Thursday, 17 December 2009

Bone Machine

"From the moment the roadies began assembling Dave Grohl’s drum-kit in a manner that resembled the construction of the Queen Mary on Clydeside, it was clear that power was going to be the watchword of last night’s Edinburgh appearance by Them Crooked Vultures, the supergroup that’s threatening to give the term a good name."

It’s been a week spent with the vultures. My interview with Them Crooked Vultures ran earlier in the week, and my review of Tuesday night’s Edinburgh show appeared on The Arts Desk the following morning. Read it all here.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Cock-a-Hoop

"Hoop is one of those American artists who arrives with an immaculately unorthodox back story and a pleasingly askew world view. She was raised in a Mormon family in the California countryside north of San Francisco, and brought up on folk, opera and classical music; the brash blare of MTV was strictly embargoed. Instead, her mother tutored her in a formal choral style, teaching her to “sing the way a ballerina would dance”, as Hoop puts it."

Read my interview with the beguiling Jesca Hoop here.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Southern Comfort

The Oxford American’s annual "Southern Music Issue" is a reasonably big deal in the States, and I was very pleased to be asked by the magazine’s editor Marc Smirnoff to contribute this year. I wrote a page about Chris Denny, an Arkansasian with a truly amazing voice and a neat line in country flavoured roots music. You can hear his stuff at his website.

Regardless of my own contribution, I throughly recommend that you buy the music issue (if you’re not based in the States you can buy an exceedingly cheap annual digital suscription by going here), because it's chock full of fine writing and comes with two CDs of superb music, new and old, many by artists I've never come across before. The website also features Q&As with all the writers in the new issue, including myself. If you can stand extreme close-ups and smart arsed flippancy, click here and scroll on down.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Arts Desk

I want to take the opportunity to plug an excellent new online destination for culture vultures. The Arts Desk launched a couple of months ago, with the intention of addressing the decline in arts reviews and features in the traditional broadsheet print media, hastened by falling budgets and increasing space restrictions. So far, it seems to be going great guns. The site is full of established names, it updates several times a day and over the weekend, and most event reviews are online by first thing the following morning.

I reviewed Lau’s recent Edinburgh show for them. The gig finished at 11pm on a Saturday night and the review was online by 7am on Sunday. Just like the old days. You can read it here.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Same Again?

“Until now, musical sequels have been relatively rare, for which we must give thanks. The only thing less alluring than Tubular Bells is Tubular Bells II. Bat Out of Hell was a jolly neo-goth rock monstrosity first time around, but by 2006's Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose, Meat Loaf was trapped in an Escher-like vortex of self-parody, nu-metal nightmares and nasty legal niggles with his Dr Frankenstein, Jim Steinman.” I’m blogging over at the Guardian today on the subject of musical sequels. Pop over and let me know which albums you’d like to see reprised.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Final Word

“Beautiful like a building on fire or a dog in the rain…”

The new issue of The Word is now at large, boasting an extremely meaty and typically erudite overview of the past decade. My contributions include a meeting with Them Crooked Vultures, who explain why they want to “roll in like Hannibal and ruin your town.” I also chat Katrina, Obama and Madonna with esteemed producer Joe Henry, and review the brilliant new album by Cymbals Eat Guitars, alongside new records by the Dutchess And The Duke and Laura Viers and a holster full of The Gun Club reissues. There has genuinely never been a better time to subscribe.


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Gaga 4 Kid A

In one of those obligatory and inherently unsatisfactory fin-de-siecle lists that gets everyone terribly hot under the collar, I’ve written a piece in today’s Observer Music Monthly justifying the inclusion of Radiohead’s Kid A as runner-up in the Album of the Decade stakes. Ain’t subjectivity a gas? Find out the winner and the full Top 50 - and, naturally, take the chance to unleash the full force of your scorn for the entire enterprise - here. Also, I collect my old friends Ms Gaga's end-of-year thoughts and make a – brief – case for her as the future of pop. "I've been trained to love my darkness," indeed.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Sensational

"Scottish pop music is less about a distinct musical identity than a shared sensibility, primarily communicated through a voice that, like the country as a whole, often doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, hit or hug. Scotland has always had its stand-alone mavericks – the great Alex Harvey, an explosive mix of Jacques Brel and Bar Brel; Billy Mackenzie, perhaps the nation’s most complex and innately gifted pure pop star; and Bobby Gillespie, who for all his studied posturing has refused to allow Primal Scream to become a fixed entity – but in the main the body has been Zelig-like, an often thrilling patchwork of borrowed identities. Perhaps that’s why, while there has been no shortage of talent, it’s hard to argue that many artists – aside from [Lonnie] Donegan and the Postcard bands, whose legacy lingers in modern groups like Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend and Franz Ferdinand – have been particularly influential. More followers than leaders, perhaps; more craft than ­innovation; more heart than head..."

Prior to this weekend’s Homecoming concerts, the Sunday Herald asked me to write an essay teasing out the common threads and oblique points of consensus which have emerged during 50-odd years of Scottish popular music. What, I replied, you mean explain what links the Sensational Alex Harvey Band to the Blue Nile? You can read the results here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Sound & Vision

Although there's next to no money to be made in writing for film, and all along the line the musician's vision is subordinate to that of directors, editors and producers, the chance to be a mere cog in a much larger machine seems to offer welcome relief from the essentially solipsistic nature of songwriting. All that autonomy, freedom of expression and relentless self-analysis can be burdensome.

"One of the hardest things as an artist or musician is that you're expressing yourself, and you sometimes feel you're not ready to do that," says Damon Gough. "When something like this comes along, you can detach yourself from it emotionally. I felt attached in many ways, but when you're writing music for someone else, you can step back. Basically, it's not about me – that's what makes it easier. Trying to please other people is different and enjoyable." Writing for film was a way to escape the inside of his own head.

Featuring interviews with Karen O, Goldfrapp and Badly Drawn Boy, you can read my cover story about pop musicians writing for film in today’s Guardian 'Film & Music' supplement.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Tricky Words

The new issue of The Word is out now in which, among other numerous delights (and a heroically grumpy cover star), I review a very good album by A.A. Bondy, a very dull book about Rick Rubin, and the reissue of Tricky's Maxinquaye, the album otherwise known as Skunk Induced Paranoia: The Musical.

"Maxinquaye is the zenith of a very Bristolian obsession with documenting psychic terror in slo-mo.... A deep, daring, difficult record, the muffled beats thudding like a bailiff’s footfall, each clear thought scrambled by blunted synapses, everyone from Radiohead to Burial has since taken readings from the strange, phantasmagorical smoke signals it sent out."
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Monday, 9 November 2009

Crash Burn Howl

Long-standing favourites of this blog, Howl Griff's ace new double AA single – "Crash Burn" / "Bluebirds" – is out today. If you know what’s good for you, you will proceed directly to here and download it.

The band are supporting the single on Friday at the Toucan Club, Cardiff and on Sunday at The Windmill, Brixton. Get along and catch some extremely fabulous pop vibes, top notch harmonies and an abundance of supremely sticky songs. Also look out for the new album, The Hum, due early in 2010. For news on that and more on the Welsh wonders, go here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Suede Head

"The former Suede singer is clearly a very different man from the one who burst onto the indie scene in 1992, singing of chemically-fuelled sex in council houses and admitting that he wanted to “make his mark on pop history”. Ask him now what he hopes to achieve with his new solo record, Slow Attack, and he replies, “Absolutely nothing. I don’t have the same sets of goals I once had.” This much is clear from his music."

I talk to Brett Anderson here.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Buon Giorno!

