Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The sound of your own heart

Los Campesinos! have released a new track, 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future'.

The group are audibly maturing into the kind of band I always thought they were capable of being. Not that I don't adore the yelping, sugar-rush pop of their first record, but it sounded a lot more refined on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, with hints of darker sounds as well as a greater focus on Tom and Harriet's songwriting and arrangements. It also started to align with the more complex sounds of some of their primary stated influences.

This is certainly the darkest thing they've done, and possibly the best. I'll be going back to my seaside hometown this weekend, and this shall certainly be on heavy rotation. Download from their equally brilliant website.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Slow it down, the song is sacred

When I saw that Yoni Wolf had covered a Pavement song, my initial reaction was that it was going to be a horrible fucking racket. Don't get me wrong: I love Pavement, and I've got a lot of time for WHY?, Yoni's main musical project. But what can you do with a Pavement song, really? WHY?'s recent single 'This Blackest Purse' should have been a clue, but I never could have imagined that kind of treatment working so well on a Malkmus number. It does though, and transforms 'Shoot The Singer (1 Sick Verse)' from a fairly Pavement-by-numbers EP track into a tremulous piano ballad. Sounds terrible on paper, but I've had it on repeat since I heard it a few hours ago.

MP3: Yoni Wolf - 'Shoot The Singer (1 Sick Verse)'
(via Stereogum, right click & save as)

2009: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

There's still a good sixteen weeks of the year left, I know. Then again, this came out at the start of February, and nothing's quite managed to surpass it since: not Animal Collective's critically adorned breakthrough, not Jeffrey Lewis' most brilliant album to date, and certainly not the overrated Veckatimest. Many will be inclined to disagree, not least because all of those albums are a great deal more inventive and sophisticated than The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. But none of them are as good.

I've already waxed lyrical about this lot a fair bit. Original, they ain't, but to adapt a quote from someone else: 'How are you supposed to know it's a Pastels rip-off if you've never heard the Pastels?' Call it faux-naiveté on their part if you like, but that wall of distorted, powerchord-driven indie-pop remains the perfect template for the lyrical narratives of awkward youth. 'Come Saturday' is, in this respect, the album in miniature: feedback, fuzzy guitars, cooing backing vocals, and a tale of summer love that cares for nothing but the moment: 'I can't see into the sunset / All I know is that you're perfect right now.' Absolutely wonderful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

2008: Saturdays = Youth

This was the hardest pick by far. Maybe I'd started paying closer attention, but I like to think that 2008 was just a great year for releases. Deerhunter's Microcastle / Weird Era Cont., Wild Beasts' Limbo, Panto and Johnny Foreigner's Waited Up 'Til It Was Light were all serious contenders; there were also corkers from British Sea Power, Okkervil River, Cut Copy, Bon Iver, Elbow and No Age; and two excellent records from my old pals Los Campesinos! saw them rapidly promoted to the indie-pop A-list.

One album captivated me more than any other that year though. If Daft Punk mined a euphoric nostalgia for a lost childhood, their compatriot Anthony Gonzalez casts a more wistful, melancholic glance back at juvenile days, to no less dazzling effect. Torch song 'Kim & Jessie' sounds like a joyous tribute to the 80s film soundtrack - insert your own John Hughes reference here - singing of 'kids outside worlds' who are 'crazy 'bout romance and illusion,' but the chorus evokes a much darker scene: 'Somebody lurks in the shadows, somebody whispers.' It's all the gusto of youth, infused with the accompanying bouts of paranoia, self-doubt, and confusion as to one's place in the world.

It is this classic pop juxtaposition, which characterised the 80s of Gonzalez's youth, of lyrical anxiety set to glorious, often upbeat electronic music, that is realised so perfectly on Saturdays = Youth, and which makes it such a success. 'Graveyard Girl' is another fine example, the guitar-led rush of the chorus breaking for a spoken word part, heralded by a ringing schoolbell: 'I'm gonna jump the walls and run. I wonder if they'll miss me? I won't miss them... I'm fifteen years old, and I already feel like it's too late to live. Don't you?'

