White Denim – Fits

written for http://www.drownedinsound.com

Garage rock is perennially on the verge of being in fashion, it would seem. From humble, unrecognised beginnings with MC5 and The Stooges, it went into hibernation before morphing into the trashcan stomp of Jon Spencer and Neil Hagerty, hitchhiked for a short while on the grunge bandwagon until it crashed over the canyon, before rising once more and conquering the world’s stadiums with the bastardised blues of The White Stripes.

Yup, garage rock is the perennial phoenix of rock‘n’roll, evermore the ‘next big thing’ in one form or another. So, hearing White Denim described as a ‘garage rock act’, it’s hard to stifle a small sigh and ready oneself for an in vogue fuzz ridden album full of half-conceived hooks.

A small sigh that would prove to be misguided, should one have heard the opening track of Fits. Naming a track ‘Radio Milk How Can You Stand It’ means one of two things: either they’ve named a brilliant song brilliantly, or the brilliant name makes up for a distinct lack of brilliance within the actual song. Thankfully, in this case, White Denim have done the former, chickenscratch guitar squall and madcap saxophone cutting above the heavy beat of the rhythm section. The vocals are pegged way back in the mix, lending the whole thing a slightly submerged feel, which is welcome given the treble-heavy production that seems to be so in favour right now.

Like the opening track, a first listen through of Fits is incredibly confusing and disorientating. It’s not unlike (hear me out) listening to a Mars Volta album, such is the surprising denseness of the production and the clawing guitarwork showcased throughout. Vocals are yelped, Hendrix-like, completely indecipherably for the duration, and passages of guitar hum and howl dot the often unconventional sounding tracks. And then, around 15 minutes in, and having built up a ferocious head of nostalgic steam, it all comes to a bizarre, gutwrenching halt, from which it never really recovers.

The fact that over the previous five tracks the band have displayed something, that, whilst not original, could certainly be be classed as exciting, makes the sudden shift into whiteboy soul even more confusing than things already were. The howling Jimi-isms of ‘Say What You Want’ are even more confusing when sat next to the MOR dullities of ‘I’d Have It Just The Way We Were’, which is less the intended Isley Brothers and more the unintended suncream commercial soundtrack. And let’s put the half spat Spanish verse of ‘El Hard Attack Dcwyw’ cheek-to-cheek with the cloying romantics of ‘Regina Holding Hands’ – no, definitely no contest there.

But what makes it all the more infuriating is that the band clearly can write slower tracks. The glistening, surf sheened instrumental ‘Sex Prayer”, whilst perhaps not reaching the giddy heights of the opening track, shows that soft doesn’t always mean weak, insofar as White Denim are concerned.

And as ‘Syncn’ lilts to a close, it’s hard not to feel that White Denim would be better if they channelled a little of their chaotic diversity towards consistency, and focused upon being the very biggest, dumbest and craziest bunch of garage revivalists, rather than striking towards a uniqueness that is momentarily out of reach.

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Yo La Tengo @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15th June 2009

A truncated version of this review appears on http://www.drownedinsound.com’s Meltdown Festival 2009 Review, alongside an excellent review of Ornette Coleman’s two performances, which makes me want to have been there even more.

“Have you ever been to Antartica?!”

Insofar as heckles go, I’d put the above right up there with the very best, alongside everything Bill Hicks or Rodney Dangerfield has ever spat back at whichever smartass in the audience has had the audacity to question either of them.

The only caveat is that it couldn’t really count as a heckle, as Yo La Tengo have, for one night only, legitimised heckling. The ‘Freewheeling’ prefix for their listing tonight (which originally confused DiS into believing it would be a whole set of Dylan covers – wince) denotes the unique Q & A format for the show – the audience yells something inaudible, Ira Kaplan shouts out a comedy response, they play a song loosely related to his answer. It’s all very cosy, but that it could be a long night for everyone is borne out by the inevitable question about sweaters that evokes as many groans as belly laughs.