The Italian printing of I Shot A Man in Reno now appears to be on sale, expertly translated – or appallingly translated, how would I know? – and published by Arcana. I know a few visitors regularly pop in to this blog from Italy; it can be bought here, and no doubt at other reputable libro-vendors.

And what do you think of the pink?

Also, ambling into the party a mere 15 months after publication, but no less welcome for that, there’s a review of Reno on the Uncommon Threads blog, which calls the book “compellingly readable and expertly handled… the greatest feat for an entire book written on a topic such as death was the fact that it never grew obsessively morbid or morose, and eventually resolves poignantly and resolutely. Though we all stand in the shadow of death, the ability of the greatest artists (and of someone such as Thomson himself) to look that reality in the eye, and live (or write or sing) even more fully because of it, is what makes living worthwhile.”

Finally, read my – admirably even-handed, I thought – review of the new Stereophonics album here. Easy to mock (the title, the earnest acceptance of every rock cliche, the lyrics, the lack of ambition), much harder to be constructive. But not nearly as much fun, admittedly.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hallowed Spaceboy

“Aged 22 in 1969, the erstwhile David Jones had already bolted through several undistinguished incarnations - quiffed R'n'B band leader, king mod, hippie, sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian, mime artist - before landing somewhere between Bolan and Bob Dylan, yet another London art-school boy with crazy hair, a 12-string guitar and a penchant for forming "Arts Laboratories" in the function rooms of Beckenham pubs”.

Among the many treats in this week’s New Statesman is my essay celebrating 40 years of David Bowie “as the shape-shifting, gender-hopping, zeitgeist-jumping pop star in excelsis.” You can read it here.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Anne Briggs at 65

My book editor and I were recently bandying around ideas for fantasy projects and we both agreed that, one day, it would be great to write a book about Anne Briggs. But who would buy it? Some hipster-folksters regard Briggs in much the same way that excitable pop-culturists see Madonna, but back in the real world she's hardly what you'd call a unit-shifter. No matter. For those of us who have been enchanted by her music over the years, her impact can't be measured in pounds, pence and Amazon sales ranks.

I had the great - and very rare - pleasure of interviewing her a couple of years ago. She was very nervous, and lovely, and rather confused as to what all the fuss was about. Anyway, she turned 65 a few weeks ago, so in celebration of her extraordinary voice, and for having the guts to live her life according to her own instincts, and in the vain hope that we might yet get some new music from her, I thought it might interest a few devotees to unearth the interview feature, which first appeared in Record Collector.

* * *
Anne Briggs’s journey into the annals of folk legend began with a hitch-hike to Edinburgh at the age of 15 and ended, 14 years later, with a retreat into nowhere. In the intervening years she established herself as not only perhaps the purest folk voice of her generation, but also as an elusive figure, uncomfortable operating within the confines of stage and studio. Briggs never truly lost her inhibitions in formal situations, hence perhaps why her recorded legacy is so slim: a handful of songs scattered across EPs and compilation albums, one album for Topic and two more for CBS. She has been silent since 1973. Read More

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Week That Was

An interesting week: conversations with Sufjan Stevens (we last met in 2006, sitting on the grass in McCarren Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; he was sweet and pretended to remember), Charlie Watts and Alison Goldfrapp, covering topics as diverse as soul singers turned elevator attendants, sharing a tailor with Sonny Rollins, and writing non-Beatlesy music for a film about the young John Lennon. All will be revealed in good time. Meanwhile, if you can stand more Eitzel, my interview with the man himself is in today's Herald. Here's a peek:

"I feel sometimes at my most tortured – it’s a default setting and it’s a little phoney,” he says. “I have a broad range of things I could say, so I decided about four years ago that I was no longer going to be a negative person and I wasn’t going to ­surround myself with negative people. It’s a battle. I’m incredibly self-destructive – well, no, there are more self-destructive people, Lord knows – but I don’t want to be that person, or to be ­perceived as that person, any more. I’ve changed a lot.”

Friday, 9 October 2009

Lilac Love


“His songs are sweet and green with a hint of pepper, like a mouthful of fresh rocket, and fall somewhere between a more bucolic Ian Broudie, a less abrasive Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Drake with the curtains open. The English Blues, in other words.”

The new Word is out, with, errr, Flaming Lips on the cover. Inside, I review the beautiful anthology of the music of Stephen Duffy, Memory & Desire - 30 Years In The Wilderness, which you should buy NOW.
Also, relatively kind words on new albums by Mountain Goats and Seasick Steve.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

An Audience With The Human Riff

I stumbled the other day on a transcript of my 2005 interview with Keith Richards and really enjoyed reading back over it. At the time, it put an end to a preposterously convoluted affair. The interview took about six months to set up and I had to jump through various random and arbitrary legal hoops to get it done, but it eventually happened around 4 am GMT (what I now know as Keef Time) in early November 2005, as I was in the final throes of finishing my book 'Willie Nelson: The Outlaw' .

Keith's thoughts formed the Introduction to that book, and he was such a gent, so insightful and genuine, so funny, so musical, I thought our late night chat was worth sharing in its entirety.

GT: Hello Keith. How are you?
KR: What are you doing up this time of night, old boy?
GT: I’m writing my book on Willie Nelson
KR: Yeah, that does take a lot of midnight oil!
GT: Yeah, it takes a long time. What are you up to?
KR: I just got into Portland out of Seattle.. on the road, you know.
GT: How’s it all going?
KR: Yeah, going very well, man. I mean, brilliantly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Read on here

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Aflame

"I have a dream. It's that one day a glorious new dawn breaks and musicians of all races, creeds and colours will unite in the realisation that making an album of "freak-out rock jams" is, generally, not a terribly good idea. Those musicians, however, are not Oklahoma's lovable odd-bods Flaming Lips and that album is emphatically not Embryonic."

Read my review of the new Flaming Lips' opus in today's Observer Music Monthly. And, for pudding, this trifle.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Take Courage

I spoke to Mark Eitzel last night. When it comes to Eitzel and American Music Club, I’m a stark-eyed zealot, so this is a fine opportunity to revisit a piece I wrote for the Guardian last year. He has a new album out next month, called Klamath. It’s beautiful, of course. You can get it here.

* * *
I can remember vividly when I fell in love with Mark Eitzel. It was in a small basement room, during my first term at university, and I was 18. In the interests of legal clarity, I should point out that he wasn’t actually there. On a hunch I’d bought Songs Of Love, his busman’s holiday from American Music Club, from the original Fopp on Glasgow’s Byres Road. A solo acoustic record recorded live at the Borderline in 1991, slowly - actually rather quickly - it dawned on me that these intensely beautiful songs sung by this big, wounded, vulnerable voice were something very special indeed.

Eitzel is often dismissed as a miserablist. In fact, I notice he’s recently been painted as some kind of ‘emo uncle’, probably by the same people who can only describe Leonard Cohen’s songs as wrist-slitting music. Well, the misery escaped me then and escapes me now. In common with Cohen, I find Eitzel’s music oddly ecstatic and life-affirming: very, very funny; desperately sad; slightly seedy; hopelessly romantic; soft and luxurious; theatrical, camp and utterly self-absorbed. If the world had its head screwed on, he’d be playing Vegas. He certainly knocks Rufus Wainwright into a cocked hat.

