Archives for the month of: January, 2013

charlie boyer

Sometimes all it takes is one great single and we begin to forgive British guitar bands for heading down a myriad of creative cul-de-sacs OR we find ourselves wondering whatever happened to David Devant and his Spirit Wife (and then disappointed to find ‘Cookie’ is unavailable on Mexican iTunes). Then again there is always a barrage of band names floating around like they have always been there and they generally have, friends of Toy who are friends of The Horrors and they know Noel Fielding, don’t they???

‘I Watch You’, produced by Edwyn Collins, has that retro New York in the 70s sound that doesn’t evoke Television and Jonathan Richman so much anymore as it does The Strokes. It certainly isn’t a million miles away though the voice sounds a little more crazed and less contrived. However, the disaffected video performance of Charlie Boyer does echo that detachment that so irritates those in search of good music. It worked for The Strokes for a while, it still does in terms of a cartoon image that will flog tickets on its own despite the absence of any decent new ideas for well over 10 years. East End pubs have also been mentioned in press material just to happily echo The Libertines era rather than jellied eels. The use of a cheap organ sound helps to restore some innocence or possibly reminds me of Tiger. Flipside, ‘Be Nice’, is definitely a cuter song from the title onwards though the Tiger comparisons remain for me. It also sounds a lot more C86 influenced than the a-side, just a little more self-consciously cuter. Both sound like significant departures from Electricity in our Home, Charlie Boyer’s previous band who split earlier in 2012 after a disappointing debut album.

So are we dealing with naivety or the art of knowing? The sound of the single in isolation suggests the former, perhaps we can thank the presence of Edwyn Collins for that. The live footage and videos featuring inert expressions and little movement point to the latter as does the convenient disappearance of EIOH about six months before the appearance of CBATV. I suspect that the debut single may have delivered a little too much and that there may not be a lot more to back it up with but then I am just a jaded old cynic still mystified by the commercial failure of The Jasmine Minks. However, it seems as if the advantage that CBATVs have is that they emerge at the same time as a lot of other bands tagged in a similar way: Could this be the future for British guitar bands? That has a silent ‘What’ in front of it and an additional question mark after ‘be’ for most.

childhood

Palma Violets, Savages, Childhood, Peace and Temples have been touted around as a new kind of scene along with Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs. Savages seem a little different to the vibe of the others as a harsher sound with more post-punk leanings than the other bands mentioned. Palma Violets sound like the next laddish UK indie hype but not without some merit (I have yet to work out what it is  but I like it). Their debut album ‘180’ drops in late February either giving them a head start or dropping like a stone. Childhood sound like a laid back version of early Bloc Party with a rather overused chorus pedal getting them all the usual shoegazing props. However, if that blissed out haze is your thing, then their debut 45 ‘Blue Velvet’ doesn’t disappoint and my recommendation would be to drap yourself in it, Costanza-style. Temples sound a lot like The Allah-Las and thus bring the 80s Paisley Underground to mind. I’m not entirely sure about Peace though – typically this is the only one of these bands signed to an old-fashioned major label thus far. Boy do they look young and why does their ‘Bloodshake’ video remind me of Soda Stereo’s ‘De Musica Ligera’? The one where they look a bit like later 80s Goths who prefer lipstick to the Nephilim’s flour – don’t ask if you don’t know and you probably don’t want to know. If you do know, then you know what I mean. Anyway, Peace suggest that a Gene Loves Jezebel revival may be afoot or possibly Pale Saints. That could be interesting for anniversary tours as one of GLJ’s ex-drummers has since become a primary school teacher obsessed with dolphin songs and Damian Marley. Good luck with that! However, the latest 2013 track from Peace, ‘Wraith’ suggests they may have had their ears bent by someone in search of a bit more crossover and thus to me they sound lost inside corporate hell. Take some advice from Death Grips, boys. (For further details: https://tuppencedylan.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/death-grips-epic-cock-saga/)

temples

At the end of this little run through the ‘new’ sounds of 2013 it seems just like the emergence of Ride, Chapterhouse, Pale Saints, Spirea X et al in the early 90s. Similar comparisons might be made to the first crop of bands that acted as a backlash to Britpop. What goes around comes around. The Strypes seem to think everyone may have forgotten what early Beatles looked and sounded like or early Stairs or even The Coral. Just like most movements or scenes rather than individual bands, it seems hard to see where the truly earth shattering music will come from. In most of these cases, it has already been made and the scene just follows it. Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs have a good idea but can they run with it over an album? I guess this question will be answered in May when their debut album, ‘Clarietta’, drops. I sincerely hope it’s considerably better than the Electricity in Our Homes debut from a year ago.

Needless to say, preparing this article has already led to two further downloads from among the new talent on offer. this always seems to happens to me as I guess, at heart, I’m a scene sucker who doesn’t learn from his mistakes but does still have a soft spot for David Devant and his Spirit Wife and the way they seemed to mould late 90s Camden indie and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Scenes become all image, sucking the very life from the music if there ever was any life there to be had. That’s why I’ve gone with actual record sleeves for artwork rather than group pictures that really could be anyone from the past 20 years or so. The same can so often be said of the music as some are excited by a new Wild Beasts album this year, I just wonder if it will sound a little less like Geneva and Savages sound amazing and yet very familiar. I can find great enjoyment in The History of Apple Pie album I am about to download but little originality (it sounds like Asobi Seksu who sounded like Lush), maybe it was always this way and age and experience just serve to educate a previously raw palate OR its best to just enjoy music made in the right spirit without worrying too much about whether it is derivative or not but then again, backing either attitude 100% would lead to a very dull collection of music.

