Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Interview: Dollskabeat

With its financial institutions crumbling like an Aunt Bessie’s delicacy, Edinburgh’s stock in trade has tilted towards more melodic produce. The last 12 months have seen a sprawl of alt-Folk ensembles grasping Auld Reekie by its dishevelled white-collar, dragging it kicking and screaming into the core of the Scottish music scene. In theory, it’s an all-encompassing community; a creative smorgasbord that embraces every musical creed. The reality, however, is not so text book.

“Edinburgh’s quite a safe city and most people that live here work nine to five then come home to watch Eastenders – there’s not a lot of grit to it, “ explains born and bred Leither Lucy Ross, also known as electro-chanteuse Dollskabeat. “When there’s a bit of poverty and it’s not so clean and tidy you get more interesting sounds from a city... I’m not sure how long I can put up with the boredom.”

This restlessness is indicative of Ross’s foray into the music world. Having migrated to London in 2006 to work a desk-bound role in the industry, she soon fatigued of the daily grind and embarked on a yearlong sojourn to Japan. It was there, in the land of Eastern promise, where Ross decided music was her calling: “Just being away and hearing all these weird things, as you do in Japan, filters into your subconscious.”

Since returning to these shores, Ross has sculpted a sonic iceberg of permafrost synth and glaciated vocals under the Dollskabeat tagline. Steadfast in her vision, she’s devoted months to learning the production process; writing, recording and executing every note herself. “Trying to do it your first time is absolutely hilarious because you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says. “But being able to create something that is all yours and you know that it’s yours is the best thing. “

Dollskabeat’s debut single, Zodiac Rising, is testament to this ambition. A grandiose slab of atmospheric electronica, the track’s submissive groove is unapologetically retrograde while Ross’s crisp mew maintains a twinge of contemporary cleft. “A lot of people say it sounds like early 80s and that’s it but I’d like them to go a little bit deeper than that,” she says. “I suppose that because I grew up in the 80s it might have an influence on the melodies but it’s not intentional – it’s just happened.”

Coincidence it may be, but Dollskabeat has arrived at a time when Lady GaGa, La Roux and Little Boots sit high on the hipster radar. Unsurprisingly, Ross is eager to distance herself from this decrepit clique: “The only similarity is that we’re all female,” she reasons. “I hope people don’t see my music as some kind of flash in the pan. I’ve done it myself and Optimo [much vaunted Glasgow underground label] are behind me so people will hopefully realise there’s no major label telling me what to do.”

A classically trained pianist and now studio whizz-kid, Ross’s pinkie-finger possesses more ability than her limelight hogging contemporaries. Yet, despite her flair for translucent melodies, she’s tentative about her prospects: “I’ll always make music for the rest of my life,” Ross says. “Whether or not I can sustain a career out of it, I don’t know.”

Strange thing is, in these uncertain times, a rosy future for Dollskabeat is the one thing we should all be banking on.

First published in The Stool Pigeon

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Review: There Will Be Fireworks - S/T

It was Factory Records Svengali Tony Wilson who initially cottoned on to the cyclicality of modern music. Often scorned for his gun-slinging (or blood-signing) approach to contracts - a failing that eventually brought the pioneering stable to its knees in the late 90s - the former Granada TV presenter’s belief that pop scenes formulate in 13 year waves seemed eerily bang on the money, particularly in his beloved Mancunian heartland. Of course, the reality is rather more subjective than the late Wilson had us believe. After all, who can truly pin down a cultural phenomenon’s crystallisation: A soundbite-chasing foreman of a wilting label, perhaps?

Cynicism aside, the Scottish music scene is two years into this Wilson-coined lifecycle. Front-running centurions have been recruited in Atlantic-hopping Fatcat pairing Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, while artist’s like Broken Records, Meursault and We Were Promised Jetpacks supply the necessary armament to turn an uprising into a full scale insurgency. In fact, so kinetic is the country’s musical grid at present, the vibrant hub Postcard’s Alan Horne stoically lobbied for seems to have finally found a light switch after years of darkness.