Back in 1991 I listened to Songs Of Love every day; far too much for my own good, probably. I still know every last note by heart: every sobbed ‘sorry’, ‘please be happy, baby’ and apologetic guffaw when he fluffs a guitar line. It is one of the few records that never leave me; AMC’s Everclear, their best, is another. My obsession soon lead me to obscure 7-inches called things like "Take Courage: On the Emblematic Use of Jewellery as a Metaphor for the Dissolution of Our Hopes and Dreams" (Sufjan Stevens eat your heart out), until finally a kindly Karl Wallinger look-a-like taped me AMC’s impossible-to-find first album, in return for buying the blank C90 cassette at his record shop. I’m not sure this kind of thing happens anymore.

After a half-hearted tilt at surfing the grunge wave, AMC split in 1994. Eitzel made a number of solo records, including the wonderful 60 Watt Silver Lining, before reforming the band with dignity in 2004. I kept in touch sporadically during that time, mostly via gigs. Watching Eitzel perform is rarely a comfortable experience. The first time I saw him, with AMC, he drank a pint of whisky and came on for the encore with a slice of processed ham stuck to his forehead. Then he screamed at the sound man, threw his microphone away, and perched on the edge of the stage to play "Last Harbour" without amplification. Sublime. Ridiculous. The last time, he was alone in a tiny Edinburgh club and opened with a spellbinding version of Joy Division’s "Heart And Soul".

If you are in Europe and the UK, over the next 5-6 weeks Eitzel will be at a criminally small venue somewhere near you. You should go. No, you must go. Songs Of Love, Everclear, California et al are still available. You should buy them. The fact that this genius is packing his own CDs and sending them out, crossing his fingers that he sells 500 copies to cover costs and FedEx bills, is a shame. He should be celebrated as a bruised and bloodied love poet who plumbs the very depths and scales the very heights of the human condition. Here's one of the reasons why:



Monday, 21 September 2009

Good Gaga

"Glance casually in Lady Gaga’s direction and she could easily pass for yet another synthetic pop puppet with a propensity for grating therapy speak – “inspired”, “intense”, “blessed” – and a rather grim determination to succeed at any cost. However, beneath the ruthlessly drilled dance routines and the chilly, robotic electro-pop there are all sorts of interesting things going on. She can belt ’em out like a true diva, play piano like a demon and write a truly cracking tune. She has some of Streisand’s imperiousness, a healthy dose of Freddie Mercury’s showmanship, a pinch of Bette Midler’s bathhouse cabaret shtick and the young Madonna’s sass and chutzpah in spades."

Read my encounter with 2009’s best pop star, in which she talks sex, cocaine, subversion and, em, Rilke, here.

Friday, 18 September 2009

My Word

I interview Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine in the new issue of The Word, which features the Duke himself on the cover. As befits a session with two old muckers from the East Midlands, it’s a knockabout affair, full of sly digs, in-jokes, a little wisdom and highly imaginative swearing. A bit like Meadows' films, in fact.

I also talk to the gentlemanly Neil Hannon about his 5 top singing tips (if you subscribe to the mag you get a free copy of The Duckworth Lewis Method, the wonderful eponymous album by Hannon’s side-project; and I speak as a man who always slightly despised The Divine Comedy - this, however, is brilliant)

I also review a strange old slice of 1969 retro-porn by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Phew, lummy etc.

The Obituary Mambo

Just been listening to Tom Waits' "Swordfishtrombones", the song from the album of the same name, and once again the phrase "he's doin' the Obituary Mambo" leapt out at me. Has there ever been another song in which the information that someone has died is communicated with such disreputable, poetic relish?

There must be some other truly unforgettable evocations along similar lines. I always liked, 'He's away down the crow road', which of course Iain Banks used as a title for his - best - novel. (I used to live just off the Crow Road, btw, and I almost never felt properly dead. Just drunk, depressed and on a permanent come-down mostly).

Any better ideas than the Obituary Mambo? Best effort wins a very dinky, highly limited edition CD-style booklet featuring the '40 Greatest Death Songs' chapter from I Shot A Man In Reno, with a specially written new (well, it was new 18 months ago) introduction by me. Oh yes.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Death Disco

In keeping with the original theme of this blog (to highlight great death songs), and in honour of the - at least partial - reunion of Public Image Ltd., and also in fond memory of the days when this kind of thing used to pop up on Top of the Pops with electrifying regularity, here's PiL's "Death Disco".

Inexplicably, I didn't write about it in Reno. What was I thinking?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Gaga Observed

“My father is from New Jersey and he was a huge Springsteen fan. So I'm a big fan, too. “Thunder Road” is our song. I've always loved this record, it's like a little movie: "The screen door slams, and Mary's dress sways ... " My father used to cry, dance with me, and then say, ‘When you get married and you drive off in a Cadillac, I'm going to run after you'.”

I talk to Lady GaGa in this month’s Observer Music Monthly about six records that have played a formative role in her life to date: the fact that one of them is her own track, "Just Dance", is just one of the reasons I like her very much. She's smart, funny and might well be the best pop star we've had for well over a decade. Much more soon on that.

Elsewhere in the issue you can read my review of the rip-snorting new Nick Cave novel and the new/old Prefab Sprout album, Let’s Change the World With Music, a beautiful record for which I truly wish every success in the world. Oh, and ten dodgy docs. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bunny Boy

The new Nick Cave novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, is a bit of a hoot. I can’t say much more because I’ve reviewed it in the forthcoming issue of the Observer Music Monthly, but it’s both sufficiently Cave-esque – death, the devil, oodles of filthy sex – to conform to expectations, and yet also manages to take some interesting detours along the way, keeping the emotional frame of reference broad and at times surprisingly tender. That said, it's much more Grinderman than The Boatman's Call - and you'll never look at Avril Lavigne in quite the same way ever again.

There is a good article here which looks at Cave the wordsmith of both prose and song, and to which I make a brief, modest and, as far as I can tell, entirely uneccesary contribution.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ecstatic

A sample of Malcolm X's 1964 speech to the Oxford Union - riffing on "change", the buzzword du jour - leads into "Supermagic", a crackling opening statement which, in just 150 seconds, manages to cram in references to everything from the celebrated Turkish musician Selda Bagcan to Mary Poppins. It's an exhilarating introduction and a firm declaration of intent. This is a politicised album with a truly global outlook, not simply in terms of the wealth of musical touchstones - samples come from sources as diverse as Ihsan al-Munzer, Banda Black Rio, Fela Kuti and Bobby Hebb - but also in its willingness to engage with the wider world rather than indulge in pettifogging feuds and join-the-dots braggadocio.

Read my review of Mos Def's The Ecstatic in this week's New Statesman. Along with Checkmate Savage, My Maudlin Career and the forthcoming Mark Eitzel album, Klamath, it's one of the albums of the year.

Monday, 24 August 2009

"They came, they swore, they conquered..."


Sometimes - not nearly often enough - you're sufficiently fortunate to be in the room when a group truly arrives, when everything clicks and audience and band realise pretty much simultaneously that this is a significant moment, a point of departure to some glorious future point. Frightened Rabbit at the Queen's Hall last Tuesday was emphatically one of those exceptional nights. Here is my Herald review of the gig from last Thursday's paper. (It's a 5-star review, by the way. The subs must have let one slip off the page). And I didn't have room to point out that support band Meursault were brilliant.
FRIGHTENED RABBIT
QUEEN’S HALL
GRAEME THOMSON
★★★★
Judging by the ovation that greeted Frightened Rabbit as they ambled on stage, as well as the way in which the words to almost every song were roared back at them by a sell-out crowd, this Glasgow-based band have truly arrived. They played like it, too, imbuing their stirring electric folk songs with an intensity and depth that made the versions on last year’s superb album, The Midnight Organ Fight, sound almost anaemic by comparison.

