Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Over the Wall - Treacherous

Accessibility – it’s the cornerstone of every great pop record. Let’s face it, other genres aren’t that easy to get in to, especially when they’re ushering you through a tiny, niche-sized side door that nobody’s really bothered about entering in the first place (hello, nu-folk). But pop’s different. It’s the massive, glistening gateway that welcomes everyone in with a playful pat on the rear and an enveloping hug.

Of course, pop also has its anachronisms. Acts like Talking Heads and Orange Juice passed themselves off as all-embracing entities, but below their aurally pleasing shell was a cleverness of sound that lifted them far beyond the standard chart bound production line. And to this day intelligent pop is the chagrin of chin-strokers everywhere, unable to fathom whether it’s ironic, annoying or actually just pretty tootin’ good.

Over the Wall’s new longplayer Treacherous will no doubt infuriate these scraggily bearded stooges. Awash with parping brass and slinging more hooks than a 'Peter Pan' casting session, the debut offering from Glasgow-based duo Gav Prentice and Ben Hillman could easily be misplaced as a glossy, snow-white affair. But entwined within the record’s honeyed core is a talent for making complex melodies sound sweet and simple.

It’s been a few years since the pairing were first touted for greatness north of the border, based mainly on their energetic live showings and the sumptuous folk-pop lament ‘Thurso’. Spruced up with a coat of production polish, the track’s nostalgic swoon bookends the ten tracks that precede it here; representing a triumphant climax to a record that’s often rewarding but occasionally na├»ve in its presentation.

Opening number ‘Shifts’ sets a frantic early pace that’s ignited by Prentice’s brogue-stained wail “we only have tonight”. This pulse-raising explosion of drum machine and keyboards segues perfectly into the old age-avoiding ‘Settle Down’, where a snowstorm of epileptic chime is replaced by the rally cry “go break free, it’s not your responsibility” bellowing out like a call to arms for disaffected twentysomethings.

The theme of gawky-youth-cum-adult insecurity frequently rears its head - from ‘Don’t Listen To Them Son’s gleeful rollick to the lovestruck blows of ‘Angela’ - and for the most part fashions out a deliciously catchy affair that’s caked in typical Scottish retrospect. But, with tortured lines like “Jess and the others could see my willy and it was embarrassing”, ‘Two Nightmares’s guitar twanging shtick is a step too far. It may spawn an immediate chuckle, but this schoolboy immaturity reduces an interesting composition into the album’s one true lull.

For a band so focused on immediacy, it’s the less-accessible numbers that showcase the duo’s full range. Built on a foundation of blinking keys, ‘A History of British Welfarism 1945-1984’s guitar-stained crescendo is a sobbing joy of indie-pop histrionics. ‘Stages’ is just as segmented and equally dramatic, setting off on brooding piano wander before rising as an insatiable toe-tapper that could easily slot into Field Music’s more choral undertakings. So much for single track pop ponies; this is a band with a motorway of ideas.

If widespread adulation was the objective, then Treacherous has just missed the mark – the gulf between euphoric romps and obstinate cuts is too wide to be populous. But what Over the Wall have produced is a shining debut LP brimming with the sort of effervescent melodies Scotland hasn’t created since the early Eighties. Sure, it doesn’t fling its doors wide open for the masses, but then you only really need to knock and let yourself in.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

LIVE REVIEW: Mitchell Museum, Capitals and Bronto Skylift @ Electric Circus Edinburgh, 13 November

Mitchell Museum. Photo: Su Anderson

Photos: Su Anderson

So here it is. The first ever Radar gig in Auld Reekie. Our nerves tingling with excitement and just a little trepidation, we await the arrival of the music loving masses - and the Electric Circus’s impressively attired karaoke kings and queens.

Bronto SkyliftThe show’s felt a long time coming, but with a roll-call of Bronto Skylift, Capitals and effervescent tunesmiths Mitchell Museum we’re hoping the weeks of shameless plugging have been worth it.

Now the anticipatory strain’s finally lifting from our shoulders, Radar Prize runners-up Bronto Skylift (right) make their way to the stage. In our eagerness to get the gig going it quickly becomes clear we’ve not ticked off the most important item from tonight’s task list: earplugs. Damn. Combusting like a bomb of splintering glass in our lugs, the Glasgow-based duo rip through their set with battering ram intent.

