29 July 2009

We've moved!

Künstlicher has moved! From now on, all new content will appear HERE! Bookmark the link if you fancy reading some musical musings, or leaving a comment (nice or nasty!). The old content is slowly being copied over there too, and will stay here for the forseeable future.

Künstlicher is also on Twitter and Last.fm.

(PS - If you came here from that Company article, they put the wrong address in the magazine...)

Review: Deerhooof @ Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht, 19.07.09

"Dankuwel!" says Deerhoof's lanky drummer, Greg Saunier. "Dankuwel met... slagroom?!" Thankfully, what Deerhoof lack in Dutch proficiency (he just said "thank you with whipped cream"), they more than compensate for with their hyperkinetic stylings. Before 'Twin Killers', pocketsized singer Satomi Matsuzaki and goofy guitarist Ed Rodriguez ape the primitive artillery of Space Invaders, 'Basketball' is a Hallowe'en bastardization of a cheerleading routine, and they reinvent aerobics on a fervent 'Panda'. Bounding around as if the stage were made from flubber, the calmer, vocal-led numbers are sweetly benign, but merry pandemonium re-errupts as Matsuzaki leaps to the floor to put the proverbial cherry on top too.

Review: The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away

Originally published in NME
Considering that The Fiery Furnaces' last two proper albums were respectively a conceptual biography of their grandmother and the squelchingly dissonant and occasionally terrifying 'Widow City', the direction of their sixth was to be anyone's guess. A sprawling narrative entirely in the key of F minor about radioactive sewer rats? An electronic paean to Edgar Allen Poe's early work? Either would be less surprising than how 'I'm Going Away' has actually turned out: it's astonishingly normal. Well, at least for the avant garde Friedberger siblings.

But that's not to say it's pedestrian or predictable in the slightest - it's easy to imagine Captain Beefheart growling lasciviously over the bendy psychedelic fuzz of opener 'I'm Going Away', where Eleanor sings with the irritable vehemence of a woman wronged, a comic anger that's reignited on 'Cut The Cake'. Like Patti Smith doing her best Dylan impression, she rails sardonically against the press over Matt's enveloping baritone harmonies. The gorgeous 'Drive To Dallas' is a smoky, sensual image of rainy pathetic fallacy ("I'm not gonna drive to Dallas with blurry eyes ever again") that recalls the slow jam of 'Evergreen' from 'EP', and after the heavy resigned piano chords at the start of 'The End Is Near', the outro leaps and whizzpops as if drunk on a vat of spiked frobscottle. 'Charmaine Champagne''s ripped guitar sounds like a battered saxophone made from a rusted exhaust pipe, and Miss Champagne's rambunctious Soho showgirl verve is reignited on 'Cups And Punches', yelpy, progressive and daubed with grinding nods to the electronic stylings of 'Blueberry Boat'. Much like the great Don Van Vliet going from the absurdist 'Trout Mask Replica' to the more conservative 'Clear Spot' three years later, 'I'm Going Away' sees The Fiery Furnaces abandon their surrealist tendencies to work outside of their comfort zone, experimenting with conventional notions of structure and euphony like naturals.


17 July 2009

Interview: St Vincent

Originally published at TLOBF

"I can't see the future but I know it’s got big plans for me,” sang Annie Clark on Actor, her latest record as St Vincent. Judging by the coy smiles and avoided looks as we ask her about collaborations and film soundtracks, it’d seem that the musical world is now her oyster, but frustratingly, she’s not allowed to spill the beans. However she’s more than happy to discuss R Kelly’s oeuvre, preconceptions and community with Leah Pritchard and Laura Snapes on a rainy afternoon prior to her phenomenal show on Bristol’s Thekla.

We heard you soundchecking earlier with some crazy vocal warm ups, and your voice live sounds pretty different to on record. Do you have to work hard to keep it in shape? I do vocal warm ups, just so I can make sure I get the whole range. I took a couple of singing lessons in Dallas when I was about 20, from a gospel teacher, but earlier I was just riffing on an R Kelly song – R Kelly and Sparkle, from the late, mid 90s? [1998] It has typical R Kelly style, the funniest most ridiculous lyrics. We were riffing on Real Talk too, it’s them in the studio fighting – it’s so hilarious, he’s singing along to the record, the words are just special – “Bitch I wish you weren’t wearing my clothes!” I think it’s pre-Trapped In The Closet. ‘Sex in the Kitchen’ is another good one to YouTube, it’s incredible!

Have you ever thought of doing some R Kelly covers in your set?! Oh man…! I might work up that song he did with Sparkle. It’s a male female duet, so I’ll have to find someone to do it with me.

Did John Congleton have a lot of influence on the sound of your record? His stuff with The Paper Chase is really intense, using scissors as percussion and so on, and to a certain extent that comes through on your record, but it’s a lot more toned down. We certainly had dialogue about all the sounds, he’s so fast at getting sounds and so creative at sound, it was very effortless sonically. He’d say, “that’d sound cool”, and it did! I think everyone should make a record with John Congleton, he’s the best.

So was the process a lot quicker than when making Marry Me? Yeah, Marry Me was made over more time. All told, minus me doing some days on my own with woodwind, and little bits of tracking, I think altogether we had about 30 days including 10 days break. So we did about 20 days of studio time, which is not a lot. We had to break it up ‘cos of John’s schedule, so we’d have six days here, three days here. He’s the busiest bee on the planet. I’ve never met somebody who works as hard! He fit me in every day he could.

Did many of the songs change a lot from their Garage Band origins? Oh yeah. I could pull up MIDI files right now on my laptop, of like, the clarinet parts in ‘The Strangers’, or all of the notes in ‘Marrow’ I have sketched out, but it all got transposed and rearranged and given to different instruments. So they were more just notational templates as opposed to sonically fleshed out.

Are the sound limitations of recording like that frustrating? Well, John was instrumental in making the music tangible, because it was very esoteric for most of the writing. He’d talk about songs feeling good to play, or sounding good but not feeling like anything. So he brought it to life.

Your technique of soundtracking Disney movies on mute has been referenced a lot. What do you make of the whole new wave of CGI, 3D Disney animation, in comparison to the romance of the films from the ‘30s and ‘40s that inspired Actor? You know, I saw ‘Wall-E’. Is that Disney Pixar? I cried at ‘Wall-E’. It was so good, right?! “Wall-E! Eva!” Other than that, I don’t really have much of an opinion on them, the ones from the ‘30s are my favourite brand of cartooning, but yeah, I cried at ‘Wall-E’, so there’s some emotional resonance there!

Did you get any offers as a result of showcasing for people who commission soundtracks? The next Michael Bay movie, right? Got my fingers crossed! I think if I did have something in the works, I couldn’t talk about it…!

Ohh! Well moving on, are the people in the songs intentionally characters? Haha… [looks down]. Umm… Yeah, I found it was helpful to be a little bit…not removed, but to try to look at a situation from a lot of different sides, and often in the writing of the new record, even if I’ve experienced something emotionally similar to what’s going on in those little stories, I’m not necessarily the narrator. I might be the antagonist…

With the darker lyrics especially, do your parents ever worry about you? My mom used to be cute about it. “Are you ok?” [sulky teenage voice] “Shut up mom, it’s art…come on!” I never tell my mom to shut up, by the way. I don’t really get asked by them any more!