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matthewewhite

An early big 2013 hype in the alternative hipster universe comes from a man giving off the aura that says ‘Don’t make me famous, I don’t need it. But if you must…’ Contrived? Only in so much as this album appeared last year on Hometapes/Spacebomb or Spacebomb/Hometapes depending on where you look, took a few by surprise and then suspiciously disappeared from my radar presumably so that Domino can reissue it in the UK this year. Neat move for an ‘indie’ label, but they have always been a bit corporate in their behaviour like demanding that The Fall improve the quality of their one Domino album. The nerve!

The album has been described in rather hallowed terms already and as a true original despite the fact that this has been done many times before. That is not to say that it is not welcome when it happens as, when a group nails the classic cosmic American album in contemporary times, it can still be lauded and applauded like Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ or Plush’s much delayed ‘Fed’ for a more similarly soulful vision. They sound warm and familiar from the off but they also sound unlike any particular contemporary style that they can be definitively filed under. Instead they have nostalgic production values and definite links with the past through a guest appearance or even just a familiar riff or style. This album has the same timeless quality. However, the hype creates suspicion. It seems unfounded but may also point to a lack of real inspirational music these days with tunes and stuff. Last year was a great year for very good music but it was not a good year for very great music. In reappearing at the start of this year, it seems that music critics have almost tacitly agreed that this was the classic that got missed last year. However, this is an album featuring seven songs and no filler. It was recorded in a week but clearly grew organically prior to that. The listener doesn’t walk away with a vague impression of a sound that is cool, a fault that seemed to me to be the weakness in last year’s albums from The XX, Grizzly Bear, Tame Impala, Beach House, The Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective among others.

To the tracks!

‘One of These Days’ opens the album up in understated fashion. This is a mellow slowburn of an opener which inspires immediate groove-based nodding like so much slightly altered southern rock seems to do. It kind of reminds me of the opening to The ‘Meridian 1970’ compilation album from a few years ago – sure, things will get groovy, but not yet – its time to build something. I am talking music here rather than with Rizla papers. Bongos appear with subtlety – something that’s hard for the average bongoist (?) to achieve. This now gives a feeling of The National Trust’s marvellous ‘Dekaggar’ debut from over 10 years ago now. As rich brass blends into the overall sound, you realise that certain elements of this album are going to work in the same way that Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ did, updating or maybe just revisiting the Cosmic American songbook for a wild slightly ‘out there’ ride, but hopefully without the vocals of a Muppet this time. Plush maybe another reference point, less successful but owners of ‘Fed’ tend to view it as essential. The pace doesn’t seem to change, something more upbeat is seemingly imminent. However, the atmosphere is sweet and loving with repeated images of lying together. It may also be relevant that the first chorus is just hummed, perhaps a message that we should not be looking too deeply into the lyrics as they could be anything judging from the first chorus on the album. The whispered vocals make life difficult for anyone without a lyric sheet, or he really does sing ‘So much beauty in the face of soup’, which is a wonderful image but sadly ‘and it fades too soon’ is the second half of the sentence.

‘Big Love’ is less sweet. The voice now claims to be a barracuda and a hurricane or is this just bluster and bravado in the face of the end of something important? This sounds more like the classic album opener (‘Let’s begin to spiral’) or the more accessible single that betrays an album’s more reflective nature by dressing it up in a more mainstream shuffle that echoes Krautrock just to keep in with the in-crowd and that begs for ‘interesting’ remixers. It could also be described as sounding like a lost U2 album recorded after someone in their employment had just informed them that The Beta Band were fashionable but had no songs. But this would be harsh. The bassline wanders around wonderfully and again additional percussion is called upon to fill out the rhythm which now features hand claps. This could be introduced as a new Django Django single and no-one would bat an eye except to reflect that, like The Beta Band before them, they seem to be getting closer to developing an actual hit.

‘Will You Love Me’ sounds more classically southern in style and less fried. The string driven build of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is present again and now I’m starting to understand The Band references. This will become Uncut’s favourite new album of the year. Who else could get a mention? Brightblack Morninglight? The Guardian have already mentioned Bill Callahan and Marvin Gaye, which I like but there’s a lighter feel to the arrangements than Smog which breaks down this more deadpan delivery and Marvin links often seem good at the time but are always wildly inaccurate. ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ is echoed and even credited. Now the feeling is a fear of abandonment and the loneliness that may follow.

‘Gone Away’ has a simpler, almost campfire tone to its opening. Brass slowly emerges and strings before a hi-hat marks the rhythm. A chorus resolves yet another build and we can relax, for a while. More gospel-tinged than prior material, the song breaks the rhythm down just as we hear ‘He will tear your kingdom down’ before that rhythm rebuilds back towards the fade out. Rhythm is our saviour then, led by a funky gospel vibe. This song carries a lot of emotional weight and questions why a girl, White’s little cousin in fact, is in heaven and asks why she was taken. It depicts the family as clinging to the cross ‘with trembling and fear’. The relationships that affected mood in the first three songs now seem trivial when placed next to this loss. We are entering a darker place now as the family’s kingdom of innocence is broken and torn down by God. The song does feature strong echoes of ‘What Are You Doing in Heaven Today?’ by Washington Philips, a gospel song that does not overstate and can get a message across in a secular way too.

