Sunday, 27 February 2011

What I was listening to last week...

Last week, my house was all about sneezes and snotty handkerchiefs. They didn’t belong to me, mind you, but at times it certainly felt like it, such was the veracity that each cold-like symptom was projecting from Su’s cranial coves. So, much of the week was spent avoiding whatever germs were circulating around the flat and making sure the patient was fed, watered and entertained.

But yesterday, Su was on the mend. And on a day streaming with sunshine and tingling with a crisp, post-winter bite, we made our way to North Berwick and Dunbar for a few hours of picture taking and relaxation. Armed with a mixtape that furrowed the dankest cauldrons of my iTunes collection, it turned into a therapeutic getaway; lungs full of sea air and minds cleared from the sniffling, spluttering, choking of the previous five days.

Much of the mixtape belted out on the 27 mile trek brought me back to the bands and songs that have, in some small way, shaped my listening habits and, at times, my life today. So, for this week’s ‘What I was listening to last week…’ I’m going to take you through some of that mixtape tuneage.

Animal Collective – Winter’s Love

When I got married almost three years ago, my wife’s walk down the isle was accompanied by Animal Collective’s melodic woodland blowing. At the time, it was an unexpected twist to a nervewracking day, but listening back now, for the first time since we swapped rings, it’s inconceivable that Winter’ Love was made for anything else. In a career of fine moments, this is one of the Baltimore band’s finest.

Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

It was actually ‘Race for the Prize ‘ from 1999’s majestic Soft Bulletin that I selected for the mixtape, but Soundcloud has nothing from that era so Yoshimi… will have to do. I know the Flaming Lips are such an obvious choice, but for an 18 year old from the very north of Scotland Soft Bulletin was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was rich with slightly psychedelic textures and the most luscious, intelligent pop melodies. In truth, it felt like it came from another world. Almost 12 years on, it still does.

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone - Jeane, if you’re ever in Portland

Another track that wasn’t quite on the mixtape (right artist, wrong tune), but this tinny number from the much missed Casitone For The Painfully Alone (CFTPA) still twangs at my heart strings. Much of mine and Su’s relationship developed over long distance phonecalls, letters and musical mixes. ‘Jeane…’ -a perennial fixture on those emotion-packed CDs - captured our frustrations and fears at the time. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about whether Skype is going to drop a call anymore, and this ditty seems to swell with an added dash of retrospect from that time.

Beastie Boys – Egg Man

In our younger days, my best mate and I would spend our weekends terrorising our psychotic next door neighbour with night-long assaults on the Duncan Street decks. The usual sequence of events was that the evening would start off slightly tame - a glass of wine, a few records leisurely played - but by the time the Beastie Boys’ Egg Man made its way to the wheels of not-so-steel we were in full alcohol-sodden flight. Good times.

Captain Beefheart – Yellow Brick Road

Admittedly, Beefheart took a little while to stick with me. But, once persuaded by the brilliance of Safe As Milk, it didn’t take long before I fully embraced the Captain’s psychedelic swamp blues. Interestingly, Su commented on our way to North Berwick that this particular track sounds like it should be animated. I guess in a way, that’s exactly how the Captain probably saw it too.

Found – Machine Age Dancing

Okay, this one wasn’t actually on the mixtape at all, but I’ve been listening to the new Found record, Factorycraft, all week in preparation for a Drowned in Sound review. It’s actually very different from Found of old; less bleeps, more wiry guitars. So far, I’m enjoying this shunt in artistic direction, even if this cut isn’t quite the strongest.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Yuck - Yuck

During the early Nineties, UK airwaves were jarred with the clang of ambitionless slackers who, without irony, slumped their shoulders at mainstream success. This was a new wave of star: apathetic, insular and un-moved by the behemoth pomp-rock of the times. But, if the sentiment was distinctly un-American, the results certainly weren’t. Grunge goal-kicked MTV into the consciousness of a new generation; chiselling icons from its reluctant foremen while bankrolling a sea of green notes into the pockets of opportunistic major labels.

