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


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


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.