‘Steady Pace’ sets itself up with an awkward but jolly rhythm. The swagger of ‘Big Love’ may have partially returned. However, rhythm and melody resolve conflict in a beautiful chorus that dismisses the fuss of the arrangement experienced thus far. This leads into something of a classic funk breakdown again before reintroducing the confusion of earlier. It seems quite complex and chaotic but the craftmanship shines through in the structure. The brass has an afro-funk feel later on before yet another melody appears before the fade out. Is this southern prog? No, its complex but warm. It is the exact opposite of the detached Brooklyn hipster soundtrack of 2012 and possibly the antidote to it. This is to southern soul what ‘Django Unchained’ is to the Spaghetti Western: an exaggeration, an homage and yet still fresh and vibrant. Less blood though.

‘Hot Toddies’ are possibly the most well-rounded depiction of alcohol that exists. Who can argue against a hot toddy? They’re great for a cold and suggest companionship in front of a warm fire rather than reviving a collapsed drunk outside in freezing weather. This beautiful wintry song, complete with ‘frost on windows’ also echoes Mercury Rev but brings in the percussion and the breakdown again. That’s the third breakdown followed by slow build in as many tracks. Perhaps the opening three tracks served to set the scene before a trinity of musical traumas are recovered from leading to a salvation suggested in the final track. In the meantime, the ominous build which follows the breakdown adds percussion again in a Beta Bandesque kind of way before a few psychedelic strings and a brief, free sax solo finish things off. We haven’t had one of those yet. It was only a matter of time as Matthew E.White also leads a jazz band, Fight The Big Bull in his spare time. Maybe the jazz influence is what is strikingly original in an album which at the same time also feels like an homage.

Lush strings followed by triumphant brass introduce the lengthier album closer, ‘Brazos’ is presumably about crossing the longest river in Texas. However, Brazos in Richmond, Virginia appears to be a tamales joint so I could be wrong. This now sounds prettier than Mercury Rev trying to be cute and a lot more sincere than much of Plush. I get The Band comparisons now. Very religious, very gospel – all crossing the river and what not –  but seems sincere and certainly is beautiful. Crossing this river was also important in the drive west of the settlers which explains the ‘strangers in this land’ and ‘They say that white folks are never lazy’ references in the lyrics. This could easily be a traditional American song but for lyrics like ‘Take it easy baby’. Once again the bass leads change through a breakdown and a full on gospel climax seems ready to break out. In fact, as the rhythm resolves itself, it becomes reminiscent of an RZA rhythm that The Black Keys could only dream of recreating. Meanwhile, the chorus over the top of this is lifted from a religious Jorge Ben track, ‘Brother’. Those offbeats that clash with the rhythm are classic Ringo. At the end of it all, maybe a funky ‘Nixon’-era Lambchop is suggested but religious too. Like someone has finally woken up Brightblack Morning Light. A little like ‘Love Spreads’ too.

matthew_e_white_hopscotch_4

The links and references could continue, in fact most readers could probably accurately improvise a couple of their own by now. Essentially, this seems to be an album that deals with a certain religious doubt that may stem from the end of an important romantic relationship for the voice though it may not have meant so much to the other half of it. It seeks answers but doesn’t find much beyond the standard response of Jesus saves. The doubt is the confrontation with the great unknowable element of religion that Graham Greene was so drawn to and it seems to also be a draw for Matthew E. White. Water is used frequently as a motif thus suggesting being reborn or at least cleansed. As the man was raised by missionaries, this isn’t hard to understand but perhaps this album shows how a religious understanding has provided the singer with support in his life. How can a truly southern album exist without the soul? Ask Primal Scream. However, the album does also seek to enjoy life either through a hollow bluster in ‘Big Love’ or taking life at a ‘Steady Pace’ or even taking ‘it easy baby’ in ‘Brazos’ and, as stated before, who doesn’t enjoy ‘Hot Toddies’?

This album does live up to the hype and does sound like an instant classic. It seems genuine, sincere and filled with soul. It is religious but does not seek to preach. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but does not seem derivative. This is an album that will be remembered by those who give it just a little of their time. Following it up will be very difficult, especially if this was just ‘Big Inner’s luck.

bandtastic

Warhol-based punning aside, Bandtastic have been making waves in Mexico since the middle of last year. They are a company moving in the right direction at a time when there seems to be a lot of negative energy surrounding the concept of anyone ever making a living out of music again without selling out, not that that even seems to be an option for many bands, labels or shops. Essentially they act as a go-between for fans curious to see bands in their hometown in what can be (and has been) called a ‘modified crowdfunding model’. This currently applies to Mexico City but with the aim of spreading further afield in the future starting with Guadalajara as the idea is quickly taking off for other companies in the U.S.A. and also Brazil.

It is a fairly simple process for music fans. The fan contacts Bandtastic through their website to request that an artist they would like to see comes to their hometown. Bandtastic then collect likes through their Facebook page for the idea of seeing the concert. Once enough interest is shown they then go straight to selling tickets on a pledge basis much like charities use the internet to raise money. If a set target is reached then they go ahead with putting on the gig. If there is not enough demand then refunds are given without question. Whilst most events attempted so far have gone ahead, the visit of Real Estate did not which allowed the team to demonstrate just how easily and reliably the refunds could be handled. Also, Real Estate did not make a long journey to Mexico for little or no return. There is a 10% cut for the company which mostly goes into development of the business which ultimately leads to more satisfied fans and bands.  Ticketmaster do not get their 30% cut for printing a generic ticket and instead fans who want to see a band get to give money to that band rather than the band getting a cut on takings from a promoter, ticket seller or the owners of the venue.

It seems a pretty great idea to get behind. Fans get to request what they want. Bands win in two ways as 1) they don’t slog around a country in a van playing to mostly empty venues and 2) their cut is likely to be higher and thus more profit made. I guess it’s also probable that many bands always need to raise their own money prior to touring through friends and family, well that’s going to be considerably easier to do if 100s of tickets have already been sold.

