Nick Sounds Off

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Buzzcocks at the Paradise, 17th May.

Let me put it plainly: the Buzzcocks invented UK Punk.

You will excuse me then, if I am a little tongue-tied trying to talk about this band.

Perhaps I can contain myself by beginning with the obvious: Coming out of Manchester UK in the mid ‘70s, the Buzzcocks booked the Sex Pistols’ first show in the North, now immortalized at the start of 24hr Party People. Their furiously blasted music pretty much invented the pacing of the punk track.

Not so politically motivated as The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks most famous tracks, like “Ever Fallen in Love?” and "What do I get?" are love-songs. It may seem like a strange way to present a love-song I suppose, but theirs is the energy of teenage love, and sex. As we all know (more or less recently!) that passion is an unstoppable force.

It is 35 years later of course. Perhaps they can’t manage that pace – that vigor. I saw them at Axis a couple of year ago, and I remember having those kinds of doubts before the show. Surely they would be a decrepit version of past greatness – fragile now, and to be treated with reverence, but not quite respect…

That night they came out and played six songs, at about 150bpm, back-to-back, without a pause for breath. You would be wrong to count them out.

This could be quite simply the most important show you’ll see this year. Don’t miss a chance to see some history, and to dance your arse off.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Titus Andronicus’s “The Monitor”

I don’t want to overstate this, but there is something a little self-destructive about Titus Andronicus’s “The Monitor.”

The album is not short of great tracks. It’s not lacking in a voice all it’s own either, as the band lead us into a really beguiling world of working-class lives writ-large. Many of the songs on “The Monitor” move very subtly between contradictions. There is, for example, a lot of clever word-play that smacks of real thinkers behind the scenes. Most of the songs though, seem born of a bleary-eyed state of keg-stands, basement parties, and cigarettes chain-smoked veraciously, so you wonder how they can get their heads straight enough to pull the tracks together.

The answer is that it’s a persona of course (One give-away: No-one can be that obsessed with New Jersey!). But Titus are nurturing their characters all the time and it is a fascinating world that they are propagating: Working-class kids without much hope, but with each other; Americans through and through, appropriating all the right-wing shit, and letting the rest of us have some pride in the country. This surely is why the songs on “The Monitor” are dressed in Lincoln speeches.

Then again, I could be wrong. Like the massive reverb swells that overwhelmed Titus’s first album, “The Airing of Grievances,” “The Monitor” is in many ways obscure – even obscured. The obfuscation often becomes frustrating. The band didn’t need to hide their great tunes behind cloudy effects the first time around, and I would dare to say they don’t need the gimmicks of political rhetoric to block our access to their own statements about living their lives in these times. That’s the self-destructive thing I worry about with this band. Perhaps their stories, which deserve to be told, will be lost in all the confusion.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Los Campesinos's "Romance Is Boring."

There have been lots of
albums out recently from established acts trying to balance pushing forward with their sound but also retaining the quality of their past releases,

    with varying 
       degrees        of 

None of them have managed to keep this tricky middle ground with more skill than Los Campesinos. “Romance is Boring” is an album of (at least) two sides, and both of them are compelling.

I have written about this band before. When I did, I was wowed by the cheery energy and humor of their youth. They were witty and intelligent, the elements of a gang of seven friends playing together on stage and off.

Our Founder I could see in them a connection to a new drive to put the intelligence back into British indie music, along with other excellent bands like Maximo Park and Lightspeed Champion. They were, in short, the kind of band that moved past the bombast of muscular rock, to give us all the energy and add to it the intellect that gives songs depth and long-lasting appeal.

The Los Campesinos of “Romance is Boring” are a band with all the droll gags and word play, but something novel too, which makes them addictive on a whole new level. The best examples are in songs like “Who Fell Asleep In” and “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future.” Both show singer Gareth to be a mature and serious vocalist, with a deft touch over his words. Emotionally charged lyrics about troubled relationships and desperate friends are a turn you wouldn’t normally expect from this band, or this vocalist, but Gareth sings them with huge conviction. They really are all grown up, at least in the ways it counts.

What remains young about Los Campesinos is their veracious desire to throw themselves into music. It’s an admirable trait that I hope they never grow out of. They are playing at the Paradise on 24th April, and I will be there, laughing with them at times, and silent when they move me.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lightspeed Champion's "Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You."