It would be easy to ascribe Glaswegian quartet There Will Be Fireworks [TWBF] as just another node in this industrious circuit-board. To uninformed ears, their cliff-face of guitar and percussion resembles The Twilights’ immeasurable boom; their introverted missives chipped off Scott Hutchinson’s self-effacing block. But TWBF have their aural tentacles pitted further afield, lending themselves to the escalating post-rock bulge of Thee Silver Mt Zion, Aereogramme’s elegant guitar-plaiting and the opaque story-telling of Jeff Magnum.

By fashioning and then accessorising these borrowings throughout their self-titled debut, TWBF have crafted a record that cradles an innately Scottish tone but, in terms of arrangement and execution, pushes the bar higher than anything their contemporaries have thus far achieved. Introductory cut “Colombian Fireworks’ carves out this ambitious scaling. Arriving with a music-box led séance composed around novelist Kevin MacNeil’s peculiarly enunciated readings, the track descends into a thrilling maelstrom of reverb and drums that blueprints much of the proceeding endeavours.

Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The feral guitar caterwauling that bookends both “So the Story Goes” and “We Were A Roman Candle” is eased in via an accumulation of brass, percussion and key that purrs with deft touches before blowing into a frenzied cacophony. Bold and dramatic, these numbers are orchestrated, not played; their tempo aligned to the emotive vocal strains of conductor Nicholas McManus. Tracks like “Headlights“ or “A Kind of Furnace” feel more like ambuscades that cast off pretty harmonic hooks before combusting as bombastic throbs that subside only to a victorious parp of brass.

A three-song sweep represents the mid-album summit and encapsulates TWBF’s more philharmonic predilections. The triumvirate’s opening salvo, “Guising”, is a naked acoustic lament that finds McManus crowing dreamily about matters of the heart before segueing into “Off With Their Heads”’s barbed-wire agitation. Here, McManus vehemently demands decapitation of his adversaries while a jinking piano and whipcracking riff tussle in the background to create a invigorating rancour that’s as thrilling as it is wretched. More downtrodden in manner, “I Like The Lights” is blushed with wilting strings that steadily climb through tinkling ivory keys to gracefully wrap up this remarkable run.

Once album closer “Joined Up Writing” rears its head - steeped in the retrospect that’s become a Scottish band staple lately - time appears to have completely dissolved. It’s as if the seamless soundscapses have transcended beyond the seconds and minutes that make up this 13 track offering. Oddly, such a lack of distraction could be perceived as one of the record’s few flaws. Whereas The Twilight Sad’s Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters demanded repeat plays to actualise its brilliance, TWBF acclimatises without rankle, indicating that, despite its enthralling tapestries, a lack of stylistic gear-shifting may stunt any long-lasting appeal.

Yet, this grievance seems almost moot when a debut LP is this compelling. In a period where myriad Scottish albums have captured the music loving public’s imagination, few have done it with such consistency or poise. And as the tartan-clad music scene continues its drive through Tony Wilson’s self-styled lifecycle, There Will Be Fireworks have proved themselves to be much more than just passengers.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Interview: Spencer Krug

Spencer Krug is not a happy man. Constantly referred to as the music industry’s hardest working artist, the Sunset Rubdown vanguard‘s a little vexed by references to his bee-like productivity: “I’ve seen a couple of things written that say I’m hell-bent on taking over indie rock and that’s just bullshit,” he bemoans. “I’m just putting my efforts into music, who cares what moniker it’s under?”

Despite his protests, Krug has overlooked the salient point: it’s not the conveyor belt of song that so intrigues, it’s the quality of the execution. Over the past two years, the Montreal-born Krug has been the cardinal cog in long-players by Wolf Parade, indie rock supergroup Swan Lake (twice), Frog Eyes and his own pet-project, Sunset Rubdown; each record is a testament to his unwavering capacity to coax melody from almost any environment.

But a tuneful ear is only part of the allure. Central to Krug’s success thus far - and for success read unrelenting Pitchfork adulation - is a flair for percolating verbose allegories through wonky, off-kilter melodies. Overzealous Wolf Parade devotees champion the floridity of his purple prose like Smiths fans do Morrissey’s, anointing him an ivory-tinkling Faulkner for the 21st century. Krug, however, is less rhapsodic about his song-writing proficiency.

