Sunday, 26 July 2009

There is no such thing as singing from the heart...

Model Warships Merchant [Beat Is Murder, 2009] - download the whole album for free!

Merchant is the debut album from Model Warships, the nom-de-plume of Leeds musician Michael Waters. The album's nine tracks are graced with a lo-fi bedroom quality which frequently turns the writhing mass of instruments into a mess of static and hiss. The songs are all works of catharsis – a floor covered in shards of broken glass, with Waters' voice trying to make tentative steps across, never quite realising that it can't get all the way through without screaming. It makes for uncomfortable listening, be it for the dense murk of the production - see the near instrumental "I Will Drag", which makes "Treefingers" sound like a kids TV theme tune, and "Damned Actors"'s descent into indistinguishable squalling madness – or the tortured howl into which Waters' vocals frequently descend, even when singing a League of Gentlemen punchline as blackly comic as "When you step off the edge, you'll look down like that fucker from Roadrunner."

The songs themselves are as strong as they are complex. "Good Actors" is as close as Merchant comes to a moment of serenity, or (whisper it) a pop song; built on a spiralling guitar line, and gilded with some delicate piano and synth strings, it comes on like Xiu Xiu covering Idlewild on broken equipment. Meanwhile, closing track "Bad Wolves" is a haunted duet with another Leeds musician, Natalie Guest; the pair trade resignedly dramatic lines ("I am tired all the time/Can you leave me be?") over a hypnotic mix of Philip Glass-style arpeggios and dark folky strums. The highlight is "Muddy Flow", in which Waters' disembodied vocal floats over a lush river of softly strummed guitars and what sounds like a guitar made of a tissue box and elastic bands, like some kind of Pitchfork-approved Ophelia.

Merchant can be an intense proposition to absorb in one sitting – it really does sound like Waters is losing his marbles, one note at a time – but that's a relatively minor complaint about an otherwise striking debut. If you’re actually enjoying being cooped up inside during this run of rainy summer days, this might just be the perfect soundtrack.


Sunday, 24 May 2009

Evan Dando's cover Varshons

The Lemonheads "Varshons" [Cooking Vinyl, out 22nd June]

Let's face it, The Lemonheads' 2006 comeback album was a disappointment; while occasional tracks like 'No Backbone' and 'Pittsburgh' reminded people why Evan Dando (and longtime songwriting partner Tom Morgan, who was behind 'Backbone') was once a force to be reckoned with, the album as a whole seemed as aimless and lazy as its title (The Lemonheads), especially when compared to Dando's 2003 'solo' album Baby I'm Bored, his most coherant and rewarding set in a decade. Varshons, produced by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, makes no effort to tip the balance one way or another; a collection of covers, it clocks in at just over half an hour (just like its predecessor), but doesn't seem to be tarnished by any sense of what people might want from a new Lemonheads record. It's this casual - but by no means tossed-off - air that makes Varshons possibly the strongest (though hardly the most consistent) album to bear the Lemonheads name since the mid-nineties.

The Lemonheads have always had a winning way with covers; 'Different Drum' became the band's breakthrough single, while even It's a Shame About Ray, as genuinely flawless a collection of songs as it is, ends with a song from the musical Hair!. One longtime source of inspiration has always been Gram Parsons - Dando has covered a number of songs from his catalogue, including a version of 'Brass Buttons' on the band's major label debut Lovey, and reworking the classic 'How Much I've Lied' for a 1993 radio session with the beautiful and talented Juliana Hatfield. It's therefore fitting that Varshons kicks off with another Parsons track, this time a rough, but instantly loveable early number of his, entitled 'I Just Can't Take It Anymore', which was only officially released at the start of this decade. The 2009 varshon, which is set to be the album's first single, sounds like a vintage cut of Dando's own, all rolling drums, sunny strums and winding melody, thinly veiling the bitterness of the lyrics ("We could have done a lot/We certainly did not/So I'll try to do the things I did before..."), and sets up the album's relaxed feel from the off.

Next up is a hushed take on one of the few reflective moments from Wire's peerless Pink Flag album, 'Fragile'; in the hands of the Lemonheads, the song gets opened up into a lush, though fleeting, country ballad. This, along with his take on Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die', reminiscent of American Recordings-era Johnny Cash, are the album's darkest highlights, and also serve to remind the listener of just how great Dando is at the dark stuff. Meanwhile, the best thing in the classic Lemonheads-style is a dumb take on G.G. Allin's 'Layin' Up With Linda'; another upbeat jangler, it again masks the darkly comic lyrics ("I got pissed and killed her/Now I'm on the run/Living with Linda used to be fun..."), and makes for a bright interlude into a surprisingly sombre record.

