Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Nightmare Before Christmas – All Tomorrow’s Parties

It’s taken a decade, but this weekend Em and I finally went to All Tomorrow’s Parties. Despite being a music lover, I have never been to a festival; as I’ve said many times before, I’m into records rather than live music; a side-effect of growing up in the extreme South West of England (someone said to me the other month that “nothing good, or bad, ever comes further south or west than Bristol”; they were only half joking, but they were more than half right).

Why did it take so long? ATP seems like the perfect festival for someone like me. The problem is that I’m such a fussy bastard that it took probably my favourite musician of the last decade to be curating one night of The Nightmare Before Christmas (and two artists I like a lot curating the other nights) to sway me. But, predictably, now that I’ve been I want to go again, and can see it becoming an annual fixture. Em is probably both relieved and irritated by this – she’s been saying we should go for years.

So, belatedly, I loved ATP; despite my misgivings about such a homogenous (bearded, jumper-wearing) crowd of corny indie fuxxors, it was actually nice to know that, even if there was a certain amount of mental out-cooling going on, everyone was there for the same reason – because they love (a certain type of) music dearly. And, you know, I wore a big jumper most of the time, and had a moustache (now shaven in order to prevent divorce proceedings); I keep a blog, and used to write about indie and postrock and electronica for a webzine, for heaven’s sake. I’m the biggest corny indie fuxxor hipster in the world Exeter. Maybe.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was curated by Battles, Caribou, and Les Savy Fav, who each took charge of a day, playing an opening set in the afternoon, a closing set late in the night, and picked all the other acts in between, spread across several venues and including a cinema (with lectures and films), a book club, a TV station, and anything else they cared to conceive (Caribou curated a smell, a free Sunday Supplement magazine, and some nightingale song which was played in the massive empty space at the heart of Butlins).

Over the three days we saw about 15 different acts (only three of whom we’d seen before), attended a book discussion (on Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I managed to talk about without having read it…), a lecture on krautrock, watched a short film about a plastic carrier bag on the festival TV channel, ate pistachio gelato in the ice cream parlour, played copious games of air hockey, went bowling, ate pizza in a popular international restaurant franchise on-site while the usual dinnertime muzak was replaced by Suicide’s audaciously terrifying Frankie Teardrop, bumped into old school and university friends and people who run excellent music websites, stood behind the mixing desk alongside the great and good of alternative music in 2011 (and the little guy from Mogwai too), and had a fantastic time.

Bands seen on Friday

• Les Savy Fav
• Marnie Stern
• Wild Flag
• Oxes
• No Age

Les Savy Fav’s afternoon set was great fun; Tim Harrington, like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, climbed inside the steel girders that held the lighting rig above stage, and dangled from them by his knees while still (sort of) singing – I’ve got a couple of records by them but had no idea he was such a nutter.

Marnie Stern was disappointingly fiddly and disconnected live; Oxes were a guitar-wank bore, but Wild Flag were great rocking fun and No Age were a storm of guitar-scree-obliterated punk pop fun.

Bands seen on Saturday

• Nisennenmondai
• Walls
• The Field
• Flying Lotus
• Cults
• Battles

If Friday was all about guitars and no bassists, Saturday and Sunday were about drummers. I’d never heard of Japanese all-girl trio Nisennenmondai before, but they were the awesome surprise package of the festival, churning out intricate, dazzling, bewitching krautrock-esque grooves. If they come within 100 miles I’ll rush to see them again.

Walls disappointed a little considering I love their album so much, but The Field more than made up for it, turning Butlins’ weird nightclub-style venue into a proper synth-rave. A lesson, synth-warblers – adding a (fantastically powerful and tight) live drummer makes you 100x better.

I didn’t get Flying Lotus anymore live than I do on record; the 15 minutes of his set that we caught consisted of him talking (albeit charmingly) about his weird jetpack dream and then trying to spill everyone’s drinks with outrageous bass. I just didn’t get any sense of tunes or point, so we went to see Cults instead, who bemused for the first three aimless guitar-led tunes, and then slowed down, played some beguiling hooks, and became considerably better.

Battles, shorn of Tyondai, were maybe not as dazzling as when we saw them four years ago, but were still a technically impressive spectacle, and left the crowd joyously psyched, sweaty, and satiated.

Bands seen on Sunday

• Caribou
• Toro Y Moi
• Four Tet
• Caribou Vibration Ensemble

Despite having been buying his records for a decade, I only managed to see Caribou live for the first time last November, when he played the Thekla in Bristol, an excellent, atmospheric venue on a boat. If you’ve seen him, you’ll know he plays live with a four-piece band, turning his solo-assembled records into a visceral, electronica / jazz / krautrock hybrid. His opening set on Sunday saw the regular band swollen with a second drummer and a four-piece brass section; it was a short set, but terrific.