On Actor, domesticity is presented under quite a bleak light. Do you miss the vagabond touring way of life when you go back to that? I don’t miss domesticity at all. I like touring. I was home in New York for about seven days after the US tour, just a little time. I didn’t even really unpack, just did the laundry. We recorded Letterman in that little window. How are people responding since Letterman? Well I don’t get followed or anything! I was eating dinner in New York, and a guy came up and said, “I saw you on Letterman, I loved it so I bought your CD,” which was really cool. No one has yet come up and said, “I saw you on Letterman. It was terrible, I did not buy your CD!”

With people like you, Bat For Lashes and Beyonce, there seems there’s a lot of negativity towards women who take on alter egos. How do you find people respond to your pseudonym? I find that sometimes when women who go under their own name there’s more preconceptions, but if you hear…I’m trying to make up a name…“Jane… Whatever!” that carries a different sort of connotation, that that’s going to be an acoustic guitar, I feel like that’s on a lot of people’s minds. Aside from getting asked over and over where the name comes from, there’s no backlash to it.

I read Marnie Stern saying that often when she goes to play shows, a stool is put out for her ‘cos they think she’s going to play acoustic guitar! Aww! She can shred people’s faces off…

I wanted to ask about ‘Chinese Democracy’, I heard you were playing it a lot in the studio because it was so bad. Did you seek out a barometer of bad taste to work against?! Yeah, John and I were talking about it, whether we’d heard it or not, so he put it on, and we were listening through really nice hi-fi speakers, and you can just hear this huge digital mess! I’m not a digital/analog snob or anything, but it sounds like somebody let this man play with a hamster until it was dead. It sounds modern and confused, like they didn’t make any decisions anywhere. I’m gonna get hate mail from Axl Rose, I’m sorry! It’s tricky. We listened to the whole things a couple of times, and usually you can say, “sing me that tune!” and get some idea of melody, but I don’t know what happened, it was so confused! Axl Rose is gonna hate me! All of it was terrible. And I’m not a hater, but it was remarkably bad.

Have you been back to Texas or Oklahoma since the Bush administration’s been over? Yeah, I was there for Christmas. Dallas went for Obama, Dallas is blue!

With songs like ‘Jesus Saves, I Spend’, if you find yourself playing in the Bible belt, do you have to adapt your set at all? I think on the first tour it happened a couple of time, people gingerly asked, making sure that I wasn’t being irreverent. So much of that is word play, not that it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s subtle enough.

The idea of preconceptions about names reminds me of Queens of the Stone Age, they got sued by a group of deaf people who thought that ‘Songs of the Deaf’ was an album of vibrational music. Ohh! I was wondering about that actually, because when we played Bonnaroo my sound engineer asked if I wanted someone interpreting, signing the words of my set! I was thrown! But that was awesome. I don’t remember if we actually had the person doing it. But it would have been very cool.

Is there a particular movement or group of bands that you associate or align yourself with? A lot of the people you’re compared to don’t actually sound at all like you, like Grizzly Bear or Dirty Projectors. I’m glad to be thought of in the same vein as them. The Dirty Projectors are probably my favourite band ever. I think there’s something really vital happening in New York with Grizzly Bear and the Dirties.

How do you find NYC as a place to live in terms of music, the way that trends come and go? Or is it quite supportive? It’s wonderfully supportive. My friend Bryce Dessner, who’s in The National, he’s like a powerhouse. He curated ‘Dark Was The Night’, he’s a mastermind, doing stuff with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, he’s kind of a genius. He has his hand in this established New York minimalist compositional thing, and he’s also in a fucking great rock band. Nico Muhly’d be in there too. This new wave minimalism! It’s really sweet – you don’t think of it as such a scene, but these are friends or people you’re friendly with, they’re all so talented and “wow!” that we all want to do stuff together.

Do you have any exciting collaborations coming up? I do! But I can’t say! But it’s a very exciting time to be in New York.

8 July 2009

Review: Various Artists - Palermo Shooting OST

Review: St Vincent, Bristol Thekla, 06/07/09

Originally published in NME

If there’s one thing more sickening than the recent deluge of jaws agog at the notion that two X chromosomes do not an insuperable musical deficiency make, it’s the fact that some of the most innovative and crucial female musicians remain underrated in favour of certain mould-fresh synth-poppers. Step forward Annie Clark, the chaotically coiffed Oklahoman who goes by the name of St Vincent and sounds nothing like The Human League, Kate Bush or Björk – suck on that, pigeonholers! Yet despite the near universal acclaim of her equal parts 1930s Disney OST and King Crimson-inspired second album, ‘Actor’, it’s comparatively quiet aboard Bristol’s Thekla this evening, and there’s the sweet scent of schadenfreude in the air for those who are missing out.

From the thrusting jazz lounge bop of ‘Marry Me’ in all its live syncopated wonder, it’s pretty clear that Clark’s interest in glitter and theatrics lies solely within the music; the perfectionist intuition between her and her band of beardy merry men is such that the flicker of an eyebrow or drawing of breath acts as a sort of Morse code for speed and sparkle, but it never feels clinical or rehearsed. On ‘The Strangers’ she coos her own spacey “backing” vocals on dual microphones, harmonizing eerily with the woodwind, and ‘Save Me From What I Want’ corrupts its recorded beauty with a jarring time difference between guitar and vocals.

Incongruity is perhaps one of Annie’s greatest strengths – waifish and poised, during the demonic shredding on ‘Now Now’ and single ‘Actor Out Of Work’ she convulses as if trapped in a lightning bolt, and forcibly beats her guitar during the sax propelled thumbnail screw riff of ‘Marrow’ to make it scream louder. The encore’s a perfect juxtaposition of celestial beauty and gnarliness with ‘The Party’ and the rapturously received ‘Your Lips Are Red’, but she’s humble to the last. Never mind the showgirls – it’s always the quiet ones.

Review: Kasabian, Eden Sessions, 04/07/09

For thousands of years, the heated debate between creationists and those of us with bloody common sense has raged; is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution the reason we’re all here living and breathing, or was woman created from Adam’s rib and let loose in a garden of riches only to cause humankind’s eternal condemnation? (If you’re having trouble deciding, you might not want to read much more). However, tonight at Cornwall’s majestic Eden Project, a surreal and disturbing rewriting of the time/space/belief continuum is occurring as Neanderthals invade the verdant former clay pit to see Kasabian become the least fitting band to grace a stage since John Mayer at MJ’s funeral. Crowd highlights include a chap wearing a t-shirt wondering “Is it necrophilia if it’s still twitching?”, blokes comparing how many midgets they know (two apiece, apparently) over their respective six pint trays of cider, and hordes of delightful types dropping empty beer cups and fag ends in the sweet pea patches. If we’re searching hard for silver linings, at least they’re ignoring The Hours, whose dulling tones make it seem plausible that Kasabian might actually provide some sort of musical relief.