Saturday, 29 August 2009

2007: Sound of Silver

That's how it starts.
We go back to your house.

We check the charts
And start to figure it out.

And if it's crowded, all the better,
because we know we're gonna be up late.
But if you're worried about the weather
then you picked the wrong place to stay.
That's how it starts.

And so it starts.
You switch the engine on.
We set controls for the heart of the sun,
one of the ways we show our age.

And if the sun comes up, if the sun comes up, if the sun comes up
and I still don't wanna stagger home
Then it's the memory of our betters
that are keeping us on our feet.

You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan,
and the next five years trying to be with your friends again.

You're talking 45 turns just as fast as you can,
yeah, I know it gets tired, but it's better when we pretend.

It comes apart,
the way it does in bad films
Except in parts,
when the moral kicks in.

Though when we're running out of the drugs
and the conversation's winding away
I wouldn't trade one stupid decision
for another five years of life.

You drop the first ten years just as fast as you can,
and the next ten people who are trying to be polite.
When you're blowing 85 days in the middle of France,
Yeah, I know it gets tired only where are your friends tonight?

And to tell the truth.
Oh, this could be the last time.
So here we go,
like a sail's force into the night.

And if I made a fool, if I made a fool, if I made a fool
on the road, there's always this.
And if I'm sued into submission,
I can still come home to this.

And with a face like a dad and a laughable stand,
you can sleep on the plane or review what you said.
When you're drunk and the kids look impossibly tanned
you think over and over, "hey, I'm finally dead."

Oh, if the trip and the plan come apart in your hand,
you can turn it on yourself, your ridiculous prop
You forgot what you meant when you read what you said,
and you always knew you were tired, but then,
where are your friends tonight?

Where are your friends tonight?
Where are your friends tonight?

If I could see all my friends tonight,
If I could see all my friends tonight,
If I could see all my friends tonight,
If I could see all my friends tonight.

Pitchfork voted this the second best song of the decade. I think they were one place out.

Friday, 28 August 2009

2006: Atlantis: Hymns for Disco

Being the first hip-hop album I really loved. I was introduced to this not long after it came out by my friend Omid, who lived in a student house with myself and four other young men at the time, each of distinctly questionable hygiene and industriousness. Omid and I were the two big music geeks in the house, and regularly took turns to burst into each other's rooms waxing lyrical about the latest thing we were all excited about (before settling down to the number one pastime of the modern undergraduate, Pro Evolution Soccer). Usually we liked what the other had to share. Tougher was finding something we could play communally that all six of us enjoyed, a goal that would have been reached much sooner if I hadn't been the stick-in-the-mud who insisted that Jamiroquai was, in fact, crap.

In the end it was Canadian rapper k-os' third long player, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco, that was the first to be met with unanimous praise. In a genre commercially saturated by hyper-produced superstars, regurgitating the same tired clichés of guns, bitches and bling over Timbaland's ever-thinning beats, what appeals about Atlantis is its organic feel. There are few if any samples, most of the tracks are built around guitar riffs, and the whole thing is blessedly autotune-free. Best of all is that the album rewards repeated listenings, which seems contrary for such an instantly accessible album. For all this, and a man of Kevin Brereton's lyrical flow, skill, verbosity and intelligence, it is a continuing source of puzzlement that he remains relatively unknown outside of his native Canada.

2005: Broken Social Scene

When The National's Matt Berninger sang in 'So Far Around The Bend' of the song's protagonist 'humming in a haze forever / praying for Pavement to get back together,' he could have been describing Broken Social Scene. The Canadian ensemble craft a far more textured, dreamier sound than Stephen Malkmus' artfully dishevelled rock, but they share the latter's indie spirit, never more so than the moment when this album kicks off proper with 'Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)'. When I bought this record I knew little of either Pavement or the eponymous Ibi [Kaslik], but I knew the song fucking rocked.