Unfortunately, following a couple more tracks in the dusky country vein (most notably, the haunting 'Yesterlove', which features a spiralling acoustic guitar line, and some exotic Indian percussion), Varshons takes a desperate tailspin in its second half, with too many unmemorable meandering tracks from which it never quite recovers. The album's nadir is the ersatz electro experimentation of 'Dirty Robot', which features the vocal 'talents' of one Kate Moss. Yeah. That Kate Moss. There's little more to add on the matter other than that the track is potentially the worst thing ever to bear the Lemonheads name, sounding like nothing more like a bad Client b-side. Fortunately, the album's other big-name collaboration, a faithful version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' fares much better; with emotively breathy guest vocals from Liv Tyler, the simple rendition of Cohen's beatific ballad is a late saving grace, and also serves to build up anticipation for the album's most talked-about track, 'Beautiful'.

Yes, Varshons, ends with a cover of a Christina Aguilera track, and y'know what? It's a fucking joy. Dando does nothing fancy with the track, simply layering up the acoustic guitars and letting the song - which, let's face it, has always been great - speak for itself. By the time the track fades to its hazy conclusion - ornamented by a curious Thin Lizzy-style double guitar chime - the mid-album slump is almost forgotten (I say almost - this is a record which features Kate Moss on vocals). It's certainly not perfect, but Dando's voice sounds in fine form, and majority of these tracks are infused with a heart and soul that seems to suggest that he really enjoyed recording them. A worthwhile detour, then, but now it's time for Evan Dando to show the world what he can really do when he tries...


Thursday, 30 April 2009

Dab hands at trouble with four days of stubble, we are...

MORRISSEY "SOUTHPAW GRAMMAR" and "MALADJUSTED" (RCA, 1995/1997 - reissued 2009)

"The choice I have made may seem strange to you..." Morrissey 'Alma Matters'

In the wake of his recent Years of Refusal album - a commercial success, but one that left this fan cold - Morrissey is reclaiming his past. Smiths tracks, untouched for decades, have made live appearances - though anyone who saw his charmless bludgeoning of 'This Charming Man' on Jonathan Ross may wish they hadn't - and last month, he reissued two of his more 'difficult' and 'underappreciated' efforts for reappraisal.

Following on from 1994's perfect Vauxhall & I, 1995's Southpaw Grammar and 1997's Maladjusted marked the generally-accepted nadir of his solo career, respectively spurning, and embracing, the then-booming Britpop scene; both have their champions, but these reissues (or as Morrissey describes them, 're-presentations') of these albums are allegedly less a money-grabbing venture than an effort to rewrite history. The artwork and tracklists of both have been drastically redesigned; Southpaw, which originally opened with 'The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils', a chorusless, Shostakovich-sampling dirge (in which you can practically see Morrissey's shit-eating grin as he intones "To be finished would be relief" into the song's ninth and tenth minutes), now starts with one of its punchiest tracks, while Maladjusted has its lead-off single, the glorious 'Roy's Keen', cruelly excised - while both are given additional tracks, though Morrissey himself has already dismissed one, the lovably goofy 'Fantastic Bird' as "throwaway".

In its original guise, Southpaw Grammar was a scant eight songs long, bookended by two ten-minute epics; the redux clusters these in the middle, certainly a blessing for the impatient listener. Indeed, for all accusations of tampering with history, everything on Southpaw 2.0 arguably works better than the original highlighting instead its goldmine of three-minute gems, including the spry 'Reader Meet Author’. Even the glam-rocking "The Operation", frequently maligned for its two-minute drum intro, sounds positively effervescent here, and although the spiralling 'Southpaw' remains one of his best album closers (especially its cryptic references to "run[ning] back to Ma", which sound suspiciously like running back to Marr, and its 'Bigmouth'-cribbing outro), the choice to end with one of Morrissey's greatest songs, 'Nobody Loves Us' is inspired. Previously - inexplicably - relegated to b-side status, it's a masterful display of guitarist Alain Whyte's unheralded melodic chops, and Moz's wonderful way with words.

Maladjusted has always been a dark horse; often derided as Morrissey on autopilot, it's still home to some of his most affecting ballads (especially the stately 'Trouble Loves Me' and 'Perfect Day'-aping 'Wide to Receive') and, in 'Satan Rejected My Soul' and 'Ammunition', two of his most likeable pop songs. Still, while 'Sorrow Will Come in the End', his unintentionally hilarious riposte to losing a royalties lawsuit to ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce ("A man who slits throats has time on his hands, and I'm gonna get you!") has definite curiosity value, the new tracks add nothing to the experience.

Morrissey's obsessive fanbase will relish the chance to argue over these revisions, but the changes will be of little interest to the recently-converted. Likewise, the man's own newly-written sleevenotes are consistently insightful and amusing, but are hardly going to have casual fans reaching for their wallets. Which begs the question: when should an artist relinquish control over his back catalogue?