Further details are found in their manifesto which can be muddled through with the help of Google translate. It states that music is for the fans and that those fans would rather support their favourite bands than the industry. They also link themselves, or more accurately the participating fans to the power of the masses to demand change. It was this latter ethos that led to their promotion of the June event in the zocalo (the main square slap bang in the centre of Mexico City)  for YoSoy132, a popular movement against the candidacy of the new Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, which attracted 80,000 people. They also feel that technology should be used to simplify our lives and that buying tickets and having music promoted through traditional channels is a waste of precious time for the average Chilango hipster when getting tickets for a concert should be as easy as ordering a pizza. Another nice touch is that they are a paperless organisation. Tickets are sent through a Facebook app and can be checked at the door on a variety of devices.

When I was young, I did not have the good fortune to have live music within a few miles of my home with either Wolverhampton or Liverpool being the closest options for most bands being a good 45 miles away. However, somehow  The Stone Roses played at Park Lane nightclub in Shrewsbury on May 25th, 1989 – the same month that their debut album appeared and quickly became iconic. Birdland, Bob, The Blue Aeroplanes and also The House of Love came to Shrewsbury, the latter with Alan McGee in attendance – I spotted him and muttered that he should sign The Telescopes but he mumbled something involving the word ‘shite’ – of course he did later sign The Telescopes though he may have proved that he was right in his first judgement as they really were shite. All of this happened due to a couple of guys working towards making something happen in their hometown and the idea that there really might be an audience for these bands and he was proved right. Even Chester managed to attract bands like Mudhoney and My Bloody Valentine back in the late 80s. It might be a bigger place than Shrewsbury but its proximity to Liverpool would suggest that there might not have been any demand and yet the attendance at those gigs suggested otherwise.

Thursday January 17th saw We Have Band visit Mexico as a result of Bandtastic’s efforts. Initially the band themselves tweeted that they would like to play in Mexico. This was seen by a follower in Mexico who then got things started with Bandtastic. Interest seems to have been surprisingly high with over 200 tickets sold for a band who might struggle to get a similar audience in parts of the UK. Now, this is where the potential for expansion comes in. Bandtastic would have very little to do in London as everyone plays there. The same can be said of many other cities either due to size or an established student union venue ruling out Manchester, Glasgow or even Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle among others. However, there are still many places with a decent sized population that could support appearances by up and coming bands much like The Stone Roses in Shrewsbury back in ’89. Plymouth springs to mind, or Aberdeen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even somewhere like Birmingham can be unpredictable in terms of the profitability of live alternative music, or at least that’s the impression I get from a British city of over a million that has nowhere to buy CDs in the city centre now that HMV has closed down. The where is not important, if enough people pledged enough money into a scheme like this then the gig would happen with no risk of any bands disappearing into rural Britain never to be seen again. It remains a truly disturbing fact that The Bay City Rollers did once play Llanymynech Village Hall. I know this because apparently my dad was on the door!

Returning to the present, or at least the recent, We Have Band played at the little El Imperial venue on the border between Roma and Condesa in Mexico City. This was the first of 3 gigs in Mexico, with Cholula and Guadalajara to follow. It was a cold night though a long queue could be avoided for a while by heading into the bar next door which had a DJ and a large amount of Vespas parked outside – some even had additional rear view mirrors. Yes, it seems that New Mod has reached Mexico. The venue itself feels more like a little improv theatre and features inconvenient pillars as well as an astonishing chandelier dangling above the bar that give it a comfortable and strangely homely feel.

Photo from www.lifeboxset.com and taken by Feli Gutierres

Photo from http://www.lifeboxset.com and taken by Feli Gutierres

We Have Band arrived on stage around 11.15, maybe a little later. Hard to say as I’d had a tequila or two by then. Originally it said 10. You’d think that would be…well, this is Mexico so you just don’t assume anything unless you crave disappointment (That’s not a criticism, you have to embrace it and get off on the frustration – it makes you less frustrated yourself). The tiny venue with a giant chandelier suited a post-punk-funk bass heavy sound. Darren Bancroft handled most communication issues by talking enthusiastically in English – always seems to work. The band locked into a groove with consummate ease considering that they were working with a stand-in drummer due to illness and a lively crowd attempted to dance in increasingly restricted space. The sound almost feels like it needs a little light to add to the shade, maybe some guitar would give a more rounded sound but may also perhaps sound a little too similar to other acts such as Django Django. Instead, We Have Band seek out a groove and stick to it. The tiny stage worked well for a three-piece and the sound was good considering the potential for problems in a venue of that size. The organisers seem to have got the right amount of people into the venue without it getting uncomfortably full and a number of influential people on the Mexican alternative music scene were in evidence. It was a happy night for all which was followed by an indie disco mixed with classic Bowie.

As more attention and success is gained by small events like these, increasing amounts of sponsorship can be brought in. Movistar helped to fund this event and thus keep prices down for punters. Obviously, independence would need to be carefully maintained but if a leading Mexican mobile phone company is willing to throw some cash in their direction after just a clutch of events in the past year or so then obviously there is far more still to achieve. The organisation is handling the ticketing for the upcoming Grizzly Bear concert at a much bigger venue. This may then lead to further reach for the project. Last year, they brought over Motorama from Russia who sold out each show and thoroughly enjoyed themselves despite limited mutual vocabulary.

