Kid Sufjan

Hot on the heels of last month’s “All Delighted People” EP comes Sufjan Steven’s new CD, “The Age of ADZ”. Attention Deficit Zebras? Autistic Disordered Zoologists? I don’t know1. What I do know is that this will soon be called Sufjan’s “Kid A”, largely because it’s got keyboards and bleepy things and drum machine whatnots on it.

And that it’s not very good *cough*.

Ok, that’s possibly a bit harsh. Right now I can safely say it’s not what you’d call an immediately catchy record, and that it’s also safe to say it’s going to take a few listens. Then again, 2010 is now officially The Year Of Disappointing Records By Bands That Should Know Better (Or Maybe Have Run Out Of Ideas And Are Desparately Flailing Around). TYODRBBTSKB (OMHROOIAADFA), as we call it round here.

Because let’s face it, with Band Of Horses, The Hold Steady and Broken Social Scene making Disappointing Records (with Arcade Fire and possibly Joanna Newsom not far behind, though I’ve not quite made my mind up yet), the auguries are not good for our old chum Sufjan.

Still, buy it, stream it, listen to it all you like, and try “Vesuvius” on me2, and make your own minds up.

1 According to the spiel, “The Age of Adz refers to the Apocalyptic art of Royal Robertson (1930 –1997), a black Louisiana-based sign-maker (and self-proclaimed prophet) who suffered from schizophrenia, and whose work depicts the artist’s vivid dreams and visions of space aliens, futuristic automobiles, eccentric monsters, and signs of the Last Judgment, all cloaked in a confusing psychobabble of biblical prophecy, numerology, Nordic mythology and comic book jargon.” Bet you wish you hadn’t asked now. As for this bit: “Sufjan has stripped away the fabric of narrative artifice for a more primitive approach, emphasizing instinct over craft”; doesn’t that translate as “Sufjan couldn’t be arsed doing those 12 minute long compositions with a full orchestra in 13/7 time, so he just switched on his Logic Pro 9 and fucked about for a bit”?

2 Ok, not on me as such, more the record label.

Note: I’ve just found that the MP3 below isn’t one of the ones hosted on the record label’s site. So, to be safe, I’m removing it. Sorry if you’ve come here expecting “Vesuvius”. I’ll post a replacement track tonight.

MP3: Vesuvius by Sufjan Stevens

Amazon’s Sufjan Store Has Lots and Lots of Great Records

We Haz Nw Muzik

LOLZ!

Finally, after weeks of posting old stuff, I am posting something that IS BEING RELEASED ON MONDAY.

It’s not even Swedish, either. Bloody hell.

Deerhunter‘s new record, Halcyon Digest, is the follow-up to last year’s sporadically brilliant Microcastle. I haven’t had a decent listen to it yet, but “Helicopter” is the one that’s grabbed me more than the rest so far, and it’s halfway through the album. This is a bit of a concern given that the Microcastle grabbed you by the nads from the first second and didn’t let go for a good few songs. Must give it a decent listen this week.

MP3: Helicopter by Deerhunter

Halcyon Digest Is Out Monday And Can Be Pre-Ordered Here

Dance to the Karaoke

What sort of song would you expect to see at a Karaoke evening in a pub on the outskirts of a major financial district? A selection of recent hits plus some older numbers guaranteed to get the frustrated singer in all of us to drunkenly stagger up the steps with the sole purpose of slaughtering “Wonderwall” or “American Pie”, bellowing like a cow at an abbatoir?

Yep. And then you look through the list and there, amongst the usual stuff, sits “Transmission” by Joy Division. I ask you, who’s going to go up and sing a Joy Division song? Us, that’s who. And I bet you would too. Who would turn down the opportunity to yell out “DANCE DANCE DANCE DANCE TO THE RADIO” like a deranged Mancunian Mick Jagger?

Chatting to the organisers, they told me their main line of work is Alternative Karaoke, usually in pubs round Camden and Islington. Bauhaus is a particular fave, I understand. Tell you what, they should expand their range and chuck in a bunch of Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley songs to capture the “I Couldn’t Succeed In My Singer-Songwriter Career So I Became An Options Pricer At A Major US Investment Bank” market. Trust me, it’s bigger than you could ever imagine.