A scattering of excellent new material whetted the appetite for the next record, but it was the old favourites that the crowd had come to hear, greeting each one like a dear friend. The beautiful "Backwards Walk", with its blunt depiction of romantic turmoil – “You’re the shit and I’m knee deep in it” – became an unlikely anthem, and by the time sweat-soaked singer and songwriter Scott Hutchison came on with an acoustic guitar for an unamplified solo encore of "Poke", he didn’t need to open his mouth at all. They came, they swore, they conquered.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Phantom Gains

"Somebody described the first gig we did with me in the band as sounding like a wardrobe full of coat hangers rolling around," says Andy Wake, keyboard player with the Phantom Band. "It wasn't a compliment," he adds with pride.

That's nothing, apparently. "My uncle said we sounded like Czechoslovakian cartoon music," counters bass player Gerry Hart. "I asked him, 'Is that good?' He said, 'It depends if you like Czechoslovakian cartoon music.'" "My mum said it was desperate," chips in drummer Damien Tonner. Guitarist Duncan Marquiss concludes: "A lot of our music didn't work for a long time....."

In today's Guardian I meet the Phantom Band, the creators of the year's best album thus far, the glorious Checkmate Savage. Read it here.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

School's In

The Boy started primary school today and I’m feeling sentimental. As a father, I’d always hoped I’d honour Bowie’s promise: “If the homework brings you down, we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.” We’ll see. Not sure Edinburgh has a downtown, actually. And I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads either.

This lovely song was written about Duncan Jones, back he was plain old Zowie Bowie. All grown up now, he directed the film Moon, which has just won loads of awards and praise and nice things like that.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Les Paul

BONG! I got a message on my phone earlier this evening from ITN asking whether I could appear on the News At Ten tonight to talk about Les Paul, who died earlier today.

BONG! I said no, because a) I don't know enough about Les Paul to make a mook of myself live on prime time television; and b) I don't really 'do' ITV.

However, by coincidence last week I did talk to the splendid Slash, specifically about his love of Les Paul. He waxed lyrical - very erudite man, Slash - about what a unique and inspirational figure he was, and how playing with him was a "humiliating, humbling experience." He said they still talked on the phone often (a lovely image) and ended by saying: "It's guys like Les who make guys like me feel optimistic about playing into the grave."

Sadly prescient words about a man who would be dead a little over a week later, at the great old age of 94. If I had been tempted into the arms of ITV I would have said that not only rock and roll guitar-playing, but perhaps more importantly rock and roll records, would not sound remotely similar to the way they sound today if it hadn't been for his pioneering use of recorded sound and astonishing technique. He was something close to a genius. There's a fine obit here.

BONG! Here endeth the news.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Return Of The Mac

My interview with Paddy McAloon appears over two pages in the new issue of The Word, which is crammed full of features on similary gifted, misunderstood and extravagantly bearded culty pop gents (not least, the wonderful Robert Wyatt); copies should be in the shops in the next day or so. The Word has a great website but magazine content rarely appears on line, so here’s a brief taster from the piece.

“McAloon – you really shouldn’t need reminding but possibly do, given that he has the kind of public profile that makes Scott Walker look like a Heat-whore - is one of Britain’s truly treasurable songwriters. A Catholic Seminary boy from County Durham, he modelled himself on Sondheim and Berlin back when all the cool kids were aping Strummer and Bowie, creating mini pop symphonies in which his ambition sometimes outstretched his reach, but which equally often were poised, funny and very beautiful. Heathens mocked the preciousness; the rest of us swooned.

His band, Prefab Sprout, were never quite proper pop stars. Atypical songs like "The King Of Rock'n'Roll" and "When Love Breaks Down" slipped under the fence, but McAloon’s vision was too arch and idiosyncratic for mass consumption. He fought on the fringes of the pop battlefield, but it transpires even those skirmishes made him feel deeply uncomfortable. He looks at old photos of himself from back then – hair bobbed, slim, shaking hands with Minnie Mouse on Portuguese TV – and sees someone else. Playing live, which the Sprouts did only rarely, he had the overwhelming sense that he “had been sent along to a wedding in place of the groom.” What’s this all about? “I don’t quite know,” he says. “Perhaps because the records mark time so clearly, which is a dreadful thing, I just think, What a waste. I really wish I could feel more philosophical about it and tell myself I had a good time, but for some unfathomable reason I get very melancholy about it.”

Also in this month’s issue, I review new albums by Yo La Tengo, Riceboy Sleeps and Jesse Dee. All human life, indeed.

Friday, 31 July 2009

The Tale Of The Tape

I’ve never been much of an audiophile; if I love a song or a voice I don’t much care whether I hear it in quadrophonic surround sound or on some scarred old slab of vinyl. When it comes to music I'm no surface and all feeling, which is why few things bore me more than people who are obsessed with the spec of their hi-fi equipment.

And yet I thoroughly enjoyed Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music, which I review in this week’s New Statesman. Perhaps it’s because Milner comes at his subject from such an enthusiastically musical standpoint – which might be why the book also serves, probably unwittingly, as an alternative history of popular music - as he entertainingly reveals how every piece of recorded music is a fabrication, a wonderful little lie, whether preserved on wax, Shellac, tape, vinyl, CD or Mp3. It’s well worth a read. It will change the way you think about music and how it does what it does.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Violently Happy

I heard the first Violent Femmes album on a hissy old C45 cassette, the inlay whited-out with Tippex and scrawled with the band's (brilliant) name. It must have been around 1987, and there are few things I've loved with such instantaneous certainty. Great bubbling acoustic bass lines, drums that transmitted the sheer pleasure of whacking something hard to keep rhythm, frenetic gut-string guitar - and above all, the songs, and the voice....

Long before Jeffrey Lewis and all those other too-hip, adenoidal, attitudinal anti-folk types whined their faux-naif songs to each other in Brooklyn bars, there was Gordon Gano and his permanently disaffected yelp. This was the real Revenge of the Nerd, not an artistic impression. A pissy little Baptist boy from Milwaukee, Gano's songs were smart without being 'clever', funny without being 'ironic', gothic without being 'camp'; they could blindside you with genuine anger and furious emotional force, or make you cringe with their mercilessly deployed home truths.

I lost track of the Violent Femmes some way back, but I was sent Gano's new album a few weeks ago and hearing that petulant squeal of a voice again felt so good, like a woe-is-me call from an old friend. People still rave about the eponymous first album and follow-up Hallowed Ground, both of which are indeed superb, but Why Do Birds Sing? holds a special place in my heart. This song is from another album entirely. It's called "Fat", and it's a proper love song.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Castle Rock

Once upon a time – a good two decades ago, admittedly – I would have been very, very excited indeed about going to see Simple Minds. And on Saturday I was still a little bit excited about seeing them at Edinburgh Castle, partly out of plain old sentimental nostalgia, and partly because I knew they were likely to play a few bona fide classics from the glory days. And they did: it was particularly thrilling to finally hear the likes of "I Travel", "Love Song" and "Big Sleep" live, and I remembered that I quite liked "See The Lights", but much of the rest of the concert sounded a little like aural Polyfilla, filling in the large, empty cracks between moments of inspiration with large, empty songs.

They’re polished, and undeniably good at this big-music, bigger-gestures kind of thing, but it didn’t touch me emotionally in any way whatsoever. And I just can’t warm to Jim Kerr as a frontman – every move he makes seems like a cliché from the Stadium Rock Textbook, his voice is shockingly one-dimensional, and all in all he’s never less than faintly ludicrous (Exhibit A: the above picture).

