We Will Always Be A Light

Apropos of nothing, listening to Stars’s “Ageless Beauty” tonight got me wondering what on earth was going on around Toronto and Montreal in the early Naughties. What were they all drinking? One of the finest albums of the decade – hell, the finest, God damn my heathen soul if I am wrong – and this, this work of absolute fucking majesty.

One day I’ll get round to blathering on about this song properly. Properly as in, 500 words on why I love it so much. But right now I am a busy man, a man of limited time and even more limited willingness to pour out my emotions on an unsuspecting and uncaring public. So screw that; here’s a great song, listen to it, love it, play it to your loved ones and if they don’t like it, write them out of your will. Play it to a prospective lover, and if he, she, or it, isn’t keen, well you should just dump their sorry ass and tell them they ain’t getting none of your loving, no sirree.

Play it loud at 3am when you come in all drunk. Play it on a sunny morning to drag yourself out of bed. Play it when you’re cooking supper. Play it going to work. Play it at work. Play it coming home from work. Most of all, just play it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you don’t like this, you don’t like music.

No, I haven’t been drinking.

Oh, and I once briefly met Amy Millan after a BSS show in London, and I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t stand there blubbing incoherently about this song’s utter fabulousness. Damn this hipster cool thing.

I hadn’t been drinking then, either. Maybe that’s the problem?

MP3: Ageless Beauty by Stars

Buy “Set Yourself on Fire” (CD/MP3)

The Coming Of The End

Hearing that Bill Callahan has a new album out will always fill me with a quiet joy. I’ve been a big fan since the days of Knock Knock, a good decade and a bit ago. The new one – cheerily titled “Apocalypse” – is out on the 16th April, and he’s been good enough to release an MP3 of the second track, “Baby’s Breath”.

A Pretty Painting

As always, his songs take a few times to get stuck in your craw, to drill under your skin like a particularly unpleasant parasite, laying its horrendous cargo of eggs. “Baby’s Breath” meanders around for a while, then undergoes a quite disconcerting change of tempo. Imagine you’re walking down the street and you pass a strange-looking man, who is gently shuffling along, apparently minding his own business and oblivious to the wider world around him.

Then, a moment after you pass, he suddenly picks up pace and before you know it, he’s alongside you, whispering basso profundo into your ear about “Reaping what you sow”. You are not entirely sure what he means, but you know, just know that it’s something very, very bad, and you wish you didn’t have to know more, but you will.

That is what this song does. It is, frankly, utterly disconcerting.

Ah, Bill, it’s good to have you back.

MP3: Baby’s Breath by Bill Callahan

Pre-Order Apocalypse Here

Let The River Roll On

Do you have a band that you feel are just stunning, incredible, amazing, and are stunned, incredulous and amazed that no-one else seems to have heard of them?

A recent addition to my Fantastic Unknown Band list (alongside The Kingsbury Manx and Canyon, for starters) has been Cotton Jones, whose Tall Hours In The Glowstream has been played, oh, tons over the past few months. Every time I listen to them I get that warm, gentle glow, that feeling of transcendental coziness that you only find in those perfectly personal records. Records that come from the soul of a few horribly talented people, and reach out and give you a big fuzzy cuddle.

Yes, I’m being soppy. No, I don’t care. This record has seen me through some truly unpleasant times and for that, I would love to give each and every one of Cotton Jones a huge hug. Ok, I won’t, but I’ll happily buy them all quite a few drinks.

In fact, I’ve been finding an excuse to post about them again and now here it is. A couple of months ago1 they did an acoustic session for Halfway House Music (see here) and the results are predictably lovely.

Cotton Jones – Somehow To Keep It Going – Halfway House Sessions from Halfway House on Vimeo.

Enjoy. Then go and buy their record, dammit. You will not regret it. Oh, and visit Halfway House for some more songs, and videos. And thank them for making such wonderful music available to us all. Politeness costs nothing, you know.

I’ve finished nagging now.

MP3: Somehow To Keep It Going (Acoustic) by Cotton Jones

1 Months! MONTHS! See how rubbish I am at keeping up to date?


The Artistic Roll-Call

Reading an interview with attempted miserablist Swedish electro-poppet Lykke Li t’other day, I came across her justification for appearing as one of the “faces” of Levi’s new ad campaign. Having heard chunks of her new album “Wounded Rhymes”, having seen the ad at bus-stops on Putney Bridge, and having read comments from her about how sad she is and how lonely and how blah-de-blah-de-blah, I have to say I find the whole thing somewhat comical.