MP3: Transmission by Joy Division

Buy “Heart and Soul” (CD) – All Of Joy Division’s Recorded Output

The Rat Girl Is Back In Town

Of all life’s little pleasures, coming across a band you’ve not listened to in years and remembering how great they are must rank up there with finding a nice warm cup of tea next to your chair you didn’t know you had (the tea, not the chair). Whilst regular readers – all three of you – know I harp on about this kind of thing rather a lot, but this is my blog, and at my age and infirmity one is allowed a touch of leniency.

Today’s remembered pleasure is Throwing Muses. 4AD, the genius record label that was home to Cocteau Twins, signed two US bands in 1986 who’d been touring together. The first was The Pixies (who I am assuming you know about), and the other was Throwing Muses. The latter were seen as the odder band, despite Frank Black’s propensity for writing biblically odd songs then screaming like a banshee that’d trod on a nail all over them. But looking back now, and listening to a song like “Mania”, you can see exactly why.

For there is nothing that can quite prepare you for the bizarre world of the Muses. There’s Kristin Hersh’s torrid, spiralling singing style, halfway between an Appalachian drunkard and a secure hospital inmate; there’s the swirling, queasy music, with abrupt time signature changes that disorient you and leave you guessing what the hell is going to happen next. Even after the tenth listen. With lyrics often focussing on her own mental health issues1, underscored with a brutal and frank intelligence, Throwing Muses were never going to be an easy sell, and were often not exactly easy listening. But when they clicked – from earlier tracks like “Mania” and “Dizzy” through to more accessible later songs such as “Shark” and “Bright Yellow Gun” – the band were utterly thrilling.

Funnily enough, Kristin Hersh’s just released a memoir, available from here, entitled “Rat Girl”:

Go and listen and explore then get something from Amazon’s Throwing Muses Store. A great band.

On another note, I realised I’ve not posted any new music in a bit. Let’s see what we can do about that, eh?

1 Kristen was mentally ill for a long period, and was fully and horribly aware of it. To say the music was a catharsis for her is understating it somewhat; she described how songs came to her and obsessed her to the point that she could not function until she’d recorded the song, as though they were living entities. I recall reading once that she had a brain tumour but I can’t find any evidence of this; maybe I ought to read the book sometime. This is difficult to put into words that make any kind of sense, but I’d rather this music than any number of “I’m mental, me” whining attention-seeking irritants. Thankfully she is in a much better state these days.

MP3: Mania by Throwing Muses

Tonight, Tonight Matthew, I’m Going To Moan For Hours

“So why did you have to get a 64Gb MP3 player then?” people ask me, disbelievingly. “Because I like to have loads of old stuff on there I haven’t listened to for years, so when the song pops back into my head, I can listen to it straight away”, I reply.

They look at me funnily. Usually whilst walking backward, slowly.

But today it came into its own. Lying in bed feeling more than a little poorly, I had the sudden urge to listen to Smashing Pumpkin’s ludicrous “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. For “Mellon Collie oh for Pete’s sake, stop whining” is utterly ludicrous. Possibly the best ever example of a great album that went out and ate too many pies, could be cut to half its running length and be a much better record. In fact, it’d easily have been their best record if someone had just said to them that songs like “Thru the Eyes of Ruby” and “To Forgive” would make great Super Deluxe Re-Release Multipak Special Edition fodder ten years hence. This truly is an album that should be re-released without all the extra pap; a “Special Limited Cut-Down Edition”, if you like.

One day, when I get to “1979” on the Pitchfork list, I’ll talk at greater length about this record, and the band. But to leave you with this thought from my slightly feverish mind – this album is great, and I’m damn glad I listened to it again. Praise the Lord for the Track Forward function on your music player of choice.

And let us not forget that for all their po-faced whining, they did contribute to one of the finest gags ever in The Simpsons:

Corgan: Hey cannonball, I like your statement: when life takes a cheap shot at you, you stand your ground. Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.
Homer: Homer Simpson, smiling politely.

MP3: Tonight, Tonight by Smashing Pumpkins

Buy “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (CD/MP3)

The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 2 – Cocteau Twins To Billy Bragg

In the mid ’80’s, British Indie music woke up from its glum post-punk nightmare and started to produce music that was, if not out and out happy, at least willing to step outside its front door with something approaching a smile. Of course, this was largely due to the huge amounts of drugs it was consuming, but never mind. IndiePop sprung to life. All was sunny. Kind of.