Although I’m glad for my thirteen-year-old self that I finally saw them, I wouldn’t rush to repeat the experience. And that’s before I even mention the rain. My God, the rain! The kind of apocalyptic deluge I’ll be boring my grandkids about another few decades hence. You can read my Herald review of the gig here. I’m off to listen to Sister Feelings Call.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Too Much Too Soon

"Loud, camp, aggressive and highly malevolent, the ethos was simple: primitive rock'n'roll played with reckless individuality, topped off with Johansen's idiot-savant holler and a scuzzy, trashy aesthetic. 'The reality is that neither of their LPs sold very well,' said a record company executive in 1975, explaining why they dropped the band. 'Not only that, but they were costing us huge amounts because of their tendency to destroy hotel property'."

You can read my conversation with reformed - in every sense - New York Doll David Johansen here.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Paddy: The Comeback

I would dearly love to post a song or two from the brilliant new (well, it's not new as such: it was recorded in 1992, but you know what I mean) Prefab Sprout record, Let’s Change The World With Music, but it’s not due out until early September and I know somebody would track me down and execute me with extreme prejudice if I did.

I can tell you, however, that I spoke to Paddy McAloon “live in Consett” today for over an hour and he was just about the most interesting musician I’ve interviewed for a long, long time. And the most complex. He seems to have a bad case of Release Anxiety: he loves making music and has hundreds and hundreds of unreleased songs lying in boxes at home, but has a strange (or perhaps not so strange) reluctance to let them out into the world. It’s rather lovely, and also rather sad. “Here I am, blinking into the light reluctantly,” he laughed. “The man who tries to get through his life by not touching the sides. That’s me. I cannot deny it.”

He was, of course, charm personified. I told him that I saw Prefab Sprout in Bristol (on their last tour, way back in 2000) and that it was a fantastic night, far exceeding my expectations. He seemed quietly pleased, and my memory of the gig isn't soured at all by learning that he clearly didn't enjoy touring at all. He prefers to "potter." Don't we all.
Look out for the interview somewhere down the line. And don't miss the album.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Boss Time

My hefty Sunday Herald profile - shoddily miscredited to Graeme THOMPSON, the amateurs - of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, featuring contributions from Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Jesse Malin and Dave Marsh, can be read online here, though it seems you'll have to buy the paper to read the side panel on Jesse Malin's experiences recording with the Boss, so here's a taster:

"I went out to his studio in Jersey, it was really cool, peacocks running around. He pulled up on his motorcycle, sang the song in a couple of takes and then we hung out. We talked a bit in the kitchen, he offered me a beer, and we bullshitted a bit. It was just two guys banging around on acoustic guitars." Sounds like fun, no?
Also, I review Two Dancers, the sweeping new album by Wild Beasts in the new Observer Music Monthly, here.

Music Of Interest

The new issue of The Word is out now, featuring an up and coming young beat combo called the Beatles on the cover. Um. Inside, I speak to four old stagers of a similar vintage who have been going – if not exactly strong, then still going – for forty years: Ladies and Gents, I give you Hawkwind, Wishbone Ash, The Edgar Broughton Band, and the mighty Stackridge. I also review the excellent new album by Julie Feeny (pages), a beautiful clean pop record recorded entirely on orchestral instruments, and a very cosy album by Simon Armitage’s Scaremongers (Born In A Barn), though I can’t improve on their own description as the “sound of mature Huddersfield”.

Otherwise, I’m really been enjoying the debut album by Bristol-based band JetKing. Theories To Suit Facts is a barnstroming mix of grainy Pearl Jammy vocals, surging electronica, crunchy guitars and cracking tunes. Very more-ish, especially the ultra-fine "Tales of the Unexpected." Find out more here.

Also, the very excellent Howl Griff have released their second album, The Hum. It’s a truly lovely thing, full of sun and harmony, with a few forays into cooling shadowlands for those who can't take too much in the way of summer rays: a bit SFA, a bit Byrdsy, a bit Fannies, a bit Talking Heads on "Giving it The Always", and dealing out a blast of blistering ska-pop on my fave, "Crash And Burn", it's 100 per cent Welsh guitar-pop goodness from top to toe. "Sunrise", meanwhile, is the should-be-could-be pop hit of Summer ’09. Check 'em out pronto or be, literally, in the dark.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Nash-Tastic

The most important thing to say is that I can never look at Graham Nash without thinking of Eric Idle in Life of Brian. He's got that same rather stunned expression, glazed and a little deranged. I like it a lot.
I liked Nash a lot, too, when I spoke to him for this interview. I have a soft spot for old troupers who have stuck to their pot-addled, hopelessly idealistic, straightoutta Laurel Canyon beliefs for nigh on forty years; who keep banging away - from their hippie idyll in Hawaii - at the old saw that everything would be, you know, just fine, if we could all just [cue long, loud suck on huge bifter], you know, love each other a bit more. God bless 'em.
CS&N are playing Edinburgh Castle on Saturday night. Wonder if they'll play this little beauty?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Wonder

Say what you like about the Michael Jackson memorial circus, but any event that features Stevie Wonder sitting at the piano and singing a monumental version of "They Won't Go When I Go" isn't without merit. In Reno I describe the song as "deeper than the grave, wider than the heavens, and one of the most imperial evocations of the world beyond that awaits only a select few. Crucially, the weight, beauty, gravity and stern rebuke of the words is all echoed in the magnificent music." I'll stand by that, and Stevie Wonder really put his all into it yesterday. This - amid an ocean of ersatz pseudo soul-isms, knee-jerk over-emoting and unthinking platitudes - was indisputably the real thing. It starts four minutes in.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Le Donk


I attended the press screening for ‘Le Donk’ at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Sunday. It’s the very good Shane Meadows’ new mock-rockumentary (if you will) about a doomed roadie (the titular Donk, played with obvious relish by Paddy Considine) and his hapless charge, real-life Nottingham rapper Scorz-ay-zee, described by Donk at one point as the “Honey Monster with a lobotomy”. The film is a kind of guerilla road movie, shot on the hoof over 5 days and documenting Donk’s attempts to gatecrash the Arctic Monkeys’ 2007 Old Trafford show and get Scorz an opening slot. (The Monkeys feature briefly in a very, um, 'naturalistic' cameo, the scamps).

Now, you might think this has all been done to death – 'Spinal Tap', 'Saxondale', et al – but Meadows has a real humanity about him as a film-maker, and he knows his musical touchstones. Although it’s ultimately a slight piece and some of it’s a little obvious, it's really fucking funny much of the time and the story is told with wit, warmth and brevity. And it packs a surprisingly hefty emotional clout. If the name Chris Needham means anything to you (no? Google it) then you’ll appreciate the kind of bittersweet, desperately delusional territory we’re in here.

I interviewed Meadows and Considine yesterday (about half an hour before this photo was taken, I reckon) and am happy to report they're both fine fellows. Considine, it turns out, is obsessed by Guided By Voices, while Meadows is currently on a nu-folk tip (James Yorkston is on the film soundtrack). Scorz-ay-zee was there, too. He sends himself up in the film, but apparently he was championed by John Peel a few years ago, and three record companies were at the premiere last night to check him out – hope it went well for him. 'Le Donk' will be out on DVD in October, and it’s worth 71 minutes of anyone’s time.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Mr and Mrs Beatles

It was lovely speaking to Olivia Harrison a couple of weeks ago. George was always my favourite Beatle (although I’ve interviewed Paul McCartney a couple of times and he’s always been very nice - once, we chatted on a sofa in the control room of Abbey Road’s Studio 2 and Macca took his shoes off, revealing very sensible black socks. I took this intimate gesture to be a sign of an eternal bond thereafter).