“By no means am I a poet or a great lyricist, I just like to include some sort of beauty in the lyrics,” he says. “Sometimes I’m trying to make them more straight-forward, but it’s still in me to return to the metaphor and I’m not very good at it. My friend Dan [Bejar – aka Canadian solo artist Destroyer] is one of the few people who can pull off poetry and music at the same time. The imagery isn't anything complex. I’d like to get to the point where I could create something like that, without hiding behind metaphors. I’m my own worst critic, right?” He is.

Krug’s sentences are blushed with self-deprecation and reticence, the words punctuated by carefully considered, painful pauses. It’s as if he’d rather be anywhere else than here, talking about himself and his music. Which, it turns out, he would: “Interviews are a weird undertaking. I just think, why not put on the record? It should speak for itself,” he rues. “That’s my purest form of communication... anything I have worth sharing I put into the record. I still don’t get self-promotion, I mean I get it - people are just trying to make money, right?”

He’s right, of course: the music industry is an insatiable cash-hungry beast that pillages pockets with no concern for the fall out. But with release of Sunset Rubdown’s third long-player, Dragonslayer, Krug appears to have opened up the doors to commercial appeal. The histrionic canticles that rendered Random Spirit Lover an acquired taste have been supplanted by rampant flurries of riff and bass, while the creaking, medieval production has expanded to encompass a glooping honey pot of instrumentation.

Dragonslayer could be the record that finally pushes Krug from indie spotlight to mainstream limelight. Not that he’s giving much credence to the prospect: “If any of the three records were commercially viable it would be this one - but I don’t think it is,” he says. “That’s not a good or a bad thing to me. It’s not in the process at all – we just made what we made. We’ve essentially tried to make pop songs, knowing that we couldn’t do it. I don’t see it being a great commercial success, it’ll probably divide people and make a lot of old fans angry and maybe it'll attract a few new ones.”

This new direction coincides with a collective emphasis on song creation. For once, Sunset Rubdown has more than one man calling the shots: “It’s turned very much into a collaborative band – they’re not just hired guns,” explains Krug with a hint of relief. “I’m still the principal songwriter. I bring my ideas to them and then they add their own colours and flavours to them and it becomes Sunset Rubdown. If I was to sit down and record with just a piano and a guitar it sounds all right but it makes me miss the band.”

With Wolf Parade on an extended sojourn and Swan Lake all but defunct, Krug’s eggs are, for now at least, nestled in one basket. “Sunset Rubdown will be touring in the fall and I’ve got one other project I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do with, but that’s it,” he says before wryly concluding: “I’m no more busy than I’ve ever been. It’s not like I work that hard.”

First published at The Skinny here

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Trampoline Live: Meursault, Wounded Knee, The Foundling wheel

The Wee Red’s crimson-lit hovel makes for a disturbingly lewd gig setting. Yet, rather disappointingly, there’s nae ladies of the night flaunting their goods in here, nor is there any sign of the slavering kerb-crawlers who hanker after their stock in trade. Nope, tonight, in this boozy rouge Edinburgh venue, any experimentation comes from the stage and the pleasure on offer is aural, not oral.

First to the floor is one man noise-monger The Foundling Wheel - aka Ted Koterwas - and his effects board-induced rancour. Spewing out pulsing digi-rhythms with the frequency of a bulimic teen, Koterwas’s tumultuous arrangements slingshot from the PA into unprepared eardrums. Brutal is barely the word, as these sounds are absolutely pummelling.

For the non-initiated, such relentless waves of bass-fed electro can seem directionless and rabid, but underneath the thrashing ‘Noises Like Ashes’ and ‘Out To See’ lies a melodic honeycomb that appeases any serrated aches. Tauter and leaner than previous outings, The Foundling Wheel’s enthralling throb climaxes with the apoplectic ‘Mixed Minds and Missteps’; an H-bomb of machine-driven chime that coins searing racket against sun-kissed refrain.

Emerging from this violent shrill is a cappella virtuoso Wounded Knee. Bereft of instrument but abundant with anti-BNP sentiment, Drew Wright’s looping feral chant has ears pinned and eyelids peeled. Cross-fading between Deep South creoles and shamanic scats, Wright’s ability to elicit boom from the merest slither of tongue is incomprehensible to those of us who use our predominant mouth muscle to chatter and smooch.