Cocteau Twins – Lorelei
New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle
Billy Bragg – A New England

In 1984, Cocteau Twins were a promising, if slightly Gothic, ambient/dream pop band, hailing from the unlikely environs of Grangemouth, Scotland. Then they released “Treasure”, the first in a series of records that are as good as any other records you could care to mention. New bassist Simon Raymonde (now owner of the superb Bella Union record label) helped the band develop; they built entire worlds from spiralling shards of sound, cascading like waterfalls through a cathedral made of champagne ice, and….

Ok, ok, I’ll stop there. Writing about Cocteau Twins brings to mind the classic Frank Zappa quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”1. Whilst I can happily write about Liz Fraser’s shockingly beautiful singing, Robin Guthrie’s effects-laden guitars, Simon Raymonde’s looping, graceful basslines, the thundering drum machines, often all tied together with additional sounds from Lord only knows where, nothing can quite prepare you for the majesty of their music. At their heights – heights which precious few bands reached even once, let alone over three or four albums and as many EP’s – they were, quite simply, the best example of how music can transcend the mundane and become something utterly transcendental.

“Lorelei” is probably the first time they peaked. Starting with a guitar line so simple that even a 5-year old could play it2, then bursting into their trademark booming drums with Fraser singing a deceptively simple vocal line. It’s often said that she sang nonsense lyrics, or made-up words, but this isn’t entirely true. Interviewed in the mid-’80’s, she stated:

Well, I do sing about life. Life with Robin; coping with him. They’re all words that I sing. There’s none of it that’s just nonsense

(You can see the seeds of their destruction in those three little words, “coping with him”. More of which later).

I must have listened to this song well over 1,000 times. No exaggeration – when this was first released, I taped it from my brother3 and played it again, and again, and again. I’ve always had a copy on CD; I used to play it early in the morning when chilling out after club nights; I’ve argued with myself many times whether to put this, or Blue Bell Knoll, or Heaven Or Las Vegas onto whatever iPod or iPhone I’m currently messing with. Even returning to it for this article, I was hearing new things; all those overdubs of Liz’s vocals and the subtle ways the drums change throughout the song, for example. This song showed the world just what they could do.

After this, the band rose to even greater heights during the rest of the ’80’s, but Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship went downhill as Guthrie’s drugtaking got out of hand. A major label deal took them away from the loving bosom of 4AD and their records made clear that all was not happy with the band. They broke up in 1994, after some promising changes to their sound that had pointed to a potential way out of their creative hole.

Cocteau Twins have slowly but surely been gaining recognition for their amazing records. Whilst they were reasonably big in the ’80’s and ’90’s, they seem to have fallen away from sight since their split. Sadly, it seems as though a reunion just won’t happen. The scars from Fraser and Guthrie’s separation are apparently too deep to heal enough to perform together; from a purely selfish point of view, this is a massive shame. Considering the complexity of their music, they were a fantastic live band and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Maybe they should do the re-release, re-master thing (with extra material, please, folks). One of the few faults you could ever raise about the Cocteaus was that the production was never quite up to scratch; a quick wash and brush up could do wonders. In any case, this track is the perfect introduction to their magical world. If you have never listened to them before, I can happily say this with religious fervour: Listen. If you are don’t like this, you don’t like music.

New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” is another gold-plated, sure-fire, utter 100% classic record. Arguably, it’s their finest moment; only “Thieves Like Us” and “True Faith” can beat it. Those famous New Order trademarks are all there; the easy melodies, the lyrics that teeter on the fence between profundity and nonsense, and the deft mixing of rock and dance in a way that hardly anyone has bettered since. This isn’t Indie music; it’s pop, of the highest order.

But reading between the lines, the tensions in the band were starting to show. The album version features Peter “Hooky” Hook’s at the forefront of the mix, driving the lead melody. The single version (presented here) misses it entirely. Whilst Bernard “Barney” Sumner wrote most of the music (with some help from The Other Two, mostly drum programming), Hooky became increasingly disgruntled at how much he was being sidelined. He was also the least enamoured with the dancier direction the band were taking – partly because this seemed to make him redundant. After all, when you’re completely removed from the single version of one of your band’s best songs, you’re entitled to be concerned. The odd thing is that the song, in its single mix, is weaker without Hooky’s bassline.

