Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Quick You Fool, Catch The Sun!

Summer arrived last week. It arrived, scorched everyone's pasty skin (except mine, sun: "hisssssssssssssssss") and then departed with the sort abruptness that one might describe as rude. 

Reports from taxi drivers give snow in some parts for tomorrow, but then taxi drivers will also tell you stories about how David Bowie has a house in Maesteg, how pigeons carry space measles and how David Cameron is an entity constructed entirely from ham. 

One of those is absolutely true.

In honour of our fleeting glimpse into the mythical land of barbeque, I give you a couple of summery tracks.
  • Haystacks, The Cave Singers, No Witch. Jingly jangly farming fun, fun, fun, fun. 
  • I've Been Waiting, Uninhabitable Mansions, live on WFMU. Hipster haze.
  • Bola Bola, Gorky's Zygotic Monkey, Barafundle. Always reminds me of the Wicker Man... and misspent summers past.

.... Oh and this:

  • Technicolor Health, Harlem Shakers, Techincolor Health. Yes, colour is misspelt, but I like it rather a lot.  

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Utter Addiction, Total Conquest

I don't remember where I picked up the Elvis Perkins bug from; it was somewhere recent, almost certainly a music blog ... but I'm terribly sorry, I can't remember the name of the lovely soul who made the recommendation - shine on whoever you are!

What a recommendation it was. Aside from the unbelievable Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue box-set, Elvis P has had almost exclusive rights over my ears. Over and over and over, until the songs are as ingrained as stains on a kitchen table. Tip-top stuff.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Here's to Glen Campbell. Seriously.

I was going to be all trendy with a roundup of Cardiff's Swn festival (Nikki and the Dove stood out), but, er... well, I went to see Glen Campbell the other night; he kind of took the cake.

Glen Campbell may turn out to be one of the most memorable gigs I've been to. He's 75, suffering from Alzheimer's and yet still performing in a farewell tour - one that includes a costume change no less. He basks in a haze of glorious neon Americana (does a mean Elvis impression), and whilst on stage he appeared to be enjoying himself immensely.  The dexterity of the septuagenarian's guitar playing and his lyrical recall remains untouched by the ravages of dementia - there was even an outbreak into 'Dueling Banjos' at one point, causing my poor charred husk of a heart to burst with joy. He still can perform.

Watching Glen, one is apt to be reminded of the redoubtable Mrs Beetle from Stella Gibbon's 'Cold Comfort Farm', she who planned to turn her grandchildren into a jazz band. Glen's done it. His daughter's a multi-instrumentalist, one son plays bass and another plays the drums. They all play and sing. Whilst that kind of forward planning must certainly keep the overheads down, I suspect it's also the reason that he was able to undertake this last tour. His family treats him as a treasure.

They weren't alone in that sentiment - I don't think I've ever seen a standing ovation given before an artist has even sung one note, but there was a palpable genuine affection in sold out St David's Hall. It was never hard to watch Campbell on stage (despite my pre-concert worries), there was never a pause to allow a crushing weights of concern and sympathy deaden the mood. Alzheimer's wasn't so much an elephant in the room as a buzzing fly to be hand-waved off , at least while the limelights shone. "I'm 54", he joked, "I  forget things!".

As the evening wore on Glen's banter became at times a little confused but the show's structure and band provided direction and focus. He remained in high spirits, surrounded by his children,even singing some 'new'. The picture of a man at peace; one who has the good fortune to be on stage, appreciated, and singing with wizened gusto. Would that that level of attention and fondness could be so easily granted to other dementia sufferers, providing a constant tonic of reassured self worth. That said it's not all peaches and gravy; on the way out one old chap muttered about Campbell's voice being "different" since the last time he saw him, 35 years ago.