Look them up at bandtastic.me

The reformed, but hopefully not too reformed, Afghan Whigs

The reformed, but hopefully not too reformed, Afghan Whigs

I read somewhere that this was nominated for cover version of the year. Not a bad choice. A slow build of a song that peaks in intensity after the lyrics have faded. It’s under-stated but threatens more to come. Dulli’s voice seems to constantly suggest something more extreme to come and yet manages to remain in check. How will a new song with the intensity of ‘What Jail is Like’ come across? Will one arrive? The promise of ‘Lovecrimes’ would suggest something even better to come.

‘Lovecrimes’ is one of two cover versions that the Afghan Whigs gave away online last year to celebrate their return to the live arena. Reports from these concerts suggest that they have been a wonderful return to form from a band that always had something left to prove. Back in the 1990s they were never quite the zeitgeist. As grunge took off they developed in popularity but were always outsiders from Cincinnati to the Seattle-based party. They sounded a bit southern and soulful at a time when it was better to be north-western and alienated, though they oozed the latter but in a  more adult and relationship-based form. They covered The Supremes’ ‘My World is Empty Without You’ with a wonderful injection of malice and yet the very idea of covering The Supremes would have sent most grunge fans running for the hills. Their album ‘Gentlemen’ from 1992 was superb and is highly recommended as a place to start and yet it never quite managed to fully get them into the mainstream public conception. Frontman Greg Dulli was viewed as difficult and his stage persona viewed as macho at a time when artists were supposed to scream to reveal their vulnerability. Lyrics may have suggested otherwise and perhaps his persona was more honest than others around the scene of the time. The somewhat ‘Debonair’ macho-loverman persona never seemed to be a problem for Nick Cave and/or his fans. Would The Afghan Whigs ever have got away with an album of murder ballads? What would they have done with Kylie? Subsequent albums seemed to see a shift towards diminishing relevance despite good reviews. Final album ‘1965’ was a wonderfully soulful ride that barely raised a ripple and seemingly got buried by their label. Nowadays it has become more and more expensive through Amazon UK – £16 at the moment when, just a few years ago, I recall it could be picked up from the same company for next to nothing. The increase suggests that the demand is out there for new material or even deluxe reissues. They could even reissue the promo ties and cufflinks that accompanied ‘Gentlemen’. Very smart they were too, though I’m not sure I’d stretch to £200 on ebay as some fool once did.

Grunge cufflinks? £200 a go.

Grunge cufflinks? £200 a go.

This glimpse of the new, 21st century Whigs along with ‘See and Don’t See’ (also available from their website) immediately sounds familiar to fans. Many of us were only fully made aware of the band through the soul covers novelty aspect at the time and took it from there. Lyrically, Ocean’s (you know I mean Frank and not Billy, right?) song immediately introduces sex and metaphorical bullets which seems appropriate for his interpreters. Perhaps the shuffle beat and strings seem a little dated, or do they hark back to the era where the Afghan Whigs got left behind and from which they now re-emerge? Either way, moody, light trip-hop will delight the dinner party crowd who still love their ‘real’ vinyl authenticity as it was when they started to buy music more seriously, or when they left it behind. Y’all know who you are. For me though, the only thing that spoils the oozing sexual tension of ‘Lovecrimes’ is the repeated “Murder, murder, murder she wrote” which suddenly brings an image of Angela Lansbury to mind and that’s really ruined the mood for personally speaking but, you know, whatever floats your boat.

LANSBURY!!!

LANSBURY!!!

HMV opens on Oxford Street, 1921

HMV opens on Oxford Street, 1921

I imagine a number of people would be mystified as to why I would care about HMV going into administration. They would assume that my tastes in music would lead me to alternative and independent record shops. Sure, put me in Shrewsbury 20-odd years ago and I wouldn’t immediately seek out HMV, it would be Rainbow Records, Durrants and Cobweb – even Virgin before HMV. Chester, would see me head straight to Penny Lane. Bristol? Replay and Revolver and London seemed limitless for other options. In fact, it is even quite hard for me to recall the great albums or singles that I may have purchased from HMV and I do have clear memories of some classic purchases – Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ on vinyl from Our Price in Shrewsbury, Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ remastered on vinyl and on sale in Penny Lane, Chester and many, many more. HMV played a different role in my life and it would be far more important now if I still lived in the UK. Though I can’t remember my first HMV purchase for the life of me, I did get Frank Ocean’s album in the Birmingham New Street branch last summer along with a few other things that must now be the last things I will buy there.

HMV was there! Last summer, in central Birmingham, I found very few shops that I personally would want to head for. I did my research in advance and found that HMV was the ONLY place to buy music in central Birmingham. There were a couple of places in the suburbs and I did find another place that seemed to claim the Swordfish name, but it was nothing like that wonderful shop used to be back in the early 90s (Primal Scream’s ‘Come Together’ 12″). Oxford Street was always a nightmare for crowds but a shop like HMV would be one of my oases of calm along with Virgin if I had time to kill. Obviously, I’d rather head down to Soho for Selectadisc, Sister Ray, Mr. Bongo or Mr. CD and Rough Trade in Covent Garden was not too far away and not to be confused with rough trade in soho which meant something else entirely.

HMV had big sales. Really big! Bargains were there to be had, or possibly not as that may explain why I can’t remember what I bought in there on so many occasions. Cheap DVDs could be found, music books at reduced prices and even a Hong Kong Phooey t-shirt (Chester). I could kill time happily by deciding I would get 5 CDs for £20 and then spend an hour compiling a long list before selecting about 8 or 9 and then trying to use logic to whittle them down to 5 and then usually discovering another ‘must have’ (translation: ‘rarely listen to beyond that week’) at the last minute and either starting again or walking out with 10 CDs for £40 and realising that I’d spent money originally intended for clothes or even groceries.