"...but who asked you anyway? It's my life to ruin my own way." Morrissey 'Alma Matters'

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


It's just sleeping, and consequently needs poking with a stick every now and again. Sorry for not updating since 2008 - I've been stuck in student hell. Not to say there's been nothing to write about, but I've been doing it for other places. This place will continue to get infrequently updated, but in the meantime, do check out some of the other places I speak my branes.

The Singles Jukebox
Returning from internet purgatory, the man, the legend William B. Swygart has resurrected his Singles Jukebox (synopsis: jaded rock hacks write about pop music Round Table-style, enjoy a lot of it) for the good of mankind. Amongst other esteemed journo types (many of whom used to write for the sorely-missed StylusMagazine), my amateurish opinion has already been called on regarding La Roux, Soulja Boy and Miley Cyrus; keep reading if you want to see what else I might enjoy/despise.

The Line of Best Fit
Expect a few reviews of mine to go up here sometime in the next week or so as well. Another
great new webzine,

And now, since I'm here, a few songs:

1990s "The Kids" [taken from Kicks - Rough Trade, 2009]
The new 1990s album Kicks has been one of my favourite records of the year so far; while their last album had pretty much one setting (PAR-TAY!), this one's much more diverse, aided in some part by all three of the band taking turns writing and singing songs. Compared with the album's more visceral moments, "The Kids" is, comparatively, a grower, but once you get it, it sinks in hard. A shoe-in for my end of year list.

Favours for Sailors "I Dreamt That I Dreamt That You Loved Me in Your Dreams" [taken from Furious Sons - Tough Love Records, 2009]
One of the most promising debuts I've heard in ages, Favours For Sailors' first mini-album Furious Sons is a six-song powerpop masterclass. If this isn't a hit by the end of 2010, my faith in music will be lost forever.

McCarthy "Get a Knife Between Your Teeth" [taken from Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today - Midnight Music, 1990]
I Am a Wallet, McCarthy's debut, remains one of my favourite albums of the 80s - the perfect mix of jangle and polemic. Inexplicably, I never quite gave their last album, Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today the same attention until recently; it's a lot less one-dimensional than the band's first two efforts, with the first seeds of the Stereolab sound being sown with the introduction of Laetetia Sadler to the band. This was the band's last single, and sees them flirt (not entirely ill-advisedly) with the then-popular baggy sound; something tells me the E was not flowing freely when this was written...

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone "Streets of Philadelphia (w/ Concern)" [taken from Advanced Base Battery Life - Tomlab, 2009]
I think I can understand why this has become one of the most-covered Springsteen songs within the indie community (see also: The Wave Pictures), since it shows off the Boss's sense of drama and tragedy, but also his restraint - rather than put it all out on the line, he hides his feelings behind a drum machine and some icy synths. Since that's pretty much what Casiotone's entire career has been based on, it seems only natural for Owen Ashworth to have tried his hand at this track, and it really does sound like the song he was born to cover.

More frequent updates to follow. Promise.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Kiss Me, I've Quit Smoking Festive Fifty!

Shitting crikey, it's...


This has been a pretty good year for music, all told, and given that I'm the neurotic, compulsive-listmaker type, what better way to see it out than to attempt to channel all of that good music into a handy top 50. The rules are simple - no more than one song per band, singles from 2007 albums are alright, but nothing from reissues.

As for how long it took to get everything into order...well...iTunes helped remind me just how much good stuff came out this year, then it just took a bit of rearranging ("Well I know I don't like that song more than that one..."), so it's worryingly accurate. There are a few things that would have made the final cut, had I had enough time with them (I'm looking at you, Kanye West and Parts & Labor and Chinese Democracy...), but I'd call this a pretty of my 2008 via the medium of pop music.

Oh, and I really wanted to put "49:00" by Paul Westerberg in there, but it's 45-minute track made up of bits of shorter songs (a bit like a one-track version of Alien Lanes), so it doesn't really fit in here. Suffice to say it's one of the best things I've heard all year, and you'd just be depriving yourself if you don't track it down.

So...yeah, here goes nothing...and if you want a zip file of this nothing, click here. (They aren't going to be in order in the zip file, mind)