It would have been great to speak with George before he died in 2001. However, his wife Olivia was just as I’d hoped she’d be, and her elegance and manner seemed to confirm the qualities I always hoped George possessed: wit, intelligence, humility, passion, privacy and kindness. I got the sense, even years after his death, of a really proper relationship - with all the ups and downs that entaails - and ultimately a union that was absolutely genuine and enduring.

You can read the interview here, and check out one of George’s greatest songs below. It’s on the new compilation of his songs, Let It Roll, released this week by EMI. Great beard!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Observations

I had a whole fistful of stuff running in yesterday’s Observer Music Monthly. Firstly, I reviewed the new album by Tinariwen. Called Imidiwan (it translates as Companions), it’s a stunning record, all blood, bone and sinew, not an ounce of fat. Fans of their last, Aman Iman, will not be disappointed.

I also wrote a feature about that much maligned species, the session musician. I talked to six players who between them have performed at the Grammys, Glastonbury, Central Park, the Colosseum and the queen’s jubilee, and who have played on records that, combined, have sold hundreds of millions of copies. And yet I doubt you’ll have heard of any of them. From their bunks in the sweaty engine room of the recording industry they offer some fascinating insights and up-end a few preconceptions.

Finally, there’s a definitive Ten of the most striking (and scary) pop star transformations. Yes, the words 'Michael' and 'Jackson' do appear. Oh, and I also spoke to George Harrison’s widow Olivia, but more on that soon.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The New Sound of Young Scotland


I have a piece in this week’s
New Statesman, celebrating
some of my favourite current
bands – The Phantom Band,
De Rosa, Frightened Rabbit,
My Latest Novel – and
pondering how they're
reflecting, and perhaps shaping,
modern Scotland. You can read it here.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Willing To Work

One of the great things about being a shamelessly promiscuous music hack is that you get to write about the varying fortunes of Def Leppard, J.D. Souther and Lady Sovereign in the space of a long weekend and learn thing you never knew: like the fact that Judee Sill wrote the amazing "Jesus is a Cross Maker" (see clip below) about the "fucker" Souther, who broke her heart; or that Joe Elliott is a very funny man who applies what I'll call the 'Kylie Formulation' to his favourite rock bands: so it's Quo, Maiden, Mott and Priest, which is surely how it should be. I heartily approve, and henceforth will be calling Camera Obscura 'Camera' and Talk Talk simply 'Talk'. Works for me.

You also get to review the latest Elvis Costello album, which I’ve warmed to a little but still find oddly unconvincing, with too many songs wearing the wrong suit of clothes.

And you get to talk to Leonard Cohen’s songwriting partner Sharon Robinson in the new issue of The Word (warning: contains possibly fatal levels of Bono) and review some terrific new albums by the likes of The Low Anthem as well as a venerable reissue by the Housemartins, which will make you realise that you are getting OLD.

Depsite the fact the deadline for my next book is less than three months away, there will be much more coming in the next seven days and beyond. Watch this space. But first, watch this:

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Rise & Shine

I got to know former Bhundu Boy guitarist and band-leader Rise Kagona a little in the last few years. During that period I interviewed him several times, watched him rehearse and play gigs, met him for coffee and often bumped into him at the bus stop.

In 2006 I wrote about his extraordinary travails and those of his former bandmates for the Observer. You can read the feature here, recounting how the Bhundu Boys left Zimbabwe in 1986 and charmed the pants off the likes of John Peel and Andy Kershaw with their super-virile jit music, how they supported Madonna at Wembley Stadium and signed to Warners. The aftermath, however, was shocking and heart-breaking, even by the shoddy standards of the music industry. It remains one of the saddest stories ever told.

Rise is a great guitarist and a very fine chap. He’s currently living in Edinburgh and, despite many set-backs, has continued pursuing his music; lately he's been gigging with old NME stalwart ‘Champion’ Doug Veitch (see photo). The pair are playing a fundraiser for "Friends of Play Soccer Malawi" this Saturday - May 30 - at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 60 The Pleasance, in Edinburgh. I’ve seen them a few times and they’re superb value; they always get the crowd going and the occasion is sure to be great fun. You also get to see a genuine world music pioneer in action. You can hear more of Rise and Doug's music here.

As a nod to the cause, the concert will include an auction of various football items: Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibs shirts signed by the team, signed footballs from the same clubs, a Manchester United shirt signed by first team squad and a Carlos Tevez shirt, lovingly signed by the gentle hand of the Argentinian man-bull himself. Pretty impressive. Doug is running the Edinburgh Marathon the following day, May 31, also in aid of "Friends of Play Soccer Malawi".

I know any support would be well deserved and hugely appreciated.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Dolla R.I.P.


This is an edited extract from Gangsta Gangsta, a chapter in I Shot a Man in Reno.

“Since Scott La Rock was murdered in 1987, the list of rappers who have subsequently died violent deaths is a depressingly long one, and includes: Paul C, Charizma, Randy ‘Stretch’ Walker, Tupac Shakur, Yaki Kadafi, Biggie Smalls, Fat Pat, Freaky Tah, Big L, E-Moneybags, DJ Uncle Al, Jam Master Jay, Camouflage, Half-A-Mill, Soulja Slim, Mac Dre, Bugz, Blade Icewood, Proof, Big Hawk and Stack Bundles.
That’s before you factor in the numerous 'foot-soldiers', hangers-on and bodyguards who have also been gunned down - such as Israel Ramirez, who lost his life in 2006 while working as security for Busta Rhymes. It’s a shocking roll call, all the more so when you consider that only a fraction of those murders have ever resulted in convictions. Only black metal, that dark, Satanic Scandinavian sub-genre of heavy metal whose participants list church-burning, blood-drinking and animal cruelty amongst their hobbies, makes such an explicit link between the life portrayed in the songs and the violent and very occasionally murderous activities played out in the real world.

But no form of music has ever taken its association with murder and carried it quite so explicitly into the heartlands of teen pop, which is where rap now lives. The connection many rappers and their labels cultivate with organised criminal gangs, corrupt policemen, drug racketeers and a host of generic low-level thugs is no invention. The bleak reality is that true-life murder does rap’s profile no harm at all.
As its death wish grew more explicit in the early-to-mid-nineties gangsta rap became, commercially speaking, the only show in town. With Dr Dre’s G-funk masterpiece The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the cult of gangsterism slowed its beats down and crossed over in an astonishingly pervasive way, infiltrating movies, literature, fashion and television. As it became an overtly commercial commodity and found a happy hunting ground within millions of white suburban middle class homes, it had more and more to live up – or perhaps down - to.

Posthumously, Tupac became the most deified and biggest-selling rap artist of all time, shifting at least thirty million albums compared to the ten million he sold while alive. He has also rather cleverly managed to release twice as many albums dead as the five he made while above ground, and has even posthumously published a book of poetry. Perhaps, like Elvis, he will one day start touring again. Biggie Smalls’s Life After Death album, meanwhile, was released 15 days after his murder and has sold over ten million copies.

In such a boldly commercial fashion does death rub out the distance between art and reality. It becomes the ultimate subject matter and the ultimate career move, too. Everyone wins: it’s the final piece of the marketing jigsaw for the record company; and it’s the final, essential step in the great lunge at mythologised immortality for the artist. The mortality of a gangsta rapper is now open to perpetual speculation in the same manner as the self-destructive rock stars of the late sixties and early seventies. It’s no coincidence that this decade’s most commercially successful gangsta rapper, 50 Cent, called his debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and consistently plays upon the fact that is a former crack dealer who was shot nine times in 2000. The ever-present implication of imminent death is a significant part of his appeal.