Plus, the band had a unique setup, which didn’t really help matters. Every day, they travelled to a detached house in South Manchester and worked on their songs, making demos etc. They were paid a salary by Factory Records, and they effectively didn’t get any royalties. These were, by and large, pumped into The Hacienda nightclub. So, the band – Hooky in particular – decided that, as they were being paid a pittance by their record label and their substantial royalties were being spent on a mostly empty club, they might as well take advantage by drinking large amounts of alcohol there. Not a recipe for success. Still, tensions aside, the band continued to make classic records, and continued as a band (on and off) until last year, when it was finally announced that they’d had enough of each other4.

Anyway, back to “Bizarre Love Triangle”. What a song, eh? At their finest, New Order were so far ahead of their peers it was laughable. Trying to make sense of what makes this song so brilliant is a tough call, and one I don’t have the music theory chops for. So, if anyone can explain how the interplay between the differing keyboard and bass lines causes such a swelling of the heart, or how Barney makes the daft lyrics actually feel like they mean something, or how the song somehow straddles euphoria and melancholy, then you’re better at this than me. In any case, this is a brilliant, brilliant record.

I used to really dislike Billy Bragg. His ultra-stripped down sound, his overt politicism, and his Estuary English accent could make him easy to dislike to an unreconstructed snob like me. With years of living between hearing this song first and writing this now, I can finally see him for what he is5 – if not quite a genius, then a fine songwriter, a decent guitarist and an honest and emotional singer.

Of course this is by far his best known song, covered by many, but most stunningly by Kirsty MacColl. Starting off with a line stolen from a Simon and Garfunkel song, he wistfully sings of his lost love and yearning for a new romance to take his mind off his last one. With just him and his guitar, the song is a brilliant combination of the simple and complex, from lovelorn moaning to singing about satellites looking like shooting stars.

Chalk this one up to the value of this list. I’m very glad I finally heard this song for what it really is.

Next up, we go back to Metal; the new, thrashy, mutated Metal of Metallica and their peers.

1 Though admittedly you could see Michael Clark giving that a go.

2 So simple that Simon Raymonde actually played it live. Sorry, Simon.

3 Home taping is killing music.

4 Or more accurately, Hooky decided he’d had enough of Barney and Steve Morris, who initially stated they didn’t know what he was on about, and then decided they agreed with him.

5 And what most other people have seen, except me. The teenage me was a right dick sometimes.

You can find the rest of the Pitchfork 500 articles here.

MP3: Lorelei by Cocteau Twins

MP3: Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order

MP3: A New England by Billy Bragg

Buy “Treasure” by Cocteau Twins (CD/MP3)

Buy “Brotherhood: Collector’s Edition” by New Order (CD)

Buy “Must I Paint You a Picture – The Essential Billy Bragg” (CD)

Flies Like A Banana

Doesn’t Time Fly?

I hope I don’t end up in the press again.

Let's Play Spot The Blogger

In other news, I’ve finally got me a new iPod, with tons of lovely free space, so I happily loaded on a huge bunch of stuff I’ve not listened to in ages. One of those was this gem from, appropriately, 2008; there’s been a whole load of dream-pop posted round here lately, and this is another fine example. Enjoy.

Graveyard Girl by M83

Buy M83’s “Saturdays = Youth” Here (CD/MP3)

Avi’ At It, Buffalo!

That post title is my entry in this year’s “Most Tortuously Entitled Blog Post” prize. I think I’m in with a good chance. Hope this Sunday finds you well; mine’s been largely spent doing a combination of cooking, lounging and working. And typing. As I have more cooking and working to get on with, I’ll keep this short.

Avi Buffalo hail from sunny Long Beach, California, and frankly, sound it. Those dreamy vocals, reverb-heavy guitars, handclaps, tunes that easily drift around like seaweed washing up and around a sun-kissed beach. There seems to be a whole world being filled with this kind of shoegazey, Beach Boys touched dream-pop, though after a few listens to their debut album has got me thinking that they’re a cut above the norm. Perfect for those final, summery days of September before the cold and dark closes in.

