Tuesday, December 30, 2008

REVIEW: Bug Lung Baby’s Trilobite Trash EP AVAILABLE FREE

When you’re out, and you meet a band member for the first time, there is a painfully irresistible urge to ask them “what do you sound like?” It’s a tiresome question that most of the musicians I have met detest being asked. After all, they dream, how can all the time – all the teary heartache – I’ve put into this sound be quantified? How dare this person ask?!

So the conversation turns to the musician’s elliptical attempts to say that their sound is unique, that from one moment to the next it is entirely unpredictable, that it breaks new ground. Now a cringe-worthy question has led to a cringe-worthy answer, because, in the end, how many bands do you ever heard who aren’t more or less conventional? Not necessarily bad, but predictable.

It comes as a great surprise then, when you steel yourself for another typical musical experience, and something really fresh comes along. This FREE EP from Bug Lung Baby is just such an interesting, twisting and turning project. It leads you through elements of lot of different genre, and bends them to its will.

Trying to drive it back to something a little more interpretable, it’s closest to being called “laptop music,” but it’s better than most. Laptop music is generally muddy and garbled, as the musician constructs confused anti-musical ramblings, while Trilobite Trash retains an addictive quality that means it’s still as simply enjoyable as something which is a lot less original.

There are musical precursors of sorts, like very early (i.e. good) Beck, or Ian Brown, but I think it’s fair to give Bug Lung Baby his due, and say that he’s writing something worthy of praise, simply because this EP is something which we haven’t really heard before. Go and pick up this FREE music and enjoy a genuinely strange musical journey.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Super Furry Animal's Classic, Mwng.

[...in conjunction with the record breakers section of Ryan's Smashing Life]

Ryan recently asked me to write about a past album that was under-appreciated. The list is long, and SFA's 2000 'folk' album Mwng is right at the top.

I heard a story that when the Super Furry Animals came out with “Guerilla” in 1999, they were so annoyed that their label didn’t push it enough to rocket them to superstardom that they became cynical about the music business in its entirety, and decided to record their next release (and first free of their contract with Creation), “Mwng,” entirely in hardly radio-friendly Welsh.

I have no idea if this is true or not, of course. But if the label were guilty of failing to promote the absolutely stunning electronic majesty of “Guerilla,” and that did prompt this album, then I offer them my first born in thanks (just give me a couple of months to get one). “Mwng” is quite simply one of the most exquisitely beautiful folk-pop albums I have ever heard.

After the traditional (for this band) out of place opening blast which leaves you completely unprepared what will happen next, SFA make the pace softer and softer, until they reach the nadir of “Nythod Cacwn,” half way through the album. [Singer Gruff Rhys played the drums on this track himself – you can tell, and yet it is completely in keeping with the track’s incredibly fragility]. Then the album begins to ramp up again, until it hits tracks like "Ysbeidiau Heulog", which are carried by guitarist Bunf’s super heavy overdrive, mixed very low in the background, so they sound like both sick and gorgeous at one and the same time.

The real wonder of this album is perhaps attested by the fact that I have always felt that lyrics are the single most difficult thing to really get right in any musical project, although they are often the last to be considered. But this album shows me that I’m dead wrong. I have absolutely no idea that Gruff is talking about in this album. I’ve actually got the point where I’ve avoided researching this, because I really don’t want to be troubled with any actual meaning. Instead, I want tracks like "Gwreiddiau Dwfn" / "Mawrth Oer Ar y Blaned Neifion" to carry me off into the kind of mixed-up, dizzying, sweetly dark world that only SFA can deliver (and trust me, they leave the best for last). Consider this a call to arms – find this album at all costs and make the effort to work your way through it with the care it deserves. It. Will. Pay. You. Back.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In case you missed it: Jai Agnish's Awake in Your Dreams

I’ve been listening to Jai Agnish’s new album “Awake in your Dreams” on my ipod as I travel around the city. It’s cold out there right now, and my brow hardens as he tries to win me over.

Agnish’s music is a mix of acoustic guitar and the simplest of melodies on his Roland keyboard – it has a little of the Silver Jews in it. The tone of the Roland is like a child tentatively finding sounds for the first time, and it sits just about perfectly with his lyrics, because his writing is more than anything about restraint. There are lines like “Her Face is like the sun” from “An American,” or “I found a new friend/ We found love” from “We Found Love.” Lyrics like these sometimes leave me wondering how deep Agnish’s thinking about what he writes really goes, but more often they just wrap me up in an innocence which really warms me as I listen, walking the winter streets of Boston.