It was also indicative of what seemed like a new-found swagger. While the first record noodled along contentedly, and the wonderful breakthrough LP You Forgot It In People took strides towards more traditional song structures, Broken Social Scene feels like the band's all-singing, all-dancing pop record, and probably - though I'd love you to prove me wrong when you get around to it, chaps - their masterpiece. Put this on in the morning, when the sun's shining and it's your day off work. Listen to the impossibly joyous trumpet crescendo that brings '7/4 (Shoreline)' to a close, the irresistably catchy 'Fire Eye'd Boy', the boundless energy of 'Superconnected', and all the classic BSS tender moments inbetween. That's the sound of several of this decade's most creative indie-rock musicians pitching in to make something that sounds utterly cohesive, and having a whale of a time along the way.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

2004: Funeral

This is the only album I still listen to that has very specific memories attached to it. I can picture the room, my then bedroom (in 2005 actually), the fact that the curtains or curtain rail had broken, so that even late at night the room was lit by the streetlamps outside. Two or three nights at most, she walked over, and we just lay there and talked 'til we fell asleep. Wonderfully innocent, even though it wasn't a good idea practically. Obvious in the daytime but oblivious in the night. Funeral was the soundtrack, but specifically the first track, 'Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)'. No matter how many times I've listened to it in less magical surrounds since, at work, in different bedrooms, alone or with someone else, that first chiming piano melody never fails to take me back to that time. It's a great record, regardless, but it's possibly the best album of the decade because it has the ability to capture those fleeting, ethereal memories of childhood, of being sequestered from the outside world in 'our bedrooms, and our parents' bedrooms, and the bedrooms of our friends.'

2003: The Decline of British Sea Power

So one night a friend had come over to stay, and the night had been spent (as I recall) flitting about various bars and houses in Cardiff, the day's alcohol intake having begun at 8.30am with a can of lager to celebrate a friend's birthday awakening. After a day spent ingesting a variety of things I shouldn't have, we ended up in my room, listening this album's mind-blowing fourteen-minute climax, 'Lately'. I was slumped against my door frame, eyes shut tight, mouthing every word. When those words include, 'Do you like my prehistoric rock? Do you like my neolithic rock?' and so forth, it can make one look a little daft. Just saying.

That's the kind of kick I get out of this record though. It is, quite frankly, bloody epic. Starting off with forty-two seconds of Gregorian chanting - as you do - before kicking the doors down with a four-minute punk-rock sonic assault across two songs, the album finally settles into something of a stride with 'Something Wicked'. From hereon in it's sort of like this: breathy vocals, soft, Galaxie 500-esque acoustic melodies, sighing backing vocals... to be interrupted as often as possible by really loud distorted guitars! It's not a particularly new formula for indie rock, but boy do this lot do it well. Fact: 1.53 through 2.06 on 'Fear of Drowning' is the best thirteen seconds of music ever recorded.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

2002: Turn on the Bright Lights

Interpol spawned a slew of imitators in the 00s; that they haven't received more credit for their influence is probably due to the fact that most of the copy-cats ranged from merely half-decent (Bloc Party, She Wants Revenge) to actually terrible (Editors, White Lies). Even Interpol started to sound like a poor imitation of themselves towards the end of the decade.

Okay, so most of the lyrics make no sense. Some are downright terrible, notably the now-infamous line: 'Her stories are boring and stuff / She's always calling my bluff.' What was great about Turn on the Bright Lights, though, was that it was a rock record with little of the bluster associated with that concept: typically, 'meaningful' storytelling lyrics attached to boisterous, balls-out instrumentation. There was nothing remotely shambolic here. The slick, suited look of Paul Banks and co. matched their music to a tee: a neurotically tight rhythm section, mostly clean guitars, and unassuming vocals. Listening to 'Obstacle 1' again, the word syncopated doesn't do the verses justice: drums, bass, and guitar each seem to work frantically to fill every available space in the sonic meter, and yet it all combines to sound effortlessly classy.

Some complain, partly for these reasons, that Interpol are boring, that the songs lack emotion. I say if you're looking for hearts on sleeves, you're missing the point of the record. For me, listening to this album reminded me of hearing Young Marble Giants' seminal Colossal Youth for the first time: a masterclass in sparse, minimalist post-punk, not to mention one of the finest debuts of its era.