A self appointed “euthanasia support group” (the noise will kill your granny, apparently), Bronto’s visceral blasts are underscored by Niall Strachan’s expert axe-handling and the extraordinary skin-pummelling of Iain Stewart. They might notch decibel levels of bands triple their number, but their rapacious din is far from incoherent; the delivery of red-raw cuts like ‘Danny Glover isn’t dead’ and ‘Cobblepot’ oozes Mensa-like intelligence as each track screwdrives through the audiences' craniums.

CapitalsWith our eardrums adapting to life post-Bronto (it’s kind of like living with internal ear-muffs), Capitals (right) swagger to the fore clutching Apple-branded technology and an armful of ambitious pop tunes - plus an extra member on bass. For an outfit playing their first show on (adopted) home turf, there’s no shortage of confidence to their trade. Striding through a fulsome set without any sign of nerves, the Edinburgh-via-Inverness duo’s engaging tuneage is the perfect foil for dancefloor friendly rug-cutting.

Admittedly, the band are unashamed lovers of big, commercial hooks, but the neon stargazing of ‘A Spectre is Haunting Europe’ and ‘Hands Divided’ offers yet more intriguing fare. Here, Keir McCulloch’s glittery effects bounce brilliantly off frontman Angus Carbarns’ handsome intone, creating soundscapes that run the gamut between glossy pop and esoteric electronica. To think that this is their first show of any real significance is remarkable.

Coming off the back of a UK tour, Mitchell Museum (below) have been busy wooing the nation’s indie press (and the Financial Times) of late. So as the Glaswegian quartet step on to the stage tonight, we’re a smidgeon concerned tour-van jadedness could erode their traditionally mayhemic set. But, luckily for us, time out on the road has invigorated the band’s illuminating melodies. This is a Mitchell Museum we’ve never seen before: consistent, honed in and extremely well oiled.

Mitchell MuseumJaunting their way through debut LP The Peters Post Memorial Service (although threatening to impale us with a swathe of Phil Collins covers), the inter-band dynamic seems telekinetic, shaping a sound that tightens like a Hulk Hogan chokehold. Orchestrated by the zealous gesticulations of Cammy Macfarlane, tracks like ‘Tiger Heartbeat’ and ‘Room For Improvement’ swell into the room as a kaleidoscopic bubble of ebullient keys and percussion.

The sweeping gusto of ‘Take the Tongue Out’ is breathtaking, surging out at breakneck thwack while the band headnod along in eerie tandem. A cover of M.I.A’s ‘Paper Planes’ underlines their predilection for shimmering, unconventional pop, while ‘Warning Bells’ is a heartbreaking waltz of Modest Mouse-like splendour that singles McFarlane out as a unique and engaging frontman.

After a vivacious set packed full with giddy indie chimes, Mitchell Museum more than prove themselves one of Scotland’s leading musical lights. And as the curtain falls on our first Radar gig in the Capital, we’re left with a strange sense of satisfaction and a constant ringing in our eardrums (thanks to the Bronto boys). So, the big question is, when’s the next one?

Bronto Skylift
[Bronto Skylift raise the roof]

Bronto Skylift
[Onlookers keep a safe distance as Niall wields his guitar]

[Capitals glide through their debut gig to a rapturous reception]

Mitchell Museum
[Mitchell Museum in action. Note drummer Raindeer sporting a Bronto t-shirt]

Mitchell Museum
[Mitchell Museum make a few adjustments]

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Interview with the Twilight Sad's James Graham

James Graham

It’s been a long year in the life of The Twilight Sad. Album number two, Forget the Night Ahead, may have been released just over 12 months ago, but since then the band have lost bassist Craig Orzel, toured relentlessly and released one of 2010’s most remarkable EPs, 'The Wrong Car'.

On the back of their final shows of the year with fellow Scots Errors, we interrupted singer James Graham’s post-tour recuperation to talk new album, morbid lyrics and a possible career in Hip Hop...

How’s it going James, you recovered from the tour with Errors?