We skipped most of the jazz on offer, as we were both pretty knackered, but we caught Toro Y Moi in the afternoon; they were more song-based than I expected, reminding me of Wham! as they might sound if remixed today and played to you while you were underwater in a swimming pool. I’d not heard the album, but I’m intrigued to now.

We saw Four Tet seven years ago at The Cavern, Exeter’s tiny underground indie venue, and, for many reasons, not all of them musical, it sucked. He sat at a laptop and essentially destroyed music that I loved for two hours. At ATP it was very apparent that he’s been DJing regularly at big clubs for the last few years, though; much more open, much more communicative, much more focused on making people move their bodies rather than stroke their chins. We stood behind the mixing desk and the sound was incredible; he played at least a couple of tracks I didn’t recognise, hopefully a sign that a new album isn’t too far off.

The Caribou Vibration Ensemble, a 12-piece band featuring the aforementioned Caribou regular live crew, plus second drummer, plus brass section, plus the legendary Marshall Allen on additional sax, plus James Holden on enormous modular synth, plus Four Tet on electronics, was simply astonishing. I don’t really know how to begin to describe what it is that they do – a monstrous, jazz-inflected psychedelic kosmische rave-up that had the crowd moving as one (bar the handful of stock-still beardy miserablists at the back), arms in the air and smiles on their faces. I have no idea what it must have been like to see Miles Davis live in the early 70s, but I can only think that the Caribou Vibration Ensemble is the closest you’ll get today. If they ever play live again I’m going to do my damndest to get there.

Butlins

Butlins seems to have acquired a weird amount of cultural capitol over recent years, no doubt part in due (for my demographic) to the success of the ATP events there, but also spreading beyond that – friends of my brother were there the other week for an 80s weekender to see the likes of Madness.

The place itself is weird, partly caught in a time warp and partly sadly contemporary. The information point sign in the main pavilion said ‘infunmation’. There were foul-stinking hot dog stands in every corner of every venue. A toyshop was open in the weird little shopping boulevard. The Spar shop sold out of copies of The Guardian by lunchtime on Saturday but was left with enormous stacked piles of The Daily Mail. There was a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Soho Coffee, and a billion slot machines, penny-push machines, air hockey tables, and so on and so forth, underneath an enormous tent stretched out between three giant warehouses. Everything was hideously expensive. The staff seemed strangely both bewildered and completely unfazed by 5,000 bearded postrock fans descending on them for three days; in some areas it was clearly business as usual, and in others they’d made strange concessions to their clientele’s demographic – we ate in the Pizza Hut on Sunday evening and Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop was playing. Bizarre. I’d not go there for a regular holiday, but we’ll definitely go there again for ATP. Next time we’re getting a proper self-catering chalet, though.

Advertisements

Albums of 2011

It’s December again, miraculously, so I’ve taken all the released-this-year CDs that Em and I have bought, put them in a couple of piles, and taken a photograph of them. It seems to be becoming a tradition. You can click on the photo to see a larger version and read all of the spines, if you like.

Anyway, ten is a nice number, and words about records are good, so here are words about my ten (arbitrary) favourite records of the year, in reverse order, because, y’know, tension…

10. Wilco – The Whole Love
There can, and often does, come a time when you have the sad realization that you don’t so much love a band, as love a small part of a band. In my case, with Wilco, I love I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and Reservations, and Spiders (Kidsmoke), and Company In Your Back, and At Least That’s What You Said, and Misunderstood, and I Can’t Stand It, and Poor Places, and Sunken Treasure… but there are whole big chunks of them that I’m not bothered about, even if there’s very little (maybe nothing) that I dislike. So I pretty much ignored Wilco (The Album), having been a little nonplussed by the smooth, mature proficiency of Sky Blue Sky. And I was trepidatious about The Whole Love, despite talk about it being a (slight) return to more experimental textures. In truth, I’m staggered by the two bookends, and especially Art Of Almost (when Cline and Kotche let rip for the last two or three minutes!), and could (almost) take or leave the rest of the album. But I’ll take it; the whole thing sounds stunning, and there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about watching (or listening to) human beings doing something they’re very good at; even when the songs are traditional and/or predictable, there’s always a skill, dexterity, and panache to the playing here that is impressive. And on top of that, songs like I Might and the title track are good pop/rock tunes in their own right, even if tracks like Capitol City veer a little too far into pleasantly inconsequential Beatles homage.