Simply put, there’s nothing like Wounded Knee on the Scottish scene right now and, as if to rubberstamp the curious spectacle of 70-plus indie kids mesmerised by a jigging be-robed figure, Wright wraps up his act with a shuddering rendition of traditional Scots psalm ‘Benlogie’. So thunderous is the ensuing applause it begs the question: Who the hell needs instruments anyway?

Almost immediately, an answer comes in the shape of main draw Meursault (pictured). Already established local dignitaries, the folk-stained quartet are beginning to waggle pens further afield. Tonight they show why. The pastoral swoop of ukulele and banjo that bleeds from tracks like ‘The Furnace’ and ‘Nothing Broke’ is underpinned by Neil Pennycook’s bellowing strains. No longer the reticent shadow of yore, the beanie-adorning frontman’s wilting frame now commands the stage; his strident intone streaming into vacant pores with a gusto that borders on bullish.

Seemingly eager to vacate last year’s debut LP ‘Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues’, the group’s newer numbers lean more towards MacBook trickery than organic simplicity. Off-kilter wonks like ‘Crank Resolutions’ conjure up obligatory Animal Collective parallels and such exploratory dalliances are certainly a destination that will be broached further in future. But for now these cuts are works in progress; promising concepts that need airing outside Auld Reekie’s back-patting coves.

Tellingly, it’s the stripped down crow of ‘William Henry Miller’ that steals the show. Banjo-clad and without mic, Pennycook’s unfiltered wail drills through a wall of handclaps and harmonies. It’s a hair-quivering moment that underlines just how far this Edinburgh ensemble has come. The red lamps may have burned bright this evening, but based on this showing its Meursault’s lights that will soon be turning green.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Nick Cave: A reappraisal of sorts...

To mark Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds silver anniversary, Mute reissued the group’s first four LPs. Looking beyond the spruced-up packaging, I reappraised the original recordings and pondered their place in the modern day vernacular...


Pinning down Nick Cave’s primary occupation over the past 25 years is an unforgiving task. From musician to novelist to actor to director, the uncompromising Australian boasts a CV so multifaceted it could rival the Karma Sutra for positional variation. Cave followers may argue the payoff is equally as satisfying.

Such diversity has bestowed universal acclaim upon the former Birthday Party hellraiser; his stock escalating in both the Hollywood Hills and the British high street (that wretched baritone bellowing through Topshop incites the most curious thrill). Last year’s Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (NC&TBS) LP, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, peaked at a career high number four in the UK album charts, while his 2005 screenplay, The Proposition, was not only the toast of Tinseltown, it somehow managed to engulf Ray Winstone in an air of respectability.

Never has Nick Cave been more acceptable or, indeed, profitable. And, despite the pretence of quarter century celebrations, it doesn’t take much to work out why Mute Records have reissued the first four instalments of NC&TBS’s 14 album-spanning career (the rest are due over the course of the next 12 months). Not that the 51 year-old will mind; he’s always been cute to commercial appeal. Remember his moribund crow impeding the reels of kid-friendly blockbuster Shrek 2?

Cynicism aside, these early recordings demand to be heard. They are, after all, audible artefacts of a proto-Gothic wild child reinventing himself as devout Blues statesman; LPs that have fashioned the contours of a monolithic career. If anything, this particular quartet – From Her to Eternity, The First Born Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks and Your Funeral... My Trial – deserves reappraisal in a more appreciative public sphere, given their initial impoverished chart remuneration.

Following Birthday Party’s smack-entangled demise in 1983, Cave and longstanding (until this year) confrere Mick Harvey were attuned to everything but unit shifting. It shows. Their debut effort as NC&TBS (the line-up completed by ex-Magazine bassist Barry Adamson, Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld and axe-man Hugo Race), 1984’s From Her To Eternity, is fraught with rabid staccato arrangements that still rub the ears raw with acrid vigour. But, while Saint Huck’s blood red cut continues to ooze feral intensity, the years have depreciated many of the ghoulish stampedes as over-dramatic Halloween pastiche.

For once, blame cannot be apportioned to rank-rotten 80s production (if anything, these recordings outpunch today’s retrograde gloss). No, Cave has simply upped his game ever since. Today, he’s a larynx-busting powerhouse capable of executing bellow and croon with gymnastic aplomb, but back in the days of Berlin opium dens, tonality played little part in his violent reveries; a gut-wrenching sneer being the preferred method of delivery. In 2009, From Her To Eternity booms out like Rocky Horror cabaret.