Lightspeed Champion (the name for Dev Hynes’s current musical persona), produced one of the best albums of 2008. Will he repeat that feat with his second release? It’s really hard to say. Let me back up a little and explain…

When Dev was last in Boston in 2008, playing at Great Scott, he told me that he was quite literally living on the road, and had no home anywhere in the interim – when he went back to London, he was forced to sleep on friends’ sofas. I understand he’s now put down some roots, back here in the country of his birth (he’s originally from Houston, TX). Now though, he lives in New York, where he recorded “Life is Sweet!”

Despite all this distance from the London music scene that he came out of though, this album, like the last, is about as English a project as I can imagine. I don’t mean that it’s better or worse than music from elsewhere, but that there is something almost uniquely eccentric about Dev’s sound, which seems to scream Southern English indie.

You can never really be sure if the strange juxtapositions of instrumentation that flit in and out of these songs are serious or tongue-in-cheek. The video for “Marlene” is a good example of the generally bizarre direction that Dev takes with songs.

What’s most remarkable about this background though, is that the songs that end up on “Life is Sweet!” while they have clearly come from a very ‘creative’ and experimental place, are still basically very catchy and addictive tunes. Songs like “Middle of the Dark” and “Sweetheart” are built from really complicated mixes of instruments, but they are completely digestible. This means that you can enjoy listening to Dev’s music quickly, but keep hearing more and more in it as you spend time listening. You have to admit that that’s a pretty good proposition for any new music purchase.

Judging this music though, is difficult. There is very little to compare it to, for one thing. All it makes me think of is Dev himself: charming, funny, poignant, and precocious in turns, but on a planet all his own.

Monday, March 29, 2010

BRMC's "Beat the Devil's Tattoo"

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s first big single, “Whatever happened to my Rock and Roll?,” back in 2001, asked a question I didn’t care to think about at the time. BRMC’s whole ethos shouted (just as their singing did) that we needed a return to 'real,' bawdy, bold, ROCK music.

Having lived through Oasis’s heyday in Manchester, when big anthemic rock music was all you were allowed to hear, BRMC’s complaint seemed out of place, even counter-intuitive. Better to ask about the missing indie, post-punk, industrial, or in fact almost any other genre, than to call for more tough-guy bombast.

Watching them at Glastonbury festival that year, they looked the part too – the part of black leather-clad, macho, rockers. But then I started to hear something really unexpected from them. More than just posturing, the band built but moody, dark melodies driven principally by really inventive bass parts. They won me over slowly, always serious about what they were doing, and often bold in the moves they made (particularly in exploring their own musical roots on 2005’s “Howl”).

Now they bring us “Beat the Devil's Tattoo,” their fifth major release. “Beat the Devil's Tattoo” is certainly a rock album, true to form. It has lots of what BRMC do best: massive overdriven bass; rolling, primal drum lines, sinister vocals washing under masses of reverb. Some great material comes out of this mix, and new drummer Leah Shapiro fits very well into BRMC’s long established sound.

It might have been nice if Shapiro had destabilized BRMC a little more in fact - listening to “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” makes you feel at times like they could have pushed further to do something more new for them, like “Howl.” The band's sound has already been solidly defined, and this album doesn't do much to revise that. This album is not the best work the band have done over the last 11 years then, but it tells me again that they were right and I was wrong – there is still a place for out and out rock music, which takes itself seriously and plays in and out of darkness.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Massive Attack's Heligoland

Let me dispense with the usual build up and say something about this album that you’ve probably guessed already, given the history of this band: Massive Attack’s Heligoland is a very good album. It’s typically sinister and serious, built from a mix of industrial beats, sparse synths and driving bass, and the often very beautiful work of guest vocalists like Damon Albarn and Martina Topley-Bird. Fans of Massive Attack will likely not be disappointed with this, their first release in seven years.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, I want to write about why this album is very good, and not excellent. I’m not just trying to knit-pick here. I think the reasons for the limitations of Heligoland make a very interesting statement about the challenges that face as seminal a band as Massive Attack. Let me also let you know that I love this band with a passion, so I’m hardly set against them.

That being said, there are some shaky moments on this album, which show that Massive Attack are not invincible. While tracks like “Babel” and “Girl I Love You” are really compelling, The Guy Garvey guest track, “Flat of the Blade,” reveals that, even when all the ingredients are there (i.e. incredible vocalist, master beat producers, etc.), things don’t always gel when you try to force beautiful melody onto a cold, sterile backing track.