What’s certain, however, is that it would be pretty hard to find a band more ideally suited to this kind of format. Ira, Georgia and James are funny in all the right ways, it turns out. They’re smart enough to handle the nerds, and relaxed enough to be off-the-cuff witty. They continually manage to come off as charming and assured, which is some feat considering some of the oddities they are subjected to. Antartica is just the tip of the iceberg; audience members harping on about obscure baseball references, the nasal semantics of the song Hallelujah, group sex and god-knows-what.

The set itself is atypically Yo La Tengo – expect the unexpected. That the stripped down quasi-acoustic setup doesn’t have to mean downtempo is debunked three songs in by a shattering, version of garage staple “Come On Up” as recently covered by Condo Fucks. It’s as startling to hear the clear set highlight being played at all as it is to see it being played seated on an electrified acoustic guitar. And that’s not the only rare delight on offer tonight: a heartmelting cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” and a Bob Dylan cover that turns out to have been “ 4th Time Round” star alongside a version of “Drug Test” stripped down to the point of hauntedness. And whilst DiS might lament the lack of the band’s freakier, krautier songs, it’s hard to fault a set that opens with an airy, Georgia led “Tom Courtenay” and still finds room to include a tear-inducing “Nowhere Near”.  And that’s without mentioning the joyous version of cod salsa falsetto classic-to-be “Mr Tough” and a hazy, grinning sleepwalk through “Sugarcube”.

When band do come unstuck at times: when one vocal punter mentions that he likes to do the dirty to “Little Eyes”, the band are almost as dumbstruck as one expects his poor wife will be when she finds out he told an entire concert hall about their song. Similarly, that the format is a double-edged sword becomes clear by the end when a previously “reticent” crowd are pelting the stage with questions which Ira amiably ducks and dodges.

Yet as the band encore with a second, beefier, Ira led run through as “Tom Courtenay” that feels, if anything, a bit more necessary than the first one, there’s a warm feeling that just can’t be shook. You’d like to think that it would still feel warm had tonight’s gig taken place in Antartica, with the band shouting out sharp asides as they dodged penguins and polar bears.

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Why MPs never really grew up

First things first, a few apologies. I’ve been busy of late, working and playing at the good, the bad and the disgustingly ugly. Some good news – I’m now writing sporadically for the delightful http://www.drownedinsound.com as well as the fledgling http://www.musosguide.com, but I have had much less time for my own personal meanderings. And for that, I am truly sorry. Because every man is lost without his meander.

I should cut to the chase, and eschew the pyramid lead, entirely, because it’s now resembling a trapezium, and what semblance of ideas I had about where I was going with this are swfitly fading, and my urge to drop it all in favour of the bottle of single malt nestling in my cupboard is growing in strength…

I find it difficult to write deeply personally about my experiences – without the filter of music or art or culture to pass them through, I feel my life is perhaps not rose tinted enough. My friend Mike has no such compulsions, and I have an admiration for him because of that, even if he does write under an alias, of sorts. But every once in a while, something or other will stir up something from my very insides and bring it bubbling to the surface, spitting verbiage onto bystanders.

And this time round it was the election of a new Speaker in the House of Commons. Listening to some of the speeches from the various candidates that dribbled with the usual pomposity and self assuredness that makes so many MPs so detestable to the public (really, that’s what it is, though no-one will admit it, and most of us are only too happy to hide behind the juicy alibi of expenses when slinging mud at our representatives). It was a memory of a pleasanter time hooned into the view of my mindseye, a time when 3% projected economic growth was seen as ridiculous for other reasons, when banks actually paid interest and when the blog hadn’t yet become a soapbox from which every man could cast his tuppence into the churning oceans of politics. It was a memory of my time at Sixth Form, and the elections we held for head boy.

The parallels are all too obvious: there’s the same amount of backslapping, the same amount of overwrought messages, the same promise of change, of reform, and of course, the slightly nervous humour of it all. After all, no-one wants to be taken too seriously, do they?

I remember the glorious campaign for the Anglo European 2005 primarily because of it’s non-existence as a campaign, in any recognisable sense. There were a set of hustings, there were speeches, there may even have been some background rabble rousing, but all of it escaped me. It was a campaign that would have bored the tits off any serious politics junkie, so unsullied in it’s purity was it.