James Graham [JG]:
I’m good thanks. Just coming down after the tour. Glad to be back home and not have anything planned until next year, gigging-wise, to be honest. It was only a couple of weeks but I think in my head I just want to get on with the new stuff and get the new album done and recorded.

I really enjoyed the tour, it was great to play. But when you know you’ve got songs that are really different from that last album it’s quite strange going from one head space when you’re writing new songs and then playing all the old ones on stage. It was a good laugh and we really enjoyed it and I think both bands did really well out of it.

Musically, you’re quite a different band from Errors – how did it come about?

It was one of those ideas that came from being in the pub drinking and the next day you think ‘actually that was pretty good’ – unlike most ideas that come from the pub. I suppose it was on the back of them remixing us and us remixing them, so we thought it seemed a good idea. And because we are quite different, it did make it a different sort of night.

The contrasting styles worked quite well didn’t they?

Yeah, when you’ve got co-headlining bands you’ll always tend to get some people there for one band over the other. But it seemed like most people were there to hear both bands, even though we are kind of different.

The Edinburgh gig was really strong – it’s probably the best I’ve ever seen you.

Yeah but I saw a few reviews that were basically saying it was too loud for them. At one point there was a girl down the front who was greetin’ – I kinda hope it was to do with it being too loud, rather than the songs being rubbish.

Actually our photographer did mention there was someone down the front who looked like she’d been crying.

Me and Andy [McFarlane] had an acoustic set at Oran Mor and there was a girl down the front singing every lyric a beat out of time. I actually had to stop mid-way through and say ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re doin’ but it’s no actually what am doin’. Can you stop this?’ I’m pretty sure I saw her at the Edinburgh gig so it could possibly have been her.

But I can never tell if it was a good gig or not. We’re not exactly the kind of band that interact with the crowd or anything like that.

Sound-wise you seemed a lot more direct than previous shows. Was that intentional?

Aye, we don’t really take a breath and we just hammer away at it. I’m definitely not someone who likes talking to the crowd, anyway. I would rather just play the songs, then that’s it done. I think it will be completely different from the next time you see us again. We are going for something completely different.

Is this more in line with the remixes you’ve done with Errors and Mogwai?

We’re not full on Basshunter style. It’s quite hard to say just now because it’s just demos but there’s definitely a lot more space in the songs. There’s not a lot of guitars, which is quite strange for a band that’s always used a lot of guitars. But everybody who’s heard the demos have reacted really well to it. The label [Fat Cat Records] are pretty excited about it too.

For us, it’s just time to try something different. There’re parts that are still us: you can’t really change my stupid voice and the song writing is always going to be done the way we’ve been doing it, but the instrumentation side has definitely changed.

So are you saying we can expect a more pop direction from the Twilight Sad?

[Laughs] I wouldnae say Pop. It’s quite hard to describe at the moment but it’s a conscious thing we’re doing. We cannae just replicate the same things we’ve been doing – there’d be no point in doing the album if we were going to do that.

It’s been a tough year for you guys. The last album didn’t really resonate with the public like Fourteen Autumns... did and you lost your bassist Craig. Has this change of direction stemmed from that?

The weird thing is that people who liked the second album didn’t like the first album and there were a lot of people who liked the first but didn’t like the second. As soon as we went into the recording studio, Paul Savage [co-producer] said ‘Just before I hear anything you’ve done, you should know for a fact people are going to say it’s not as good as the first one’. It happens with every single band. But we were really happy with the way it came out.

In America it took us to the next level. I never thought we’d be a band who could play to 1,300 people. I never really thought we’d be able to get to those kind of stages. Even in New York, we played the Bowery Ballroom. Different magazines seemed to take notice of us and that’s got us bigger audiences in different places

With Craig leaving, the whole album campaign was kind of jilted and we had problems with booking agents. There was definitely a stunted album campaign, whereas with this one we’re hoping it goes a lot more smoothly. We’re still friends with Craig. He just decided he wanted to live a normal life.

You mean it’s not a normal life in The Twilight Sad?