Glen Campbell's certainly never been cool. Not even ironically, despite the potent combination of Rhinestones and faux folksiness. Nor  has he been rejuvenated and re-marketed by the loving ministrations of a seminal producer (one suspects he wouldn't  have submitted to such attentions), or fixed into the firmament as an American icon. Yet he's still wearing spangly cowboy jackets, and the Witchita Lineman is still on that line. The evident pride in his career must surely contrast with what his happening to his mind, yet  he looks to be content. A man who knows himself, and is in on the joke. To watch Glen Campbell was to be provided with a rare glimpse into unique performer's longevical life, and to be given cause to celebrate.

Here you go, you know you'll enjoy them really:

Friday, 30 September 2011

Power Pop for Nuns: Hazey Janes

Writing about the Hazey Janes should be simple. They're a Scottish band with faux American accents. Their music is unassuming power pop; between the jangly guitars you can hear echos of nifty West coast three part harmonies. There's a spot of self-effacing Bon Jovi fandom in there too - though they just about get away with it. The songs are catchy enough to raise a smile and enjoyable enough to warrant more than one listen. The Hazey Janes seem to have mastered the art of being uncomplicated without being dull.
Oh boy, is that ever damning with faint praise; it's also pretty unfair as I've willingly given the upcoming album 'The Winter That Was' a few repeat hearings.
Carmelite is one of the more boisterous offerings. If I liked it less I'd call it a skillful package of cliches; driven, sweet sounding and not a little soft-rock. They're a little like the post Holy Bible Manic Street Preachers, without the 6th form poetry.
The ingenuous truth is that although the Hazey Janes fall into the (somewhat long-winded) category of dime-a-dozen bands "capable of putting out a decent tune without signifying anything", actually that's okay in this case. They're solid, not boring. Perhaps it's indicative of my current tendency to overdose on lots of angsty, hand-wringing indie and a bit too much electro, but these guys feel like a gust of fresh air; there's unabashed jubilation to be found in their gusto too. They're not so mild that they're inoffensive, but for a simple band they've been a pain in the backside to analyse.

St Vincent - I'm flicking through a thesaurus for superlatives as I type

I'm trying to find a prosy way to start talking about St Vincent. Maybe a comparison with other bands that use St as a honorific, maybe some sort of poor ramble about the singer-songwriter's beatification after leaving the smiley happy, cult-like Polyphonic Spree...
No. Sod it.
St Vincent, aka Ann Erin Clark is bloody good. Her first album 'Marry Me' was bloody good, 'Actor' more of the same, and not only does 'Strange Mercy' fail disappoint in any way whatsoever, it keeps on improving with every listen. 'Cheerleader', taken from the newly released third album proved to be my personal highlight of last night's Music Geek Monthly meeting; even though I completely misheard the chorus and thought she was singing about not wanting to be a "chimney". Totally understandable; chimney isn't exactly the sort of career for a young, talented woman.
Generally Miss Clark gadds about as an alternative darling; popping up here and there in elite touring bands, or as an opening act to indie groups with serious chops - Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear etc, etc. Usually garnering plenty of critical acclaim and Kate Bush comparisons. Did I mention she's bloody good? She plays a dirty bass, she sings - she probably doesn't want to be a chimney (her lyrics tend to be a bit cleverer than that) and if that's not enough she plays a slew of other instruments too. Flute, organ and piano aren't enough for her or her heavily layered arrangements.
Strange Mercy is a curious beast. The album sounds raddled; a travel-soiled girl weary under florescent bus station lights, hands clenched into fists, palms marked by half moons. It spins from from fragility to aggression; catchy riffs subvert the dark, challenging and frank tone as the music ripples with raw emotion, painful stories and originality.
Second track 'Cruel'is a perfect example of the music's schizophrenic nature; bright, breezy start with a luscious stroke of 'Spanish Eyes'-like balladry, counterpointed by a chirpy electro beat that bob-bob-bobs along until... until... Until there's a crescendo and you're not quite in Kansas anymore. Yet as suddenly as it changes it reverts to being a blowsy singalong once more, albeit about someone "someone waving flares in the air so they could see you".