Beyond this, there is the pressure that Massive Attack now face from some other bands, who might just steal their thunder. On one side there are their peers (and friends) from the Bristol-based invention of Trip-Hop of the 90s, Portishead. Last year Portishead brought out “Third.” It drew lots of criticism at the time (although it was on Ryan's Smashing Life's shortlist for album of the year) for being too austere and unapproachable. I disagreed, but that seemed to be the consensus. Still, listening to “Heligoland” now, you wonder if any of it couldn’t have come from a previous release from some years ago. It makes me feel that, even if the Portishead release was hard to follow, it was more fresh and new than Massive Attack’s new work (Listen to RSL's recent video post of Portishead’s “Chase the Tear,” and see if you agree with me).

Then there is the pressure from newer bands. The album’s opening track, “Pray for Rain,” features Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. This is a great song, and hearing it here, at the start of the album, seems like a signal that there are bands like TOTR snapping at Massive Attack’s heels. Might Massive Attack be passing the baton to the next generation of musicians here? Isn’t TOTR’s “Dear Science” a more radical album, in a genre built on radical experimentation?

I’d still say go and buy Heligoland, and I hope you enjoy it. Massive Attack are a classic band, but perhaps this album shows, overall, that every band has their day (or decade), but none can have all of them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Choosing an album of the last decade.

So this is an absurd exercise, but why? Because it’s too short, of course, but also because we don’t really know what we’re asking. When I canvassed votes for an album of the decade among friends, several (who shall remain nameless) pointed out that Britney Spears could be in the running by some measures…

So let me try and clarify my terms, so that the task is a bit more reasonable. I wonder if I can get away with: “I’d like to write about the albums that, by my own warped standards, I felt presented the best creative work of the decade?” Clearly that’s not enough. Slipping and sliding around, balanced precariously on top of a mountain of a hundred thousand albums from the last ten years, I need to find some qualitative measure that will help me to find my way back down onto solid ground.

And now I come to reflect on it, it does seem that there are two aspects of music that I respect, and respond to, more than all others.

The first is intimacy. However cheesy it may sound, I want an album to feel first and foremost like it binds me very, very closely to the emotional state of the musician who records it. When I look at it this way, my choice for album of the decade is pretty clear. PJ Harvey has a mass of great work behind her, but 2007’s “White Chalk” is such a simple, elegant, moving album that it burrows deep beneath your skin and doesn’t let go.

Played largely on upright piano, with minimal studio bell and whistles, “White Chalk” is the kind of album that sounds like it came from a different time, but when you try to work out when exactly, you are left scratching your head. It’s not like any other album of that year at least. The narratives which Harvey writes in these songs are very much her own, but once you have listened to this album, carefully and without distraction, you will think each of them yours and yours alone.

The second thing I want out of any great album is euphoria. A great album manages to sound vast and overwhelming and like it will whisk you away from… well, from your own small life. You enter into the world of a soundtrack from a fantastic, epic movie that was never made. [Yes, I can see these two demands of great music are hardly comparable!] My runner-up then, for album of the decade… The biggest, most beautiful, and most incredibly well constructed album I’ve heard in the last ten years is Elbow’s “Cast of Thousands” (2003).

Years before Elbow’s explosion into one of the biggest bands in Britain over the course of 2009, it seems they decided to write an album as grand – almost as operatic – as if they already saw the crown within their grasp. Tenth track ‘Grace under pressure’ ends with the sound of their audience at the Glastonbury festival singing with them, and listening to it makes me feel like Elbow is not a band, but an army. They are (as they themselves tell us) thousands strong, each able to express, for a moment, their joy at the world. There is nothing more I could ask from them than that.

These then, stand as my votes. I feel sure they are not yours. I hope I’ve at least made my rationale for these choices a little clearer. Please protest. Stake your claim, and do it for reasons that are all your own.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Newly Discovered Old Music – The Test Icicles.

So I’m not as cool as I like to pretend. Plenty of great music gets past me. I’m left to the slightly embarrassing task of trying to catch up with others who really were there when it happened. This year the biggest missed opportunity which revealed itself was 2005s “For Screening Purposes Only,” by the Test Icicles.

This band from London would have gone completely under my radar if it wasn’t that singer Dev left the group and went on to become Lightspeed Champion, releasing one of RSL’s best albums of 2008.

Having become completely obsessed with Lightspeed, I was looking around for more by Dev, and the Test Icicles appeared dimly on the horizon. This is no longer easy stuff to get hold of, but my best-kept source for digging out hidden musical gems (my mother) doggedly tracked it down in a second-hand store in Manchester (UK).

So now the hunt is over, what do the Test Icicles sound like? Coming from Lightspeed to this, I don’t think I have ever heard a more jarring change of direction in any musician’s career. Where Lightspeed is slight and subtle and crafted to perfection, “For Screening Purposes Only” is a heavy, blasting album that feels like it could tear your head off. It’s vicious and cutting, and you wonder how Dev could sing another note after just first track ‘Your biggest mistake’ comes to an end.