Please, someone pinch me. As Kasabian strut on stage seemingly in order of self-perceived importance, the only relief they could offer might be to an stratospherically obese person thinking about getting back into exercise, as they demand that we put our hands in the air for the first of more than 20 times in a 15 song set. The command constantly spills from Tom Meighan’s lips as if he has attention-seeking Tourettes, joining his messianic spread arms in an hubristic display that’s embarrassing to watch. They boom on with ‘Underdog’, the opener of ‘West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum’, which psyches up the crowd with pithy sentiments like “lost in a moment” and easy to grasp expansive concepts such as “sky” and “future”. Profound. The empty sentiment omnipresent in their songs forms a vicious circle live – they sing about “doing it for the people”, who in turn respond with unabated glee (throwing nine pint cups per minute due to the wanton abandon that Kasabian provoke), spurring Meighan’s foolhardy ego on. It makes pooping back and forth forever look appealing…

By second number, ‘Shoot The Runner’, it becomes pretty clear that this is The Tom Meighan Show – the lesser band members know their place, occasionally twitching like press puppets yet utterly unresponsive to the crowd, without a hint of interaction or intuition between them. Whenever it’s not Meighan’s turn to take the limelight – during an instrumental part or song led by Serge’s nasal tones – he disappears offstage. You can only hope it’s a sign of inner band strife that’ll cause them to split within a few years.

“This place is fucking like Tracy Island,” contributes Meighan by way of the obligatory wonderment bands must show at playing in front of the two space age biomes. “Like Thunderbirds.” Jolly glad you cleared that up for us, cheers. He misses his cue to come in on ‘Processed Beats’ yet struts on smug and self-satisfied, asking for hands in the air again, then tells us we’re “fucking empire!” (no prizes for guessing what comes next). A trumpeter appears for the mildly Baltic influenced ‘Where Did All The Love Go’, which has all the cultural nous of a football fan who’s been to Latvia once for a match, ‘Thick As Thieves’ is a note for note rip off of The Beatles’ ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, but the crowd’s swaying, men are topless and hugging and there’s a thousand mobile phones in the air. What’s wrong with people?! ‘Fire’ has the tuneless football terrace roar of 90% of their songs, a technique defended by a bloke next to us – “they don’t need words, their songs are so fucking brilliant that they can really tug your heartstrings without them y’know?” Mm. By ‘Club Foot’, Meighan’s caught on to exactly the same thing, so doesn’t even bother articulating the lyrics. To avoid the crush for the car parks, we escape the encore, but hear the notes of a cod ‘You Got The Love’ cover float up past the visitor centre (first line: “sometimes I feel like putting my hands up in the air”), the crowd roaring along euphorically. Debate over monkeys and clay figures aside, this is a cultural devolution that must be fought, defeated and crushed.

2 July 2009

Interview: !!!

Originally published at TLOBF
Photograph by Rich Thane, taken at ATP The Fans Strike Back, May 2009

There aren’t many bands that can whip a tired Sunday afternoon festival crowd into a throbbing mass of pheromones and adrenaline, but NYC by way of Sacramento gents !!! did exactly that at ATP The Fans Strike Back this May, and will undoubtedly wreak the same sexual wrath next Tuesday (7th) when they play Camden’s Electric Ballroom. Over email, exuberant frontman Nic Offer discussed a refreshing devil may care attitude to money, being grabbed in the biscuits, and whether the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act has taken any ostensible hit on the scene…

This is probably a fairly common response, but your set at ATP was one of the most ecstatic gigs I’ve ever seen. How was the festival for you, did you get to hang around and catch many other bands?
Paul bought me a massage during Spiritualized and it was worth every pound he paid for it. The Jesus Lizard was for dickheads with clean rooms, but I bet David Yow’s room is dirty. The only time I ever heard Sleep was years ago on an acid trip and they were not quite as slow as they seemed then, but just as amazing. Killing Joke was kinda funny.

Considering that you formed to play an all-night party in Sacramento, it wouldn’t appear that you’ve changed your live approach that much – do you miss the debauchery of those more intimate settings in comparison to sanitized venues?
We bring the debauchery. I never noticed it was gone.

Do your parents ever come to watch you play? What do they make of your shows?
The first time my mom watched us, I thought she left early but finally at the end of the show I spotted her, she had made her way to the front and was dancing. I just tracked my dad for a vocal part on the new record yesterday. It was a part only he could sing, you’ll have to wait for the record to find out why that is.

Is !!! a full time job for you all? What were your last jobs?
I was a babysitter, or as they’re called in NY, a “manny”. Most of us still have real jobs, but I don’t ‘cuz I think spending money is tiresome and I need to save my energy for the stage.

It’s been two years since ‘Myth Takes’ – how far are you into the next record? Do you know where you’ll be recording it?
1/3 in Berlin, 1/3 in Sacramento, 1/3 in NY. I have no idea how finished it is. Pretty finished, but not totally. More finished than it was yesterday, how’s that?

Have you managed to perfect a method of cross-country collaboration yet, or does putting the record together still take its time?
We don’t perfect.

I heard you use audience response to determine the future of new songs – have you had to change anything based on their reactions so far?
Response has been good, and yes, there was one part that wasn’t slammin’ enough and you could feel the audience want more, so we slammed it up.

From the fairly cheap crude recording origins of ‘Myth Takes’, has its success given you more money to spend on recording, or is that primitive recording process something you’re keen to retain?
Success has not given us anything that we can count.

You said previously that after ‘Louden Up Now’, the criticisms spurred you onto your next record, but ‘Myth Takes’ was acclaimed pretty much across the board. Have you felt any pressure in writing its follow-up?
Myth Takes was slammed pretty much across the board in England, what board do you read? (Metacritic, which puts it at a pretty solid 8.1)

You have such a vast frame of reference, from James Brown to Sonic Youth. Before you start making a record, do you actively spend time with the kind of records that influence you?
Kinda. I always consider that what I’m listening to may end up an influence and I try to have a broad palette subsequently. Did you ever hear about the record Peter Murphy [of Bauhaus] made after a year of listening to no music but his own? It still sounded like David Bowie, bless his heart.

What are you all listening to at the moment?

Tones on Tail [Bauhaus side project].

You once said in an interview that you hoped African music would become the new hip thing. What did you make of the supposed Afrobeat phenomenon last year, with everyone from Vampire Weekend to Franz Ferdinand appropriating it? And which records would you recommend as starting points for people unfamiliar with the real genre, as opposed to Urban Outfitters’ appropriation?
I think it was as refreshing as I had hoped, though not quite a musical revolution. I mean, Vampire Weekend caught a lot of hype, then flack, but I thought they were kind of fresh. They sound a bit like a Shins record or something, but without the African influence it would have been rather bland, now wouldn’t it have? I’m hoping they got just enough flack to scare them into making an even better record. They’ve got a great pop sense and I’d like to see them go even deeper. I think the Golden Afrique compilations are pretty great, especially Vol. 1. My summer jam is “Sweet Music” by Dizzy K. “Excuse Me Baby” might be easier to find. He kinda sounds like a Nigerian Ariel Pink, not just ‘cuz of the reverb on his vocals, but the freeform cheesy ‘80s sense of melody as well.

Pitchfork remarked that the abandon of Nic’s behaviour makes people forget themselves in the crowd, and totally let loose. Have there ever been situations jumping into the crowd where someone’s tried to get a little too fruity, or does anything fly?
There’s always that one girl who grabs me in the biscuits and is surprised to find out the yeast hasn’t risen. But that’s fine, if you feel can do that, do it. If you feel like doing something else, do it.

Considering the craziness of your gigs, much like people thinking actors are their characters, do you find that people expect you to be wired all the time?
Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’m disappointing people when I’m mellow. Like Iggy doesn’t read a book sometimes?

