Wednesday, 28 November 2007

A 2007 Mix Tape (of Sorts)

I’m nae entirely convinced these are my favourite ten tracks of the year - in fact, I’m pretty certain another ten could easily have replaced them had it been another hour, another day, another month. But each and every one of these rather luscious tunes have affected me somehow over the course of 2007. From the glitchy, floor-stumbling drum-fuckery of Battles’ stunning Atlas to the tear duct seeping memories of airport goodbyes that Aereogramme’s Barriers invokes, this is as close as I can get to my own personal soundtrack to what’s been a tumultuous sort of year.

(From Mirrored,,

Animal Collective
‘For Reverend Green’
(From Strawberry Jam,, )

(From My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go On,, )

(From The Flying Club Cup,,

Broken Records
‘Slow Parade’
(From Broken Records EP.

Malcolm Middleton
‘A Brighter Beat’
(From A Brighter Beat,

No Pussy Blues
(From Grinderman,,

‘Plaster Casts Of Everything’
(From Liars,, )

You Say Party! We Say Die!
(From Lose All Time,

The National
‘Start A War’
(From Boxer,,

* Photograph courtesy of Su Anderson of the Gwinnett Daily Post

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

ALBUM REVIEW: The Shaky Hands - The Shaky Hands

Hangovers are nae fun when your late twenties kick in. Those youthful late nights of inebriated hedonism followed by a mild mid-afternoon temple tingling are long gone. Instead, us coffin-dodging thirty-pushers have to endure an all-day deluge of crippling cranium palpitations and unsolicited gland seepage whilst cowering in front of a 'work station' praying your baw-jawed colleague doesn't catch a whiff of the reeking, caustic fumes emitting from every aching pore. But when that smarmy jobsworth finally plucks up the courage to make some disparaging remark at the expense of your sluggish booze-ravaged disposition you have no retort; every muster of energy is firmly focused on quelling the spasmodic jitters of your trembling extremities.

In more than just name, Portland quintet The Shaky Hands expertly convey this dilapidated state of morning afterness. Their self-titled debut LP is an antsy spiral of rink-a-dink melody and stuttering rhythm that, with an uncoordinated shuffling of feet, perches between the shattered glass goblets of Mountain Goats and The Decemberists’ prickly pop gems. Streaming light into bleary pupils with opener ’Whales Sing’’s soul-infused bassline, frontman Nick Delffs’ affected, withering scales stick to the eardrums with the heavenly comfort of a drool-smothered pillow as the track’s blustered percussion and sharp guitar jinks infiltrate the mind like an energising dose of aural Berocca.

This feverous wake-up call quickly subsides as ’The Sleepless’’ tentative paean teeters and trips to a bobbling disarray of drum-fumbles and peaky chords before ascending into the creaky, country quirk of ’Why & How Come’. And it’s such spirited dedication to shambling on-the-brink tunefulness that transcends this record into the realms of understated grower. Where lesser-abled vagabonds would baulk at the prospect of injecting messy acoustic arrangements with a soiree of swivelling keys and butterscotch harmonies, The Shaky Hands simply thrive; whistling carefree to the scuffling jingles of ’Sunburns’’ giddy simplicity and ’Summer Life’’s hand-clapping sprite.

Even when an insidious edge wafts its way into ’Hold It Up’’s stern-faced, Clap Your Hands–like demeanour, the group’s earthly gleam shines bright; retaining the record’s chaotic approach to structure amidst an unholy séance of deranged howls, trapezing strums and frazzling percussion. In cobbling together this daze of woozy acoustica and grin-bearing pop fidgets, The Shaky Hands have created an accomplished, triumphant debut that soothes, stimulates and arouses with its wealth of contagious melodies – a revitalising cure for any beer-weary hangover.
Rating: 8/10
Out now on Memphis Industries

Feature: Edinburgh - Scene To Be Heard

Few cities rival the vibrancy of Edinburgh in August. Illuminated by the glow of thousands of enchanted tourists, the Old Town’s cobbled pathways are annually transformed into the beating pulse of the global arts community. A jostling, multi-cultural bonanza of colour, creativity and laughter, there truly is no finer place to be than Auld Reekie during the festival.

But when the bitter chill of autumn sets in, those ebullient summer days quickly fade from memory. The city’s once bustling streets are suddenly more haunting than any spectre found lurking within the walls of Mary King’s Close, while venues, which weeks before bulged to the infectious sound of music, comedy and theatre, rest unattended, uncared, unloved. Having exposed herself to the world during four weeks of salacious cultural promiscuity, the old lady of Edinburgh tightens her chastity pants and shuts up shop for the remaining eleven months of the year.