Though it is absolutely not what I was looking for at the time, The Test Icicles can’t be ignored. They are a really explosive band that you’ll keep playing even when it hurts to hear any more. If you ever come across their CD, and feel you need a sonic battering that feels like an actual battering, remember that they come highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Manic Street Preachers Grow Old Gracefully

In the 1990s British music scene there were hardly any bands faster and more furious than The Manic Street Preachers. Leading the charge of Welsh guitar bands in the period, the Manics were also among the most radical of them, both musically and politically.

Then of course, there was James Dean Bradfield’s voice: searing; hugely powerful; completely idiosyncratic.

Most of all their story – enduring the (presumed) death of guitarist Richey Edwards, and still managing to produce very successful, sweeping musical anthems in the aftermath – was a narrative as moving as that of New Order’s birth out of Joy Division. We wanted them to win, out of such adversity, and they did.

The Manics, then...

...and now

This year’s new release from the band though, “Journal for Plague Lovers,” really retains only one of these three elements, which had commanded our interest. The album is still marked by Bradfield’s almost operatic singing. The Manics have become something I think they would have been horrified by a decade ago though: tame.

There are a lot of similarities with this story of gentle decline and that of Supergrass’s, another 90s act whose first album, ‘I should coco,’ had an energy that even admittedly engaging later work could never match. Supergrass had a great voice to lead it too, and an incredible force that has now dissipated.

At fault I think is over-production that evens out both bands’ music to the point where it is just too clear and digestible, and has had the jagged thrall of energy that I feel sure they could still muster hammered out of it. After all, it seems unfair to assume age is the issue alone. There are plenty of older bands that keep up the pace (even much older – I saw the Buzzcocks a little while ago storm through a set at the old Axis). This over-polished production is remarkable, because no less a studio master than Steve Albini was responsible for it.

I suppose The Manics shouldn’t be expected to produce endless, increasingly worn-out parodies of their initial work. What we have from The Manics this time around though is a pale version of their early stuff, and it doesn’t offer a new kind of sound to replace what’s missing of the old one.

“Journal for Plague Lovers” is not a terrible album – it’s ‘solid,’ even ‘dependable.’ A band that has produced such powerful work in the past though, can hardly be satisfied with that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lou Barlow's "Goodnight Unknown"

Lou Barlow has released his new album, “Goodnight Unknown,” only a matter of weeks after “Farm,” Dinosaur Jr’s latest effort, on which he played bass. You have to wonder, given this proximity, how the two projects fit together, and I’m happy to report the answer is ‘not well at all.’ While I have already written about the incredibly complacency of those involved in phoning it in on “Farm,” it appears Lou has used the funds from that debacle to produce, in “Goodnight,” his most interesting work in some years.

There is a short film about the making of the album available here. I’ve tried not to let this documentary color my perspectives on the project. I think I’ve failed. Listening to Lou narrate images of his life working on “Goodnight” – setting-up and then re-configuring his home ‘studio;’ recording the sounds of child’s toys to make ambient sounds; working 9-5 on the album and then returning emoh to play with his 4yr-old daughter – I am left feeling jealous of the resources being a member of Dinosaur Jr has offered him to work, and intimidated by the snatches of music that have been born of it. When I turn back to the album itself, the final product is not quite so overwhelming an experience as his hard work on the film might suggest, but it’s not far off.

Why am I not as head-over-heels in love as I was about “The Freed Man” or “Bakesale?” Lou seems to move frustratingly on and off the target at some points on this album, as if he didn’t know himself what sometimes makes him truly one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard. Above all for me, those other albums set the standard for intimacy in music in two ways: they are musically more slight and simple than almost anything else ever recorded, and lyrically they are as open and candid as you might hope to confess on your deathbed.

Not to all tastes, this kind of songwriting (and not even to Lou’s at times it seems), but when it’s done well it’s a consummate enactment of connection between songwriter and listener. And there are moments of this king of bond on “Goodnight,” which is quite an achievement for someone writing their 20th or perhaps 30th album. “One Note Tone” is a song that could stand pretty well with ‘classics’ of his own genre like “Mystery Man,” “Two Years Two Days” or “Poledo.” “Too Much Freedom” is also poignant like tunes of old.

All in all, how much can we ask of Lou – That he matches or betters his best at every turn? Hardly likely, and hardly fair. He has written an album in which he digs once more into his own deep life, and we can enjoy hearing the sometimes stumbling results.