9. Walls – Coracle
I reviewed this for The Quietus; it’s very good. The opening track, Into Our Midst, rivals Art Of Almost as my favourite opener of the year. Lots of records tried something similar this year – The Field, Blanck Mass, Tim Hecker, Robag Wruhme and more all had at least something in common at some level – but Walls seemed to do it best.

8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
We saw Laura Marling perform at Exeter cathedral a month and a bit ago; I’d say that her voice was possessed of a surprising power in a live context, except that it wasn’t surprising. Her debut now sounds callow and naïve, and even last year’s excellent I Speak Because I Can, which I adored, has paled a little in relief; A Creature I Don’t Know adds a sensuality and tension to her tunefulness and musicianship which provides a new dimension. On The Beast, the album’s central, emotionally unhinged, most electrifying moment, Marling channels something of the dark magic that crept into Mojo Pin and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley. I look forward greatly to watching her career develop even further.

7. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
I was initially a little nonplussed by this much-hyped record when Tom played it at Devon Record Club; it seemed at first to be a clattering mess. But at some point in autumn it opened up to me, and clicked neatly into place; the energy and chaos of the opening trio, clattering hooks and beats and amazing, corrupted and pure voices, and the beautiful swoons and twists of Powa, still imbued with a passion and strength. Garbus is an intriguing musician and a great, soulful singer.

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
A continuous, sensuous, aesthetic pleasure, Jaar’s debut isn’t quite the minimal house odyssey some people wanted, but it is immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual, a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west. I love it, and I can’t wait to watch him grow.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt
My first dalliance with Dan Bejar has impressed me enough to make me go back and investigate Rubies, Your Blues, and Trouble In Dreams; I like them all, especially Rubies, but Kaputt has something else going for it. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of smooth, 80s sophistication, the tight, highly held guitars, the saxophones and synthesizers. Or maybe it’s the strange nostalgia for other countries and other cultures. Bejar seems to do something different with every album – Bowie pastiche, bizarre orchestral midi-dreams, shoegaze overtones – so I doubt the aesthetic adopted on Kaputt will be continued into whatever he does next, but right now both Em and I are finding moments of this buzzing through our heads between plays.

4. Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
I reviewed this for The Quietus too. It accompanied us on car journeys throughout the summer, something Patrick’s not done since The Magic Position. The first four tracks are almost too much to bear, too ebullient, too happy, too in love, but the album fulcrums on Time Of My Life, which might just be Patrick’s best pop song yet, and which tilts the emotions out of fairytale happily-ever-after into something much more prosaic and, therefore, more moving and real. And the tunes! Bermondsey Street! House! The Falcons! Together! I want Patrick to make an album of full-on German techno next.

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s previous effort ended up being my accidental favourite album of 2009, a long-burning grower that crept up on me (and Emma, too) over months and months, intriguing and beguiling us. So there were high expectations for Strange Mercy, especially when she let Surgeon into the world as a teaser. In truth, the album didn’t strike me straight away, but I kind of wasn’t expecting it to after Actor, and I’m glad it didn’t. We saw Annie live last month, and I wrote the following:
“Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.”

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I wrote this, and also this, and also this about PJ Harvey’s latest album, which is taking plaudits left, right, and centre this year, as well as various tweets, messageboard posts, and snippets in blog posts about other things. So I’m not sure I can write anymore, except to say that it’s wonderful, and poetic, and enticing, and moving, and a massive, massive accomplishment.

1. Wild Beasts – Smother

Likewise I waxed extremely lyrical about Wild Beasts’ third album back in May; it’s stayed near the top of my pile, where it’s accessible, because it needs to be, because I play it often, ever since. It, and its b-sides (especially the marvelous Thankless Thing), and Two Dancers, have been in the car, on the iPod, on the hi-fi, more often than any other records over the last 12 months, even Polly’s. Between These New Puritans last year and Wild Beasts this year I now feel like there are bands of boys with guitars (as opposed to bands of men with guitars, or lone women with guitars, or bands of women with guitars, or lone men with computers) who I care about, who I can invest in, who I want to go and see play live, and wear t-shirts adorned with their name. Smother is a subtle, creeping, emotionally and sexually tense and intense affair, passionate and impassioned at the same time as being incredibly controlled and nuanced. It’s my favorite album of the year.

Disco Inferno – The Five EPs

The way the internet has affected music – the business models, the way we listen, the journalism around it, the places we buy music from, the way we’re exposed to new music – is an endlessly fascinating and frightening paradigm. The record shop my brother worked in, which was in the same place in my hometown for 20+ years, has closed and stands empty. The print publications I hoped to write for when I was a teenager have pretty much all folded. The way I used to play music for my friends, at their houses, has become a new world of status updates and public playlists on streaming systems. It’s unrecognisable.