This depressing mist of inactivity has breathed a cold, lifeless sigh into every pore of the city’s artistic grassroots, with creative hubs like The Lighthouse Studios and Roxy Arthouse departing to the sound of minimal local rabble while steadfast cultural arts trusts Out Of The Blue and Wasps have found centrally located studios replaced by more commercially viable ventures (aka profit-spinning flats). Its reputation as a forbearer of culture may be safe in the eyes of the global arts community but Edinburgh’s apathetic approach to the cultivation of local talent has been manifesting for years and nowhere more so than in that barometer of any thriving subculture - the city’s music scene.

Constantly lingering in the shadow of its much vaunted M8 cousin, Edinburgh has nonetheless produced a glittering array of esteemed, if not commercially successful, acts like The Fire Engines, Josef K, Goodbye Mr McKenzie and, more recently, Idlewild. But ask any of the city’s 100,000 or so students to name another successful local act and you’ll be met with faces as blank as daddy’s cheque book because, quite simply, very few groups slip outwith Edinburgh Castle’s watchful gaze and into the national spotlight. So, why has a city steeped in culture and rich tradition produced such a limp musical output of late?

Andrew Eaton, Arts editor of national newspaper The Scotsman and frontman for Edinburgh/Glasgow synth-pop duo Swimmer One, believes history has had a significant impact upon the city’s current plight: “I suspect a big issue in Edinburgh is the lack of what Sam Ainsley [Head of Master of Fine Arts at Glasgow School of Art] once described to me as 'a critical mass' - a generation of bands and artists moving to a city and becoming successful, but also staying in the city long enough to inspire a new wave of creative young people to move there,” he says. “Once that happens several times over, it becomes a cycle - each wave of talent replaced by another one. While the new wave keeps the city's grassroots scene vibrant, the one before becomes international ambassador, bringing new people in.”

This hypothesis has been successfully tried and tested for decades in Glasgow, with artists like Orange Juice, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand spawning clusters of new aspiring local acts that feed off this energy and further progress the cycle of creativity. But Andrew feels it will take more than one skinny-tie adorning ensemble of indie urchins to create a thriving, industrious music scene: “People need to continuously bang on about how great Edinburgh actually is so that it becomes somewhere that people think they should be outside of the festival,” he explains. “Cities change over a long period of time and it takes a number of years; it’s about gradual shifts in perceptions and the way people view a city is not something that can change overnight.”

“There’s a sense that you need to make people [within Edinburgh] talk to each other,” Andrew continues. “There are folk doing some really interesting stuff in the city and they all vaguely know each other but I just can’t imagine there ever being a band like the Reindeer Selection [famed Scottish indie ‘supergroup’ containing members of Arab Strap, Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai to name but a few] in Edinburgh. Perhaps people aren’t drinking in the right place?”

It may seem like an obscure, almost sardonic, remark but drinking together in the right place was exactly what gave rise to Glasgow’s The Château – a renowned art-deco warehouse established by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos on the banks of the River Clyde where artists and musicians converged to create a neo-rave of sounds and images that eventually became the epicentre of the West Coast and - in the eyes of the British music press at least - Scottish music scene. Over the past decade, there have been promising, if sporadic, flurries of activity amidst the Edinburgh music community, with bands like Ballboy and Aberfeldy edging into the periphery of public consciousness, but there’s been little in the way of Glasgow’s coordination or camaraderie between artists, promoters and venues and, as a result, enthusiasm from despondent gig-goers waned.

As audience’s dwindled the city’s venues began to dissolve. The much eulogised The Venue made way for a spate of luxurious apartments and Cas Rock was replaced by an utterly soulless Latino themed bar. Even when new havens emerged they quickly folded as unmitigated disasters - Gig’s residency in the city centre was a prime example, with owners shying away from larger touring bands in favour of local acts despite having a capacity of two thousand, needless to say the venue closed after three months. Edinburgh had hit deadlock: bands wouldn’t play because crowds weren’t there, and crowds weren’t there because the band’s they wanted to see wouldn’t play.

But recently a siege mentality has formed within the city’s music community. Innovative local acts like The Magnificents, Found, Broken Records, and The Acute are making significant waves on the Scottish music scene; a sprawl of regular gig/club nights have lured back previously unreceptive audiences; and new venues with an eye for innovation are sprouting up across the city centre. As if from nowhere, a buzz has finally begun to resonate throughout the Capital’s musical underbelly.

