Mental bastardising of a Game Boy may seem like a fun way to make a living, watching a small Japanese man bastardising a Game Boy into incredible happy hardcore. Probably featuring a large number of scotch eggs, be equipped with your gyrating shoes and don’t bother eating before you go out. Seth Lakeman, Tunng & Guests 26/04/08 Town Hall, Birmingham Birmingham’s recently reopened town hall welcomes the wonderful Seth Lakeman and Tunng for a one-off showcase of the best talent to come out of the UK’s contemporary folk scene, more artists will be added to the bill and, with the quality of folk in the UK running so high, it is sure to be an outstanding night.
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Can you remember the days before downloads when sharing music with your friends was a much more personal experience? Making a mix-tape for a friend used to take a lot of thought, time and effort. After all, your musical credibility would be defined from that day forward by what you recorded on that now obsolete medium called the audio cassette. This month we’re giving readers the chance to win a limited edition screen print designed and hand printed by our very own designer, Kevin Summers. ‘Normal Bias’ is a postcard sized print on Antique Archival Stock using Fluorescent pink and black inks. Only fifty were ever made with no two being identical. We’re giving away ten of these to the most imaginative responses to the following challenge: Imagine you’re making a mix-tape for a friend, let us know which ten songs of any era you would record onto it and email your list to email@example.com with the subject heading ‘Normal Bias’. We’ll pick our favourites to receive the prizes as well as having their perfect mixtape list featured alongside their name in our next issue. (Don’t forget to include your contact details in the email).
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