2001: Discovery

It sure was. Though Daft Punk had already been heard around the world following Homework, this was when they seriously blew up. Though James Murphy hadn't yet claimed to be 'the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids', they'd certainly hit a level to justify that kind of boasting. And though it came with a new sound, sleek 'n' smooth enough that you couldn't turn on the television without hearing one of the songs advertising the new Picasso (or whatever), there was nothing sell-out about Discovery whatsoever.

It was simply the sound of a band in love with the pure, blissful pop-rock ballads of their youth, giving those already polished grooves an electronic once-over. I recall one writer saying that 'Digital Love' reminded them of a kids cartoon theme, which seems about right to me, because these songs sound like they've been around your whole life, each tune artifially created by robots in a French computer lab. I guess that's the idea of the whole look. It was only when I was listening to this album a few weeks ago, though, that it occurred to me: someone played that shred guitar; a real human sang those hypnotic (albeit heavily autotuned) vocals; and holy shit, a real pair of humans sat down and wrote these songs. That was when it dawned on me just how special Daft Punk are. And everyone, not least the rock kids who sold their guitars for turntables and synthesizers, continue to dance in agreement.

2000: Kid A

It's one thing to scoff that it's really not that brave or experimental at all - the band themselves were the first to point out that their own listening at that time was far more obtuse - but let's put things in context here. Radiohead's previous two albums had catapulted them to the level of worldwide, stadium-creaking rock ubiquity that Kings of Leon currently enjoy. And then they dropped this, to the sound of a million fifteen year-olds scratching their heads.

I was one of them. Kid A was just like nothing else I'd heard before. A lot of the songs lacked verses, choruses, guitars, drums, rhythm, singing, or all of them, and yet it was beguiling because of that. It seemed to occupy a world of its own, not least because all the other music I owned at the time sounded more or less like the stuff that filled up the radio, and the CD players of my friends. It was also the first time I really started to think about an album as being not just a collection of songs, but a 'long player' musical experience. The album swells and ebbs with the rhythm of a piece that was meant to be heard in one sitting, though the centrifugal force that is 'Idioteque' undoubtedly stands out, a career highlight for a band whose career is more or less one long series of highlights. It was the turn of the decade and Kid A was to be incredibly influential in the years following its release, as much on the type of records I listened to as the artists who made them.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Sweat, nudity, and Morrissey: that was a good weekend

I'm skint now. Well, more so. But I'm happy.

My good friend John, who I have not seen for yonks, came up from London on Friday. John is thirty-nine years old, lives on the dole, and gave up on romance three years ago. He is, in spite of all this, the coolest fucker I know. A while ago, he tried to count how many gigs he'd been to in his life and gave up around the 2,500 mark. Amazing.

Friday night we ventured into Chorlton for the 'Friends of Mine' indoor festival thang going on at the Irish Centre, principally to see The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, a band we saw together supporting the Wedding Present last year and fell in love with from the off. I realised when we were on the bus that I'd forgotten my ticket (I'm blond on the inside), so John went in and I spent an hour knocking around Chorlton bars waiting for my flatmate to arrive, who kindly brought it along. It was worth the wait.

The first band we saw were pretty atrocious, one of those odd mis-billings where someone decided that a mad-fer-it, lad-rock outfit in Courteeners haircuts would make a good warm-up for a decidely less macho Brooklynite indie-pop gang in cardigans. 'This one's for anyone who's dropped a pill tonight!' the singer declared before one of the songs, to an audience who one suspects would equate that sentiment with losing their hayfever tablets sooner than swallowing illegal substances. The next and final support act, however, were astonishingly good. Dutch Uncles are a local band I'd heard some good things about, but nothing that prepared me for the wonder ahead. They share a rhythmic kinship with Field Music, and there's a bit of the Foals about them, but they nonetheless create something quite in its own league. What really impressed me was how tight and musically accomplished they were as a band. There was nary a 4/4 in sight - in fact, they work in constantly shifting, ridiculous time signatures - and yet that rhythmic dexterity served to underpin the quality tunes they have, rather than to compensate for a lack of them. This is borderline math-rock, but it's fun and quite, quite brilliant. Also the singer's attire and dancing have to be seen to be believed. Check out Dutch Uncles if you get the chance.