1. Los Campesinos! "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed"
2. British Sea Power "No Lucifer"
3. Deerhunter "Nothing Ever Happened"
4. Frank Turner "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous"
5. The Lodger "The Good Old Days"
6. The Hold Steady "Constructive Summer"
7. Weezer "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
8. Elbow "Grounds for Divorce"
9. Johnny Foreigner "DJs Get Doubts"
10. The Wave Pictures "Strange Fruit for David"
11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds "We Call Upon the Author"
12. Frightened Rabbit "Old Old Fashioned"
13. The Long Blondes "The Couples"
14. R.E.M. "Living Well is the Best Revenge"
15. She & Him "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
16. Silver Jews "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat"
17. The Mountain Goats "Lovecraft in Brooklyn"
18. Fosca "Confused and Proud"
19. Juliana Hatfield "The Fact Remains"
20. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart "Everything With You"
21. Marnie Stern "Ruler"
22. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks "Out of Reaches"
23. Amanda Palmer "The Point of it All"
24. of Montreal "Nonpareil of Favor"
25. Ben Folds "You Don't Know Me (featuring Regina Spektor)"
26. M83 "Graveyard Girl"
27. Ten City Nation "Everyone's a Tourist"
28. Laura Hocking "Loves of a Girl Wrestler"
29. Be Your Own Pet "Becky"
30. Why? "Fatalist Palmistry"
31. Black Mountain "Stay Free"
32. Future of the Left "The Hope That House Built"
33. Hercules and Love Affair "Blind"
34. Wild Beats "The Devil's Crayon"
35. Duffy "Warwick Avenue"
36. Times New Viking "(My Head)"
37. Robert Forster "Pandanus"
38. Dexy "Dying Breed"
39. The Understudies "Flicknives"
40. The Magnetic Fields "California Girls"
41. Kristoffer Ragnstam "Swing That Tambourine"
42. Spiritualized "Death Take Your Fiddle"
43. Girls "Lust for Life"
44. Goldfrapp "A&E"
45. Mark Kozelek "Celebrated Summer"
46. Alphabeat "Fantastic Six"
47. Glasvegas "It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry"
48. Islands "Creeper"
49. Ballboy "Songs for Kylie"
50. Headless Heroes "See My Love"

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Los Campesinos! "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed" - the KMIQS review!

LOS CAMPESINOS! "WE ARE BEAUTIFUL, WE ARE DOOMED" [Wichita Records -released October 13th]

"...having been touring the album constantly since its release in February, maybe the band are just getting tired of playing its songs"

Boy is my face red. Call it fate, but within a week of me posting that blog, the news was out that everyone-bar-Steven-Wells' favourite indiepopstars Los Campesinos! were releasing "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed", their second album of 2008. Given the aforementioned lack of new songs in their recent sets, the evolution displayed here is somewhat of a shock. For an album released only six months after their debut, We Are Beautiful... shows an astonishing amount of development - our little Campesinos! are growing up.

The album springs out of the gate with "Ways to Make it Through the Wall", a typically exuberant opener to rival the sonic sugar-rush of "Death to Los Campesinos!" - call and response synths and guitars ping across the speakers, while Ollie's drums rampage through the mix. It seems as if it's just another sunny day in Campesinos!-land. But wait a second, let's just check out those all-important opening lyrics, shall we?

"I think it's fair to say that I chose hopelessness/And inflicted it on the rest of us/But at least I've come to terms with my own mortality."

"You! Me! Dancing!" this is not.

"Ways..." perfectly showcases LC! 2.0 - the sugar content of their songs remains the same, but there's a caustic wit ("The guy singing all the sad songs died - oh well, I guess he was right!") that was absent from their debut. Likewise, the musical arrangements have a welcome sense of complexity - time and key signatures dart around - and it's a lot harder to tell when a chorus is going to come, making it all the more effective when the song's many refrains do kick in. Likewise, the lyrics of the stuttering-yet-swaggering "Miserabilia" bemoan post-relationship sentimentality - in much the same way "My Year in Lists" did - and sees Gareth "down on [his] knees next to urinals in garish Mexican restaurants", before jumping up to sneer contemptfully at the listener - "SHOUT AT THE WORLD BECAUSE THE WORLD DOESN'T LOVE YOU!"*

The last song written for Hold On Now, Youngster... was apparently "This Is How You Spell "HAHAHA We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics"", and its driving rhythm and slower pace inform the new album's best songs. Prefaced by the ambient instrumental "Between an Erupting Earth and an Exploding Sky", "You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing" is the closest the band have ever come to a ballad - Gareth treats his glockenspiel with more care than it was ever given on the first album, and there's even an tenderly-strummed acoustic guitar propping up the mix - and even when the song steps up a gear three and a half minutes in, it's still more subdued than anything that came before. Lyrically, the track compares a break-up to "a soft-porn version of the end of the world", having pleaded with his sweetheart to "dump me side of the road if I'm too annoying", and by the time the track comes to its close, with the same delayed guitar sounds it started with, you can't help but take pity on poor Gareth. It's the most genuinely affecting moment in the LC! catalogue to date, and will hopefully be a direction they pursue in the future.

"Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1", meanwhile, comes across like a missing track from the most recent WHY? album (the wonderful Alopecia) - the song's groove (yes, really - an LC! song has a groove!) is like a laid-back version of "This Is How You Spell...", while Gareth and Aleks's vocals veer closer to Yoni Wolf's pseudo-hip-hop cadences, confronting an offensive ex with the classic question - "Do you kiss your mummy's lips with that mouth?"

That said, the album's true highlight is its title track, which takes what you might call the Los Campesinos! formula and refines it to the point of perfection. It's here that most of the album's most repeatable lines come - "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, fondness makes the absence longer", "We kid ourselves there's future in the fucking, but there is no fucking future" - but these six looooong months on from the debut, it's easy to tell how much better the band are as musicans; rather than giving it their all in every second of every song, everyone seems to know when to hold back and when to break out the party poppers and yell "SURPRISE!". Likewise, Gareth's lyrics have been honed down - gone are the slightly immature and self-conscious references to "a final, fatal LiveJournal entry" or dancing to Bis - with an added sense of world-weariness that comes with touring the globe, tempering even the song's more tongue-in-cheek lines. "I cannot emphasise enough that my body is a badly-designed, poorly-put-together vessel harbouring these diminished, so-called 'vital' organs", he complains, with increasing rage, before letting loose an almost-blood-curdling scream: "I HOPE MY HEART GOES FIRST! I HOPE MY HEART GOES FIRST!" I'm sorry, what was that? Final, fatal what?

Admittedly, a couple of tracks border on self-parody - with its almost-obligatory references to punctuation and crap novellas, it sounds like the band were barely trying when they wrote "The End of the Asterisk", while "Heart Swells/Pacific Daylight Time" is a two-minute, two-part 'epic' which is a bold and admirable experiment in theory, albeit one that doesn't quite come together in practise - but the album coheres surprisingly well, especially given it's brief gestation period. We Are Beautiful... is a short and sweet stereo attack; compared with Hold On Now, Youngster's final track proper "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks", which finished with the kind of crowd-pleasing chant that left you almost too satisfied with the way it ended, the frenetic "All Your Kayfabe Friends" finishes so abruptly that you'll think your copy of the CD is faulty, meaning that all you want to do is put it on again and see what you missed the last time around.

If Hold On Now, Youngster... flirted with classic status - not only did it top my year-end list after the first time I heard it, but it already made its way to my all-time chart - We Are Beautiful... laughs in the face of the sophomore slump, simply by arriving before speculation about what they'd do next could take place. Admittedly, it's a less instantly accessible collection than its predecessor, but this is no bad thing whatsoever; its ten tracks reveal themselves better over repeated listens - something I never thought I'd be able to say about Los Campesinos! As I said, not all the songs quite stand up, but the ones that do show an impressive step forward for a band who are even more restless than their songs suggest.


*OK, maybe I was exaggerating about the quotability of the lyrics, but the majority of the best lyrics here don't owe themselves to being condensed into simple five-word phrases. My current favourite lyrics from the album have to be from "It's Never That Easy Though, Is It? (Song for the Other Kurt)", a track which begins with Gareth "kissing a girl for class war" and culminates in this scenario: "I walked into the room to see my ex-girlfriend - who by the way I'm still in love with - sucking the face of some pretty boy, with my favourite band's most popular song in the background. This situation then compels him to ask the ultimate hipster pay-off - "Is it wrong that I can't decide which bothers me most?"

...obviously I'm not going to upload any of the tracks at this early point in time, so here's what you might call a "rarity" - their version of Black Flag's "Police Story", from the International Tweexcore Underground EP. Suffice to say, none of the new album sounds anything like this.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Next time, I think I'm gonna take a train - Kiss Me, I've Quit Smoking does Indietracks 2008! (Part 2)

INDIETRACKS FESTIVAL, 26th-27th July 2008, Midlands Railway Butterley (Part Two - Sunday!)

Sunday brought with it the meat and bones of the festival, with incredible acts spilling out from every least once the technical difficulties on the outdoor stage were fixed. Indeed these technical difficulties ended up improving the festival no end; set times were rearranged, and almost every band I actually wanted to see was relocated to the superior outdoor stage. The first band I caught that day were Brontosaurus Chorus, who graced the main stage with their mix of delicate strings and horns with punishing distortion and sugar-coated melodies. Italy's A Classic Education demonstrated why they deserved to win the competition to play the festival, playing a set of propulsive janglepop, akin to the vastly underrated Shout Out Louds. Strawberry Story, allegedly playing their last gig ever, were the only true mis-step of the festival; formed at the tail end of the C86-scene proper, the band's enthusiasm didn't carry across to the subdued Sunday afternoon crowd, who didn't take kindly to the barrage of noise, drum machines and out of tune wailing they were subjected to. Back on the main stage, KateGoes brought their carefree, themed gigs to Indietracks - this time, Kate Goes Stoneage,
so the band donned leopardskin robes and performed a set of shambolically melodic pop music, toy instruments and all.

