Same Old Same Old

For all the talk of the new music business model and paradigm shifts and other such flimflammery, it’s lovely to see the business pulling out the old tricks to sell a new record. Namely, a band consisting of two attractive ladies, sisters no less, being sold apparently entirely on their attractiveness.

"Goddamn It, You Forgot Your Skirt Again!"

They’ve been knocking around a good few years now, have the Pierce sisters, releasing the not at all bad “Boring” some time ago, and now they are back. Having ditched their electro-pop sound, they are going for the mid-period Fleetwood Mac/AM Soft Rock sound that’s terribly de rigeur round some parts. Round here, not entirely. But it’s a rainy Bank Holiday Monday and I can’t be arsed to finish the M Ward review from two weeks ago.

The new song? Not bad. As The Word say, just the kind of thing to put on when you can’t think of what to put on. But wouldn’t the music industry be a better place if everyone stopped focussing on the attractiveness of the artists and concentrated on their music? No? You sure? Oh, ok then.

As for the whole sisters angle, I am brought to mind this:

Buy “You & I” Here (CD/MP3)

RIP Gil Scott-Heron

The sad news was announced today of Gil Scott-Heron, the famed and grizzled jazz-poet, after a short illness. He was a hugely influential musician, with everyone from Public Enemy to Kanye West via Usher singing his praises over the years. His magnificent voice, whether singing on “The Bottle” or darkly intoning his rage on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, grabbed you by the balls and forced you to listen. After what could be termed hard times, with cocaine addiction and prison, in recent years he’d found his way back to something approaching normal life, recording “I’m New Here”, a widely acclaimed return to form. It even featured a cover of a Bill Callahan song, of all people.

Cheerio, Top Bloke

This was even followed up with a remix album by Jamie XX, of all people.

He’ll be sadly missed. Anyone who can make jazz flute sound superb has more talent than you or I can even begin to imagine. He had a stunning way with words, and an even more stunning way of making you hear them.

MP3: The Bottle by Gil Scott-Heron

MP3: I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX

Buy Storm Music “The Best Of”

Only In Dreams

Last night, I had a very strange dream. In amongst a night out in my hometown wearing a Star Trek t-shirt, driving through a crowd of tourists in my car, and a fridge full of bacon, was a video for Drake’s new song, “Dreams Money Can Buy”, in which he dances wearing women’s clothes (a short skirt and a black vest top, if you must know), whilst flanked by two doppelgängers. Also wearing women’s clothes.

This is absolutely, 100% true. What is odd is that after hearing the song yesterday, I didn’t register that it was called “Dreams Money Can Buy”. The mind truly is a strange thing. Not that I’m saying he’s really done a video with him wearing women’s clothes, but you never know. You heard it here first.

Don't F- With Me

The song’s a tad strange too, in a good way. Whilst I find much modern hippety-hop music a bit tedious – all that braggadocio, casual misogyny and Autotune – Drake’s managing to make some quite interesting records. Any other suggestions?

MP3: Dreams Money Can Buy by Drake

Everything’s Getting Older

Ah, Aidan Moffat. He’s not just there for the miserable parts of life. Oh ok, yes he is. His dry, laconic, sodding miserable style has the perverse effect of making you feel quite perky. No idea why. What do you want from me, insight?

He’s back with Bill Wells, with a charming new record called “Everything’s Getting Older”. It is, as you’d expect, all solemn piano and vaguely uplifting strings and just general drollery, which is bracingly, refreshingly cleansing. Single “The Copper Top”, with its funeral director video, gives you a pretty good idea of their oeuvre:

As the saying goes, if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like. After the year I’ve had, and on a day like today, will you begrudge me this?

MP3: The Copper Top (Radio Edit) by Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells

Buy Everything’s Getting Older here or here.

TWOAG Part Two – Sufjan Stevens

“So how was the gig?”
“I don’t know”
“What, you mean you didn’t go?”
“No, I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m confused”
“But it was three days ago!”

Such is the problem with trying to review a Sufjan Stevens gig these days. Years ago, it was easy. You’d just say “It was lovely. He’s this really sweet bloke who plays beautiful acoustic guitar and tells little stories about the songs and it was a great evening.”. Now, six years on, he’s up there with 11 other people, all dressed in neon, with strobes, visuals, balloons, costume changes that Lady Gaga would think was overkill, and confusing, multi-layered electronic orchestral numbers that go on for about 20 bloody minutes1.

Which makes writing this a right royal pain in the arse. There’s so much to say I don’t know where to start. The songs? They go on for ages. The dancing? Charmingly inept. The costumes? Mad. The intra-song soliloquies? Madder. How this show could well be a reflection of an artist’s descent into a parlous mental state, and how he is using the enormous stage of the Royal Festival Hall to exorcise his demons, along with ten clearly hugely talented musicians, bringing to life his vision of the impending End Of The World as much as the impending End Of Sufjan Steven’s Sanity (or his “love song to the Apocalypse”)?