Do you ever consider changing your name? Does it ever get to the point where you want to make up a new story about its origin?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Actually, no to the first question, but the record company does. Wait a minute, they did.

The ‘Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act’ has seen a number of New York clubs shut down in the past couple of years, for seemingly tenuous links with drugs – selling water at large prices, or even glow sticks. Particularly given that as a bill it was sponsored by Biden, who’s now VP, has there been much of a noticeable influence on the scene?
I don’t look as often as I used to, but last time I needed it, I found it. But drugs like that have always been more underground in the States compared to the UK and Europe.

Finally – were there any legal repercussions of throwing the piano into the river?

1 July 2009

Review: Eagles of Death Metal, Princess Pavilion, Falmouth 25.06.09

Photo by Ben Peter Catchpole www.benpetercatchpole.com

“Literally, the coolest phrase I’ve ever heard is ‘alright my loverrrs,” drawls Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes to a rammed Princess Pavilion. With the Pavilion’s quintessentially English tearoom charm usually home to such greats as the St Stythians Band, T Rextasy and Sgt Peppers Only Dart Board Band (oh yes, really) it’s pretty fair to say that the crowd and the band are equal parts bemused and enraptured by their respective cultural heritages. The look on Hughes’ face when everyone starts shouting the local rallying cry of “Oggy oggy oggy! Oi oi oi!” to pay their respects to the free love smoulder of ‘Now I’m a Fool’ is priceless – flabbergasted, yet clinging to his grizzled, snarled cool by trying to look nonchalant – and the audience’s giggles at the band’s wide-legged posturing, biker bar talk, and habit of introducing songs via rhetorical questions made out of titles (“Are you just 19?!” he leers at one front row minor) suggest just how long it’s been since our musical G-spots have been tickled.

Strutting onstage to Kool and the Gang’s ‘Ladies’ Night’ whilst cloaked in the St Piran’s flag, it becomes clear quite quickly that subtlety doesn’t feature anywhere on former Republican speechwriter Hughes’ radar. His bullish smarm is well matched by that of certain wags in the audience who insist on shouting out “Josh!” between numbers – Joey ‘The Sexy Mexy’ Castillo is on drums tonight, and his ripped destructive playing is a machine-like two fingers up to those who came celeb crawling. Despite the rarity of decent gigs in Cornwall, they don’t always sell out, so it was eye-rollingly disappointing to talk to a guy in the bar afterwards who complained that he felt ripped off due to Homme not putting in an appearance (EoDM didn’t say why), despite having loved the gig and been full of praise for Castillo. The heckles subside as ‘Bad Dream Mama’ deploys a riff that’s Hunter S Thompson reincarnate shortly before the irresistibly sexy paean to youth and young corruption that is ‘I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)’, all girlishly high falsetto and snake hips. 

Around the middle, a few songs start to drown in the bombast of the set, but after Hughes downs a pint and introduces his extraordinarily young looking mum and brother, suddenly we’re back in a gay cowboy bar shaking it to a cock rock cover of ‘Stuck in the Middle’. They play less an encore, rather than an entire solo set from Hughes – ‘The Boy’s Bad News’ sounds like a crazed b-movie zombie chase with sexy consequences, his cover of ‘Brown Sugar’ is perhaps a little half-assed and could do with Dave, Brian and Joey to back it up, and the only problem with ‘Wannabe in LA’ is that this evening, Falmouth’s where rock’n’roll hedonism is laying its addled head.

Review: Bombay Bicycle Club - I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose

Originally published in NME

29 June 2009

Review: Magnetic Morning - A.M.

Originally published in NME

Considering Magnetic Morning’s pedigree – Interpol’s Sam Fogarino and Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin – it’s astonishing how much their debut sounds like Doves covering My Bloody Valentine, and largely every bit as ill-fated as that sounds. Unrelentingly maudlin and hell bent on ramming every potential silence with soporific guitars and proverbially pathetic fallacy, ‘A.M.’ only perks up on its two covers: ‘Motorway’, an adaptation of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’, with the Super Furries’ harmonies and the segues of Secret Machines happily trapped in a Krautrock time machine, and a cover of ‘60s girl group The Shangri-Las’ ‘Out in the Streets’, which imbues a welcome swathe of malevolence into the original’s saccharine chutzpah. For the most part though, there’s probably more life in your post-Glasto socks than is to be found anywhere in ‘A.M.’. 


22 June 2009

Review: Deastro - Moondagger

Originally published at TLOBF

There is no possible redemption for a band that names one of their songs ‘Daniel Johnston Was Stabbed In The Heart With The Moondagger By The King of Darkness And His Ghost Is Writing This Song As A Warning To All Of Us’. Come back, Panic! At The Disco, all is forgiven. Even if ‘Moondagger’ were as sublime as ‘Veckatimest’ or as revolutionary as ‘L’Histoire de Melody Nelson’, that title alone would be suffice to guarantee them a lifetime’s entry in the annals of indie wankerdom, but their music’s practically a fast-track pass to the front of the queue. 

Hailing from Detroit, Randolph Chabot Jr has probably never heard The Enemy or even been to Coventry, yet ‘Moondagger’ sounds suspiciously like Tom Clarke and his mullet-topped brethren frotting with Deerhunter to the tune of the Tesco Value version of ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’. All the requisite synth-pop elements are there – disco beats, programmed kids’ toy beats, and tsunamis of haze – but intermixed with the musical equivalent of breadcrumbs and pork starch. Opener ‘Biophelia’ might border on poignant, were it not for a ‘heard it a million times’ Pikachu bleep and the numb urgency of its soaring chorus, all sterile rockets and fireworks taking off in quick succession. It dives into ‘Parallelogram’ (I wonder where he got the idea for that song title), with vocals straight out of MPP – saccharine and rushing atop an all-enveloping wall of tropical sparkle and stormy crashes – but it never builds to those same euphoric climaxes that Animal Collective do so well. 

‘Greens, Grays, and Nordics’ makes plain that Deastro needs to attend lessons alongside classmates VHS or Beta, The Departure and The Bravery about why some musical trends were left in the ‘80s for a reason, and the offensively garrulous paean to Daniel Johnston mines the same grating vein. Despite starting in the same bland, dreamy way as a number of other songs present, it builds into what’s possibly the worst chorus of any song this year – think Tom Clarke joining PoP!, Hugh Grant’s fictional band from ‘Music & Lyrics’, attempting to write a Thatcherite protest song. Wincing yet? Try the chorus for size - “We’re gonna build this town / We’re gonna build it right / We’re gonna save this world / We’re gonna make some right”. It’s almost enough to make John McClure (Reverend & The Makers) sound like Dylan. I said almost. 


12 May 2009

Review: The Wooden Birds - Magnolia

This record shouldn’t be coming out in May. It should be snuggled away in the nooks and crannies of sepia November to glow with its dappled autumn light, to flicker like Super 8 film and warm chilled cockles. However, spending summer with American Analog Set frontman Andrew Kenny’s gorgeously melancholy new project certainly won’t go amiss. The Wooden Birds touch on familiar AmAnSet territory, but with production pared down to the most minimal, lo-fi acoustic guitar hiccupping with a metal scratch as the exquisitely balanced voices of Kenny and Leslie Sisson whisper in your ear. On first listen, its anodyne sexuality and obsessive romanticism might seem as commonplace as the face of a friend, but it’s only getting close after a few listens that you notice its idiosyncratic freckles and scars.