From then, Indietracks delivered everything it promised; Darren Hayman (backed by The Wave Pictures, more on whom later) played a fantastic, if slightly tipsily abridged, set in the tea tent, for those who didn't make it for his set in the Church the previous night. His set was cut short to make way for The Smittens (above - photo courtesy of jayen_aitch from the Anorak forum) on the back of the Outdoor truck stage. The Vermont quintet were one of the most hotly-anticipated acts of the festival, but I found it strangely difficult to make my mind up about them; their boundless enthusiasm and optimism seemed almost unnatural (or at least a bit forced), but the songs themselves - the majority of which come from their latest album The Coolest Thing About Love - were so irresistibly catchy and fun, that I made a U-turn of opinion with each song. Rocking out where on record they shimmer - a change especially noticeable in the normally-restrained "Sapphire", which became the highlight of the set - the band gained new fans with every song, and by the time of the finale, the band's self-proclaimed theme song "Gentlefication Now! (The La La La Song)" (which was presonally requested by festival curator Stuart), the entire crowd was screaming the refrain back at the band, who looked frankly stunned at the newly-adoring mob in front of them.

Up next were The Wave Pictures (above - picture courtesy of sweepingthenation), and if you don't know my stance on them by now, then quite frankly, I'm shocked and appalled. They turned in a stunning set, opening with a frenetic take on the relatively obscure "I Shall Be a Ditchdigger" (from one of their early CD-R albums), and diving headlong into a set full of hits - though fan favourite "Now You Are Pregnant" was notable in its absence. The only real problem with the live Wave Pictures experience is the number of solos - while each member of the band is an extremely proficient musician (especially guitarist David Tattersall), there's no need to demonstrate it during every song. There's nothing worse than hearing a band say "We've got time for one more song" and thinking how much more time there would have been had each member of the band not pretended to be Neil Young. Still, when that last song is "Long Island", and features a guest appearance from Darren Hayman, it is admittedly somewhat harder to complain.

Piling onto the stage amid an assortment of bells, glocks, samplers and sometimes cramped up two to a keyboard, local heroes The Deirdres were another of the unrivalled highlights of the festival. With madcap songs about Michael Aspel - they once blagged their way onto an episode of Antiques Roadshow - cutesy declarations of love (they could barely get through "Ball in a Cup"'s tongue in cheek lyric "I think he is Batman, I'd like to be his Robin/When I'm his sewing machine, he is my bobbin" without cracking up) and sexual freedom (the almost Los Campesinos!-aping new single "Milk is Politics"), they immediately won the crowd over, as singer Russell indulged in some proper frontman stage antics, much to the rest of the band's amusement. The ramshackle riot show that is The Deirdres is best epitomised by their debut single "Claire, Are We Safe to Be On Our Own?", which came out last year on Cloudberry Records.

From the Truck I made a bee-line for the Church, pulling up a pew just in time to catch Dirty Fingernails; made up of two snarling Scandinavian synthpop siblings...and a drummer named Charlie, the band played a selection of tracks from their debut album, the absolutely boss (geddit?) "Greetings from Finsbury Park, N4" that had slightly more edge than the majority of bands on the bill. Definitely ones to watch out for. After that, it was back to the loco-shed-main-stage to see indiepunkpopstars Milky Wimpshake, another band who don't see stages nearly as much as they should do. The set was chock full of what you might call hits...or at least, crowd pleasers, including the cheaters' anthem "Dialing Tone" and my one-time mixtape staple "Noam Chomsky versus the Ramones", a song about the dichotomy of enjoying political theory and punk the same time. Hell, every song was a winner, and by the time of the final manic singalong to "Blow Out at 80 Miles per Hour" (all together now - "BLOW OUT!"), the crowd was a sweaty mass of three-chord love.

Ducking out of the main stage sauna for the cool evening air of the truck stage, I was greeted by the most impressive crowd I'd seen all weekend. It could only mean one thing - Ballboy. Sauntering onto the stage quietly, they then launched into the atmospheric tom-tom and synth attack of "Public Park", the only song I can think of that turns the phrase "pooper scooper" into poetry. From there, it was crowd-pleaser after crowd-pleaser, from the bungled bank-robbery caper of "I Don't Have Time to Stand Here With You Fighting About the Size of My Dick" (the purpetrator had been dumped seconds before he was leaving for the hold-up, y'see...) to the heartbreaking could-have-been-a-contender ballad "Songs for Kylie" - inspired by Calvin Harris, no less - every song hit the mark, as the sun went down in the Derbyshire sky. The band were also responsible for one of the most unlikely anthems of the weekend - "Avant Garde Music", an ode to being on the receiving end of music snobbery, which managed to somehow become the cue for the entire crowd to merge into one sweating mass of bodies. Maybe it was an excuse for a bunch of lonely hearts to collectively slag off "the girl who works in the record store", or maybe it was just the right band at the right time, but with Ballboy's set, Indietracks hit its peak.