"You won't be carrying any of that awful 'jazz' that's ruining me, will you?" - Elgar on the far left at the HMV opening luncheon.

“You won’t be carrying any of that awful ‘jazz’ that’s ruining me, will you?” – Elgar on the far left at the HMV opening luncheon.

HMV has history. The first branch was opened in 1921 by Elgar! Elgar, for chrissakes! I must admit I only discovered that today and it kind of blows my mind. Incidentally, don’t think of pomp and graduation themes, instead listen to his first symphony (this is a rare example of my classical music knowledge so I have to use it while I can). It grew out of EMI, it took over Waterstones and merged it with Dillons, Fopp and the dreadful Zavvi shops too. It may have been rather an arrogant shark if the truth be told and the mergers have certainly help to homogenise British high street shopping but nevertheless, if it’s gone then so have all the previously mentioned brands. This is clearly where they went wrong. HMV attempted to take over the high street book, CD and DVD market just as Amazon and iTunes had managed to take people off the high street. HMV bought something that would have made them billions in the 80s or 90s but would only produce diminishing returns in this decade. Surprisingly, record sales are back on the rise but nowhere near the amount required for an organisation like HMV which explains why certain well-run independent record shops seem to be thriving even if more provincial ones are closing down than ever. HMV failed to move with the times and, when they opened, Elgar was going out of fashion too.

Nipper!

Nipper!

HMV had Nipper, the little Jack Russell that peered into the gramophone horn with curiosity as if to say “This Armstrong cat sure can swing it, now pass me some legal cocaine so I can like listen really carefully.” Apparently, Nipper wasn’t a pure bred Jack Russell but that didn’t concern me as the attraction was that he looked like my dog, Tuppence. Maybe this was the first thing to pull me into my obsession with music? From looking at the cute little dog to seemingly infinite Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums in just a few decades. Thus a name for a blog involving my two dogs was born. So that’s just nostalgia then.

So, it looks like HMV will disappear and it will be even harder to get me into a high street for very long. If Waterstones closes then there will be nothing to keep me out of the pub – a function society might regret on a national scale….obviously, I include other people in that statement and not just me on a national high street crawl. HMV was by no means the greatest shop in the world but I will miss it and wonder what on earth these groaning gaps in high streets will be filled with, or will they be abandoned like so many derelict city centres in the USA. Maybe we need to look to attempts at regenerating the likes of Detroit or Baltimore for answers and try not to dwell too much on what we assume from The Wire – no longer available as a box set from a high street near you.

paul buchanan 1

WARNING: The article below may also contain references to Deacon Blue and possibly traces of nuts.

Beauty in Brevity seems a somewhat trite and yet accurate way to some up this album that took me over 6 months to finally get around to downloading. I can blame a limit in funds/time/the stupid amount of music one man can process, but, if anything, I was put off by reputation as I’ve never quite got around to The Blue Nile and worry about having another Prefab Sprout in my life as that is what they seem to have mutated into in my mind. This would not normally be a problem but does have serious potential consequences because a similar thing happened one dreary summer afternoon working at ‘the record shop’ back in ’88 when I briefly, ever so briefly mind, fell for Deacon Blue’s ‘Raintown’ though, in my defence, I am pretty tight and a deluxe cassette with about 90 minutes of music on it seemed too good an offer to refuse despite the fact that it so very obviously was. That sodding dinghy! I blame Thursday afternoons in Oswestry. Onywey, (hmm…patronising, vaguely dialectic style adopted to discuss music from Glasgow simply must stop) I kind of had The Blue Nile figured as a bit too slick at the time and really not too punkrock. There is also the small matter of feeling like I needed to get to The Blue Nile first before attempting to appreciate a solo album from their singer …but wait a minute, their first two albums are now remastered as double discs with lots of bonus material? Hmm…It’s happening again.(“Set it up again!” – pipe down Ricky Ross!) And Mid Air’s brevity is now boosted by a deluxe edition with 10 extra tracks too! All the signs were there, I had to go for it. I did also like the couple of tracks I’d heard on free compilations. It still clocks in at under an hour, something Neil Young might want to consider after ruining ‘Psychedelic Pill’ with seemingly endless jamming. However, my gnat’s chuff-esque* approach towards music kind of negates the whole beauty and brevity angle.

Back to Buchanan, the songs appear and disappear in a flash of 2 to 3 minutes and are then gone, ‘tiny epiphanies’ – says The Independent which brings ‘Dubliners’ into my thoughts. I guess this made previews somewhat redundant as a way of sampling the delights held within. It also stands in contrast to The Blue Nile who featured just 7 songs on each of their first 2 albums and with considerably more complex musical accompaniment too. Maybe this is why the album is so very different to what I would have expected. That a certain aim for perfection lies within these little musical vignettes is certain and yet the casually tossed off 2 minute pop song is where music begins and ends for some of us. A first listen in the afternoon led me into this wonderfully heartwarming and/or broken world despite the irritation of the carwashers below the apartment resorting to the Easyvac far too close to our building once again. It framed an afternoon. It may have allowed me to wallow in melancholy, it made the concentration on finishing the excellent book I was hitherto reading undisturbed was now diminished, yes, it’s fair to say that the album had gripped me on first listen even if said listen came a little too late for to allow for consideration among my albums of the year. It’s safe to say that, had I picked this up back in May when it first appeared, it would have made my top 3 with ease. During my second listen, I had already decided this is a classic and most likely the best album I would have heard all year if it hadn’t been for that memory of mistakenly feeling an empathy with Deacon Blue. Why couldn’t I have got into The Blue Nile’s ‘Hats’ that summer? Put it down to misguided youth and the chart orientated policy towards stock in a provincial record shop that shunned the word indie rather than ‘dinghy’.