As strange as it is to say now, Britpop’s mid-decade arrival was invigorating. Suddenly, the impassive ideals, lank hair and flannel shirts were gone. In their place stood an unquenchable bravado, fuelled by booze, gak and The Beatles. Considering the detachment that had gone before it, Britpop felt like an invasion people could actually be part of. Never mind the brouhaha over Oasis and Blur, this was something more – a parochial revolution that pushed Loaded, Chris Evans and New Labour to the fore of British culture.

Looking back, almost two decades on, it all feels like a shameful anachronism. Today, Britpop’s legacy is as washed up as many of its ‘stars’ who fronted the cereal box covers of Select, while the draconian values espoused by New Labour, Loaded and Chris Evans are consigned to darker days. Yet grunge retains an air of credibility. Perhaps not in philosophy - its ‘hate my life’ mantra has been swallowed whole by the embarrassment of emo tripe – but the ilk of Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana and Sonic Youth still carry weight amongst today’s wet-eared melody makers. So much so, recent whispers of a grunge revival have amplified into full-blown chatter.

Over the past year, Yuck have been tipped as heirs-apparent to this new (or nu-) grunge throne. The charging guitar stabs of their early output, emblazoned with a distorted throb that echoed J Masics’s barbaric fretwork, were certainly impressive enough to merit the accord. And to throw in a dash of intriguing subtext, two-fifths of this London-born quintet were spat out from the embers of Cajun Dance Party, a whippersnapper indie-rock troupe better known for saccharine pop melodies than turmoil-induced riffs, instilling a polished edge to their fuzzy throngs.

Yet, across the gamut of 12 tracks, the band’s early promise wears thin. Their debut long-player - self-titled to seemingly maximise the effect of that abrading name – may not exact the same angst-ridden principles of grunge’s hey-day, but the guitar-thick production and gnarled vocals clamp defiantly on to the period, albeit leaning more towards Creation’s hazy output than the gritty clatter of Sub-Pop and Seattle. And, as with any form of retro-resuscitation, the pleasure taken from this foray down memory-lane diminishes fast. After all, these wares have been turned out before. Usually with more class.

The opening run of ‘Get Away’ and ‘The Wall’ leads the album’s charge, blurting out the sort of crunching riffs and effortless choruses Ash pedalled on career-launching debut 1977. Frustratingly, such obvious hero-aping trundles down the record’s spine. The bassline-bruising ‘Operation’ and the equally frenetic ‘Holing Out’ gush along like Teenage Fanclub in a juvenile detention centre. ‘Rubber’s swamping dirge of reverb and distortion is equally cloned, riding a psychedelic Pixies trip without the clout or gout of Frank Black. It’s not the execution that’s the problem here; it’s the lack of initiative.

Played out in full, the record resembles a depressing rummage through early-Nineties record racks - listenable, yes, but without the nerve to tickle more ear-pleasing teats. And while Yuck display a doggish pedigree, their efforts lack the persuasiveness of their idols’. Even lyrically the album pays a weak homage to the past. The shaky narrative that runs over ‘Suicide Policeman’s breezy acoustics couldn’t be more a It's A Shame About Ray-era Evan Dando if it pulled up with a crack pipe and a Courtney Love blow-up doll.

Ultimately, Yuck is the work of a band in its infancy; too engrossed in worshipping musical deities to lay down its own ideas. Yet, within this naivety are subtle glimmers of hope. The hushed chimes and whispered purr of ‘Stutter’ work their way into a luscious dream-pop lament that serves up a glorious album high; while the guitar-stacked ‘Georgia’ is a frothing, acrobatic affair that suggests uncharted depths lie below the sea of mediocrity. But these are mere glints of salvation. This, as a whole, is a record safely chugging down the long, empty road to alt-rock purgatory.