All of which obviously augured somewhat ill for Los Campesinos!;
when once they radiated giddy teenage excitement with every note they played, LC! now seem to simply be going through the motions. Speaking as someone who isn't ashamed to admit to spending the best part of twelve months worshipping them for bringing unmitigated joy and meaning to my life, it really saddened me to see them having to go on after Ballboy - catching the occasional glimpse of LC!'s singer Gareth looking on during their set, it was hard not to imagine him trying to work out how to follow a performance like that. There's no denying that the band (especially Gareth) was happy to be there - his exciteable banter ("I got to shake the hand of Mister David Gedge last night!") made that abundantly clear; it nonetheless seemed like this was Just Another Gig for the band, in spite of their obviously being genuinely humbled to be playing the festival. A large proportion of the crowd also didn't seem to accept how they fit in to the ethos of Indietracks - the only festival in the world that could be headlined by Sarah Records elder-statesmen The Orchids, as it was last year. It's just a hypothesis, but perhaps the old guard felt like the band were too much of a flash in the pan to convincingly pull off playing above the bands who had worked hard to achieve their cult status. Consequently, they would have had to put on quite a performance to overshadow such expectations and doubts.

Well, maybe it's the fact that I've personally played the album to death, but there really did seem to be something lacking in their headline performance. You could, as with the Wedding Present the previous night, chalk it down to the terrible sound on the main stage (as opposed to the outdoor stage where, Strawberry Story aside, everyone sounded incredible), or maybe it was the fact that I was just unhappy at not winning anything in the raffle, which had been drawn just before the band came on. Then again, having been touring the album constantly since its release in February, maybe the band are just getting tired of playing its songs. Aside from the occasional small change in arrangement, there's nothing particularly different from the album, and even the die-hard fans in the crowd started flagging after a few songs. The obligatory universal insanity unleashed during "You! Me! Dancing!" by all sections of the crowd, both old and young, seemed to be a blip in an otherwise disappointing set, sadly bringing a slightly anticlimactic end to what had otherwise been an utterly brilliant and unique festival.

As the midnight train took the last of the punters away from the festival site into the warm Butterley summer night, everyone seemed to be reflecting on the festival happily; chances are they were the lucky ones who managed to get into the shows on the trains, or witnessed the odd surprise show on the platform, but everyone I've spoken to about the festival has had nothing but good things to say. Admittedly, two years in, there's still the odd teething problem (someone really ought to do something about moving the main stage outdoors or something), but all in all, Indietracks is a welcome addition to the festival calendar, and one that has already ammassed its fair share of regulars.
Roll on 2009.

Next time, I think I'm gonna take a train - Kiss Me, I've Quit Smoking does Indietracks 2008!

INDIETRACKS FESTIVAL, 26th-27th July 2008, Midlands Railway Butterley (Part One - Saturday!)

This weekend saw the return of the happiest, most polka-dotted and pudding-bowled festival in the entire world - Indietracks. Located in rural Derbyshire, the festival played host to a hundred indiepop bands from across the globe, with punters going to and from the site in an antique steam-train. The site itself was hardly built for masses of people, but the organisers managed to adapt the facilities extremely impressively; that said, the acoustics of the locomotive shed - used as the location of the main stage (and merchandise area) - left a lot to be desired, much to the detriment of the majority of the bands playing.

On a somewhat unprofessional note (given that I'm attempting to review the thing), the first day of Indietracks, for me at least, was effectively a write-off; I didn't actually arrive on-site until about 4pm, and the majority of the first couple of hours was spent attempting to scope the place out (eg: locate burger vans,
toilets. Commit to memory.). I did, however, manage to catch a glimpse of a couple of acts who I'd not previously encountered; The Parallelograms ticked all the C86 boxes - stand-up drummer and all - and played a great set, complete with Hello Kitty guitar. Definitely worth looking out for. Meanwhile, a rather lovely Australian singer-songwriter named Darren Hanlon graced the outdoor stage; his hose charming songs about literally bumping shoulders with the stars had echoes of Spearmint and the Lucksmiths.

Compared with most of the festival-goers, who flocked to the main stage in droves to see indiepop godfathers Comet Gain, my main attraction of the day were The Lodger (above - photo courtesy of Underexposed); always a great live band, the Leeds trio (as ever bolstered by an additional guitarist) really outdid themselves playing on the makeshift outdoor stage - the back of a truck! The whole set was a highlight from start to finish; tracks like "My Finest Hour" and the almost unbearably bitter "Many Thanks for Your Honest Opinion" shone as bright as the blistering Derby sun, while last single "The Good Old Days" deserved to be one of the festival's biggest anthems. The closing cover of Orange Juice's "I Can't Help Myself" was an unexpected nod to the festival's roots, and had even the most cynical popkid at least tapping their feet.