That video looks like it cost some serious money, mind.

Album is out on Sub Pop records and can be purchased here.

MP3: What’s It In For by Avi Buffalo

Rejoicing In The (New) Bands 3 – Panic Attract

The music blog world is driven not only by the personal tastes of music bloggers themselves, but by PR people, bands and labels, who are constantly emailing music bloggers to plug their new bands. As any honest blogger will tell you, if you buy them a can of Old Purple’s Anxiety Reducer in your local scummy fleapit, that by and large these emails can be something of a mixed blessing. Personally, I never get anything like the amount of time I’d like to listen to each and every bit of music I get sent. But it just doesn’t work out this way. There’s so much new music getting sent around that I begin to feel sorry for new bands, because they are just not able to make themselves heard above the din.

So what should a band or hardworking stressed PR do? Well, being nice helps. Actually, it really helps. Be nice, read the blog you’re sending your stuff to (so you don’t waste time sending Peruvian Death Thrash Metal to a blog specialising in Sarah Records’ back catalogue), and most of all, accept no for an answer (and say so). All these Panic Attract have done. What’s more, make music good. This, thankfully Panic Attract have done too.

Their debut EP was released last year, and piqued the interest of Steve Lamacq, who knows a thing or two about winsome swooning pop. The new single takes a step on from the likes of “Weather Systems”, partly thanks to adding a couple of new band members. As the band themselves say, it’s “peculiar pop” (now that’s a genre I’d like to see in iTunes).

Pretty much a perfect definition there, fellas. Chirpy, winsome, a little odd, and trust me, it burrows its way into your brain like a devious little earworm. Listen, for it will make your Friday a better, better day.

MP3: The Wrong Place by Panic Attract

Congratulations and Celebrations

The Mercury Prize has something of a chequered history. Widely sneered at by the cognoscenti1, winners over the years have ranged from the worthy (Elbow, PJ Harvey), the new and frankly astonishing (Dizzee Rascal), the soon-to-be-obscure (Roni Size) and the ludicrous (M People. Seriously? Klaxons? You jest, surely?).

The Xx have also, for some reason, been getting sneered at by the cognoscenti too. I can sort of understand a few of the criticisms. Yes, it’s just some herberts from Putney pissing about with a drum machine, bass and guitar, and being all lovelorn. “I could do that” they sneer. Well, why didn’t you then? Because like many great things, making such music is much harder than it seems. And few bands I’ve seen in the last few years have enraptured a live crowd quite as well as this lot did, which shows real and genuine talent.

So their success, despite critical fawnings and actual, proper commercial success, has been a little tainted. Thankfully, over a year after its release, the band were announced as the winners of the 2010 prize last night. So, young folk from Putney, congratulations. You deserve it. Lord only knows where the band will go from here. Having such a distinctive sound is frankly a bugger, as Portishead (1995 winners) will tell you – how do you expand on your sound to make things interesting without losing what made you special to begin with? Do you try and be like yourselves, only more so, concentrating your sound to an extent that you become almost unlistenable, like Portishead did? Or do you go the other way, like Dizzee Rascal, and become more poppy? Whilst you’ve got to love songs like “Bonkers”, it does lack that special WHAT THE FUCK IS HE DOING STOP THAT YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT sound of Boy In Da Corner. Seriously, bits of that record still make me scared. I am 39.

Whichever way it goes, good luck to The Xx. Believe in yourselves and you’ll win the ultimate prize. /Californian Platitudes Off.

Oh, and two little personal notes. Firstly, to the Guardian, the BBC and everyone else who reported their success, please replace the stock photo of the band with my new version:

A Little Hint

And secondly, it’s nice to see a band I tip early on in their career go on to actual success2. I just wish some of the others – Bullets In Madison maybe, or Meursault, or Bright Spark Destroyer, or Paul Thomas Saunders, become even a tenth as successful. Please try some of these bands. It won’t hurt.

1 Yes, I did have to look up how to spell that. What am I, a fucking spelling bee?

2 I get a warm fuzzy feeling know that my blogging about them has made an infinitesimally small contribution to their success. Go, me!

MP3: Hot Like Fire by The Xx

Just buy XX, dammit.

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