One of the catalysts in this hive of activity is Born To Be Wide [BTBW] - a meeting place for those working within the local music business to exchange ideas, socialise and play their favourite records. Although not as anarchic as The Château, BTBW nonetheless shares a similar sense of community to that which stimulated Glasgow’s blossoming music scene. Co-founder of BTBW Olaf Furniss explains: “Born To Be Wide was born out of the frustration that most music-related launches were in Glasgow and that if you wanted to see everybody involved in the Scottish scene a trip West was required. We were sick of the clichéd articles and TV programmes pandering to the illusion that good music only comes out of one city in Scotland.”

Operating under the mission statement “Creating Some Sort Of Scene”, BTBW wears its heart firmly on its sleeve but with such staunch sloganeering it could be argued that contriving a movement rather than letting it grow naturally is the antithesis of what a scene should be. “I wouldn't read too much into the slogan,” says Olaf. “The fact is we were unaware of any place where different musicians, journalists and promoters could come together. This could have happened around a certain venue, pub or club, and to some extent it already was. However, other than providing a focal point for people to meet and hang out, everything is really organic. We don't have people walking around wearing name badges like they are at some kind of motivational seminar.”

He adds: “The big achievement [of BTBW] has been to bring together a diverse range of people who might never have met. It's great when they end up working together as a result of BTBW, for example Found's new album is being released on Fence Records after band members met [Fence Collective luminary and label co-runner] Johnny Lynch when he was a guest. Another example is [broadcaster and ex-footballer] Pat Nevin Djing the same night we had one of his musical heroes, Grant McLennan from the Go Betweens, on the bill…Since we started there’s become a stronger DIY culture emerging [in Edinburgh], with bands, promoters and labels all giving it a go.”

Club/gig night I Fly Spitfires epitomises this adoption of a more bull-headed attitude within Edinburgh’s musical community. Established by Chris McAuley and Gavin Glove in 2005 as a means of hearing the music they liked rather than the generic Libertines-led tripe that had engulfed the city’s bars and clubs, the night quickly gained a reputation as a purveyor of quality, cutting-edge music and has built-up up an ardent audience of like-minded devotees.

Gavin believes one of the major factors in I Fly Spitfires’ success lies in its refreshing approach to the provision of local acts: “We’re trying to eradicate the notion of local bands, where if you’re from a home city there’s a mentality that they don’t matter as much as touring bands,” he says. “[Local bands] get treated really poorly by promoters and there’s an obvious gap between those who are treated well and those who aren’t. What we’re trying to do is make an even playing field so that local bands don’t develop an inferiority complex.”

With a plethora of invigorating club nights like I Fly Spitfires, This Is Music and Fast, Edinburgh now has a network of promoters all working in tangent to energise it’s music scene but Chris recalls a time when the it was all very different: “When we started there was no music community here as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Now people are beginning to talk to each other. Before, it was very regimented in as far as what you could do – promoters were competing against one another instead of working together – but now there’s all these little underground nights appearing that speak to us and we speak to them. The whole improvement of Edinburgh’s music scene is grounded in that kind of communication.”

One of the acts beginning to reap the rewards of the city’s musical rejuvenation is captivating melodic spine-quiverers Broken Records. Currently self-managed, the local septet has already accosted a wealth of column inches in national music rags and websites despite having formed less than a year ago.

Band frontman Jamie Sutherland agrees Edinburgh has recently seen a dramatic shift in attitude to music in the city: “There has been a huge boost in confidence in Edinburgh’s musical community since the turn of the year,” he exclaims. “We took part in the T Break competition in the summer and managed to get through to play at T in the Park. Out of the 15 bands that got through around half were from Edinburgh and this experience has definitely bred a more professional outlook in terms of live performances and also in terms of a future playing music. The overall impression is that a lot of Edinburgh bands are starting to get their acts together a bit more.”

Somewhat paradoxically, Jamie feels the spotlight which has been firmly focused on Glasgow over the past few years has proved beneficial to this progression of the Edinburgh music scene:

“Edinburgh is a curious place to play music in. It has never really had any kind of consistent creative community to put a scene or group of bands together and thus has always been viewed as the poor relation in the East,” he explains. “However, this has just given people the time and space to create music that is utterly unself-conscious and without designs on getting signed – people tend to just make music for the love of making music. Also, because the city is turning into one giant apartment block or Standard Life building, venues are getting scarcer and this creates challenges in itself. People are having to work harder than ever to put on and promote shows and this is leading to a camaraderie between Edinburgh bands that would never be tied together through the way they sound.”