The economics of this new musical world, the supposed utopian “long tail” of consumption with all niche interests catered for, have ultimately failed pretty spectacularly in the wake of the global economic crisis, major labels haemorrhaging cash, independents struggling to maintain themselves, artists on the breadline more than ever before, and huge marquee TV programs like X Factor using a combination of old techniques (live TV) and new technologies (real-time mobile-based social media chatter) to eat up vast market share and public consciousness. If you thought about it too long, considered the people in the middle and at the bottom, the artists, writers, publicists, record label people, doing something a little different but wanting an audience nonetheless, wanting to pay a mortgage and live a reasonable life off their creative toil, you’d probably despair.

One good thing the internet has done for music, though, is turn up lost classics in an entirely new way. Equally slowly and suddenly, through mailing lists, forums, webzines, blogs and now social media platforms, like-minded people in search of buried musical treasure have been able to become aware and get hold of records long out of print, long forgotten, under-recognised gems that never crossed over for whatever reason when first released. I’ve found myself exposed to and in love with huge reams of vintage postpunk, krautrock, tropicalia, folkrock, and experimental rock and electronic music that I seriously doubt I would ever have come across in a pre-internet age.

This CD I’m ostensibly writing about here, The Five EPs by Disco Inferno, early 90s indie also-rans signed to Rough Trade, is a prime example of how something utterly lost and obscure, but full of worth and vitality, can become found. Thanks to a steady groundswell of voices praising their music, and in particular this run of 15 songs spread across five EPs, from 1991 to 1994, One Little Indian have rereleased their two key albums (1994’s D.I. Go Pop and 1996’s Technicolour), and now compiled the EPs for the first time ever. You need to own this record. I really can’t emphasise that enough.

I first heard these EPs as digital downloads, acquired via a long-since-vanished peer-to-peer network; smitten with them, I had to own them, and tracked down original CD copies via auction sites and specialist second-hand record retailers. I think the cheapest one cost me about £6, the most expensive in excess of £30. It took me over 18 months to acquire all five, but I had to do it. Now I own all the songs on one CD, with full liner notes explaining the mystique, genius, and provenance of this awesome music, the reissue inspired directly by that groundswell of opinion on the web, and by one voice in particular –the inimitable and estimable Ned Raggett, whose tireless championing of this band has brought them to the attention of hundreds if not thousands of people.

So what’s so special about Disco Inferno, and these EPs in particular? The band started out as unremarkable postpunk followers in the late 80s, gauche teenagers with records by Wire and Joy Division, but at some point they acquired a sampler and almost overnight their aesthetic and approach changed radically, and they became one of the most progressive, experimental, and creative bands in the UK.

The full context and methodology of what they did is explained in the extensive liner notes, and without wanting to regurgitate too much of what’s there I’ll précis it: rather than stick the Funky Drummer beat behind everything, or samples of film dialogue at the beginning or end of songs as so many contemporaneous indie bands did, they integrated the sampler fully with their instruments, so each guitar note played, instead of sounding like a string, pick-up, amplifier, and distortion pedal, instead reproduced the sound of breaking glass, or birdsong, or camera shutters, or fireworks, or lapping waves, or squealing brakes, or a thousand other found-sounds.

The genius of this trick is that Disco Inferno didn’t make some kind of unlistenable avant-garde ‘musique concrète’; they made melodies out of the maelstrom, guided the cacophony on tight, taut grooves, and used the samples to construct a sound-world which reproduced, rather than mimicked or alluded to, the world they lived in, but which functioned as- no, which was, at heart, pop music.

Through this melange of urban (and occasionally rural) sounds and shapes, structured into tunes, they weaved lyrics delivered in a heart-achingly laconic and distraught deadpan, telling stories of economic collapse, social decay, unsympathetic Tory governments run through with a sense of entitlement and ennui so strong and undeniable that our rulers see fit to ignore the strictures they placed upon the populace. There is fear of the Middle East, fear of the high-rise ghettos, fear of the moneyed elite, fear of the alienation at the heart of our society. Sound familiar? Lyrics about immigrants being kicked to death, about rising food prices, about specific incidents of modern life that run a sense of woe and panic through your veins, make the unspecific modern melancholy of various current musicians seem hopelessly, ineffectually vague.