[Laughs] Nah. I think he got fed up with the travelling and Craig didn’t write the songs. I think he found it a bit frustrating but that’s the way we write and there’s nothing we can change about that. Touring’s not for everybody, to be honest a lot of the time I just cannae stand it, but sometimes its can be the best thing.

Now you’re finished touring the record, what are you’re plans for the rest of the year?

We’re just finishing off the demos and are talking to producers right now. Basically we’re just finding out where and when we’re doing it. This time we’ll be using a producer instead of Andy just producing it. We want some sort of outside influence, someone we definitely trust and respect. We’ve got that Mogwai tour in February and the record definitely needs to be finished by then. Then it’s back into the whole cycle again.

Touring and touring and touring?

Yep, touring and damaging our livers, falling out and nearly breaking up. All the joys of being in a band.

So do you think the new record will be the next step up for you? Perhaps you're the next Snow Patrol?

Eh…no. I was listening to the demos the other day and, again, the subject matter is still quite dark - it’s not going to be happy-go-lucky. Some of it’s quite brutal – listening back I was thinking ‘F***, people are going to think I’m a weirdo’ but people already probably think that so I don’t think it matters.

Has the inspiration for your lyrics changed as the band’s evolved?

I put it not quite so elegantly the other day: The first one was about other people being dicks. The second one was about me being a pure dick. And the third one is ‘we’re all dicks’.

With every album we’ve always started on the lyrics and know what way it’s going. This time it’s more like the first one, where it’s focusing in on other people and relationships between people. The second one needed to be about me going through a bad space because that’s what was happening and it made the songs more honest. For this one, it’s about other people – and not in a good way.

There’s never really going to be a happy song with this band. I’ve got a lot of people that I think are dicks. There are too many dicks in the world for me not to. In fact, that’s what the album should be called: ‘There’s too many dicks in the world’.

You were recently named by a certain Radar hack as his favourite Glasgow band of the last ten years. How does it feel now people are speaking of you in the same breath as Mogwai and Arab Strap?

: It’s very strange, very strange. It’s even stranger now that we’re friends with these people as well. I still think of these bands in that way, so it’s pretty amazing to be classed in the same category as these guys - especially as I looked up to them when I was growing up. It’s probably one of the biggest compliments we could have.

Do you feel like you have a responsibility to help new bands out, now you’ve ‘made it’?

Honestly, I don’t really know any. I’m not someone who goes to gigs and says ‘alright guys, how you doin’?’. I prefer to float in the background, watch them and maybe say to someone that I like them. I’m too busy sorting out our band at the moment. I can’t really imagine us being nurturers – we’d probably be quite a bad influence.

One thing that people can take from what we’ve done is that we’ve done it our own way. We’ve always stuck to our guns and we’re not a band that’s been on the front of magazines or on the telly. We are where we are right now through a lot of hard work.

What do you want to achieve with the next record then?

Just the same as we’ve done before, really. If things happen they happen, if they don’t then there’s nothing we can do about. Now we’re kind of making a living out of it - don’t get me wrong we’re not rich or anything, but we’re getting by. As long as it’s still interesting to us and we’re making music we’re all really proud of we’ll keep going.

I don’t want to be the nearly men where we’ve put so much hard work into it and just fall flat at the last minute.

That suggests you have an idea of where you want to be?

If we’re going around the world and selling out venues of 200 people that’s cool for me. I just want to be able to keep doing it and know that what we’re doing is good and not just completely self-righteous. I always look at Mogwai and see how they’ve done their career. They’re big everywhere they go, sell out gigs and are well respected. That’s probably a good place to aim for.

Your crowds are definitely increasing with every album, maybe fame and fortune isn’t that far away?

I don’t think we’ll ever blow up, but if we can slowly build our fan-base and still be thinking we’re pushing what we’re doing musically I’ll be happy. Then after that I’ll start my Hip-Hop/R&B solo career.

Is that the career path we can expect from a content James Graham?

Definitely. When I’ve found the happy side in me. I’m actually quite a happy guy but I just focus on the dark side for some reason. If you look at all the best Scottish bands, they’re definitely not The Fratellis anyway. Aye, one day maybe I’ll write a pop classic. I’ll have to get someone else to sing it. I can’t imagine a pop classic with my voice.