Then came the Pains of Being Pure At Heart. I've waffled on enough already, so I'll try and keep it brief. This was possibly the best gig of my life. I'd just been offered a ticket to see Morrissey the following night, which was the perfect giddy tonic before they came on. When they did, they all looked a little nervous. As soon as they launched into the set though, the crowd went for it. Just as I had upon my frustratingly brief first glimpse of them last year, the audience fell in love with the Pains, and the feeling was apparently mutual. 'This is the best night of our lives... you guys are awesome!' was Kip Berman's response to the delirium in front of him, before dedicating the next song to Manchester. About ten minutes later, still reeling, he was dedicating his second song to the city. I was at the front row, singing, pogo-ing, dancing, whooping, arms aloft. So was more or less everyone else. By the time a bewildered Berman and co. returned to the stage for an encore - in an Irish Working Men's Club, I remind you - band and audience alike were drenched in sweat. We walked back to Withington elated, stickier than most, but most certainly happy.

The following day, I had work at nine. (I worked all Bank Holiday weekend, which, along with the gigs, contributed to my general frazzlement as I write this.) After getting home from work, I longed for nothing more than a nice long nap. Nothing more, that is, than perhaps the sole exception of going to see Mr Steven Patrick Morrissey perform in concert for the first time.

I used to pretty much hate Morrissey's solo stuff. When I lived in Didsbury last year, the two blokes I shared a flat with played his solo stuff all day and all night. I found it all a bit flimsy, twee, too much emphasis on clever words and not enough on interesting music. Recently, that changed big time. Probably because it wasn't blaring out after getting home from a long day's work for the hundreth time, I actually listened to his music for the first time. I discovered his 1994 classic Vauxhall and I, and majestic songs like Speedway and Now My Heart Is Full. I went back to Ringleader of the Tormentors and was bowled over by how much it impressed me, when once I couldn't see its charms. I suddenly saw what made people obsess over the man, and I began to as well.

Bad timing I guess. Standing in the swelling crowd of paunchy, bequiffed men in their thirties at the Apollo, I waited to see the man I had grown to idolise. And thusly he arrived, as an idol in the classic sense: a relic. A Smiths-heavy setlist, while joyous to hear for the many fans there who, like myself, never got a chance to see the short-lived but legendary band, added to the sense that we were watching a tribute act, each audience member colluding in a slightly tragic nostalgia-fest. The contrast could not have been starker. Last night I had seen a band who were at the other end of their career, ferocious in their raw, youthful vigour, and very much at the top of their game; young, beautiful, wide-eyed, and fucking brilliant. It was the kind of gig you immediately felt proud to have witnessed, as I imagine many of the early Smiths concerts were. And, twenty-four hours later, that was just the problem. Morrissey looked bored, washed-out. When he twice tore his shirt off before the crowd, it struck me as a little unnecessary, undignified even, for a man who had just turned fifty the previous evening. And while the older material sounded great, beefed up by the heavier guitar sound of his new band, the songs from his new record fell distinctly flat. No Suedehead, no Everyday Is Like Sunday. I left feeling no less affection for his music, but a tinge of disappointment at what had become of the man himself. Your idols always let you down in the end I suppose.

After this, sweaty once more, we trundled into the city centre to see my friend and co-worker's excellent band, Six 10 Repeater. Terrible name, but great songs, as evidenced by the fact that I have endeavoured to see them every time they play in Manchester. This time they put in as stunning a performance as ever, throwing about every rock shape and pose in the book, but this time there was no adoring crowd to recieve them. Nine Black Alps had been on before them, and Stuart was shitting himself about going on in front of the large audience that had gathered to see them. After NBA added to their label of 'Nirvana tribute act' the prefix 'failed', the room emptied. About seven people watched Six 10 Repeater, of which I constituted the entire front row. Shame, but another great live show nonetheless, marred only by the drummer's repeated insistence on revealing his own chest. Having seen quite enough half-naked men for one evening, I trundled home again.