For an exclusive live SXSW session from The Wooden Birds, head over to WOXY.

29 April 2009

Review: St Vincent - Actor

Originally published at TLOBF

“Alas! When passion is both meek and wild!” John Keats once wrote. It’s the epigraph that Richard Yates, that great chronicler of the darker side of the American suburban dream, used to introduce Revolutionary Road, and it’s no less befitting an overture for St Vincent’s second record, ‘Actor’. For all Annie Clark’s doe-eyed physical delicacy and gentle vocals, there’s a fiercely shredded guitar riff and distorted beat that heads straight to the jugular, uprooting the white picket fences of the domesticity where she lays her less than rosy scene. Conceived by watching films such as The Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty on mute and reimagining their soundtracks, the follow up to 2007’s ‘Marry Me’ eloquently negotiates the narrative arc of a relationship in freefall to the tune of a glorious orchestra redolent of Paul J. Smith’s work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

But despite all of Annie’s humbleness, and self-dismissing as “a wife in watercolours” easily washed away on ‘Save Me From What I Want’, this is a record in full Technicolor that demands your attention; it’s impossible to work to, to ignore it when you’re in the room together, and blasphemously futile to try and use as background ambience, taking you back to what seem like ancient times where a whole afternoon could be passed just laying on your bed, wallowing in a record. Every second of music and quirk of vocal tone implies a nuance that goes beyond what’s being said, whether the acute kindly reprimand of a former lover, again on ‘Save Me…’, whose fuzzy percussion skips like Dick Van Dyke as she sings, “Honey what reveals you / Is what you try to hide away”, or during ‘The Party’, soul destroying with its soaring “oohing” chorus, where she exposes the rigmarole at the heart of social engagement that April and Frank Wheeler no doubt knew well – “Oh that’s the trouble / With ticking and talking”.
Whilst the lyrics to ‘Actor’ remain often sombre, its chamber pop sensibilities mixed with King Crimson style guitar gravel bring it firmly into the realms of euphoria. ‘Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” is mindblowingly sexy (though it feels crass to call it so), as what sounds like whale magic chimes into the lines “Just like an amnesiac / Trying to get my senses back” melting from her lips over a grimy drum beat, before singing, “Laughing with a mouth of blood / From a little spill I took”. When was the last time you heard someone take a “spill” in a pop song?! The charm offensive continues with single ‘Actor Out of Work’, where she takes control, belittling whoever’s wronged her with saccharine vehemence, a contrapuntal mix of her sweet aria and stinging guitars that act as the choric illumination for ‘Marrow’ - if when December comes there’s been a better riff, I’ll eat my proverbial hat, shorts and ears. In fact, I can hardly bring my fingers to the keyboard to write about just how good it is - they’re too busy dancing to this ecstatic mix of load, shoot and fire dirtiness, all razor sharp filthy guitar and melodica exuberance atop oscillating shimmer. Kanye West is going to be all over it.
It really wouldn’t be hard to wax lyrical for a dissertation’s length about the sheer brilliance of this album. There’s not a dull note or word out of place, and the only annoying thing about it is how consistently perfect Annie Clark manages to be (she’s far too sweet to tread on even the tiniest nerve), but to detail them all would deprive you of the pleasures of discovering them yourself. She’s not nearly hubristic enough for this lyric to be intentionally self-referential, but when on ‘Save Me From What I Want’ she sings, “the future’s got big plans for me”, you can only hope that’s an understatement. Flawless.

27 April 2009

Review: Fink, Gomez, O2 Academy, Bristol 26.04.09

Musicians like Newton Faulkner are bad enough for any number of reasons (let’s cite his cover of the Spongebob Squarepants theme tune as primary evidence), but when they succeed over far more talented artists from the same genre, all hatred borne toward them can be fully justified. Case in point: the lovely Fink (aka Cornish-born Fin Greenall), who bears the same luscious, woodsy guitar style and soulful voice (at a deeper timbre), but executes the two with a dark vocal intensity that contrasts beautifully with his relaxing instrumentation (which on this balmy Sunday evening is just two guitars; no band). A distracted frown crosses his brow on ‘Blueberry Pancakes’, as he sings, “everyone else is secondary, everyone else is temporary”, ostensibly about a departed lover, and proves that acoustic guitar-toting folkies needn’t just sing about the surf and good times with the bluesy ‘Sorry I’m Late’, his voice blistering at “she fucks me while the sun goes down”. “I’m nervous because the guy who inspired me to play guitar is stood over there,” he worries, but he needn’t. Especially considering the arrival of Gomez. 

Despite looking astoundingly youthful for a band in their thirteenth year, every other aspect of their set sounds so dated in its embarrassing pub rock predictability that it’s a chore to watch. ‘Whipping Piccadilly’ rattles its de facto groove, but their new material is atrociously boring, and not at all helped by singer and keyboardist Tom Gray goading the crowd into eliciting praise, though the audience seems to think differently – there’s many a couple smooching to the slowies, and reminiscing back to the halcyon days of 1998 when ‘Bring It On’ came out, and they’d never heard Newton Faulkner butchering ‘Teardrop’. Probably.

26 April 2009

Review: Hanne Hukkelberg – Blood from a Stone

Originally published at TLOBF

To say that ‘Blood From a Stone’ conjures soundscapes where Bat For Lashes’ moody beats meets Grouper’s ethereal swathe coated in the glow of Beach House’s sexy haze makes it sound like a much more exciting proposition than it really is. All these similarities are hugely palpable in Norwegian Hukkelberg’s third album, but the problem is that they’re executed with such minimal panache and effort that it’s a chore to make yourself listen all the way through.

The majority of songs have exactly the same structure – verses based around a facile programmed drumbeat, cheeping synths that sounds as though they were made on Brian Eno’s iPhone application, Bloom, some incoherent mewing and inconsequential choruses so dull that even her backing singers sound like they’re falling asleep (case in point – ‘No Mascara Tears’). It’s a baffling concept, but ‘Seventeen’ sounds exactly like Kelly Rowland’s ‘Stole’ (remember, the one about teenage suicide?) put through Tegan and Sara’s synthesizers. Don’t believe me? Try Rowland’s lyrics for size – “the brightest kid in school / He’s not a fool / Reading books about science and smart stuff” – and then Hukkelberg’s – “He didn’t fit in at school / The stupid rules / Made him a fool”, later singing about taking “the easy way out”. It’s unwittingly funny, and a perversely welcome lift halfway through a largely dull record.

The frustrating thing is that there are a few good songs on here, and condensed thus it’d make a promising EP. Opener ‘Midnight Sun Dreams’ does TLOBF the very kind job of reviewing itself in its title – it’s every bit as sensual as you’d imagine, with her voice flaring gently amidst an ebb and flow of the disquieted sleep patterns a Norwegian summer must bring. The way she sings, “I’m no temptress” makes for a reaction of lust at odds with aching beauty that makes you realize what The National were on about when they sang of a “feathery woman” on the incredible ‘Mistaken for Strangers’, so it’s a shame she can’t maintain the allure throughout. ‘Bandy Riddles’ builds to a climax where Grizzly Bear’s rhythm section meets the cathartic yells of Camille, and in the celestial closing number, ‘Bygd Til By’, the only song here in her mother tongue, she lets the mysterious (to us at least) lyrics roll deliciously from her lips. Less than a month after the release of Bat For Lashes’ ‘Two Suns’, however, you probably don’t need this in your record collection.


