Thursday 27 August 2009


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.
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.