Of course, I’m only saying this because I was the shock victor.

The simple fact was, that just as Sir George Young was shafted by Labour supporters looking to flash the final up yours at Cameron from their swiftly decaying parapet (even if that meant championing the rather obsequious John Bercow), so was the most likely victor, a friend of mine to this day. My companion and sparring mate took the whole thing rather seriously, such was his charming eccentricity. This extended to papering the walls with comedy posters (his head superimposed in place of Kitchener’s, him driving into Paris on a tank, etc etc) and cajoling everyone available to vote for him on the grounds that he was an admirable character who could reduce a crowd to stitches with one fell swoop of a grandiose hand gesture accompanied by a mess of preposterously ill-suited rhetoric. Yes, he certainly knew his audience better than I, and if he couldn’t inspire them, he would at least make them laugh. Frankly, his talents were wasted, and if there ever was a proof that success at a younger age is meaningless, it would be the fact now he is a Conservative Councillor, and I’m a lowly intern at a lobbyist firm with a deeply entrenched cynicism and a mistrust of active democratic participation that borders on fear.

The fact was, that on seeing the spectacle of my friend orating with great aplomb, the teachers, watching in horror and also able to vote, weighed up their options. I’d like to delude myself and say that I was elected on a massive surge of sensible, right thinking and logical people who kept their voices very low in the mix, but in reality, I’ll just have to accept that I was a mere teacher’s pet, who slyly slid into power more by luck than skill.

And so is John Bercow, strangely enough. He’s not right on enough for the Tories (see Cameron’s vehement aside in the gents), but the skeletons in his closet mean he’s probably not quite left enough to make the jump to Labour. What’s funniest is that as the one man up yours, he might actually prove to be a very good bet for the Speaker’s position: under no obligation to anyone besides his own conscience and the powerful surge of public opinion.

I am John Bercow, hear me roar.

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Sublime Frequencies, Tufnell Park Dome, 8/6/09

Written for Muso’s Guide – http://musosguide.com/archives/4876

An interesting fact about the word sublime: in the philosophical school of aesthetics, it refers to something, which is so great, vast and beautiful that it strikes terror as well appreciation into the onlooker. The implication is that feelings of awe are based not just in wonder, but also in confusion and fear.

So if you’ll excuse that attempt at a pyramid lead: Group Doueh are awesome. Tonight, Tufnell Park has acquired a dustblown, scented vibe, as the Sublime Frequencies tour hits town.

Sublime Frequencies was started by the Alan Bishop, best known as the head honcho of Arizona pyschedelic weirdoes Sun City Girls, along with Hisham Mayet. It’s stated aim is to “acquire and expose obscure sights and sounds…not documented sufficiently through all channels”. In essence, Sublime Frequencies heads to the outer reaches and drags the best portions of audiovisual experience kicking and screaming back to the Western cultural sphere, where it dumps them on an unknowing and ungrateful audience.

…Or does it? The Dome tonight is heaving and sweating from every pore – every date on this tour has been either a sellout or near to it, a distrusting mix of Viceland hipsters, space cowboys and middle class revolutionaries jostling for place around the stage.  If ever there was cause to have faith in the music industry and the discerning tastes of the consumer, then tonight should provide it. That something so fantastically alien to the ‘normal’ London scene should be able to attract this many punters based on reputation alone (I suspect that, like me, many here are relative initiates to the SF scene) is a timely reminder that just sometimes, the world can throw you a completely unexpected and wonderful curveball.

Of course, said ball would not be so wonderful were it not for the quality of tonight’s show. Attendence alone does not a great gig make, as a wise man surely once said after seeing Keane sell out The O2. Group Doueh, from the troubled Western Sahara region of Morocco, represent the ‘desert guitar’ scene which has garnered much acclaim through groups such as Tiniwaren, open proceedings tonight, and I’ll struggle to remember a set as engaging as theirs from this year so far. Essentially a four piece tonight, consisting of a male vocalist, a synth player in charge of percussion, Salmou ‘Doueh’ Bamaar himself on lead guitar and his wife providing additional percussion and vocals, they play a storming set of dustblown exotica which sounds like Hendrix losing himself somewhere along the wayside of the Silk Road. The vocals are entrancing, muezzin style hollers blending beautifully with Bamaar’s lightning fast guitar licks other the steady, hollow pound of percussion and organ.