From the atmospheric title track onward, it is obviously going to be an evocative journey with just piano, minimal string sounds with maybe the occasional horn accompanying a vintage croon as an elemental synergy is used to capture the singer’s feelings for a woman who is seen everywhere. The buttons on her coat, memories and her presence in mid air create a melancholic tone but one which could also suggest contentment. Marriage is referred to but not necessarily the result, perhaps the relationship ended but remains with the singer still and, though this is somewhat maudlin, he does not necessarily find this crushing. Instead, this woman is everywhere as she seems to have passed from the concrete into the abstract somehow – maybe it was the trapeze accident or, hopefully, that’s a metaphor as the song also states ‘only time can make you/ The wind that blows away the leaves. Has she becomes Hardy’s ‘(The) Voice’? It all seems very personal to me rather than the observations of a “bemused bystander” as suggested elsewhere, then again a highly effective persona always seems personal and, at some psychological level, must be. I guess it’s like separating the methodology from the psychology as I recall a German actor who played a Nazi once say.

A reference to ‘the virgin birth’ in the first track is continued into Saint Martha in ‘Half the World’ as well as a reference to ‘the astronaut in God’s good sky’ which suggests a meeting of the human and the celestial though not as incongruous as to suggest man taking on the role of God. However, the story of Martha and her brother, Lazarus, may give this song a more personal dimension as the album was written in the aftermath of the death of a close friend. Clearly he or she, the ambiguity is retained throughout, is now seen everywhere if we follow ‘Mid Air’ and yet this ‘astronaut’ of ‘Half the World’ is waving his last goodbye.

Religion and family seem to play a central role in the themes of the album and may be suggested at other times. In ‘Mid Air’ ‘the girl I want to marry/ upon the high trapeze/ The day she fell and hurt her knees’ maybe a convenient rhyme or could suggest checking out of the circus to turn to religion where the praying can indeed hurt the knees. It may also be stated that the quiet nature of tha album does not necessarily lead to a depressing experience though beginning ‘Wedding Party’ with ‘It’s a good day for a landslide/ there are tears in the car park outside’ may suggest otherwise and the song eventually develops a picture of a depressing argument between a couple attending a wedding.

‘Mid Air’ has a poetic if minimal feel to its lyrics. The working title was ‘Minor Poets of the 17th Century’ after a poetry anthology Buchanan purchased from Oxfam. I have already suggested Hardy’s influence on ‘Mid Air’ whilst the astronaut of ‘Half the World’ seems to echo Yehuda Amichai’s ‘My Father in a White Space Suit’ numerous other links or similarities can be found. ‘Wedding Party’ and ‘Cars in the Garden’ seem to have echoes of early Larkin without the shock of profanity which is perhaps unnecessary in the post-Larkin age of poetry. ‘Two Children’ could be Plath or Hughes on parenthood, though again this could suggest a doomed relationship – Plath and Hughes as a couple would certainly fit as the characters in ‘Wedding Party’ any road. However, amidst all these rather gloomy links, it must also be said that the lines and their rhymes have a rather childlike quality that would suit Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’. The imagery seems deliberately basic at times almost giving a child’s perspective in places or, possibly, the numbed perspective of grief. The latter is suggested by background information that tells us the album was written in the early hours (or ‘wee small hours’ to link with Sinatra when he wasn’t a happy bunny) after the death of a close friend as mentioned previously. The fact that something gorgeous emerges from this grief may reflect the way we come to terms with grief as I understand it – the seventh stage: acceptance and hope.

I guess this album also wears age on its sleeve with references to children and the past and yet it is hard to imagine that its beauty would not have an effect on a younger audience too even if that may negate any potential commercial clout. In some ways it reminds me of ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ by Michael Head and the Strands, though this album’s disappearance seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment it appeared yet the beauty is there in this case shimmering through a haze of quite dedicated heroin use and, even more damaging for the soul, an initial appearance as a Dutch import. There is no suggestion of a druggy dimension to ‘Mid Air’ just a poetic album that may get left behind in the modern rush for bombast. ‘The Boatman’s Call’ has also been mentioned by reviewers but I feel Ol’ Nick would strangle the beauty of these songs with his rudimentary baritone. Elsewhere I have read of this album being the point where Paddy McAloon and Tom Waits meet. While it has none of the larger than life persona suggested by the latter, it would be great to hear a similarly stark album from Prefab Sprout. Mark Hollis could perhaps do something similar if he pulled himself together and stopped relaxing on Talk Talk royalties generated by Gwen Stefani and her ‘pals’.

I also love the brilliant consistency in terms of chart performance represented by the performance of each Blue Nile release and this solo album. Whilst debut album, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’, only made 80 in the album charts, the 4 subsequent studio albums have been released about 7 or 8 years apart with chart positions varying between 10 and 14. Nice and dependable, much like a couple arguing at weddings but happily raising children whilst dreaming across the rooftops to elsewhere. On the other hand there is also a sense of the end of life and the end of the relationships. What I like a lot about the album is the happy blending of the concrete and the abstract, the surreal and the mundane and also, as just referred to, the dependable and a sense of ending. Not only does this make the album enjoyable, but researching every review led to uncovering lots of profound comments which sometimes reveal very little (well, this is music journalism so what do cynics expect?). The Irish Times** sounded confident in stating that the title track was brief but with a ‘vivid aftertaste’ and yet quite what was so vivid about this synesthesia they managed to leave to the imagination. Was it the buttons? If she is ‘The Chocolate Girl’, then maybe but I hope she isn’t.