Life's Too Short To Be A Corporate Shill, I'd Have Said

I mean, how can you sell yourself as a sensitive, tortured soul, then suddenly go “Hey, free jeans, you say? W00t!!!”? Whilst I don’t quite subscribe to the Bill Hicks attitude, that it’s impossible to advertise and still be on, what he called, “The Artistic Roll-Call”:

(at 1:55)

…I have to say that, if you’re the kind of artist that pretends to be all sensitive and lonely and tortured and whatever, then don’t go round shilling any old product that comes your way. This is a credibility thing. Whether you like it or not, your music is inextricably linked to your face, your body, you. Saying that advertising jeans is nothing to do with your music is just kidding yourself, love.

Still, nice song, eh? Even if it is a bit maudlin-Scandi-electro-pop-by-numbers.

MP3: Love Out Of Lust by Lykke Li

Buy Wounded Rhymes Here

Swim x63

Dropping my kid off at school the other day, I decided on the drive home to treat myself to Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”. Now, it’d been a while since I last listened to this song, which had comfortably been my favourite song of 2009. Indeed, looking back, even then I was trying to stop myself listening to it too much, worried that I’d wear the poor thing out.

And so, listening again after many months, the hairs on my arms stood to attention and that familiar shiver passed through me. You want to know what a truly good song is? One that still gives you the chills after you’ve heard it 63 times (thanks, iTunes). The song starts with a lovely, slightly Big Country1 guitar line, Scott Hutchison’s lovely Scottish burr at the edge of the North Sea, slowly unravelling a tale of a failed love and swimming in the sea, deciding whether to end it all or not.

As things progress, he’s joined firstly by a massed choir of voices, then swelling strings, then a horn section that would do a Philly Soul band proud. One of the great things about the song is how these fripperies don’t feel thrown on at the end, like something from a bad Verve song (or a normal Primal Scream one). They add to it immeasurably, the strings providing a perfect counter to the guitar lines, without clogging it into an indigestible mess. Saying that, even played alone on an acoustic, it still sounds great:

I won’t even go into how finely honed the lyrics are, other than to point out how beautifully judged the opening lines build into that initial “…and swim/I swim/Oh, swim”. And then the song drives toward the first chorus, before building and building further through telling lines such as “She’s there on the shoreline throwing stones at my back” until most of the band drops out leaving Scott to sing “All I am is a body adrift in water, salt and sky”. See? I can’t stop myself.

You can only imagine that only reason this song wasn’t a massive global Snow Patrol-style hit was thanks to the somewhat gloomy outlook on life. Not many hit songs have the refrain “Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”, after all. But I really don’t care whether a million people have bought this, or ten. All I care about is the effect it has on me, and that is to listen to it again, and again, and again, and annoy everyone around me by asking them “Have you listened to it? Isn’t it great? Yes, I know it’s about topping yourself. I don’t care. It’s great, isn’t it? Why are you looking at me like that?”.

Because it’s great. Truly, epically, decade-best-of-list great. If you don’t like this, you don’t like music. Why are you looking at me like that?

1 Don’t knock ’em.

MP3: Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Frightened Rabbit

(Oh, and as a quick note to anyone who sends me MP3’s. I know about this thanks to a marvellous PR person. People who write blogs do listen, they are just often rather rubbish at it, and I’m probably the worst)

Buy “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” (CD/MP3)

The Big Guns Are Back

The last few weeks have seen new releases by some of the biggest names in what is still called Indie music. Radiohead, REM, PJ Harvey, Elbow and er, Bright Eyes, have all got offerings for us. Some of them are bound to be a disappointment, no matter what the press tells us. After all, how can Elbow keep producing records of such quality, and especially now everyone’s looking at them? As for REM, well, I listened to “Automatic For The People” the other day and anyone who says they’ve made anything even a fifth as good since is a barefaced liar.

First up, Radiohead. Yes, I know PJ Harvey’s record was out weeks ago but I still can’t face listening to it (long story). I’ve criticised Radiohead’s jazz electronica direction previously, largely with the complaint that they just aren’t very good at it. Would “The King Of Limbs” be their long-awaited return to the guitar rock that made their name? Of course you know the answer. The record’s been out for ages, you’ve heard it, read all the views. My take on it? They still aren’t making records that are particularly good. I’ve got no issue with bands being challenging – go and listen to last week’s tip The Psychic Paramount if you doubt me on this – but I just don’t find myself being drawn back to listening to Radiohead’s records.

Yes, I can fully agree how great it is that a Big Rock Band have truly, wholeheartedly, and successfully changed their sound to be more adventurous than their peers. It’s great that they still sell out properly big venues whilst playing tunes that aren’t exactly easy on the ear1. But you know, even after listening to The King Of Limbs a good number of times2, I still can’t say I’m particularly enjoying it. What’s missing are the hooks, the little catchy bits that stick their hooks into your craw and drag you back in for just one more listen. Doesn’t matter what instruments you do it on; Sam Amidon does it on an old acoustic, Russian Circles do it on looped guitars, Tortoise do it on f- knows what, but they all have something that claws at your soul until you have to give in. For me, Radiohead don’t.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe a few more listens will get me slathering and gibbering for just one more listen. Maybe.