There are tracks where this cheeriness slips into something a little too upbeat for my cynical and twisted mind. In “India” he sings “I told our tour guide/ this journey’s been sanitized,” and I can’t help but think to myself ‘where’s the darkness that must inhabit this life too, along with the joy?’

But we shouldn’t hold this against him. When Agnish sings “Quick hop into the shower/ don’t use all the hot water/ sing the song of your heart/ sing the song of your heart” in the track “Your Dreams” he is giving us something sweet and lush to savor, and more fool me for second-guessing the value of a gift like that.

[The entire album is available free here]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

RSL top 20 of the year.

The four of us at Ryan's Smashing life have just published our top 20 albums of the year. There was lots of music which was new to me here, so if you're looking for fresh directions, it's a great place to start finding stuff.

I fought for Portishead, Elbow and The Young Knives. The only other trully great album I would have included was Lightspeed Champion, but it looks like he will get an honourable mention in the end. I also loved Los Campesinos and The Duke Spirit this year.

Have a look at it and post your thought here or there....


Monday, December 8, 2008

Free New Music from Jai Agnish!

Please head over to Ryan's Smashing Life, and read my review of Jai Agnish's new album "Awake when you Dream" (which is available for download in its entirety, FREE, right here).



Review: The Duke Spirit’s “Neptune”

I first heard about The Duke Spirit through a friend in England, who told me they were first and foremost a great live band. I then managed to miss them recently, supporting Eagles of Death Metal, at Paradise. Live band they may be, but I only have their new 2nd album Neptune to go on. Having missed my chance, how could I gain access to their energy? As it turned out, it was very simple: Volume.

I guess many bands would sound pretty grating once they passed a certain level of loudness, but for The Duke Spirit, it is pretty much essential. Perhaps this is not a ringing endorsement. When I was first learning about sound engineering, we were told that just boosting the volume of music would only impair our judgment of it’s range and quality. More cynically, I remember one engineer telling me that he just put up the levels of everything before the band first heard it played back, and thus won them over. We’ve all heard about the recent, stupidly loud, Metallica album. How can loud make this band, and yet not make them bad?

I think you can find the answer in a close relative. The Raveonettes are rather like The Duke Spirit in several ways. They are indebted to a lot of music from the 50s and early 60s, particularly on tracks like “The Step and The Walk.” Harmonies and Liela Moss’ main vocals, horns and shrill single strikes on clean guitars all give the band a tinge of something from the past. But The Duke Spirit are certainly not old-fashioned, and this gives us another similarity with The Ravonettes. Both bands add vicious guitars that sound like noise-core stomping all over nursery rhymes. “Neptune’s Spirit” for example opens like an early Wannadies track, a soft voice destroyed by a burst of anger. The Ravonettes take this logic a little further, sitting quite comfortably in static and drone for whole tracks. But the sudden shocks on this album also demand higher and higher volume.

The album does have some delicacy too. Tracks like “Sovereign” are sweet, but somehow also call for the hum of still air after a storm – air that could break into deafening distortion without warning. So I feel rather like I’ve danced (!) in a crowd once I get through listening to this album at a suitable volume, and we have all sweated pounds and burnt ourselves out in the mix. I wish I could have been there, but perhaps then the damage to my ears would have been irrevocable.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A New Direction!


I'm excited to announce that I'm joined the writing team at Ryan's Smashing Life, a really great Boston music blog which has been around for a few years now. Ryan is really connected to the local scene, so I'd encourage any of you who care about Boston music (and beyond) to check it out. I'll be writing roughly weekly entries, but the blog is updated daily. This blog will still be updated regularly, so don't forget to come over a 'see me' as well.

Thanks for your support,


Friday, November 21, 2008

J’Ambience at Gulu Gulu, Lynn.

Tonight I sit at my regular table in the Gulu Gulu café, with friends. We watch a band I have never heard of before, and will likely never hear again. We get a little drunk while we take apart their rambling noises, and then dwindle in number steadily, returning home. We let the band’s music, and their attempt to “rearrange things in our minds” (as the DVD show that accompanies them announces), return to a suitable state of obscurity.

Not an auspicious start to a review of the band, but as I realize that I want to write about this gig, I know the band’s attempt at producing thought-provoking music of the mind is, in so many ways, inconsequential. The gig is not here to show me why ambient music usually provokes such contempt in me. There is no story in that, if you know my musical taste. J’Ambience playing here tonight is a great show because it is an entirely fitting end to the Gulu Gulu café, Lynn, itself.