Sufjan’s personal problems have been fairly well documented in recent months. There is always a danger with artists that you can read too much of their personal life into a new artistic direction, but in Sufjan’s case? Man, he has troubles. Whatever was the cause of his issues, he clearly is still working through them, and is doing it onstage, in full, brightly coloured view. As he points out himself, The Age Of Adz is one big solipsistic statement, all “I” and his obsessions with his confusion and the end of the world. Compared to the older material, which was fuelled with beautifully judged and delicate evocations of love, desire, religion and the invention of the Ferris wheel, and you can safely say that it’s lacking. Frankly, hearing him sing “I’m not fucking around” or “Boy, we can do much more together” a hundred times just starts to wear thin.

So anyway, to the gig. Starting off with a version of “Seven Swans” that starts off gentle but soon turns into pure U2 bombast, the view seems slightly odd. There’s angels on the stage, and people dressed in neon, and an organist, but everything seems kind of…fuzzy. Then an unseen (from the balcony) screen lifts and it is as though the scales have fallen from our eyes, and the full neon bedazzlement commences. Each band member is dressed head-to-toe in neon, there’s stuff all round the stage, big lights, and a huge video screen. Oh, and strobes. Lots of strobes. Then comes “Too Much”, kicking off the night’s main set, all taken from his last two records, which feels far more alive than on record. Yes, I know that sounds like a daft thing to say, but I was deeply concerned that such esoteric material, which isn’t exactly warm and lovely on record, might just be a step too far live, even for someone as extravagantly talented as our man Sufjan.

Mad x2

This isn’t to knock the new material. I haven’t been a massive fan of either All Delighted People or Adz, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. In some cases, such as “Age Of Adz” or “Vesuvius”, they work superbly. The former featured a wonderful coda, with the words “It’s only that I still love you deeply\It’s all the love I got” reverberating around the huge space of the Royal Festival Hall, bringing a tear to our collective eye. The latter saw the deployment of the screen again, upon which flames were projected, rising higher and higher through the song until the band nearly vanished under the lava. The whole Bootsy Collins vibe appealed greatly, too.

Helps too that the sound is magnificent. I can’t remember a gig where there’s more than ten people on stage yet you can still pick out each and every instrument clearly. The visuals veered between the stunning – the dancing ones starting during “Too Much”, then reappearing, cut up and distorted during “Impossible Soul”; the geometric patterns; the screen behind which the band started the gig and made us worry our eyes were going funny – and the amateurish. In particular, I can’t say I’m a fan of Royal Robertson’s work, and though Sufjan made an impassioned plea, the evening failed to win me over to his charms. Let’s chalk this down to one damaged soul seeking another, shall we?

But “Impossible Soul” just went on, and on, and on. Yes, there was much dancing and rejoicing and balloons and the whole “Let’s All Party Because We Are Free! Oh And We’re All Going To Die” thing. Is it really worth hearing all 25 minutes when he could have played “John Wayne Gacy Jr”, “…Predatory Wasp of the Palisades…”, “That Dress Looks Nice On You”, “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and still had time for one of his baffling but entertaining chats with the crowd?

Sufjan Gives You Wings

For me, no. Whilst the evening was hugely entertaining, a ridiculous, baffling and extraordinary event, the best part was the encore. The band returning to a hastily cleared stage, still covered with the detritus of the climax, in jeans and t-shirts, and playing three songs from “Illinois”. During the second, “Casimir Pulaski Day”, the crowd ever so gently start singing along. For those songs, written at the peak of his powers, show us what he can be, how he can craft hugely ambitious songs that tell a tale other than his pain, with music that charts something other than the confusion in his soul, and speak to all of us, uniting us.

He’s a unique talent alright. For all its faults, this was a stunning evening, quite unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever seen before. Whilst there was more than a sniff of Rock Opera2 about the night, we were thoroughly amused, bemused, exasperated, and above all, entertained. And, it’s made me reassess The Age Of Adz and give it a few more listens, and I’m liking it a bit more. It’s still nowhere near his States albums, or Seven Swans, but at least now I can see where he’s coming from with it. Plus, listening to it reminds me of a truly mad bit of entertainment.

Mad, I tell you. But fun. My brain is still hurting.

And TWOAG? The Week Of American Greats. Keep up.

1 Prompting my friend S to comment that she very nearly threw herself off the balcony.

2 Thanks Mrs L&L!

MP3: I Walked by Sufjan Stevens

Note: Photos taken by PaulineLouise on Songkick.