It’s this eclecticism and work ethic that singles Edinburgh’s current independent scene out from the likes of Glasgow, Sheffield or Manchester. Whereas each of these cities have their own distinctive sound, Edinburgh is transforming into a simmering melting pot of diversity stirred by the bands, promoters, labels, venues and gig-goers dwelling within its musical community. It may not have a show-stopping behemoth to call its own just yet but, with the emergence of this dynamic and creative subculture, Auld Reekie may finally have something to shout about for the eleven months of the year when the festival bandwagon’s not in town.

ALBUM REVIEW: Barzin - Barzin

It would be foolish to consider Barzin the life and soul of a party. In fact, the re-release of his 2003 self-titled debut is so engulfed with aching melancholy you suspect the Toronto-based troubadour prefers nothing more than to brood alone within a darkened, dank hovel oblivious to the torturous misgivings of everyday life. Each of the eight tracks he offers here tenderly convey the pent-up emotions of a soul on the brink of despair; a man so implausibly ill at ease with the world it’s as if he’s wallowed in a mire of misery from the moment he departed the womb’s embracive confines.

Yet trickling through the record’s sorrowful trajectory is a tender warmth of heart that plucks on the fragile strings of the conscience. Inducing moistened tear-ducts with his brittle vocal strains, Barzin creates spacious, slow-handed soundscapes bereft of hope but seeping an unmistakable passion. Opener ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ ebbs mournfully into the morosely lit alleyways of Drake and Cohen as it entangles itself in a mesh of deft acoustic shuffles and yearning country twinges. Enriching and invigorating, it’s an alluring introduction that coils earnestly around the ears while Barzin’s love-struck mew pleads for acceptance.

Such complex melodic subtlety is ingrained devoutly throughout the contemplative compositions of ‘Over My Blue’ and ‘Building A House’, but as each barren second of loneliness lingers on the effect of these harrowing nocturnal mutterings begins to wane. Without shifting in tone or tempo, moody folk-infused trinkets like ‘Morning Doubts segue aimlessly into the background; tepidly filling awkward speckles of silence instead of creating the pulse-stopping moments of beauty its trembling, rickety piano strikes and brushing percussion so rightly deserve. Even ‘Cruel Sea’s cavernous, I Am Kloot-esque growl struggles to enamour the senses as it’s smouldering jazz bar atmospherics quickly cascade into Barzin’s haze of introspection.

Graceful album highlight ‘Past All Concerns’ at least breathes a refreshing sigh of relief into this placid domain of doom - swelling to a romantic sliding guitar and sweeping drums that quiver in tandem to hushed, sorrowful purrs – but all too often this record slips into a dreary comfort zone that, although painfully sad, does little to coax the listener in to this pool of despondency. Barzin may not be a fan of socialising but he’s going to need to learn how to interact before he seduces an audience of admirers.
Rating: 6/10
Release 12 Nov on Monotreme

Thursday, 1 November 2007

INTERVIEW: Swimmer One

It doesn’t take a hydrologist to recognise there’s something stirring in Scotland’s musical waters. From the translucent dementia of The Magnificents to Frightened Rabbit’s cantankerous fuzz scuffles, 2007 has conceived a barrage of propitious Celtic acts. And leading this surge through the music industry’s tumultuous shores is Swimmer One with The Regional Variations’ majestic electro-pop spindling.

The duo of Andrew Eaton and Hamish Brown has created a bewitching slow-burning debut that ranks alongside The Twilight Sad’s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters for tartan-clad atmospherics. Entwined in a spiral of introspection and self-doubt, it’s a record that tugs coyly at the heartstrings; twinkling to the sound of traversing, spacious synths and despondent lyrical vignettes

Yet when Spins 'n' Needles asks the Edinburgh-based pairing whether they expected such an enthusiastic reception to The Regional Variations it finds this aura of uncertainty is consigned only to record: “The arrogant but honest answer is that yes, I did expect good reviews because I think it’s a really good album,” exclaims Eaton. “So my main reaction is relief, actually, since it suggests we weren't completely deluding ourselves.”