Ironically, just over 20 years ago such a cumbersome debut could have set the foundation for glories to come. But this is not 1989 and they are no Nirvana. Yuck, despite their best efforts, are part of an era where quick wins score high and a long game means nothing. Had they furrowed their own pathway their future could have been assured. Instead, the past may be all Yuck have to play with.Y

Sunday, 20 February 2011

What I was listening to last week...

Let’s face it, I neglect this blog. Mostly because I’m too busy writing for other people, but also because I don’t think anyone’s all that interested in my daily musings. After all, it goes something like this: Get up, take bus to work, communicate with others, walk back from work, cook dinner, write, read, sleep.

See, not that entertaining really. But, much of my daily drag revolves around a soundtrack of music. Either music I’m writing about or music I’m just listening to purely for the fun of it. So to give this blog a sense of reason amidst the transposed scrawls from other publications and, also, to recap on some of the tuneage I’ve been listening to in the space of seven days (which at times feelsl like an avalanche), I’m going to attempt to write regularly about the records and songs I’ve made my way through over the last week, good or bad.

A weekly post can’t be that hard can it? Well, some of my blogging buddies may disagree. Regular blogging takes dedication and time, which I don’t always have a lot of. It also takes a certain degree of arrogance to believe that anyone will actually give a damn about the words you write – a singular trait I don’t always exude.

But, hey, let’s see how this goes. It could blow hard, or it could blow good. So starting today, this is my weekly round-up of the sounds I’ve been listening to. Perhaps we could call it a sound-up? Maybe not…

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

Sure Pitchfork is a game changer for most bands and, mostly, the writing is a step above your typical glad-rag penmanship, but their ratings are not always entirely logical. I’m thinking about that abominable James Blake LP right now, but there have been others who’ve had their decimal points notched up without justification. So when they bestowed a more than remarkable 8.4 on Nicolas Jarr’s Space Is Only Noise LP I took this glowing accolade with a touch of sodium chloride. Yet, they were right: it’s a warped, electronically-jazzed sprawl of synthesised bleeps and crystallised flat-beats. And this laser-gun swathing title track is a perfect pathway into the record’s glacial, lonely enclosure

Profisee – I See

Last week Nike Oruh (aka Profisee) welcomed me and Su into his house to kickstart a photostory on the release of his new EP Logan’s Run (due for release 28 March). Not only were Nike and his family wonderfully engaging hosts, but his approach to music creation and the industry itself was as refreshing as a blast of holy water to the retinas. Production-wise, Profisee’s music’s streets ahead of local indie acts and his lyrical execution marks him well above the middle-runners of the UK’s beats scene. But what struck me most, both in his music and meeting him in person, was his absolute belief in the music he makes. There was no self-doubt, no compliment-seeking. This is his music. And this is what he loves.

Yuck – Georgia

Despite the name, Yuck are a band more hotly tipped than a chilli-chopping chef clutching his member in a urinal. Yet, having just reviewed their debut longplayer for Drowned In Sound, I’m struggling to figure out what all the fuss is about. Post-grunge-lite guitars and stodgy songwriting do not a good band make. Yes, they sound a lot like Dinosaur Jr and, even more so, Teenage Fanclub, but this is a band riding a wave that’s barely caught surf in 20 years. This track, Georgia, at least shows signs of modern life, but in all honesty this a record to avoid.