Anyway, for the next week or so I’m going to finally get round to listening to PJ Harvey, get stuck into Elbow, and listen to REM with a sense that a once-great band can still write the occasional great song, but they’ll never recreate their glory years. Cynical? Me?

1 Never stopped Genesis.

2 Ok, five.

MP3: Lotus Flower by Radiohead

Buy The King of Limbs Here

Any Old Iron

Life is all about choices. Understanding your choices, and acting on them in a reasoned and well-thought out manner is the key to a happy and fulfilled life. The corollary being, if you get the choice wrong and make a million Arsenal fans around the world yell “Oh, Bendtner!” simultaneously, then, well, pain and misery await1.

Which explains why I turned up to Iron And Wine’s gig at The Roundhouse nearly an hour late last night. You know, in the choice between watching the team I’ve supported for 33 years chase shadows, suffer possibly the more egregious refereeing decision I can remember, before very nearly staging the biggest upset until our Big Danish Galoot controlled the ball like my son and lost the chance to make a million fans go “Bendtner, you beauty, we don’t really think you’re shit at all”; or turning up on time to see a man play live that I’d seen just a few months back, it’s going to be the football every time.

What follows is, therefore, a somewhat shorter review than usual. Those of you at the back shouting “Thank God!”, shut up. Which brings me onto the problem of standing near the back. People just don’t shut up. There’s a constant chatter of people at the bar, and people who appear to have wandered into the street to witter to their friend. Deeply annoying, but the crowd looks a bit too tightly packed to bother getting closer to the front.

So, standing next to the mixing desk, I settle down to enjoy the rest of the show. I didn’t catch the names of the first few songs I heard, but what I did catch was that something wasn’t right. The sound, which you’d expect to be tip-top next to the mixing desk, was all over the shop. Vocals seemed to drift in and out, some instruments were far too loud, and the whole thing just sounded wrong. In-between song banter was so quiet as to be inaudible. Worse, the band themselves just didn’t seem to be playing that well, and the harmonies were all off.

“Tree By The River” came across as just ok, the lovely smoothness on-record replaced by a slightly damp fug. “House By The Sea” was reworked in a major key with horns, done jit-style – Bhundu Boys go folk! – which worked really rather well. “Peace Beneath The City” didn’t work so well. My notes from last night read “Oh bloody hell, get on with it. You’re not impressing no-one with this beatnik free-jazz kronkery.”. I’d been warned that Iron And Wine’s full band configuration can fall helplessly into jam-mode, and this was it in full effect. Thankfully it didn’t last too long.

Finally, up came “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me”. Still, the harmonies were not working well, and were just too quiet. They felt like a band not quite in tune with each other yet. And the long “Become….” coda just didn’t catch fire, despite the best efforts of the band.

Off went the band for the usual oh-please-sirs-and-ladies-bequeath-us-mere-serfs-more-of your-precious-musical-accomplishments2. And on they swan again, stripped down, acoustics and mandolins ahoy. A long chat with the crowd starts off with Sam saying ‘Thanks! Next time I won’t be sick!’.

Which at least explains the performance. Suprised by the enthusiastic thanks given by the crowd, Sam comments that last time he played live with a band in London, the crowd was less than happy shouting ‘Come back without the band!’. A wag behind me shouts ‘Come back without the band, again’. Calls of ‘Harsh!’ are met with another person shouting ‘He was right though’, to approving laughs.

And as if to prove the crowd right, they go and play ‘Naked As We Came’ with harmonies that worked, Sam’s voice bright and clear, song gracefully extended, and the stripped-down accompaniment sounding just fine and dandy. A beautiful song, played beautifully, and with that he was gone.

Here’s the rub. Sam Beam has gone from writing quiet, raw yet gentle acoustic numbers on his porch to huge, loud(er) epics with all sorts of gubbins going on. Mostly, the underlying songs have been strong enough to cope with all manner of stuff laid on top of them. But on this half-showing, they start to creak live, unable to withstand the pressure. When it’s just him (and one or two able fellows), he is truly marvellous. Maybe next time, Sam, hide your bandmates’ passports. Maybe he was really just not feeling well, unable to get a great performance from his new backing band, and other shows have been great.

Get well soon, Sam, and hope you come to see us again soon – full band or no. Next time, I’ll turn up on time. Sometimes those damn choices will get you either way.

1 Oh, ok, for “pain and misery” read “slight upset”. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that there are far more important things to life than football.