I have had some really great times at the Gulu Gulu. It seemed like an underground center for a while – a place at the root of something energetic and exciting in a new nodal point of the city. I was even stirred to try and cast myself as the one pitching my music to other locals on occasion, playing songs to some friends and some indifferent strangers who came here for something quite different from my offerings. So I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I’m not now trying to just disqualify the sad enthusiasm of J’Ambience, although on the night I didn’t do much more than that. We laughed at the peace generated by the ends of the ‘songs,’ for example, and played ‘guess this image’ from the projection screen they used. In that respect, they entertained us well.

In general the band are genuinely trying to move us with their syncopated, processed guitars and rumbling samples. Even less cynical groups than ours though, drift off from it after a while. Shockingly, one of the two members of the band actually gets up and wanders off, mid-song, at one point, seeming to sum up the carelessness of the music for me. Over the three years I’ve been coming to Gulu Gulu, I’ve felt that kind of drift into irrelevancy in the place as a whole.

This is not just Gulu Gulu’s fault. We are the ones who make the scene, and the sterling efforts of a few – people rather like J’Ambiance – have been overwhelmed by the fickle disinterest of the rest of us. Even if you never saw Gulu Gulu, in its early fervor or its recent decline, the story of it’s demise is true of a million other equally hopeful attempts to generate a scene which have fallen because of… well, what? Many of the ingredients were there, but there was no explosion, and I don’t think anyone can truly say why, musically, the Gulu Gulu didn’t launch that moment for us.

The closure of the Gulu Gulu is a sad event for the part of the city I live in, but it seems that it is necessary for the next of these sparks to flare, and perhaps to truly ignite. I left tonight careless about J’Ambiance, but on reflection I hope they endure somewhere, or at least (to speak in terms suitable to their intellectual aesthetic) that their energy stays out there, still trying to make something that moves us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

REVIEW: The National's "Boxer"

There is a very good chance that you, along with what I understand were about 71 million others, have heard The National before. The first song from this, their second album, was played in its entirety just before a victorious Obama walked to the podium this week, along with footage of the world he will, it appears, create (don't follow this link if you want to keep a clear mind about the band!).

Writing about a song that has been vetted until entirely harmless by a legion of political think tanks is not an appetizing prospect. I feel the need to claim that I (honestly) had the album playing in my car for weeks before it entered that kind of public domain. I say this not only to ensure you think me un-swayed in my musical judgment by my own political hysteria during this great, GREAT week, but also to try to convince myself that I'm always just ahead of the musical pack.

"A likely story," you retort.

Regardless, my job now is not to make myself look a little more 'in with the kids' (how could I be any more so), but to recover what I can of The National's potential from the ravages of political sterility. The National, whether you voted, whether you cared, whether you cried, whether you wrung your hands, are still a band you should love.

Love at least, in this incarnation. The band's eponymous first album is more Wilco than Interpol (perhaps apt, as they are keen to tell their story of relocating from the mid-west to NYC), and rather less engaging for that. When "Boxer" opens though, with the aforementioned "Fake Empire" track, they give us something remarkable. Matt Berninger's voice rumbles to us softly, as a series of close to false starts, first in drums and then in horns, make the rising melody seem both frail and a little hysterical. I can't stop listening to that fragile, breaking, song.

There are other highs too, in “Slow Show” for example, where Berninger tells us prosaically that he dreamed about his love for 29 yrs before he met him/her/it, and I believe him. The lyrics in general make me slightly weaker than I was. Verses like "Falling out of touch with all my/ friends are somewhere getting wasted/ hope they’re staying glued together/ I have arms for them,” from “Green Gloves,” sit tearfully with the loss I feel at my distance from others.

In case I seem to be a little overwhelmed by all this poignant, touching music, I want to say that “Boxer” is not the best album I’ve ever heard. It’s not even the best album this year. But it manages something impressive enough to have it stand out above many others: Even though it has in part been employed (sorry to democrats who might resist the notion) to manipulate, I’m happy to let it have it’s way with me over and over again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Big Lick at Middle East Downstairs

I begin this time with a disclaimer. This is not a review of Big Lick, but of me. I am good friends with Kevin, the singer from Big Lick, and I've met almost every member of the band before tonight, some of them over the course of the last decade. My wife said I should write about the show, and I told her, ludicrously, that it would be unethical to do so, thinking to myself of my responsibility to my adoring readers. They might feel cheated by a supposedly honest assessment of a band that was skewed by my almost family ties to them.

But, as I find my feet in this space, I realize that worries about balancing my responsibility to remain objective and trying to be connected to a musical scene in this city are more than a little premature. What I am writing here, I am becomingly dimly aware, is a short story of my experience, and perhaps that is all I will ever be able to show for paying the ticket price at the door. So be it. I can narrate instead the reasons that objective journalism will have to wait.