Which brings us bang up to the present, wherein I am mercifully showered and fully-dressed. No more sweat and nudity for a while ta. Still plenty of Morrissey though, and his successors in indie fandom.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

227 Lears

Perhaps it's a generational thing, or perhaps it's a personal foible, but I struggle with history. Or rather I struggle to acquire it: to horde it obsessively, to assemble it within a linear chronology to be reeled off like a stretch of Pi, or to gather up a cache of names, dates, places and other capitalised chunks of data that demonstrate the knowledge of a subject. I think it's just because I've always had a terrible memory, especially for facts. I'd really make a poor historian.

I have, however, always been fascinated by the process itself. I think the human obsession with story-boarding the past is astonishing. Where does it come from? Although history is associated with documenting the past, it could just as easily find its origins in more selfish motives. Ancient Egyptian pharoahs insisting upon stone-carved biographies of their lives were presumably not thinking of the past, but of projecting their own egos into an imagined future, where generations to come would know of their legacies long after their physical death. And it worked. History, from the ancients through to David Irving, seems to be 'done' for a number of reasons, but always with one more or less constant desire: to put the present in some kind of logical context. Rather than leaning too heavily on absolute relativism or absolute imperialism, history has always seemed to me to represent a dialectic between the two: a compromise between recorded events and personal attempts to colour the world with one's own beliefs. Certainly both exist and inform the process of telling the past.

It's in this spirit that I find myself thinking about what is a simultanously tedious and interesting idea: namely that things were better in the past. Of course one could point to the simplest explanation, that it is a belief fostered and propagated by older folk, who need (or choose) to see the generation following their own as deficient in order to bolster their own collective egos. Douglas Adams called it 'clique maintenance'. That's true and real enough.

But it seems to be an increasingly popular attitude among younger people, in Britain at least. For these people the fabled 'golden generation', be it of music, art, cinema, national cricket, or anything else, is always tantalisingly out of reach. It is immaculate because it arrives to us fully formed, a coherent narrative that cannot be tampered with. It is a morbid fascination for sure, and one that finds its apogee in death. Much has been written about the immaculate figure of the youthful corpse. River Phoenix, Jeff Buckley, Ian Curtis, Rimbaud, Aaliyah, James Dean, so on. Even the messiest of lives, such as Kurt Cobain's, prove attractive by way of fossilising so compactly. Morrissey, himself idolised and written about extensively, put it rather bluntly in 'Munich Air Disaster 1958': 'They can't hurt you / And their style will never desert you / Why? Because they're all safely dead.'

Why do even the young now feel the need to reject their own present for a past they weren't alive to experience? It seems as though the teenagers of the 1950s and 60s, those who rejected their parents values and formed their own, are now idolised by a generation reluctant to think for themselves. And yet that isn't quite the case. The truth, I think, is that a great deal of people felt the same way then. History does not remember the dull and the reticent. It is an ironic facet of the historicising process that those who reject the past are destined to become part of it. Marx's dialectical materialism in action.

The history of modern history, then, seems to tell a story in which the hero rejects received opinion and forges a new philosophy. It seems a shame to use it in order to knock current social, cultural and political endeavours in this light, but the appeal of doing so will presumably endure. If history is about making sense of the past, we will surely be drawn to its book-ending qualities ever more feverishly as the present splays into a frayed knot of potential endings. We do not know where we may go from here. The 1958 Manchester United side eulogised in Morrissey's song never won the European Cup they were competing in that season. Their potential was unknown then, though much feted. Death, however, now renders that potential infinite. It is the blessing of the dead that their portfolio will forever remain unsullied. Who knows? Joy Division's third album could have been crap.

It is important to remember the past, just as it is important to remember that it was once the present, with uncertainties and a weight of history upon its own back, as we carry the weight of theirs now. It is always difficult to love something in the present, perhaps because we are increasingly too insecure to develop an emotional attachment to something which might fail, or die, or, worst of all, disappoint. The best we can do is to take a chance on what seems right, and maybe carve a little history of our own.