There's not a hint of pretension, not even in tracks with titles like 'Neutered Fruit' (which include a Disney choir like warble). It's the music of someone who is clearly in love with what she does; complex, creative, crafted.... And it's bloody good.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Weakness For Harmonies

There are plenty of slightly doleful, jean-clad, folky harmonisers lurking out in the mists. Sweet, twee and utterly vapid, yet hell-bent on clogging up one's ears with cable-knit earnestness. The demonstrable effect of which is akin to a giant smug sigh. There are few things truly as dull as when an otherwise inoffensive genre shuffles up to politely handbag the listening public, but that's what happens when folk attacks. Tea, trees and twiddly-dee songs of melancholia for everyone!

Right now contemporary folk feels almost beyond redemption. Boring music by numbers, thoroughly moribund with both a sense self-inflated authenticity and well stroked beards in dutifully curated states of distress.
Thankfully there are exceptions to this stream of tediousness...
March of Dimes are a alt-country band, rich with the sort of concinnity that acts as a lodestone for attention. After following up on a recommendation, the Leeds based group have become addictive listening.

The (now) five-piece started as a musical project of commemoration and celebration. The first album, 'All Intents And Purposes', 2008, certainly does sound personal, but there's unexpected quirks and tangents that transform the songs into something greater than audio diary entries of middle-road lyricism. It serves as a reminder that ardency isn't always a bad thing; running alongside the (rather charming) mostly sad songs is unheralded vein of flippancy and musical skill that is very definitely beguiling.
Aside from the first album there's a couple of EPs too, all under Hope House Records; the entire collection can be found for streaming here. I promise it's worth it.
The latest EP is a little richer in tone; a little more polished, but it bodes well for future releases. B-side 'The Navigation Song', is just the right side of wistfulness to make it the perfect accompaniment to fleeting scenes from train windows, or all other autumnal travel needs.
I'm a sucker for good harmonies; it's a pleasure to find a new reason to actually enjoy them.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Musing on Billie Holiday... and Bananas.

I once had a falling out over Lady Day. Yes, it was late at night. Yes, whisky sampling had been taking place - how clever of you to guess.
My friend was being a pretentious jazz snob (the worst kind of music snob, so sayeth the shoegazer) belittling her later work. Okay, she lost a lot of her range to booze and drugs, but an expansive range was never her big thing. I think the later fragility adds a poignancy to her music. People are at their most interesting a study when they're less than perfect. You can marvel the sublime, but half its glory lies in being able to bare witness in the face of the moment's brevity. Beauty doesn't remain fixed, all skill fails; the passage time takes its toll (especially bananas). We all have failings and lord knows we acquire more (or better disguises); ultimately Elvis was no less great because he got fat.
Okay, some stuff to know about Billie Holiday, though I'm sure you all do....
Billie Holiday is the perfect accompaniment to heavy rain and introspective writing. She was born Elenanora Fagan back in 1915, died an old, old young in '59. Jazz purists are apt to talk about her phrasing and pioneering vocal style - she liked to emulate the band, particularly the cornet. Music historians cite her tragic upbringing, though in her autobiography she made light of it...
"Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three'.
Her mother sold her into prostitution age 13, the men she loved treated her badly, but all that was nothing. She was raped as a child by her neighbor: she was arrested as she lay dying. If she'd be around today there's no doubt the only thing you'd know her for would be her prodigious heroin addiction.
Holiday co-wrote only couple of songs, but they've become standards - including "Don't Explain" posted down below. As I mentioned above, she shot her voice through booze and drugs, but the fragility became her. She sang for crying hearts, and broken spirits; for those who've been wronged and those who didn't/couldn't help themselves. Injustice and pain is universal, but that music can only ever be hers.
Her final album, Lady in Satin was recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra a year before her death. In the liner notes wrote of her...
"I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes ... After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was."
If I had to listen to only one record for the rest of my life, it would one of Billie's. Here are some of my personal favorites: