Laura’s Made Something Good

Falling in love with a record is like falling in love with a beautiful woman. With some records, you’re instantly smitten within the first few bars. Others, they initially underwhelm before slowly taking hold in your soul, and before you know it, you’re constantly listening to them and (if you’re musically minded) trying to download tabs from the Interwebz so you can cack-handedly play along.

Laura Veirs’ “July Flame” has been the latter. First time I heard it, I was left thinking it was perfectly pleasant, and filed it on the “give it another try later” drawer before quickly forgetting all about it. Reminded of the record by seeing a flyer for her London gigs I decided to give it another go, and how glad am I now, eh? From the delicate, charming opener “I Can See Your Tracks”, through easygoing, pedal-steel touched marvels such as “Sun Is King”, this album is a gem. It sparkles like an unexpected shard of muscovite mica in a slab of gabbro1. That chord progression in “When You Give Your Heart” is enough to make the hardest heart melt like a ball of ice dropped into a pool of lava.

What’s better is that reviews and comments about this album have mostly been along the lines of “Well, it’s good, but not as good as some of her previous records”. For the uninitiated, this is like finding a geode inside an otherwise unremarkable rock. Ok, enough of the geology metaphors. But the feeling still stands; for people like me for whom there just aren’t enough hours in the day to find and listen to new stuff, finally uncovering a musician’s work after years of ignoring them and realising they are fantastic is a wonder beyond mere words.

July Flame is out on the ever-reliable Bella Union records and is available for purchase here. If, like me, you’re unitiated in her dreamy world, I’d suggest you take a dip now.

1 Which, as any geologist would tell you, would be very unexpected indeed.

MP3: I Can See Your Tracks by Laura Veirs

Been Caught Stealing

I was chatting to The Venerable Indie Dave in the boozer after this the other day, and we got chatting about our respective blogs, especially the whole “how the fuck are people going to make money now?” thing. He mentioned a post he did the other week, about Les Savy Fav. It’s a great read, pointing out how the band posted a note on their website here asking people who’d downloaded the album to donate some money to them to make up for lost cash1. And:

Pay extra and your also forgiven for sex sins and stuff AND we’ll tell Jesus to send you cookies

Which raises a good point. There’s been a whole load of rubbish talked about “lost revenue” from downloading, totalling trillions of dollars, made by extrapolating the number of downloads to the number of lost purchases. These are, as any half-decent scientist will point out, absolute junk. Making a rough guess on how many downloads have occurred and saying each one is responsible for a lost sale is ridiculous; for example, many downloads are people just trying something out that they probably wouldn’t have bought (in the old days, they’d have copied it off a mate). Others are people replacing lost/broken/outmoded copies. Saying that every download is theft is crazy.

Form An Orderly Queue, Ladies and Gents

But on the other hand, this is the way these bands make a living. It takes time to be good; being a decent musician, except in odd cases, takes a huge amount of work and effort. I recall reading that Jeff Buckley used to spend about 12 hours a day playing guitar to get good enough to perform. So, for musicians to make the music you want to listen to, you have to pay for it, whether it’s through record sales, merchandising, seeing the band live etc. Now, being old fashioned, I still go and buy records that I’ve downloaded, but be honest, how many of you do?

Radiohead’s honour system only worked because they are properly enormous. They can easily sell out 40,000 seater venues in each major city in the world, and so have enough of a fanbase that even if only 5% give them $10, they would be making out like bandits (as they City phrase has it. They’d know). But do Les Savy Fav have enough fans out there willing to bung them $5 or $10? I’d love to think that they do, but people being people, I wouldn’t like to bet on it.

Still, if you like the MP3 below, then buy the record. That’s the way this should work. You like, you buy. Otherwise this whole thing is going to go, as the saying says, tits up.

1 The link’s now been removed. Just buy the damn record.

MP3: Let’s Get Out of Here by Les Savy Fav

Pre-Order Root for Ruin from Amazon

Sufjan USA

The world was shocked and amazed on Saturday following an unexpected announcement by foremost chamber-pop tyke, Sufjan Stevens, stating that he was releasing a new EP, like, NOW. Ok, when I mean “shocked and amazed” I mean “mildly and pleasantly surprised” and by “The world” I mean “some bloggers and Hype Machine”. But still, Sufjan, new EP, how’s about that then? It’s only been about 26 years since his last proper release.

What’s more, it’s free. You can download the tracks at a low bitrate for free, or get better quality ones for the low, low price of $5. Given Sufjan’s penchant for orchestral leanings and throwing every single instrument he can lay his hands on into the mix, I’d say that this would be $5 well spent.

You Can Add Me To That, Mate

I’ve only had a cursory listen so far (on the way into work, natch) but it’s safe to say that he’s still going for the chuck-it-all-in sound, with some electronic jabbers and glitches added to make things a little different. Return to his best? Tough to say right now; he’s never exactly the most approachable of songwriters (Seven Swans aside), but definitely worth a good listen. Go on, buy it here.

And just to mix things up, here’s a re-working of his fantastic track “Chicago” (from Come On Feel The Illinoise), as featured on The Avalanche, a selection of his finest outtakes. Enjoy!

MP3: Enchanting Ghost by Sufjan Stevens

MP3: Chicago (Adult Contemporary Easy Rock Version) by Sufjan Stevens

Buy “The Avalanche” here (CD/MP3)

Besnard Lakes Are The Live Review

This is a gig I’ve been looking forward to for ages. I’m not sure if it’s age, or the fact that this is the 100th gig I’ve put up on Songkick, but I’m starting to get a little bit weary of the whole live gig thing. But every time I’ve listened to “Albatross” or “Glass Printer” this year, the thought of hearing them through a big fuckoff set of speakers makes me a little bit excited. Funnily enough, this is a band that I know next to nothing about. If you asked me to describe them, all I could say would be “Canadian. Possibly hairy”.

Even their grandiosely epic album “…Are The Roaring Night”, which has shocked me by taking the core sound from their last record “…Are The Dark Horse”1 and pushed it to stratospheric heights and become a leading candidate as my Album Of The Year, hasn’t driven me to finding anything about them whatsoever. But, in fairness, I wasn’t quite expecting main man Jace Lasek2 to look like J Mascis’s maths teacher after taking a bunch of bad acid:

After the first couple of numbers, seeing Jace shake his hair like the very best headbanger listening to Black Sabbath in some West Midlands grimepit in 1973, I turned to Mrs Loftandlost and said “I’ve got a new hero”. Even better, this is a band who have decided that making serious, psychedelic acid-rock shouldn’t turn them into pretentious, prissy assholes. They are quite possibly one of the sweetest bands I’ve ever seen live. At the end of opener “Like the Ocean, Like The Innocent”, bassist Olga Goreas somehow, through the squalls of noise, says “Thanks”, wearing a huge smile.

Later, during an older number, Jake does the stadium rock classic trick of leaning away from the mike and lets some members of the crowd sing the vocals. He, the rest of the band, and us, all laugh heartily. Whilst I may have been expecting noise, guitars, My Bloody Valentine do peyote with Fleetwood Mac tunes, I certainly wasn’t expecting to be amused by the band. Even when the bass amp gives up the ghost during the encore, the band aren’t fazed, laughing and joking (see that, Mr Malkmus, you spoilt get?), and soon get by with a jerry-rigged set of cables.

Other than that, as a live act, they’re as you’d expect, only more so. Some songs, such as “Albatross”, become extended feedback-drenched wigouts before suddenly being pulled back into focus. Jake’s trademark bollocks-in-a-blender falsetto vocals are remarkably well sung, with the rest of the band providing able backing. Indeed, Olga’s singing is more affecting live than on record, which often isn’t the case. “Land Of Living Skies” takes a while to get going (with some dumbasses talking, as has become normal for a London gig. Shame on you), but when it does, it’s a shock when the song ends without an extended feedback-drenched wigout. You won’t hear me saying this often, but that was a shame.

“Glass Printer” leaves our ribcages shaking from the thundering bass. When “And You Lied To Me” finally appears, the band leave huge pauses after the chorus before firing back into the brutal verses. Most of the material stems from “…Are The Roaring Night”, and there are few shouts for older material. Although one wag does keep requesting “Life Rarely Begins With Tungsten Film #1”, which the band make a game attempt at playing during the encore (I think). This points to the band thinking the same as me, that the new record stands head and shoulders above what they’ve done before, and probably what most other bands have managed this year too. All in all, the evening is filled with the sound of rampaging stallions, the fury of a hurricane, interspersed with moments of sweetness and beauty. In a word, epic.

1 You have to love those titles. Brilliant, brilliant artwork too. I’ve love to see these on a proper vinyl sleeve.

2 I know so little about them that I had to look this up.

MP3: And You Lied To Me – The Besnard Lakes

MP3: Albatross by The Besnard Lakes

Buy “The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night” (CD/MP3)

Rejoicing In The (New) Bands 2 – Paul Thomas Saunders

I got an email last month. It read something along the lines of “Listen to this guy, Paul Thomas Saunders. I think he’s incredible”. The last song this friend sent me was Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and since that was one of the best songs I’d heard in years, then it was definitely the time to start paying attention.

Off I toddle to the Myspace page and have a quick listen. For all the talk of new ways to listen to music, unique paradigm shifts and all that guff, I’m an old-fashioned sort, and I struggle to sit there listening to music on my computer. Still, it seemed intriguing, and a short email chat later, I had a couple of bright shiny mp3’s to listen to on my way to work the next day. A journey that was spent by me, the next day, standing in a crowded District Line train with my mouth agape (I don’t think there was any drool, but you never can tell).

Paul Thomas Saunders can do that to you. He has that rare gift of pulling you into his world. Gently strummed guitars reverbing like they’re being played in a cathedral. Paul’s high, keening voice, filled with warmth, soars. A backing band that chuntle away in the background, like you’ve just walked into a group of hugely talented friends just chilling out on a warm summer’s evening in someone’s basement (not unlike Lambchop’s early days before they went studio-crazy1.

The track I’ve provided here – “Dementia, Depression, Psychosis, Blues” showcases his talents beautifully. This is a song to get lost in; put it on when you’re on your evening commute and you’ll find yourself drifting off in a little daydream, only to wake five or so minutes later wondering where you are and whether you’ve had that stupid smile on your face the whole time. Then you play it again. This is a similarity he shares with the likes of Elliott Smith, or M Ward, or Laura Viers; the ability to take you from your own, mundane life into someone else’s, cocooning you in their sound until you can barely remember anything else.

Unlike Bright Spark Destroyer, Paul’s on a record label, Leed’s Dead Young Records, and features on their new compilation Dead Young Club II. Ordering details are available at their online shop here. The compilation’s definitely worth a fiver so get ordering.

In the meantime, have a listen to the track below. Absolutely wonderful. I think we’ve got a real talent on our hands here.

MP3: Dementia, Depression, Psychosis, Blues by Paul Thomas Saunders

1 Not that this was a bad move in any way – Nixon was an incredible record, superbly produced. But their early material just felt so together. I can’t think of a better way of putting that right now.

Rejoicing in the (New) Bands 1 – Bright Spark Destroyer

Getting recommendations is a double-edged sword. For every fantastic new unsung and unsigned band there’s a hundred who would give Keane a run for their money in the 3:15 from Mediocrity Racecourse, Tedioustown. And what do you say to a friend who’s given you a hot tip, only to find out they make you want to tear your ears off, and theirs too, for suggesting such unwashed tripe?

Thankfully, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been introduced to some supremely good bands. Two of them are so good they make my eyes water at the thought that they aren’t household names yet, and the third are a great example of how to get your name out to that seething mass of blogs out there.

So, to start off with, here’s Bright Spark Destroyer. Now that rock music is approaching a pensionable age, making a sound that is clearly and distinctly yours is tough1. Listen to any new band and your brain immediately goes “Ooh, that’s The Beatles mixed with Beastie Boys with a bit of Faithless thrown in”. So it is with Bright Spark Destroyer; comparisons with Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and other choirboy-voiced anthemic indie-rock bands leap into view and jump about waving their arms frantically. But another thought strikes you.

And that thought is “Fucking hell, they are good”. Then after a few more listens you think “Holy sweet mother of Jebus, they really are very, very good”. Yes, there’s more than a tinge of Radiohead, but combining their earlier The Bends/Ok Computer phase with the later “We’re Autechre! But not as good!” phase with far more grace and style than Radiohead themselves manage. The singer’s choirboy antics are mannered and measured, and never seem forced; they are pleasingly reminiscent of the long lost Andrew Montgomery’s band Geneva (and whilst they never reach these heights, there’s no harm in trying, eh?). There’s chunks of Grizzly Bear and Doves in there too; an intricacy of interweaving guitar lines and little hooks that keep you coming back for just one more listen.

Don't Unplug Anything!

The whole of their debut EP “Holy Yell” is excellent; picking out a favourite track becomes a close-your-eyes-and-throw-a-dart exercise. But for me it’s “They Already Know”. Just the other day, I was lazing around in what passes for English summer sunshine, and found myself tapping out a rhythm. After a couple of moments, I realised it was the drumbeat to this song, which had ensconced itself into my brain in true earworm style. If you, like me, like your music challenging yet tuneful, emotional without overwrought histrionics, and, in plain speaking, ace, this is a song for you.

More songs are available for a listen on the band’s website here, and the EP’s available to download. Personally, if I were you, I’d download it like a shot. This record has, in the few weeks I’ve had it, become one of my favourites of the year so far. This lot will go far. Or at least, they’d better do, or there’s truly no justice in this world.

1 Ok, making a sound that is clearly and distinctly yours and making it good at the same time is tough. It’s pretty easy to make something original and shit.

MP3: They Already Know by Bright Spark Destroyer

Still Feelin’ Blue

The hype machine has started to rev up in the UK for Caitlin Rose, a Tennessee-based country singer-songwriter, with positive reviews in everything from the BBC, to The Word via the Sunday Times. And this is no bad thing; country music still has a bad name here, being largely associated with line-dancing and straw-chewing rednecks who’s as soon shoot you as sodomise you.

A Gun-Toting Rube, Yesterday

Those of us in the know (like me, natch) understand that country isn’t just the preserve of gun-totin’ crackers, but a fine genre of music that encompasses the full spectrum of the human condition in all its glory, and with good tunes, too. And in digging around a little about this lady, I stumbled across her cover of Gram Parsons’ “Still Feelin’ Blue”. Starting as much more stripped-down than the original, just her and an acoustic, but with a ramshackle charm. If you’re thinking “That’s it? What about the original’s ebulliently yawling charm?”, all I can say is just keep listening.

Must give the new album a try (“Own Side Now”), if this is what she can do. As for the original; hell, if you don’t like this, you don’t like music.

MP3: Still Feelin’ Blue by Caitlin Rose

MP3: Still Feeling Blue by Gram Parsons

Picture This

Here’s a little question for you. How many copies of Parallel Lines do you think Blondie sold? 1 million? Sure, that’s a pretty decent number for a post-punk-pop band, but not even close. 5 million? That would keep any decently managed band in drainpipe jeans and guitars for life. But no.

10 million? Getting closer, but still no cigar.

They sold, depending on who you listen to, between 20 and 40 million copies.

Let that sink in a minute. Those sort of numbers make you a global star. Once you sell that many records, you can do whatever you like the rest of your life. You are seriously, properly, yacht-buying, helicopter-flying rich. Of course, things didn’t quite work out that well for the band, what with Chris Stein suffering from an horrific auto-immune disease called Pemphigus, causing him to be seriously ill for many years (he’s better now, thankfully).

Anyway, that was just a little thought for today. The days of a band like Blondie selling even a tenth of that number of records is long, long gone. Whilst I’ve railed against the waste and extravagance of the record industry in the past, you can’t help but admire the way it could turn a bunch of hugely talented musicians into global superstars, and making them, and some pretty obscure songwriters, very, very, very rich. Not that money makes you happy, of course, but it can buy you a better class of misery.

As a little tribute to the record, the band, and one of the obscure musicians who wrote some of the songs on the album, here’s “Hanging On The Telephone”, the opener to Parallel Lines. Enjoy your Saturday.

MP3: Hanging On The Telephone by Blondie

Buy “Parallel Lines: Remastered” (CD/MP3)

The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 1 – Mekons to The Smiths

The mid-’80’s saw the UK Independent music scene reach another of its many high points. For a couple of years, the scene had been characterised by ramshackle amateurism, post-punk dourness and not a small amount of glumness (following on from the late ’70’s glories). But as always in the ever-changing UK scene, like mushrooms growing from manure, some of the finest pop music known to man sprung from all over the UK. Others, like The Jesus And Mary Chain, found new ways to be angry and noisy and blew apart the hitherto moribund scene.

The Mekons – Last Dance
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

The Mekons were a punk collective, formed in Leeds in the furnace of the punk years. Then they did the usual thing, and broke up. Then, being a forward-looking bunch, decided to not bother reforming in the mid Naughties like compatriots Gang Of Four and got back together in 1984 to do some gigs supporting the Miner’s Strike. Taking the opportunity to experiment, they added a violinist, an accordionist, and sundry other members and set about making a kind of ramshackle folk sound, using their curiosity and a certain amount of musical talent to make charmingly tuneful, if somewhat disorganised music.

Charmingly Ramshackle

“Last Dance” tells the tale of being drunk in a nightclub, watching some lovely lady dancing away on her own. Sure, there’s quite a few examples of this genre in everything from Country to Hip-Hop, but few have put it quite as charmingly as this:

“So beautiful, you were waltzing\Little frozen rivers all covered with snow”

You don’t get that from 50 Cent. There’s more to the song than just drunken letching though; the line “as if seeing you for the first time” points out that he’s not just randomly ogling, there’s a depth to this apparently one-sided relationship, adding a certain poignancy. The Mekons never really got any kind of mainstream success or recognition, but have continued releasing records to a small, loyal and fervent fanbase. And who can blame them? This is exactly the kind of largely unknown gem that the Pitchfork 500 does such a good job in digging up, and one of those songs that makes you glad to trawl through the whole load. Lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were anything but lovely. Loveliness was not their thing. Their thing was noise, great big globbets of it. Noisy guitars, noisy drums belted out by a lank-haired goon standing up1, cooler-than-thou vocals from a man who looked like he hadn’t eaten in about 12 years. I cannot understate the shock value of this band in 1985. Hailing from Glum City Central, Glasgow, they exploded onto the scene, did 20 minute gigs which usually ended up in a fight, and wrote one of the best2 debut albums around (that’ll be Psychocandy). I actually got this as a Xmas present that year, which still fills me with pride.

Cheer Up, Lads, One Of You Will Have It Off With Hope Sandoval

But you know what, this is the wrong song. Frankly, “Just Like Honey” doesn’t have any of the buzzsaw impact of “Never Understand”, their first single. This is just a bit, well, girly. Worse, even at the time, it was shamefully derivative. Trust me, if a spotty-faced oikish 14 year old could spot that this was hardly original, then your number is up. Sure, the song is a good ‘un, but as far as the impact of the JAMC goes, the likes of “In a Hole” and “You Trip Me Up” had far more of an impact, at least in the UK. But as a demonstration of how you can take The Velvet Underground, mix in some Phil Spector drums, and fuzz it all up a bit, I suppose it’s got its merits.

As for The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?”, what can I say? If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and taking any kind of notice), you’ll be thinking “Oh God, not another 1,000 word post on how great The Smiths are and if you don’t like them, you’re wrong, you hate music and you probably eat kittens with dormouse sauce for dinner”.

Well, I don’t really like this song very much. There, I said it. Look, I know it’s sonically adventurous, I know it’s the single that broke them in the US3, I know it’s got some marvellously glum lyrics that encapsulate everything about Morrissey in one, nearly-rhyming couple (“I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”), but, but, but….I just don’t like it. There’s no little glistening glimmer of light in amongst the glumness, unlike in their finest hours. So for that, “How Soon Is Now?”, you’re fired.

Next up is the second part of this series, with the likes of New Order and Cocteau Twins. Sweet. By the way, long-term readers might notice the lack of YouTube videos; this is due to a lack of access to YouTube at the moment. Should be fixed soon, my friends.

1 Who later went onto fame as the lead singer of a twee indie-pop group called Primal Scream, who shamefacedly reinvented themselves as a hard-rocking, hard-drugging band, to much laughter from those in the know and much love from those not. I’m not a fan. Though I do like “Velocity Girl”, but let’s not get into that now.

2 Ok, maybe not “best”, but at least “most recognisable” and “strongly defined” and “better than anything they did in the future”. File under “Definitely Maybe”.

3 Like that counts for anything.

MP3: Last Dance by The Mekons

MP3: Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain

MP3: How Soon Is Now by The Smiths

Buy “Heaven and Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons” (CD)

Buy JAMC’s “Psychocandy: Remastered” (CD)

Buy “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths (CD) (What, you don’t have this already? Shame on you).

The 15 Year Bends

The brain works in mysterious ways. Last night, idly flicking through “Guitarist” magazine (the finest Guitar magazine known to man, I’ll have you know), I was overcome by an urge to listen to Radiohead’s “The Bends”. First the song, which I picked up on You Tube:

Then the album, on the way to work today. What a track. What an album. From a band whose previous sole success had been the Nirvana-meets-The Pixies whine of “Creep”, The Bends was a bolt from the blue. Sure, they’d made a statement of intent with “My Iron Lung” the previous year, which had at least shown their willingness to turn the QuietLoudQuiet dynamic of The Pixies (and “Creep” itself) into a beautifully deranged noise, but you’d still happily say that this record was a shock.

I’ll bet it’s been a while since you listened to “The Bends”. Treat yourself now. Misery and the pain of the modern world’s tendency to isolate people has never sounded so gloriously celebratory. So “Ok Computer” may be a better album, and more of a musical step forward, but as a pure Rock record, “The Bends” must stand as one of the best ever. And if for some reason, you’ve never listened to it – maybe put off by the dreary Kid A or the general impression that they are a bunch of miseryguts1 – just listen to it.

And it’s 15 years old this year. I can’t imagine many records from 1995 have aged quite as well. Sometimes, reaching back to a record you’ve not listened to for years helps you appreciate just how good they were. Anyway, enough of my yakking. Let’s Misery Rock!

1 And they do tend to being a bit miserable, but sod it. Miserable music gets me happy. And they’re hardly the Tindersticks.

MP3: The Bends by Radiohead

Treat Yourself To The Deluxe “The Bends [2CD & DVD]”