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.