2 This isn’t a dig at Iron And Wine, by the way, just a dig at the whole rigmarole. I much prefer Broken Social Scene’s method.

MP3: Naked As We Came by Iron And Wine

MP3: Lovesong Of The Buzzard (Acoustic) by Iron and Wine

Buy “Kiss Each Other Clean” (CD/MP3)

I’m A Slow Mover

I was going to post a jeremiad about Radiohead’s new record tonight, but it wasn’t quite ready, and I’m feeling knackered after the first day back after sickness. And with that astonishing news, I thought instead that I’d just post the new Robin Pecknold – he of the golden tonsils of Fleet Foxes – songs, which he’s posted on his Twitter feed.

Robin Pecknold, Yesterday

Choice of the bunch is a duet with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, a gentle little number, all hushed tones and gently fingerpicked guitars. After listening to Russian Circles for most of today, my brain needs this sort of softness. Enjoy.

Oh, and apparently Fleet Foxes have an album out on May 3rd. Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?

MP3: I’m Losing Myself by Robin Pecknold (Feat. Ed Droste)

Buy Fleet Foxes Stuff From Amazon’s Fleet Foxes Store

The Noise! The Noise!

Ever wondered what would happen if Mastodon got together with Russian Circles, locked themselves in a deep, dark cellar with a bunch of guitars and amps and drums and effects pedals and bucketloads of PCP and mescaline? Yeah, you did.

Well, your prayers have been answered, as this is exactly what The Psychic Paramount sound like. The songs appear to have been hewn from gabbro, and the guitar riffs sound not unlike an exploding supervolcano. There’s some of the heaviest drumming you’ve heard since you took acid that time and you thought the Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse were running around outside your house, banging on the front door, not realising it was your neighbour, and the police, who’d been called by said neighbour because you’d been screaming about HORSES for six hours straight. No? Just me then.

Which leads me onto an interesting article I read the other week in the ever-excellent The Atlantic magazine. In it, writer Annie Murphy posits that hallucinogens, given under the correct circumstances – in a social context that provides comfort and ceremony as well as a safety net – can help cure depression. This, to me, stands to reason. Most of the casualties of acid et al that I know of came as a result of it being taken in the wrong circumstances. People I know who’d taken it with trusted friends (some of who stayed sober) reported it as being a joyful and interesting experience. Those who didn’t, well, didn’t.

Pass The Duchy On The Left Hand Side

My person feeling is that the human brain is a very, very complex beast that sometimes needs to experience different states of being in order to keep functioning correctly. Given that so many human cultures utilise drugs of all kinds, from stimulants like coca and caffeine, through alcohol to the more hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, peyote, and licking toads, you’d bet your bottom dollar that there is something to this whole getting off your face thing. The important part is context. These are all dangerous drugs, taken at the wrong time or with the wrong people, but as part of a social construct – hand in hand with some kind of belief system, as medicine or religion – it forms a vital part of being alive. Just watch Bruce Parry’s “Tribe” programme for many, many examples.

And to take this back to music; some music has a similar effect. Last few years I’ve seen a few bands that completely zone you out. Russian Circles, Mastodon and The Twilight Sad have all sent me into some kind of trance state with their constantly shifting, pummelling sound. The Psychic Paramount do exactly the same thing. Something tells me they like their states of being different to the norm too.

New album “II” is out now.

I ordered this the other day, from Amazon, alongside Sam Amidon’s third record
and a book of poetry. Donald Hall, I’ll have you know. Lord only knows what the Amazon Suggestion Fairies will make of that.

MP3: DDB by The Psychic Paramount

Get Up

Bleurgh. Uuurgh. Aaargh. I don’t feel at all well. Woke up yesterday and whilst fretting that I was going to struggle to walk to the Tube, realised that I was struggling to even get out of bed. Or move at all. Stupid bugs.

So what I need is some woman named Kyla La Grange, singing over drums thundering around an aircraft hangar, exhorting me to “Get Up, Get Up, Get Up!”. She has a voice, strident and striking, that grabs you by the hair (or ears, if your hair has fallen out), and forces you to listen. Digging around tha Intawebz I saw she’s being touted as the next Florence And The Machine, to which I’d have to say, “Please God no. That woman has the voice of a Beagle who has just had his tail stepped on”. Kyla’s voice, on the other hand, is rich and emotional. Helps too that “Walk Through Walls” is a fair approximation of a meeting between Kate Bush and Phil Spector (before all that nasty drugs and murdering business. Phil, that is, not Kate. You never know though).

Take Two Bottles Into The Shower?

There you have it. If you’re in the need of a pick me up, listen to this. It’s great.

MP3: Walk Through Walls by Kyla La Grange

Walk Through Walls is released on Monday March 7th. There’s an album on the way too.