The Hendrix comparison is not one I make idly, either: besides putting his guitar behind his head to play it, Bamaar is a sensational musician, veering from providing subtle backgrounds, to semi chickenscratch licks, to wailing Arabian solos that resonate with his wife’s poetic chants and the incredible tones of the charismatic male vocalist. The performers are a delight to watch, and rarely has something so layered and complex been such a joy to watch. By the final song, complete with a facemelting extended solo, shuffling feet have taken the place of scratched bearded chins, as the whole casbah is well and truly rocked to its foundations.

Thankfully, Muso’s has time to catch it’s breath before Syrian pop sensation Omar Souleyman takes to the stage, and it’s just as well, as he commences as he intends to finish, with a delicate poem leading into a thumping four on the floor arab pop anthem. Accompanied by just two musicians, along with a poet (think something like a mute hype man at a hip hop show, who utters suggestions to the main act), Souleyman turns the place upside down, a jangling three string satzh guitar played at the speed of light over the top of thumping drum machines and street market keyboards, both of the latter provided incredibly by just one man. It’s awe inspiring, as Souleyman himself whips the crowd into a frenzy, repeating evocative Persian poetry over a barrage of instrumentation.

Yet, when compared to the majesty and diversity of Doueh, it seems, to Muso’s at least, a little flat. His trick might be incredible, but it is just a single trick, repeated over and over.  Try telling that to the two dancing men on stage, or to a ferociously hyped crowd jumping, hooting and hollering for the entire set. Yet by the last two songs, we’ve swallowed our pride and despite our weary feet and heavy heads, join the central fray. And as Souleyman, via translator, wishes us happiness throughout our paths, it’s hard not to contain the joy that seems to fill the entire room. Sublime? Almost certainly.

Find out more about Sublime Frequencies:

http://www.sublimefrequencies.com/

http://www.myspace.com/sublimefrequencies2 (the Group Inerane track, Kuni Majagni, comes highly recommended indeed)

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At least there’s one Labour MP taking the bull by the horns

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/8089498.stm

“Mr Blunkett said the incident gave him in new insight into Labour’s problems.”

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“Why Andrew WK’s I Get Wet deserves more recognition” OR “Why I ended up throwing myself round my kitchen at 11pm on a Monday night”

He. Is. Beautiful.

He. Is. Beautiful.

Sometimes, I forget what music is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about fun. It’s supposed to be about making you feel good, about making damn sure that you feel like the king of your very own hill, even if it’s just a hill of beans.

So let’s be clear from the start that my appreciation of I Get Wet isn’t ironic. Submitting it as a classic album review isn’t my way of sticking it to the man, the floppy haired scenesters or the slack jawed musicophiles, though if it does so, that’ll be a bonus. My appreciation for the white clad madman Andrew WK is based on one solid, unquestionably objective truth: I Get Wet rocks hard, and it rocks fast.

Put yourself in Andrew WK’s position: you’re a musical genius by all accounts, a virtuoso on piano, and a multi talented instrumentalist who has lent his hand to Current 93 and Boredoms, amongst others. You’re the son of a well-respected lawyer and author of several acclaimed legal textbooks. And when you sit down to write a solo record, you throw that all away and make something bigger, better, harder and more aggro than any of your biography should permit. Big drums and great slabs of dumb, unrefined guitar are the meat and potatoes of this album, finished off with a those roaring vocals and frenetic synth work.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Andrew’s current gig is as a motivational speaker. That there’s a bludgeoning nature to his ‘message’ should be obvious, hearing what he does to a pair of speakers with ‘She Is Beautiful’. If the title suggests a whimsical love song about sunset beaches and that special girl, you obviously don’t know your WK. Take a love song, cut it into pieces with a meat cleaver and then smear the bloody remnants all over your face, screaming out “SHE. IS. BEAUTIFUL.” at the very top of your voice. This is love, WK style. Direct, to the point and taking no prisoners.