My image of this night at the Middle East is wrapped up in a couple of other stories, distant in time or space. The first is of another gig, from my very first trip to Boston in 1998. My girlfriend of the time - now my wife - took me to see Big Lick play their CD release party at Tower Records on Newbury. In the blur of time between that night and this I recall very little, but the knowledge that I was there and now I am here makes me feel an unusual sense of rootedness, which is nothing less than intoxicating.

On the other hand it's Halloween, and that night recalls a lot less fun times since I've been here, when Americans' self-assured bravado in making a fool of themselves walked all over my unshakable (and believe me I've tried) English rigidity. My brother-in-law, also at the gig full of memories of the old days of Big Lick, tells me I should lighten up, but the cooler and 'crazier' they all appear, the more I stiffen. This feeling of exclusion from the party overwhelms the other emotion, of connectedness to this city, and I slump.

So when Big Lick come on I'm counting down the minutes until I can make my stilted way home. I'm sure you are waiting for me to tell you that they won me over: That they played a show so passionate and fun-loving that I couldn't help but lift my spirits to meet them. And that is all true. They are a great band that deliver song after song that can carry you into the pit (where my brother-in-law was swallowed whole) even if you stay firmly on the sidelines. But there is no story in that. This show - for me - was all about watching Kevin's face, smiling for just a moment at one point near the end of the band's set, as he looked over what they had done to about two hundred people in the space of thirty minutes. In a split second his joy was mine too, and the whole night was worth it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review: Crystal Castles' "Crystal Castles"

"Wow," a friend wrote to me when he heard Crystal Castles for the first time, "I can't believe you'd listen to stuff like this." I have wondered the same thing over the last few weeks, as I've played the bands first and only album, released earlier this year. I bought the album after I saw some footage of singer Alice Glass performing "Alice Practice" at the Glastonbury festival this summer, a spinning and pogoing dance that would pull in anyone who has any interest in live shows.

But that's not enough to explain it. The album is hardly represented by that one track, which sits on top of the others like an angry dog protecting the home it's made among the dust heaps of electro beats and broken samples. Something more attracts me to "Crystal Castles." Being an urban 'youth' myself (I'm at least half honest there), I always find sounds that make me feel a cold city space draw me in. Since I heard my first Joy Division song at least 15 years ago, I've loved that sterility in music.

Still, there is a lot of stuff that would qualify on those grounds, and much of it wouldn't require me to buy an album in which I'm yet to grasp a single lyric - usually a killer for me with new music. Certainly the album is uneven sometimes too, sometimes too digestably smooth for my liking, occasionally even sounding like a very shiny backing track to some unspeakable pop hit to come. It remains a mystery, but I'm digging deeper into the album, and my own mind, to see if I can make sense of it.

Perhaps it's the digging that counts. I bought another album recently that shall remain nameless, which I got into almost immediately, but was left with the uneasy feeling that it was too quick to win me over. I don't want to be treated that well by new music, or I start to choke on the sound as I gulp it down. Crystal Castles doesn't give me that easy, comfortable recognition of 'music I like,' and perhaps in the end, I'll decide I don't. The process the band has put me through though has rewards too, and I thank them for that.

The Garage Dogs at The Abbey Lounge

There is a history in this town, and I'm on the outside. As soon as I got to the Abbey Lounge that Friday night, I could tell that The Garage Dogs had been on this scene longer than I have been in this country. People are impatient, and they murmur to one another a little nervously, like they are waiting to reunite with an old girlfriend who they know has had a cooler life than them since the split.

The band know it too. You can see in their faces as they quickly set up to play that they are the ones who have been living it up, and they just want to show us one more time that they were the ones we should have stuck with. Their urgency to get to the noise-making makes me excited to see them too.

I'm just a few feet from the lead singer of the three brothers who make up the majority of the band. He sets up a large keyboard in front of him precariously on a bar stool, and I can see that this show will be a balancing act all the way. The keyboard takes a pounding from the first song in, as he beats out a rhythm more than a melody, with wiry fingers. For a while I can't take my eyes off that keyboard, listing violently back and forth. Stretching his whole body to sing out over us all, he doesn't seem to care if he loses his instrument, so I let it go.

It's all one breakneck song really, pouring energy over us. The Garage Dogs shake and writhe and give us everything we need for our money. I had heard the band was really shock rock, and they could be expected to do anything on stage to get the crowd moved and moving. In the end they don't strip-naked or simulate sex with a stuffed toy, but I'm shocked by the time I leave all the same. How well do the new bands on the Boston scene need to perform to beat this sound?