24 April 2009

Review: Earth @ The Croft, Bristol, 23.04.09

Originally published at TLOBF

“This is about how you get a medical condition where you can’t look at flashing lights, so lift your glass to your favourite method of self-destruction,” jokes Dylan Carlson before Steve ‘Stebmo’ Moore plays the fateful opening salvo of ‘Engine of Ruin’. Judging by the submissive head bowing and enraptured half-shut eyes of the audience, it’d seem that the preferred road to aural wreckage of everyone present is letting Earth attack their ears with their dismal grace and perturbing volume; like the slow erosion of Chinese water torture. This is one of those gigs that’s so close and impending that it’s left down to booming exhalations from the amplifiers to act as air conditioning for the night; despite Moore’s Wurlitzer blooming a lazy song beneath Carlson’s judgment gavel of a guitar, each note is so elongated and weighty that even contemplation begins to feel like physical exertion, so the occasional blasts of oxygen are gratefully received.

Their six-year hiatus not included, this year and tour mark the 20th anniversary of Earth, and they’re on fine form. To call them forceful, dark and hypnotic would be a crass understatement of their intensity - as they burn slowly through the embers of ‘The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull’ the emotional autonomy of the audience is lost to what feels like an ancient brainwashing ritual, Carlson excavates the protracted depths of ‘Miami Morning Coming Down II’ like he’s after Howard Carter’s prestige, and the Croft’s ceiling tiles give up their hold and tumble to the floor. Neither drummer Adrienne Davies nor Carlson bats an eyelid. ‘Bees…’ vinyl bonus track ‘Junkyard Priest’ raises the set’s brontide to a more aggressive level, with Stebmo taking on trombone duties to flesh out the night’s sleepy dynamic, and to recover a little soul just when it starts to feel like you’re watching a band in slow motion. The same pounding rant appears in an as-yet untitled new song in E flat minor (simultaneously frustrating and gratifying for fans, it’s the only non-‘Bees…’ track they play tonight). Playing with the resounding motifs from what will become its predecessor, it takes a more passive-aggressive turn of events, refusing to satisfy neat crescendos or cyclical melodies with a petulance so ear-ravishing that all you can do is raise your glass as high as you can, and weather the storm.

22 April 2009

Review: Soap&Skin - Lovetune for Vacuum

Originally published on The Line of Best Fit

Don’t let the soft, scented domesticity of Anja Plaschg’s stage moniker or album title fool you; ‘Lovetune for Vacuum” is a mournful Frankenstein of a record – a young woman attempting to come to terms with the often twisted depths of her own feelings by imprisoning them within a fortress of ticking shutter sounds and mandrake violins. With a beguiling voice pitched somewhere between Anthony and Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray/The Knife), 18 year old Plaschg (who grew up on a rural pig farm in her native Austria) cuts an emotionally bruised, shadowy figure on her extraordinarily precocious debut.

At the heart of the record is a shy, elegantly mechanical android, that ticks and whirrs with the sounds of typewriters, camera clicks and children’s toys, gradually expanding and dominating with each song. On the childlike ‘Cry Wolf’, it cowers reticently behind a background of Múm style vocals and a naïve flute, but gathers strength by ‘Turbine Womb’ (the lyrics can be a little sci-fi Sylvia Plath, but impressive for a second language) to sound like Optimus Prime doing the ballet; indeed, Plaschg’s strengths reach far beyond the stereotype of the quirky musical ingénue to join Peter Broderick, Hauschka and Max Richter as part of the exciting European scene of young classical protégés, such is her impressive piano work. Come the penultimate track, ‘DDMMYYYY’, the machine is fully-fledged, as industrial and aggressive as Leila or any of Richard D James’ Warp brethren as it drowns out a woman’s crazed histrionics – it’s no surprise that both Fenessz and DJ Koze have remixed her.

In parts, this is a terrifying record, and you can only imagine what it’s like to be her parents – an unpredictable raven haired pearl looming from the shadows of farmhouses in her press photos, even crouched naked amongst the pigs; with tortured scientific lyrics about the Greek daemon of death (‘Thanatos’, not dissimilar to the rousing layered vocals of Electrelane’s ‘The Valleys’) through to the slightly sixth form poetry words of ‘Extinguish Me’ (“I search in snow, in vain / For your footsteps’ trail / I have to kiss them / With my scalding tears”) and childhood pain (‘Spiracle’). It’s not always a pleasure to listen to, particularly as the tangle of piano and icy church intonations of ‘Fall Foliage’ rumble into that familiar elegant clunk of clockwork and whirrs, but it’s to her credit that she rides the motif through to the end of the record, and proves its worth – her bleak electronic dystopia could easily soundtrack Watchmen or similar. If this is how she sings ‘Lovetunes…’, heaven help us when she turns her pen to less starry-eyed subject matter.


20 April 2009

Review: Alessi's Ark - Notes from the Treehouse

Originally featured at The Line of Best Fit

Despite the wandering loveliness of 18 year old Alessi Laurent-Marke’s debut album, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want other people to hear it. And not for reasons of selfishness or wanting to be cooler than thou – rather the desire to protect her, to tuck her and the swooping warmth of her voice away from a press that’ll to turn her into the next poster girl for an untapped genre; to save her from the potential ignominious fate of a major label getting her to make the same album over and over until the cash cow’s bled dry and all inspiration stifled; to keep her away from the naysayers who’ll nitpick at her for being an arcane young Londoner with tangible influences that unabashedly bob their pretty heads above the surface of ‘Notes From the Tree House’.

Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it, with an album this strong there’s absolutely no chance of it staying under the radar – especially when you consider that she walked straight out of senior school with her GCSE Music compositions and into the arms of EMI, and Saddle Creek rabble rouser Mike Mogis. It’s a worry from the first song, ‘Magic Weather’, that the soaring weight of ornate instrumentation befitting of Van Dyke Parks might overwhelm Alessi – the strings pop up in nooks and crannies, and reveal themselves sparkle by sparkle to be a vast Narnia of wonderment - but she coolly holds her own amongst the perhaps over-lavish production, smoothing out inconsistent vocal ticks to eventually swoon like Alela Diane or Nina Nastasia.

This could come across as patronizing, but considering that most of the recent soup of young singers are possessed with a gift for lyrics that makes Twitter look profound, Alessi’s Ark deal an impressive hand in succinct, measured wistfulness that can’t help but raise a smile – on ‘Over the Hill’ she sings, ”I know we’ll get there eventually / but I’m English, so bear with me” with dreamy sagacity, and rolls through the hazy lullaby of ‘Constellations’, turning “she loves you, yes she does” into “Hell I’m in love with you, yes it’s true”, conjuring the beautiful, all-engulfing moment of being magnetized by the face of a hoped-for lover.

‘Notes From the Tree House’ isn’t a perfect album, but what use would that be? The most pertinent comparison in terms of early ability would be to Cat Power – but whereas Chan Marshall developed her often difficult angst into lustrous showmanship, it’d be lovely to see Alessi go the other way, and steer this polished sunrise into even more experimental territory. Little pockets of eerie sonogram echoes and dissonant film dialogue hide below the record’s surface like buried treasure, proving that Alessi is more than capable of keeping her own secrets.