Murder re-enforces the legitimacy and strength of gangsta rap’s connection with the more violent, some might say glamorous parts of society. The bottom line, as Tupac’s sales figures showed, was that gangsterism sold. And sold and sold. Part of the problem with this is the fact that it presents no great imperative for rap to widen its horizons. Quite the opposite, in fact. The vibrant counter-currents of the Daisy Age movement pioneered by De La Soul; the politically correct, jazz-influenced progressive hip hop of Arrested Development, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, A Tribe Called Quest and Common, amongst others; and the current crop of ‘conscious’ rappers like Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco have, according to hip hop author Stephen Rodrick, “drawn little more than barely concealed yawns from other rappers and urban audiences”.

Rap badly needs a new song to sing, but like the drunk who fears that sobriety will make him boring, the millionaire rapper seeks an association with danger as a spur not just to creativity but to maintaining status. Writing, speaking and maintaining eye contact with death is still widely regarded as somehow hipper than tackling less abrasive, more moderate subjects. It's all about status. As long as an association with death bestows a kind of honour, this will continue.”
copyright, Graeme Thomson, 2008.

I Am A Camera (Fan)

Can I add Camera Obscura's My Maudlin Career to my controversial and highly exciting 'Better Than Astral Weeks' list? I can? Oh, good. It's an absolutely heart-meltingly brilliant piece of work, a tousle-haired, raffishly neck-scarved cross between One Dove, Strawberry Switchblade, Mazzy Star, the Walker Brothers and the Shirelles. Lip-smacking.

This is the single, "French Navy". Not the album's greatest moment by any means, but still a blast. The album is on Spotify. If you can, give it a whirl.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Page Rage

When you write - promiscuously - for a living you learn pretty quickly not to get too precious about handing your words over to a publication and seeing them cut, re-shuffled, re-interpreted, manhandled and generally FUCKED AROUND WITH. It happens to absolutely everybody, and I’m sufficiently bruised and bloodied by experience to understand that when it comes to a straight fist fight between the brilliance of your words and filling the ever-shifting available space, filling the space wins every time. That’s just how it is. It’s nothing personal. Sometimes these changes even make the piece read better, which you'd think would be the whole point but usually isn't.

So, I’m not going to get all Giles Coren about it, but sometimes the sheer lunacy of the editing process proves more than usually exasperating, as though you're trapped in an Escher painting. Like, for example, when you’re asked to write a lead album review for a national publication, coming in at 320 words. This you duly do, only to be later told that there is more space on the page – hurrah! - and could you expand the review to 400 words? This you also duly do. Fine. So far so good. Then, however, your words enter that dark production chamber where anything can happen - and usually does, well out of earshot and generally not in a good way. The first you'll know about it is when - taking a random example - your on-the-nose 400-word review appears in print, rather brutally stamped down to 320 words. To which the only suitable response is – EH?!!? Where did that extra space for 80 phantom words suddenly come from? And - more pressingly - where did it go? And when it did go, why not simply print my original 320-word review, rather than chop the 400 word one into little bits, creating a third - inferior - hybrid review? Or why not ask me to rewrite it? And so on and so on, into a descending circle of pointless rage.

Does anyone care? Probably not. But I do, not because what I wrote for publication was earth-shatteringly fantastic, but because it's my name on the damn thing and I'm occasionally foolish enough to labour under the naive delusion that - no matter how many cuts and changes have to be made to a piece of writing - they should be made with the same degree of care and concern that I, unfailingly, put into writing it in the first place. Fool that I am.

All of which is by way of an elonagated introduction to a couple of trifles. My – rather more 'boutique' than originally planned - festival guide appears in the new Observer Music Monthly, and the Great Shrinking Review of the new surprisingly-good-fun-actually Paolo Nutini album also shuffles into view in the same magazine. There. World saved.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Time To Say... Enough

It should come as no surprise, post-Diana and post-Jade Goody and in a world where the Misery Memoir strikes terror on the high seas of publishing, that record companies have cottoned on to the fact that they can make a cheap buck out of the nation’s apparently unending appetite for wallowing in cheap, cloying sentiment.

Death seemingly has to come with a soundtrack. Planning your funeral music has replaced chuntering about house prices as the hot topic of dinner party conversation. I talk in Reno about the way that vague ‘Angel’ songs ("Angel" by Sarah McLachan, "Angels" by Robbie Williams, "Candle In the Wind", "Over The Rainbow" – the Eva Cassisy version, of course) have become in the past decade or so crucibles for public displays of grief – usually centred around people we never actually knew; the songs and the people thus become repositories for emotions we no longer quite know how to process or express.

Now, on Time To Say Goodbye – great title! – 40 of these songs arrive all lined up in a row, billed as the “timeless soundtrack for moments of reflection” (ie. filing your collection of OK! magazine’s Jade specials). Basically, it’s on-demand funeral-lite music. I just wish they’d sneaked on Fade To Black or O Death.

But at least the cover is taseteful and understated. I think we can all relate to having a rather beautifully poised ‘reflective’ moment clad in a powder blue dress and kneeling on a carpet of scattered rose petals… hang on, do you think they might be targeting a female demographic?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Goodbye To All That

I’ve been trying to summon up some genuine enthusiasm for the new albums by Jarvis Cocker and Elvis Costello, but I’m failing miserably. I’ve reviewed the Jarvis album “Further Complications” in the forthcoming issue of The Word, so I’ll spare the details; suffice it to say it sounds like a man utterly weary of his own public image but who isn’t at all sure what to do about it – except rope in Steve Albini to help him make an unholy racket, to miminal effect.

Costello’s albums, meanwhile, increasingly fall foul of the curse of the chinese meal. I experience an enthusiastic rush - Pavlovian, perhaps? - when I first hear them, but then the sense of satisfaction rapidly fades and the urge to listen to them again completely disappears: to prove the point, I wrote a rather OTT five-star review of Momofuku last year for the Observer but haven’t had any pressing desire to listen to it since. The only recent record of his to buck this trend has been North.

I’m not sorry or sad about this. If there’s one thing the era of the download teaches us is that there is no golden age and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Everything is available and it’s all about what works for us now – today. There’s a kind of digital Darwinism at play that I find liberating, because I confess there have been times when I’ve almost bought into the idea that the music I loved the most between the ages of 13 and 21 (the Replacements, American Music Club, Thin White Rope, U2, the Waterboys, Van Morrison, Blue Aeroplanes, REM, Bowie, Talk Talk, the Cure – and yes, Pulp and Costello) would be as good as it got. We are often conditioned to believe that our teens is the time in our lives when we're most susceptible to being hit sideways by music, allowing it to shape, mould and form us - and that nothing will ever quite sound that special or touch us that way again.

It’s a terrible lie, and thus a profound relief to discover that albums like Jaymay’s Autumn Fallin’, Checkmate Savage, For Emma, Forever Ago, The Midnight Organ Fight, Roddy Frame’s Surf, Come On Feel the Illinoise, Fever Ray, Gemma Ray’s The Leader, Fleet Foxes, Bat For Lashes’ new one and Peter Broderick’s Home mean as much to me – and will continue to do so, I’m sure - as Astral Weeks, This is the Sea, King of America, Spirit of Eden, Swagger, Everclear, Tim, In the Spanish Cave, Murmur and the Unforgettable Fire.

A relief also to say that new music by the likes of Cocker and Costello has no automatic claim on my time or attention. There can be no favours or allowances made for the sake of the good old days. The good old days – if they ever existed – are gone.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Dylan: Edinburgh Playhouse Review

Maybe we got him on a good night. Maybe my expectations were so low that anything short of a live demonstration of how to contract swine flu would have seemed like a treat. I don’t know. I’d never seen Dylan before so I had couldn’t compare it with Bournemouth in ’02 and Earls Court in ’78 like all the proper Bobcats, all I know is that I spent two hours watching him perform at the Edinburgh Playhouse last night and not once did I think – Jesus, what am I doing here?