Mondegreen - Making Cookies

Making Cookies by mondegreen

I’ve been putting together this month’s Drowned in Scotland feature and, as usual, picked a Scottish band to ‘introduce’ to the masses. I remembered speaking to Chemikal Underground’s Stewart Henderson last year about a band Mondegreen and thought I’d finally get round to checking them out. Pretty glad I did. Part Pavement, part Field Music, the Glasgow trio create a guttural clatter that convulses like an epileptic at a strobe-lighting convention. Their EP, Headless, is an insanely breathless affair and this track’s a prime example of their musical goodness. If it piques your lugholes, you can pick it up here on their bandcamp site for free:

So there you have it, that was my first 'What I was listening to last week' feature. The plan is to put another one together next week, but probably best not to hold me to that.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Sea of Bees - Songs For The Ravens

Wallpaper's got be one of the modern world's most peculiar and unnecessary luxuries. For some baffling reason, millions of people choose to spend hours in colossal home improvement stores agonising over what luxurious floral print best embodies their personalities. Then, once it’s up and pals are suitably impressed over Tetley and ginger snaps, their immaculate choice of interior enhancement fades into the background, barely given a moment’s notice amongst the rabble of domestic life.

In musical terms, Sea of Bees' debut album, Songs For The Ravens, bears a striking resemblance to such initially gratifying, yet ultimately pointless, decoration. On first spin, Californian songstress Julie Ann Baenziger‘s aural tidings sound polished and preened, but they very quickly evaporate into insubstantial melodies that carry no weight and hold little interest. By spin number five, this woozy indie-folk affair has turned into the sort of cushioning ambiance that would droop the eyelids of the most stubborn insomniac.

Admittedly, that’s a harsh deconstruction of Baenziger’s craft. Her soaring mew is bewitching- a luscious hybrid of Nina Persson and Cat Power – and, at times, there’s a subtle quirk to her acoustic arrangements that positions her apart from the straight-laced swooning of her fellow west-coast folkies. Yet, despite these virtues, it’s a record that lacks any discernible hook. Rather then a succession of fully realised, off-kilter refrains, Songs for the Ravens feels like a sketchy daydream without the necessary parts to form outside Baenziger’s imagination.

Beneath the overwhelming drabness, genuine flickers of brilliance do exist. The rolling bassline and splashing cymbals of opening number ‘Gnomes’ bears the traits of a grumbling Mark Lanegan/Isobel Campbell composition – less Lanegan’s smoke-bitten baritone. And ‘Willis’’s ethereal star-chasing has Baenziger’s pristine tones swooping high above the transient blur of winking glockenspiel and zippy percussion. Considering its companions, the track marks a remarkable high that suggests Kate Bush-like ambitions loiter somewhere in Baenziger’s repertoire.

But these are fleeting moments on a record often lacking direction. Dreary tearjerkers like ‘Strikefoot’ and ‘Blind’ mingle freely amongst 'Marmalade'’s ambling rhythm and the tedious country balladry of ‘The Gold’. 'Sidepain’’s toe-tapping strums may strike a light with embittered females (the rousing “where did all the good men go?” callout will undoubtedly see to that), but it’s a distinctly prosaic affair that places Baenziger in the same awkward corner as KT Tunstall – a highly skilled artist who doesn’t always make best use of her ability.

Composed by someone who clearly aspires to kookier songwriting realms, Songs for the Ravens is surprisingly one dimensional. It may not be intentional, but it’s a record polished with chart-pleasing gloss, both in melody and lyrics, and lacks the mystique needed for sustained listening. With greater vision Sea of Bees may one day become a more substantial proposition, but for now Julie Ann Baenziger’s solo project barely papers over the cracks.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Live Review: Maps & Atlases, Gallops, Lady North

Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh
30 January

Buried in the bowels of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Sneaky Pete’s is the sort of place that’s easily passed by. Wedged between the Grassmarket’s aggressive watering holes and the gruesome, tangerine-tinted meat market that is the Cowgate, this granite-wrapped venue keeps a low profile amongst such inhospitable company. But with the city’s music halls dropping quicker than the flies of a sailor in Leith docks, perhaps a little reserve is for the best. After all, Lord knows where the reaper’s scythe will land next.

Despite its menacing surroundings, Sneaky’s rafters are rammed tonight. A disparate bunch of hipsters, chin-strokers, hippies, students and cherub-cheeked teens line the floor of this sardine-packed sweatpit. The reason, most likely, is to pitch a spot for the headline draw in a venue with as much breathing space as a vacuum-packed Renault Clio, but it’s reasonable enough to suggest the allure of an intriguing undercard is equally irresistible.