‘Party Hard’ is an opening salvo which doesn’t need much introduction. To call it a shot of adrenalin to the face would be a disservice. It can literally destroy dancefloors, if used correctly. Give me six wiry young men, six bottles of tequila and a PA playing ‘Party Hard’ and stand well back to watch devolution in action. ‘Girls Own Love’ falls somewhere between the swagger of ZZ Top and being better than every power ballad you’ve ever heard. ‘Take It Off’ is the theme tune to a thousand men pumping their fists in a still functioning steelworks, while ‘ Party Till You Puke’ forgoes any pretences at musicality and degenerates into a two note juggernaut and a chorus that would never be anything but anthemic. ‘I Get Wet’ is a petulant finger raised to anyone still not dancing, and ‘Don’t Stop Living In The Red’ is a final warning to anyone thinking of defying the one man party manifesto.

So with bloodshot eyes, trembling limbs and a grin that could only be described as ‘shit eating’ smeared all over my face, I’d like to submit I Get Wet as a classic album on the following criterion: it’s really stupendously enjoyable to listen to.

I Get Wet, on Spotify

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Wolf Eyes – Always Wrong Out Now on Hospital Records

“Out of chaos comes order”

Oft quoted, oft misquoted and a statement of some pretty, hefty philosophical weight. If we didn’t have chaos, we couldn’t have order. If we didn’t have noise, we probably couldn’t have music. Chaos is evidently a speciality of Nate Young’s Wolf Eyes project. Judging by their latest release Always Wrong on Hospital Productions, sometime home to fellow ear drum perforators Prurient and Kevin Drumm, the loss of Aaron Dilloway hasn’t particularly dullened the trios love of earsplitting grind and sheet metal fx. No, Always Wrong is not a pleasant listen, and anyone who might have forseen it as such is probably best advised to quit reading now. I wouldn’t want to be wasting your time after all.

The thing with ‘noise’ records is that all too often they are a rather boring reproduction of frighteningly intense live performance. I’d place Merzbow’s tour last year with Carlos Giffoni and Flower-Corsano Duo right up there with the best live experiences I’ve ever had, but besides the latter artist, I don’t routinely make a habit of playing their records in my home. And there’s a reason for that – I lack the equipment to make the experience worthwhile, and partially because of that I can’t (or don’t desire to) recreate the desired atmosphere : oppressive, confusing and completely otherworldly. Pure noise is, for me at least, a live phenomenon.

That said, Always Wrong isn’t an awful record. It’s not a great one either, but it is, for want of a better word, interesting. Undoubtedly, it’s probably not as interesting as their live performances (just how does one play an ‘electrified plank’?), but after a while, it has a certain pull to it. Despite clocking in at just under 30 minutes, the record has an almost pyschedelic feel to it, grimy squalls and casbah drones clambering their way out of the murky industrial dub the collective kick up. It’s listening to some arcane machine shudder and lurch into life, flashes of raw blue electricity igniting as it recovers from some 50 year hangover. This driving clank and clatter, matched with some ear splittingly bizarre tones (I’m pretty certain I picked out what sounded like a didgeridoo in the mix) lends the record the odd sensation of being completely chaotic, yet still heading towards something. When Wolf Eyes get it right – witness the muezzin like clarion calls of ‘Pretend Alive’ or ‘Droll Cut the Dog’ – it is strangely thrilling, hearing something come out of, well, everything.

But, moments like this are too few and far between to make it worthwhile. You get the feeling that Wolf Eyes are a particularly remorseless bunch of misogynists, who long to inflict their own brand of sonic warfare on mankind (witness the track entitled “We All Hate You”), and after repeated listens, it does start to sound like noise for noise’s sake. We’ve seen acts like Skullflower find beauty and ecstasy from chaos, whereas all there is to be found in Wolf Eyes is pain and confusion, two emotions that don’t really have the longevity necessary to really grab the listener. Which is a real shame, because underneath those buzzsaw electronics and clattering percussion of Always Wrong, there does lurk the beating heart of something a bit deeper and cleverer than that.

Wolf Eyes – Droll Cut The Dog

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