Review: PJ Harvey & John Parish, Bristol Anson Rooms, 18.04.09

Originally featured on The Line of Best Fit and Epigram

There’s a terrifying stillness about PJ Harvey. At the end of each song, it’s as if a dark shadow has imprisoned her in celluloid, before the shutter release of John Parish’s tremendous guitar again liberates her diabolical wide-eyed rapture, gesticulating and wild in eldritch white. The three straitjacket-esque straps around her chiffon-swathed legs cannot contain her, as black heels occluding alabaster ankles dance in tongues around the defenceless boards of the Anson Rooms.

If this all sounds a little overblown, it’s because there aren’t words nuanced or physical enough to express the intense bliss evoked this evening. Yeah, we could steal some of Polly and John’s own, like the sumptuous, “you move me, like music” from ‘Rope Bridge Crossing’ off ‘Dance Hall at Louse Point’, but they wouldn’t be nearly as devastating as when emitted from red lips to lie on the nail bed of Parish’s awkward flinching guitar, and Künstlicher's no cuckoo.

Playing in support of their second album together in 13 years, PJ, John and their regular band of collaborators might look foreboding in their respective ghostly moll and gangster ensembles, but, just as on record, tonight’s performance is the sight of two old friends having fun, dismissing the common perception of them as serious artistes drowning in the gravitas of their craft. Single ‘Black Hearted Love’ is all visceral guitar and silky, butter-wouldn’t-melt rhetoric that’s the perfect contrast to wonderful surprise support act Howe Gelb’s (of Giant Sand) gravelly acoustic drawl, and snaps into ‘Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen’, whereby Harvey’s meticulously controlled voice hops from craggy wails to staccato counting, a cliff top siren call and girlish hiccoughing. The five of them lead an exquisitely balanced set, dipping into ‘The Soldier’, whose words hang like a tangled marionette over Parish’s childlike yet demented ukulele.

Despite unabashed dancing, inquisitive birdlike looks to John on her left, and a neat red grin a million miles from the Joker-ish make-up of her ‘To Bring You My Love’ era, at this stage it’s still hard to believe that this almost translucent woman has either the dint or desire to let forth the raw whoops of their oeuvre’s more scabrous works. However, with ‘Taut’, Harvey inflicts mirth and mild apprehension upon the audience as she spits “Even the son of God had to die my darlin’” like Pazuzu by way of Dorset, but curtails the outburst before embodying madness that’d see Mr Rochester hunting out the ladder to the attic hatch.

The only downside to letting PJ Harvey mesmerize you into forgetting that you’re stood in the dingy Anson Rooms (which have all the charm of a rotting grammar school gymnasium) is that it’s sometimes hard to remember to snap out of it to appreciate the astounding work of her dapper bandmates. In matching trilbies and suits (and pianist, bassist and guitarist Eric Drew Feldman’s shiny red brogues deserve a mention too), they look as though they’ve just stepped out of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’, and sound just as ominous.

“I have another story to tell you,” says Harvey, polite as a school mistress, before wreaking prurient havoc on the crowd with ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’ – every time she roars “I want his fucking ass!”, she jerks her own derriere, howling like a castrated werewolf, and dancing through John and Giovanni’s exorcism of a guitar solo with vigour that belies her maraca-induced shoulder injury.

The night seems fleeting, and the final song comes all too soon. After a thirteen year break between albums, it’ll most likely be at least as long again, if ever, before the next one; a thought as disquieting as the shadowy stillness that engulfs the rocking chair creak of ‘April’.

1 April 2009

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - 'Em Are I

Originally featured in NME 15/04/09

What with New York’s most idiosyncratic neurotic upping sticks to Europe for his past few films, Manhattan musician and illustrator Jeffrey Lewis has stepped in to chronicle the detritus of the human condition for his amicable fifth full length album. To fans, the majority of this lovingly crumpled bundle of nerves will be happily familiar from Lewis’ self-flagellating live schedule, as wearily explored on ‘Roll Bus Roll’, an unapologetically downbeat ditty about Greyhound buses, cheered on by a frayed backseat choral line and a picaresque ukulele that reignites the joyful spontaneity of touring. Lewis peeps through warmly looping guitar layers at anxious existentialism on ‘If Life Exists?’, and self-deprecates with ‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’, all handclap-propelled rollicking ‘60s pop which belies its bitter sentiment, and ‘To Be Objectified’ (“going bald is the most manly thing I’m ever going to do”). Meanwhile, ‘Whistle Past the Graveyard’ resurrects the madcap hyperactivity of ‘Systematic Death’ (off the album ’12 Crass Songs’) to quack and cluck with banjo-led insanity through the realms of the zombiefied absurd. His comic book sensibilities burst from the record with technicolour verve, particularly as the titular erudite swine of ‘Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon’ wiggles with Muppet-like bounciness to the Arthurian city. But no comic book hero is complete without his trusty sidekick – Jeff’s brother Jack plays bass throughout, and wrote ‘The Upside-down Cross’, a torrid, eight minute song about marriage and ecology where Calexico race Do Make Say Think up a mountain only to find that Sonic Youth have beaten them to the top. With the Brothers Lewis’ dry delivery, worry of impending baldness and mounting collection of romantic woes, it seems that Woody Allen needn’t bother going home.


25 March 2009

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want

Originally featured in NME

Bunkering down with a box set of ‘The Twilight Zone’ might not seem the most obvious way to craft an album of hazy summer dreams, but Papercuts’ (aka Jason Quever) third record hugs the emotionally mysterious in a swathe of somnambulant romance embracing bumbling lo-fi guitar trills. All crackling shimmer and Mercury Rev syrupiness, it’s as much summer as the smell of Hawaiian Tropic, and therein lies the problem; ‘You Can Have…’ is, on occasion, a beautiful, densely crafted album in respectful debt to the ‘60s (aided by the guys from Beach House) - at times Van Dyke Parks meets Grizzly Bear (‘Once We Walked in the Sunlight’), at others, so nonchalantly français you half expect Serge Gainsbourg to appear – but the slow, dusky familiarity and sobering lack of dynamics (disappointing when Quever shows what he is capable of on ‘Future Primitive’) make for more of a groundhog day than transcendence into any fifth dimension.


14 March 2009

Review: Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Originally featured in Epigram

“It seems to come from the world of Grimm’s fairytales,” said Thom Yorke of Natasha Khan’s enchanting music when he chose Bat For Lashes to support Radiohead, and on ‘Two Suns’, the fantastical elements that danced through her debut remain, but with a poetic maturity and strength that rather more resemble the complex stories of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ than childlike naivety - bewitching the listener with her haunting, almost lonely exploration the duality of self, gender, and psychogeography. 

Lead single ‘Daniel’ arrives on a cinematic sunrise fanfare, building tentatively with Khan’s sultry English diction and the dark glamour of a 1980s music matriarch. Moments of macabre formality surface on ‘Sleep Alone’ as a looping sitar courts a proud bass note, and again on final track, ‘The Big Sleep’, an eerie coda where Scott Walker moans the ghostly lament of a drag queen’s last hurrah. Yeasayer appear on beat duties throughout, firing booming tribal canons across the sparkling dual landscapes that Khan so vividly conjures – she celebrates the “thousand crystal towers” of her former home, New York, on the piercing ‘Glass’, and orchestrates a dusty spiritual ‘60s ritual on ‘Peace of Mind’, guitars rattling with ramshackle familiarity. There’s a newfound strength in her vocals too, which glower lupine and sensual through the forests of ‘Moon and Moon’, accompanied by a chorus of haunting sylphs. 