But in the midst of this evocative despair, every so often, there would be a passage of music so beautiful and pointillist and delicate (Love Stepping Out), or a guitar solo so star-kissed and inspirational (Second Language), or a squall of noise so thrilling and visceral (D.I. Go Pop), or a beat and sample juxtaposition so joyous (It’s a Kid’s World), that the panic, the fear, the horror, would fade away, if only for a moment, as the power of pop music, the reason we’re here, the reason you’re reading this article, eclipsed everything as only it can do.

15 years since their demise in the face of disinterest and disaster, Disco Inferno’s finest music is now easily available, all together. You owe it to them – you owe it to yourselves – to listen. This record is quietly epochal. Its ripples filter through so much of what you love. Hopefully now its exposure can match its influence.

Keep Warm with The Warm Digits

I wrote this piece about three months ago and sent it somewhere, admittedly on spec, to be published, but they never did. I’ve felt bad ever since for having got the record for free, so here’s the review anyway, a little belated. It’s a good record; you might like it.

Keep warm with the warm digits

The Warm Digits – Keep warm… with the Warm Digits
Distraction Records
www.warmdigits.co.uk

Influence is a tricky and contentious word in music. “Influenced by” and “sounds like”, contrary to popular opinion, don’t actually mean the same thing. Thus who an artist identifies as influences on any given album or song may not necessarily translate as the musical lineages you as a listener think you hear in the sonic soup, no matter how wide and systematic your knowledge of music. So an indie band may namecheck Frank Zappa or Shudder To Think, having been consciously listening to those artists in the studio and attempting to interpolate certain ideas or approaches from them into their own music, but there is absolutely no guarantee that anyone listening will notice, and the result may be scorn and incredulity poured on the artists for attempting to gain credibility by dropping slightly leftfield names as influences.

Likewise a listener, even, heaven forefend, a reviewer, may be utterly convinced that they can hear a reference to Pachelbel’s canon in d in the chord structure of a certain song by a certain artists, may be certain that a key reason for the existence of the new song is as some kind of tribute to or recreation of canon in d, while the artist in question may never have thought of Pachelbel in their life, the chord sequence being the result of strange serendipity or subconscious appropriation (which I guess is another kind of influence, albeit a different kind). Or perhaps a band writes a new song by jamming around on the chords of something incongruous like Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, throws an entirely new melody and lyric and a radically different arrangement over the top, and no one hearing the new song ever has a clue as to its provenance. These things happen all the time. There are only so many notes, so many chords, so many ways to put them together.

Sometimes though, an artist makes it really obvious. Sometimes you can tell almost exactly what a record will sound like just by looking at the cover and reading the song titles. Keep Warm… with the Warm Digits is just such a record. The sleeve is printed to look old and worn, with fake creases, crumples, and fading colours lending the geometric rainbow of lines and curves an authentic air of early 70s German technological hippiedom. With a cover like this, it can only be a krautrock record. Then you turn it over and see that songs are called things like “Trans-Pennine Express” and “Here Come The Warm Digits”, and if you hadn’t already nailed Kraftwerk, Neu!, Eno, and Harmonia as influences then you surely couldn’t fail to now.

And sure enough, when you drop the needle or press play or shake your phone in the air (or whatever it is kids do to start listening to music these days), you’re greeted by an analogue synthesiser wheeze and a collapsing tower of drums, which disintegrates and coalesces back into a metronomic pulse and layers of melodic fuzz which are the very embodiment of the epithet “repetition is a form of change”.

This is anything but a cold and computerised record, though; if the punning song titles weren’t enough evidence, The Warm Digits’ human warmth and sense of humour is expressed by drums which are a touch more swinging and less robotic than one might expect, and by a series of major-key melodies and chord changes which, though they still paint images of 70s European kids TV dramas about the sons of businessmen being kidnapped and driven across the Alps in my mind, do so with a wonderfully energised sense of naivety and excitement rather than the desolate melancholy of being alone in a foreign land. If that makes sense.

The friend who alerted me to this record described it as being a bit “Fisher Price – My First Krautrock Album”, but emphasised that this was far, far from being a bad thing, and I’m inclined to agree. Though I have an armful of records by Cluster and CAN and Tangerine Dream, plus modern reference points like Lindstrom, Emeralds, and M83, enough to ask why I’d want to listen to anything as clearly and happily derivative as The Warm Digits, there’s enormous pleasure to be derived from hearing these kinds of sounds rearranged and made new yet again. Andrew Hodgeson and Steve Jeffries, the producer and electronica-guy duo who are The Warm Digits, may not have hit upon any kind of newness or innovation here, but I’m pretty sure that was never their intention, and they’ve created something enormously enjoyable nonetheless.