* – As tight as a…

** – The album creates this ambiguity not poor journalism. It’s that good is my point. Maybe my poor journalistic skills have created further ambiguity…I’ll shut up now.

A slight apology to Deacon Blue – the grating nature of your music is personally irritating once it becomes a memory of something bought that I wished I hadn’t (see  first footnote). At least you’re not Danny Wilson or China Crisis.

Some young popstar or other.

Some young popstar or other.

So, Bowie’s back and everybody has written something about it by now, even Jonathon Ross in The Guardian – sadly there’s no audio of Woss talking about BoWie’s ‘Where are We NoW?’. Had the single not been ‘leaked’ while I was asleep around midnight, Mexican time, maybe I’d have been able to get in their quickly with some insightful comments, but by the time I’d found out about the song it seemed to be the biggest story in the UK and already on the wane to some extent as Beliebers reattached themselves to Twitter and Chelsea offered the chance to ask Demba Ba a question (“Are you nicknamed ‘Humbug’?” was my favourite). I think Suede also attempted something but that was truly comically bad timing for a group like Suede now wasn’t it? I do hope a lost Beatles album appears on the same day as a future Oasis reunion too.

There are many articles about…err…the articles about the new single. The Twitter response has already been commented upon. Really there is nothing else to say. Even the forthcoming album’s simplistic sleeve has provoked 10 paragraphs hailing its genius in The Guardian. Really? Did nothing else happen in music yesterday? Was the Suede comeback really too dull to mention? Did you not catch that thrilling 2 minutes of punk pre-release from Denmark’s Iceage? This never happened during the Tin Machine years! Ross spends a lot of his article discussing himself and his family’s bodily movements which could almost be metaphoric if I was making it up. It does seem like he’s making a late bid to become the next latter-day John Peel with his own Home Twoofs and has launched this with the Bowie launch along with some serious name-dropping – I’m friends with his son! Notice me!!! Some have taken the opportunity to watch the video and attempt to diagnose the condition of Bowie’s health from it. Well, he appears to have become one of two heads on a conjoined twin bear, but other than that… He could be said to look pale and thin-lipped but didn’t he always? Producer Tony Visconti has actually suggested he is in good health and rosy-cheeked. Rosy cheeked? That sounds more worrying than ‘pale’. And on and on it goes. So astute observations on ‘Where Are We Now?’ have already been made. It’s either brilliant, essential or dull according to some. Tedious speculation has run out of control, so maybe we should just listen and watch and then think about other things until the album arrives in March.

It does sound oddly like a mash-up of Phyllis Nelson’s ‘Move Closer’ and something by Ryuchi Sakamoto at a push…okay, quite a push, but it sounds amusing. The song does sound very much like an older man reflecting on life which is exactly what you would expect from someone who is rumoured to have a serious illness and not released any music for 10 years. OK, there was ‘Chubby Little Fat Man’ from Extras but I suspect that humour may have disappeared from the forthcoming album which is a shame as it was the third most comical moment of Bowie’s career after the superb ‘Laughing Gnome’ and the entire recorded output of Tin Machine.

The video will be remembered for a long time thanks to all the hype and will more than stand up to itself being another one of those Bowie videos where you can shut your eyes and picture it 10 years or more later. The tourist guide to Berlin aspects are less memorable than the ‘special’ cuddly toy with human heads and kind of grate in the lyrics a bit too, if you ask me. Yes David, you lived in Berlin and it was cool. It had a big wall back then etc. Hardly Wim Wenders though. I hope a few parodies based on provincial Britain appear: “Sitting in The Boer’s Head on Willow Street” etc. For the happily ignorant, these references are an Oswestry thing – you just wouldn’t understand.

So will it be a greatest hits collection worrier? When was his last ‘greatest hit’? The 1980s? Earlier??? To my ears it sounds like my favourite Bowie song since ‘Ashes to Ashes’ but that’s because I really dislike the 80s pop years that others enjoy and then it all went a bit nuts through Tin Machine and the jungle phase until he pulled things back around after the turn of the millennium. ‘Where Are We Now?’ is simple and haunting, apparently it made Gary Kemp cry – worrying feedback from someone who wrote so much over-produced mush for ‘True’. It is not massively dynamic but builds in quite a stately way towards a more anthemic conclusion. Also, it’s not just the tourist guide lyrics and the setting of the video, but the song does somehow suggest a more populist version of Berlin-era Bowie. Something that the public might be keener on this time around. An album of similar material could potentially be somewhat dull especially with bonus tracks on the deluxe edition – already available for pre-sale on iTunes! However, Visconti promises more rock on the album. Uh-oh! Not more bloody Tin Machine, I hope. My other fear would be that without a certain amount of added dynamism, the album could be similar to the duller side of Massive Attack – cool but unmemorable. Having said all of this, I am not the world’s biggest Bowie fan and can take or leave a lot of his albums, in fact I’d probably leave the majority though I do love the ones I’d take – you can probably figure out which ones they are in an article about an article about the articles about the pre-release of one man’s 4 minute pop song. Say what you like, to get this much attention in this day and age without being some kind of digital pop cartoon of a human is impressive. It must have been the conjoined twin bear suit that did it.

So, in conclusion, the new Bowie single and video are pretty good. There, finally some functional music journalism.