By The First Born Is Dead’s release in 1985, the band had replaced horror-shtick with Wild West iconography. Tales of jailers, sheriffs, droughts and outlaws bullet-hole Wanted Man and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s blind-drunk narratives, while the cinematic arrangements of Harvey et al are heaving with jailhouse clang and the brawling furore of Arizona barrooms. A creaky slow burner, the album marked a first foray into the neo-Blues balladry that underpins the group’s most revered output; Tupelo’s dank oscillations paving the way for shuddering totems The Hammer Song and The Mercy Seat.

Cave himself was unravelling as a songwriter of granite brevity, drawing inspiration from the Old Testament’s tombstone parables and the folklore of the American West. So it seemed a peculiar call when Kicking Against the Pricks (1986) fire-cracked in as a ream of cover versions. It should have been the album that shot NC&TBS stone dead. Instead it did the opposite. Cave used ...Pricks as a vantage from which to leap into the pantheon of vocal giants, appropriating numbers by Cash, Hooker, Reed and Orbison and sodomising them with a debauched, salacious tongue. His range was vast, his intentions overt: Nick Cave was ready to unleash his very own beast. And how.

Twenty-three years may have passed since its release but Your Funeral, My Trial (1986) still snarls with accomplishment. Reeking pious soap-box preaching and the antithetical char of heroin-sick desolation, the record’s serrated incantations reveal a group gearing up for its creative overture. Vocally, Cave is in imperious form; part Bukowski-aping degenerate (Hard On For Love, Scum), part doomsaying harbinger (Jack’s Shadow, Sad Waters). The Bad Seeds are equally enforcing, tautly reeling in wild-eyed beasts The Carny and She Fell Away with murder in mind.

In retrospect, Your Funeral... was a green light for the schooled brilliance of The Good Son and Henry’s Dream and a record that underlines every aspect of Cave’s bulging resume: the screenplays, the film scores, the side-projects, Christ, even the acting. It was, in every sense, a battering ram that marked the exaltation of Nick Cave.

First published here

EP Review: Cast Spells - Bright Works and Baton

Better known as Maps & Atlases’ chief guitar-noodler, David Davison’s Cast Spells project is the sonic antithesis to his math-based day job. More focused on song than polyrhythmic oscillations, debut EP Bright Works and Baton embraces country twanging and a traditionalist take on American storytelling.

Opener Glamorous Glowing recalls Sufjan Stevens at his finest; its pretty pink melody steeped in chime while Davison’s brittle crow swoops from above. Potted Plant and American Quilts fashion out a similar pattern, each buxom with instrumentation and weeping stanzas. Yet, despite these creeping pleasures, the record fails to maintain such altitude and wispy closer A Badge sloops forgetfully into the ether. Not a terrible stab at diversification then, just not a great one.

First published here

Profile: Holiday Shores

Well, it's been a little while hasn't it? I guess I've been so caught up with the editing melee of Under the Radar that I've overlooked my own little blog . But let's see if we can rectify this discrepancy somewhat..

Of late, I've been listening to the rather delicious ditties of Holiday Shores and thought it was about time I brought them to Spins'n'Needles' rapidly diminishing showcourt.

Drizzled with distorted chords and trashcan percussion, the Floridian quintet's virile sloops initially smack of Strokes-lite nonchalance, sans the incorrigible New York shtick. But underneath such uber-cool posturing lies the sort of wonky-tonk synth-screwing synonymous with Spencer Krug's myriad outfits while a Wilson-like penchant for cloud-bursting pop nuzzles its way into the foreground.

Aye, tracks like Crime Isn't Our Problem and The Days Drag don't hit the heights of Dirty Projectors' tricks-a-plenty gushing, yet so sunblushed are the melodies it's impossible not to fall for their gauzy, evergreen sways. I have to admit I'm loath to laud the band on all cylinders - there's a foreboding air of perishability that draws parallels with doomed blog-idols Black Kids - but the below video, Phones Don't Feud, is a straight up contender for song of the summer. Enjoy.