With nerve-ends clearly jangling, local noise-mongers Lady North are first to the fore. The trio’s tectonic throbs of guitar, drum and bass have been making in-roads into the Scottish music scene over the last six months, providing a contrasting blast (and I do mean blast) of refreshing air to alt-folk’s gentile snoozing. And, despite a few jittery opening moments, their five song assault merely feeds their reputation as intriguing and unpredictable purveyors of pulsing math rock.

Led by Scott Bullen’s android guitar, each sonically-perplexing number is serrated by percussion so shuddering it could rectify any clogging bowel obstructions. But Lady North are no avant-garde thrash merchants; tonight they show a tuition that captures wider strains of funk, reggae and prog, and an eagerness that tears apart at convention with gnarling effects pedals and toxic, gyrating basslines. In short, it’s an exhilarating opening set and one that’s met with a barrage of clapped palms from Sneaky’s expanding masses.

Given what’s gone before them, much lauded Welsh instrumentalists Gallops are already on the back foot as they amble on stage. Their intricate electro-fare may be riddled with rich percussive layers and angular guitars, but there’s little pull in this inconsistent and, at times, anodyne showing. At their glitchiest, the quartet drive through intriguing limb-flinging ideas with a barrage of incessant anti-disco grinds. But, too often, it degenerates into furious slabs of guitar that writhe out like early Nineties bandana-rock over a bed of tumbling drums and bleeps.

Struggling with this kind of musical bi-polarity is not something that’ll ever trouble tonight’s headliners Maps & Atlases. Over the past five years the Chicago four-piece have escaped math rock’s claws and advanced as a band lacking any obvious hole for a pigeon to reside. Intelligent pop may be as close as it gets to nailing their luscious, yet perplexing, arrangements, but, given the band’s evolutionary nature, it’s probably wiser to accept that theirs is a sound without need for inscription.

From the opening flutter of ‘Pigeon’s Graceland-aping veneer, it’s clear Maps & Atlases are having no trouble getting to grips with the hefty mosaics of debut LP Perch Patchwork. Every note tonight is seamless, every gruesome time signature executed with militant precision. For a band so readily portrayed as laid-back dudes, the urgency and accomplishment that burns through the rhythmically bewildering ‘Artichokes’ and ‘Living Decoration’s cascading guitar is astonishing.

What’s more surprising is just how far they’ve extended their reach. Not so long ago, this was a band that floated on the periphery, seemingly too obsessed with Don Caballero and guitar tapping for the dainty lug holes of many a listener. But tonight they’re pushing out flummoxing numbers like ‘Every Place Is A House’ and ‘Witch’ as if they’re modern pop chalices. Not that this is Britney-like in nature, of course - Dave Davison’s nasal tones are too impregnable for such ignominy – but the sugarcane melodies of ‘Solid Ground’ and ‘If This Is’ are so thick and lugubrious they’d easily sweep the feet off a wider, less knowledgeable audience.

In what’s a near immaculate set, ‘The Charm’s heavenly crescendo is tonight’s defining moment (even more so than the band’s foray into the crowd for an end of night sing-a-long) – it’s ear-consuming splash of tribal rhythm mixed up with Davison’s penetrating shrill hypnotises both crowd and band alike. In every sense, this is the kind of majestic, all-encompassing performance befitting a band at its peak; one that knows there’s little out there to touch it right now. And sure, no-one likes a show-off, but with tricks this good it’s almost impossible to complain.

Photos by Su Anderson

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Say hello to... Lady North

Let’s get this straight: Lady North aren't a typical Edinburgh band. For starters, no-one in this noise-wielding trio – made up of Scott Bullen, Paul Bannon and Jamie Steel - wears an overgrown beard or moth-eaten bobble hat. And there’s certainly no place for an acoustic guitar in their booming artillery of bass, drum, guitar and effects pedals. But what really singles them out as an anomaly in the city’s current musical climate is that folk music is barely on their radar, never mind in their songbook.