The Regional Variations could be mistaken for yet another doom-laden Scottish decree but scattered across its bleak panorama is an escalating speckle of hope: “It’s both a dark and optimistic record, and I’m pleased that a lot of people seem to have picked up on it,” says Eaton. “The album is partly about how you get from one state of mind to the other…and I’ve always thought you can’t be truly happy unless you understand what it’s like to be utterly miserable.”

This comprehension of misery is encapsulated on tracks like Largs Hum - a brittle composition saturated in poignant notions of Scotland. But Brown is at pains to distance the band from any rose-tinted nationalism: “I don't really romanticise things in the same way a lot of tourists do but I am proud to be Scottish,” he explains. “There are lots of things about Scotland that are pretty unappealing too and I don't see us as a Scottish band at all, we just happen to be based here.”

They may be reluctant representatives of Scotland’s music scene but since establishing Biphonic Records the couplet have become immersed within it. Now home to fellow electro-mongers Luxury Car, the label was an entrepreneurial reaction to the music industry’s lack of encouragement: “Sometimes you've got to get your hands dirty if you want the job doing properly,” says Brown. “So our motives were a combination of control-freakery with an added element of 'screw you guys, we'll do it ourselves' thrown in. We remain open to offers - just not from bampots”

But with bands like Radiohead and the Charlatans beginning to bypass traditional labels in favour of the Internet's free-wheeling climes, what benefits are left in running Biophonic? “How we look and sound is entirely up to us and we get to keep more of the money we make,” says Eaton. Brown chips in: “We’ve become alarmingly good at administration. That’s really what I’m doing with a laptop on stage – managing on big fuck off spreadsheet.”

LIVE REVIEW: Broken Records - Henry's Cellar Bar, 26 October

Lately, an invisible wall has been built around Auld Reekie’s music scene; the type of impenetrable parapet where no-one wants in and no-one ever gets out. The grimey shadow from across the M8 lingers forebodingly over the city’s cobbled streets, turning heads to the tune-ridden hyperbole of jingle-smiths like Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian and the 1990s while Edinburgh’s dishelved artistes are left clenching their teeth with the bitterness of an attention-starved younger sibling. That’s not to say there’s been a lack of effort from ‘The Best Place To Live In The UK’’s natives – Found and The Magnificents slay the senses with more verve than any recent Blighty-based exponent of sonic pandemonium – but while the world transfixes it’s gaze on the smorgasbord of West-Coast delights, Scotland’s Capital sits pensively awaiting it’s call to the spotlight.

Yet tonight perhaps this elongated biding of time has come to an end: in Broken Records Edinburgh finally has a band on which hopes can be pinned and pints can be spilled. There’s no Top-Shop inspired angular-riff shenanigans going on here – the closest this unkempt septet have come to Shock Waves is surely from unwittingly extracting slices of charcoaled bread from the toaster with a knife – yet it’s this lack of self-awareness, this overwhelming sense of stuttering, introverted modesty that makes Broken Records so utterly alluring. Untarnished by the industry’s vulture-like clutches or the South’s spirit-sapping toilet circuit, for once this is a band that’s benefited from the city’s cotton wool insulated interior.

The group’s swaying, melodramatic melodies sweep feet clean from the floor with the bustling charge of keys, accordion and brass that bulges from glorious skyscraper opuses like the majestic ‘If The News Makes You Shy Don’t Watch’ and ‘Nearly Home’. With such a wealth of emotion-invoking instrumentation, inevitable Arcade Fire comparisons will never be far from the tips of scribbling pens but an eclectic urgency far beyond such staid estimations infiltrates its way throughout the set: rippling violin wafts contort into frantic Balkan-punk bedlam; scratching mandolin glides across a cacophonous sea of escalating Celtic rhythms before dispersing abruptly on a shore of crashing symbols; and tender folk-tinged acoustica drops jaws to Jamie Sutherland’s melting, virile mew. It’s bedazzling, it’s euphoric, it’s spine-tingling – really, it’s whatever the fuck these seven prodigious zealots on stage want it to be.

And the beauty is the one hundred or so punters here tonight care for absolutely nothing else. There’s no bar-room guffawing at locals rising above their station, no sneering musos exuding their bilesome putdowns; instead uncoordinated jigs commandeer the front line while synchronised heads nod spellbound at the back. As gorgeous set closer ‘Slow Parade’ ghosts its way to a climatic, captivating finale, the shuddering applause says it all: Edinburgh simply isn’t big enough to contain the sound of Broken Records for much longer. When that wall comes tumbling down, Britain can consider itself very, very lucky.