Headlining the main stage that night were the undisputed kings of the genre, The Wedding Present - a band in whom my interests have never really peaked above curious. The set was solid; the classics mixed seamlessly together with new material from their current LP El Rey, with tracks like "Santa Ana Winds" and "Model, Actress, Whatever..." wowing the crowd. Unfortunately, as the all-too-frequently spotted t-shirts proclaimed "The Wedding Present: All the Songs Sound the Same"; it was hard to tell if it was the songs themselves, or the less than stellar sound in the loco shed, but every song ended up sounding like "Brassneck" - and even when they played it, it was somewhat hard to discern. A shame, that. The night finished with an indiepop disco, courtesy of the Helen Love Bubblegum Killers, who played some hits (your standard Pulp, Belle and Sebastian etc fare), some misses (maybe I just wasn't in the mood to dance to "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love In My Tummy"...), and some unexpected treats - anyone who saw me dancing to McCarthy's "We Are All Bourgeois Now" can attest to the joy I felt during that five minutes. A fantastic end to the first day's festivities, though the best was very much yet to come...

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

I'm gonna leave this town, gonna leave it like I found it...

Blake Babies "Out There" [taken from the album Sunburn - Hollywood Records, 1990]

Sometimes, a pop song just hits you in the right place at the right time. I'd never heard anything by Juliana Hatfield, save from a glimpse of a video on an episode of Beavis & Butthead, outside of her enchanting work as Evan Dando's foil (and muse) in the Lemonheads. It took a chance encounter in the Union Bookshop at my university for her songs to fall into my lap; the music playing in the shop, while I was idly waiting for my housemate to finish browsing the drama section, sounded like sunshine - shimmering shards of jangling guitars, a girlish coo, and the distant hum of Evan Dando in the background. I later found out it was by Ms. Hatfield's group from her days prior to being a Lemonhead - albeit songs from their comeback album, God Bless the Blake Babies (2001).

Consequently, I rooted around the internet for anything I could find, and came up with an album entitled Sunburn - often cited as their best. After two songs I was smitten, and I found myself stuck on 'Out There', a track which sounds like waking up to the first day of summer; the Peter Buck-esque guitars chime like the sun pouring in through the curtains, while Hatfield purrs and growls her way out of the speakers, leaving the listener (or at least, me) instantly enchanted. Like a less heartbroken cousin of Lisa Loeb's "Stay (I Missed You)", the song has early 90s written all over it in the best possible way; it's painful to admit, but they just don't write 'em like this anymore...

Thursday, 5 June 2008

I think I was overcome by a spontaneous emotion...

Weezer "Miss Sweeney" [taken from the deluxe edition of Weezer (aka: the Red album) - Geffen, 2008]

It's no secret that I think Weezer are one of the best bands in the entire world; yes, their output since 1996 has been patchy, but each album has had its charms. 2001's Weezer (aka: the Green album) was allegedly an attempt to write ten perfect pop songs, none longer than three and a half minutes, all following the same structure. Maladroit, which landed the following year, was less considered, but did feature 'Keep Fishin'', the freshest sounding Weez single since the nineties. The only real dud in their catalogue was the clunky Make Believe, which replaced Rivers Cuomo's idiosyncratic observations and witticisms with catch-all platitudes which, when coupled with Rick Rubin's bland, shiny production, fell flat on its arse.

The band's newest album, another self-titled effort, ranks comfortably with their best; throwing any rules out the window (aside from the catty singles 'Pork & Beans' and 'Troublemaker', written on demand to keep the label happy), there are power-pop sonatas ('Dreamin''), multi-part epics ('The Greatest Man That Ever Lived', as I very briefly blogged about for Young Turks here) and even tracks by other members of the band, the highlight being drummer Pat Wilson's piledriving 'Automatic'.

Miss Sweeney' crops up on the deluxe edition of the album, which contains four extra songs, all of which have some of the most interesting lyrics in the Weezer canon. The song starts off as a minor-key "rap" (in the style of R. Kelly's era-defining Trapped in the Closet), before diving headlong into a classic, crunchy and, above all, cuntstruck Weezer chorus. A paean to unrequited office romance - the boss slipping the secretary declarations of love in between memos - it happens to be the best of any of the tracks released for Weezer. Lord knows why this was left off the album - apparently at the insistence of every member of the band aside from guitarist Brian Bell (who always was the coolest member of the band...).

The abundance of extra tracks scattered across various formats of the record will no doubt have Weezer obsessives creating their own ideal ten-song running orders, but 'Miss Sweeney' is almost certainly one that fans will unite over.