"To be honest, it’s quite a surprise there are so many folk bands around. I don’t know many people who listen to folk - I suppose we run in different social groups," explains Bannon, whose hexagonal drum patterns lie at the heart of Lady North’s animalistic sound. "It does seem for the last year or so there has been an over-exposure of indie-folk bands in the city, but there has also been a rising interest in the city’s electronic based acts, which are more our cup of tea. We’ve been big fans of The Japanese War Effort for a long time and have just recently got into Dead Boy Robotics in a big way."

Curiously, Lady North may actually plug the gap between the city’s more leftfield folk outfits and its electronic musicians. On the face of it, their math-predilection is easily identified; the complex, atonal rhythms, fed by Bullen’s cryptic guitar taps and Steel’s surging bass lines, bear a striking resemblance to the dissonant rock that emitted from the American Midwest in the early 90s. But underneath this intellectual exterior pounds more primal urges. This is an Edinburgh band you can actually dance to.

"We try to be non-genre specific, we definitely don’t want to be pigeon holed as a certain sound," says Bullen of the band’s floor-filling appeal. "A lot of people have said we’re a dance rock band. And while I have nothing against it as a label it caused an adverse reaction in my head, leading the last three songs I've written to be far more spacey and with less driving rhythms and more ethereal noise. We basically want to be relevant, modern, interesting and to always maintain our musical sense of humour."

Born from rival factions of a snowboarding (or “shneebogging”, as Bullen puts it) and instrument club, Lady North has been a long time coming. Initially a post hardcore four-piece, the band’s current incarnation has evolved through years of late night pontificating, an increasing interest in the virtues of funk and, perhaps most importantly, the departure of vocalist Ali Shiels. Instead of relying on a voice to hog the limelight, it’s the music that must shoulder the glare – a responsibility the band are steadily growing used to.

"We don’t make any conscious attempt to compensate for not having a singer," says Steel. "The music should speak for itself and shouldn't need vocals to set a tone or tell the listener how they should be feeling. Also having no vocals helps us stay away from any one genre: if your singer screams you're typically typecast as an emo band or if he growls you're a metal band, regardless of what the instruments are doing. Maybe this way people can hear the music as it should be heard and not have to worry if we're punk/indie/metal enough for them."

With only a few tracks committed to record so far (although their debut EP is due out in spring), Lady North are a force that needs to be witnessed live. Founded on Bannon’s aggressive clatter of drum and cowbell, their distorted blasts are almost Martian in sound; splattering out as free-form waves of propulsive melody that are deconstructed, note by note, before rebuilding into a strangling cacophony. It’s tight, sure, but it’s not sleek. There’s a queer intuition that goes beyond the hours spent holed up in a practice room, turning each show into a unique, almost organic, experience.

"No matter how much we prepare or how well we know the songs, it all comes down to the sound on stage," says Bannon. "When Scott has a loop going, I need to hear his amp so I am playing in sync with the loop. If I can’t hear it clearly and I’m slightly off time, any subsequent loops Scott records will be out of time as he has been following what I’ve been playing. In saying that, if Scott’s original loop is out of time, we’re all f***ed."

Their brutal live outings have already earned Lady North a stellar reputation, both with punters and the local authorities – the band proudly picked up an ASBO after a particularly rowdy flat party last year. And if their experiences in 2010 - which included a mesmerizing role in the final Versus with Foundling Wheel and Dead Boy Robotics and a support slot with fellow noise-mongers Bronto Skylift - have taught them anything, it’s that compromise isn’t an option.

"We’ve learned that what’s more important than playing perfectly is playing with conviction and without inhibitions. That’s what people really pick up on," says Bannon. "That and some bad-ass dance moves."