“I got fed up of everyone thinking I was this mystical creature that drinks unicorns’ tears for breakfast!” she said of her debut, and as she smoulders, “I’m evil” at the end of the arresting ‘Siren Song’, it’s clear that on ‘Two Suns’, Natasha Khan is the wolf in grandmother’s clothing not to be underestimated.


Is music consumption as we know it imploding?

As The Pirate Bay founders await a court verdict and YouTube removes premium music videos from UK viewers, is Spotify the life raft the music industry’s been waiting for?

Originally featured in Epigram

When asked whether each MP3 file shared online represents a lost sale for the record industry, John Kennedy of the International Federation of Phonographic Industries answered, “yes”, much to the amusement of the founders of Sweden-based The Pirate Bay. The two sides are currently awaiting the verdict (due on April 17th) of a much-publicized trial that has seen the Swedish authorities file charges against the torrent sharing website for “promoting other people’s infringements of copyright laws”. 

While Kennedy’s position on the download to sales ratio is laughably ill thought out, given the amount of reasonable file sharers who download for sampling purposes prior to committing to a purchase, the case itself has reached a cliffhanger which will resonate with profound consequences across the world whatever its outcome. The Pirate Bay representatives were in the dock for over two weeks, proving that the line between legal and illegal downloading is not as defined as the authorities might like to think. If the prosecution wins, it’s a step towards realizing the dreams of the ‘Big Four’ record labels (Sony BMG, Warner Music, EMI, Universal) and international governments, where illegal P2P networks are forced to compensate those whose copyrights have been breached. However, if The Pirate Bay’s arguments about being merely a search engine rather than the source of copyrighted material hold up, then the authorities face further obstacles in their fight to reduce illegal downloading, an activity that the UK government aims to cut by 80% come 2011.

On 29th January 2009, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published an interim report entitled ‘Digital Britain’, detailing government proposals to mirror France’s three step plan for tackling repeat downloading offenders. By teaming up with major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), offenders would first receive an ‘educational letter’ informing them of the illegality of their actions; followed by suspension of services until you sign a contract agreeing to cease such activity, and the potential to lose your internet connection for a year if you persist. It is estimated that as many as 7million people in the UK share files illegally, and in December 2008, the Entertainment Retailers Association found that piracy of music and film accounts for up to £1.5bn in lost revenue each year. The government has pledged £8million to cut intellectual property theft, and hopes to implement public awareness campaigns and education in schools about the value of intellectual property.

Most people would be surprised at the little amount of money that most musicians earn from selling records. SClub7 famously worked for a comparative pittance, based on a blanket wage agreement they signed with their label at the start of their career. New York experimentalists Gang Gang Dance were recently forced to cancel a tour they couldn’t afford to continue when all their equipment was lost in a fire in Amsterdam, and guitar goddess Marnie Stern resorted to a kisses for cash scheme to pay off a parking fine that threatened to cripple her recent tour. This surprising and kinda saddening news makes it all the more laudable that governments across the world are taking pains to educate young people about intellectual property (despite the capitalist structures at play behind the scenes), but the moot point is, what other methods (apart from traditional purchasing) will be put in place to sate the musical needs of culturally voracious downloaders?

When MySpace launched its assault on the web five years ago, the New York Times called it “a marvelously efficient, remarkably cheap and not terribly invasive means of spreading buzz.” Shortly after, in November 2005, YouTube exploded into homes across the world, and together, these sites seemed to pave the golden path for on-demand music consumption; to provide an exciting remedy for an ailing record industry. However, the musical content of both sites is now under threat in the UK from YouTube’s dispute with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) (which could extend to Myspace), a non-profit collection agency which distributes royalties to its members. The existing license between YouTube and the PRS is up for renewal, and the PRS wants more money for its members than YouTube’s parent company Google claims it is able to give. This has led to YouTube removing a number of ‘premium videos’ from UK access. YouTube profits from the adverts that appear by videos, the monetary gain of which they are not obliged (thus do not) share with the artists. Although Patrick Walker, YouTube’s director of video partnerships, told the Guardian that, “if the next Arctic Monkeys is going to surface, we need to get this [relationship] to work”, his shtick about nurturing talent is pretty transparent, and as this mercenary debate continues and online music licensing becomes more complicated and expensive, fans searching for music to enjoy legally are being driven elsewhere.

It would then seem that we should be thanking the heavens for the advent of Spotify, free software with an instant streaming library of music so exponentially vast that one blogger nicknamed it “God’s iTunes”. Just like The Pirate Bay, Spotify was launched by a group of Swedes (one of whom ironically created uTorrent, a client for downloading largely illegal torrents), in October 2008, and so far has been almost whole-heartedly supported by all corners of the record industry. The UK government loves it so much that their Central Office of Information is one of the main clients of its advertising service, whereby every 15 minutes or so, a short ad interjects your stream of choice. Its low demand on bandwith also marries tidily with a proposal from the ‘Digital Britain’ report, whereby the government wants to ensure a minimum 2mb broadband connection to every home across Britain by 2012.

It’s supported by the ‘Big Four’, and Merlin, an umbrella company established to give independent labels the representative force of their conglomerate rivals, thus Spotify claim that up to 10,000 new tracks are added to their library each day. The back catalogues of labels Domino, Fat Cat, Warp, the Leaf Label amongst others appear almost in full, as does Radiohead’s oeuvre, and U2, Morrissey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs gave Spotify users exclusive dibs on their album prior to release. With its clean interface, purely genuine content, reassuring images of handsome Swedes reclining on concept Ikea furnishings, and promise that they “respect creativity and believe in fairly compensating artists for their work,” it’s not hard to see why over a million users have signed up since October; surprising even, given that it was invite only until February. It even accounts for the community aspect of downloading – you can share your personalized playlists with your friends, and it’s still only in Beta (trial) form.

The biggest downside to Spotify is that you can’t download music from it. At present, songs can only be streamed from your computer; you can’t add them to your iPod or similar. However, they’re currently hiring a developer to enable the application for iPhones, and contemplating a portable future. From a romantic perspective, it might neatly do away with the idea of owning a record collection. Heck, it’s so damned cutting edge that it pretty much renders owning MP3s obsolete – why fill up your hard drive when you can stream from an endless library to your heart’s delight?

However, it still doesn’t quite have the answer for making up those lost sales that John Kennedy’s so worried about. Although Spotify defeats the point of illegal downloading with its extensive back catalogue and sparkly pre-release exclusives, why bother buying a record when you can access it for free? What Spotify doesn’t do is address the issue of getting something for nothing, summed up eloquently by a pro-downloading musician (who wished to remain anonymous):

“There are hardly any bands confident enough to just put their album on the shelves without giving it a preview somewhere. Seeing as most bands have something out there for free, to an extent I think that we do have a right to free music, but it depends on the intention the listener has – whether they’re going to invest in the band in the future somehow. There are a lot of people who don’t spend a dime on music, and that’s completely immoral.”

Whether The Pirate Bay’s actions are judged thus remains to be seen, but the future of music consumption is indubitably on the cusp of profound change.