He looked truly extraordinary. Pipe cleaner legs, clad in black strides with a yellow trim. An odd mix of waistcoat and straightjacket up top, with some kind of diamante augmentation around the neck, the whole combo topped off with a wide brimmed black hat. When he was truly feeling the music – which was often; I saw nothing cynical or weary in what he was doing, and he played a lot of guitar, which I believe is A Good Sign - his left leg performed the strange, twisting, stationary dance of a man extinguishing a particularly stubborn cigarette. Afforded an extra insight courtesy of the Playhouse’s nifty opera glasses, I couldn’t take my eyes off his feet for minutes at a time.

I thought he played something close to a blinder. He popped on and lit straight into 'Leopardskin Pillbox Hat', which went off like a firecracker. His voice was clear as a bell and was obviously familiar with the parameters of the original tune. Over half the set was similarly blues-based, which did him a lot of favours – when you know instinctively where the tune is going, you can follow him there quite comfortably. It probably also helped that the Playhouse – as opposed to the O2 or even somewhere like the SECC – is an old-fashioned, shabby-genteel theatre, everything buffed up deep hooker-red. It holds only about 3000 people and the sound was superb. I can’t imagine the Dylan experience – not a word was uttered throughout, and the band hovered round their master in a semi-circle, like nervous footballers awaiting a half-time bollocking – looks or sounds any better the further away you stand.

A few simple truths emerged as the evening wore on. Dylan is a quite heroically bad electric guitar player. I have never seen anyone – certainly not anyone charging on the door – play quite so badly yet with such obvious relish. Half way through 'I Don’t Believe You' I realised his mouth and his hands were trying to renew their acquaintance with two entirely different pieces of music. The worse it got, the more he insisted on playing the same deranged little riff, and the more the crowd loved it. It was like watching some strange dysfunctional relationship unfold. And what about that organ sound? Usually only deployed during the octogenarian tea-dance at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, it became quite mesmerising after a while. He forgot the ‘You never turned around…’ verse on 'Like A Rolling Stone' and stabbed away at his keyboard for a couple of minutes, twitching like a trauma victim. The crowd loved that, too. From our seat at the front of the circle, virtually hanging over the stage, it was all great theatre.

But the core of the show was sound and solid. Near the end, I actually felt I was being cheated of some vital part of the Dylan live experience: where are all these incomprehensible versions of classic songs? Where was the sledgehammer revisionism? What was all this about people not recognising a tune until some stray syllable from the last verse left a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a spark of recognition. Really? I can’t help thinking, certainly on the evidence of Sunday night, that too much has been made of this aspect of his shows, that it’s yet another rung too-readily added to Dylan’s mythology.

What I saw was a 67-year-old man singing as best he can with the voice we all know he possesses, playing some songs – some great, some merely OK, a few genuinely superb ('Po’ Boy', 'High Water', 'Ain’t Talkin’,' a beautifully measured 'Just Like A Woman') - with a tight little bar band. The only song I initially struggled to place was 'Sugar Baby', but I was on its case within 90 seconds. 'Tangled Up in Blue' was certainly wearing an odd set of clothes, but there was nothing arbitrary about it; you might not have liked it, I’ll grant you, but you could see what he was trying to do: Dylan and the guitar players had some spooky little riff on which they were hanging the rest of the song. There seemed to me nothing careless or perfunctory about any of it.

He finished with a not-half-bad version of 'Blowin’ In the Wind', wandering centre-stage at the end, puffing tunelessly into his harmonica, limbs jiggling slightly in classic Zimmerman style, like someone above is gently jerking the strings on this stupendously odd little marionette below. He sloped off doing some kind of weird hipster comedy walk. I like to think he looked happy; everyone else in the place certainly did.

We didn’t pay for our tickets, but I’ve already set 50 quid aside for the next time he’s in town. I was wrong. He needs to keep going.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Howling

I interviewed The Phantom Band last week, for the Guardian (the piece will run... sometime; I also wrote about them in a piece for the New Statesman which will run... sometime). Their debut album, Checkmate Savage, is the one record thus far in 2009 that has sucked me in and refused to spit me out. There is something magnetic and exhilaratingly primitive about it, the same mix of beauty, humour, darkness, primal energy and corrupted folk myths that make a good horror film so compelling. They also make me contemplate the monolithic, unforgiving majesty of nature - hard rock, fathomless depths, quicksand, mountains whipped by wind and rain.

If this all sounds a little grim (it'a not, by the way; it's utterly euphoric music), I'm happy to report that all six of the band are exceptionally pleasant, interesting people - and Andy has a moustache to die for. It was particularly nice to observe the interest they took in each other's thoughts and ideas; it's a rare thing to find in any band, that lack of jaded cynicism and true democracy of spirit. You can hear it in the music, which ranges all over the spectrum but comes flying at you with a really powerful unity of purpose. I love the way this song, Folksong Oblivion, both embraces and destroys accepted notions of traditional Scottish music. Most of all I love the fact that it's just beautiful.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Le Carre Calls It

On a bit of a John Le Carre jag at the moment. I'd forgotten what a searingly funny, unsparingly honest and seriously fine writer he can be. And astute. This prescient little gem jumped out of The Tailor of Panama - apply it to whatever you wish, be it Swine Flu, Jade Goody or the latest Premiership football rumour:

"Nothing is more predictable than the media's parroting of its own fictions and the terror of each competitor that it will be scooped by the others, whether or not the story is true because quite frankly dears, in the news game these days, we don't have the staff, time, interest, energy, literacy or minimal sense of responsibility to check our facts by any means except calling up whatever has been written by other hacks on the same subject and repeating it as gospel."

This was written in the mid-90s, before the internet ruled the world. I bet he's really mad now.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Dylan: The Write Stuff

I’m going to see Bob Dylan in Edinburgh next Sunday. I’ve never seen him before and I not sure I want to this time, but I feel I should. I’m kind of looking upon it as I would a trip to the dentist or filling in a tax return, something that simply has to be done – and who knows, maybe you’ll feel better afterwards.

I don’t think I’ll be rushing to hear his new album, Together Through Life (awful title). Only the promise of accordion tempts me – I love the accordion, but is it enough? I didn’t like Modern Times much, thought it was ludicrously over-rated by many critics for what it was. Musically it just felt … atrophied. I’m not a blues fan, which doesn’t really help when it comes to post-millennial Dylan. He hasn’t written a really decent tune for over a decade, not since "Trying to Get to Heaven" and "Standing in the Doorway". Or perhaps "Mississippi".

His music means a lot to me – but I think his mind means more. In fact, I think he should stop making music and just write. Chronicles was great, and I’d love to see him write a book purely about music. I don’t think anybody describes music better. The much-circulated interview with Bill Flanagan – the only one Dylan has done to promote the new album – is simply electrifying when it gets to the part where he starts talking about his favourite writers. Listen to this:

Warren Zevon? “Down hard stuff. "Join me in L.A." sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval.”

That’s good, but it gets better.

John Prine? “Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. All that stuff about "Sam Stone" the soldier junky daddy and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

That’s brilliant. And what about Bob Dylan? How did he turn out this way?

“The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn't change.”

Yes, that’s him. And yes, he should stop singing and recycling tired old blues shapes and start talking more. Write it down and let us read it. I’ll tell him next Sunday.