Buy “The Age Of Adz”

For Searsy, Long Ago

I can’t say that I particularly liked Bon Iver’s debut album. Gave it a good few goes, but something in the conceit of Mr Iver1 holing himself up in a remote shack to get over his oh-so-broken heart got on my nerves. But, on the flip side, I rather liked Volcano Choir, especially “Island, IS”.

So now he’s got a new song out, is it worth giving Old Moanybollocks another go?

On the strength of new song “Calgary”, the answer is, “Well, yes, possibly, though it does sound a bit like Coldplay”.

So there you go. Sounds a bit like Coldplay. Not bad, though. And yes, I am filling in time instead of completing my Sufjan Stevens review. If you’ve been to see him live, you know why I’m sitting at my keyboard, gibbering like a fool.

New album out June 21st. Go buy!

1 Yes, I know it’s not his real name.

MP3: Calgary by Bon Iver

TWOAG Part One – Bill Callahan at The Barbican

I think I’ve seen Bill Callahan, in one guise or another, play live more than anyone else. Whilst this may mark me out as some kind of strange stalker type figure (and indeed, I did once drive from Zurich to Strasbourg, via Luxembourg, to see him play, during his “Rain On Lens” phase), you do need to consider that this is a man who has been touring for close to 20 years. And I’ve loved his music – and I use the word “love” with absolute honesty – for a good 12. Indeed, I still think that one of my truly happy moments on this planet was driving in the Taunus mountains1 on a warm summer’s evening in a borrowed car listening to “Teenage Spaceship”. When an artist has been part of your life for so long, it’s foolish to not try and catch him live every few years.

This is starting to get a little hard now. When I saw him in Strasbourg it was to about 50 people. Now, playing in the hardly small Barbican, he’s selling out a venue that comfortably seats 2000 people, with the good seats selling out quickly. After all these years, he’s getting more press than ever before and even being covered by grizzled jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron. There is the distinct possibility that the world at large is waking up to this most talented musician. As I’ve posted before, he’s probably the finest lyricist of his generation, someone whose words are so cunningly crafted that you are teasing out new meanings after years of listening, or are still gobsmacked by the same interpretation ten years later. I, for one, cannot listen to “I Was A Stranger” or “Cold Blooded Old Times” without getting shivers.

Not that he’s exactly doing much to win over new fans. There’s no flash new live show, in which he interacts with the crowd, telling jokes and stories. No video backdrop. No choir of backing singers, no string quartet, no multi-instrumentalists. No guest spots, or celebrity friends joining him onstage for a duet. Nope, just him, resplendent in a dapper white suit, joined by a permanently-seated guitarist and a drummer who ably replaced Thor by tapping away on the drums with his hands, covering them with a blanket, and carrying out all sorts of jiggery-pokery that at one point Bill turns to him, as he’s rearranging his drumkit, and drolly mutters “Whilst we’re still young….”.

This is, of course, not quite the Bill Callahan who used to wander onto a barely-lit stage, and play his already doleful songs at half-speed with his back to the crowd2, but you’re left in no doubt that he is here to sing songs, songs which have multiple layers of meaning, need to be unwrapped, need to be misunderstood in haste and unravelled at leisure. Opener “Riding For The Feeling” appears to be telling us about his spoken word tour a few years ago and touring in general (“All this leaving is neverending”), and how it made him reassess what message he was trying to put across to us, dear listeners (“I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels/
Or riding for the feeling”) but at the back of your mind, you are more than slightly concerned at the use of the word “Riding”.

Or the stunning “Baby’s Breath”, which, on unravelling, shows the secret and dark history at its core. At least, the secret I think it’s got, the tale of an abortion – all that “living grave” and “she was not a weed, she was a flower” – and although Bill himself has said it’s about the American settlers spreading across the land, having a spotlight shine on my obviously pregnant wife, and with Bill staring at us through the performance of the song, makes me suspect he’s not being entirely truthful to us here. Plus, the final words “Or sing”, growled in that quite worrying bass, also used on “My Friend”, sent shivers down our collective spines.

All of Apocalypse gets an airing during the night. “Drover” and “America” both thundered out of the traps in a way you don’t quite expect of Mr Callahan. More surprising was a beefed up “Say Valley Maker”, during which his backing band were left free to make a stunning noise. Ok, not exactly Russian Circles, but all the more shocking for the unexpected nature of the noise. There’s still that disconcerting little dance he does, too, which he showed off to us a few times during the evening.

Don't Go

“Say Valley Maker” shows another of his little tricks; the repeated words, like “blooms blooms blooms” and “dew dew dew”. “The Well” has that marvellous “black black black”, “Riding For The Feeling”‘s “my my my apocalypse”. A great little trick that gets you to snap to attention. Focussing is of paramount importance seeing him live; watching and hearing him recite his marvellous words close-up brings a whole new layer of clarity. With Bill, it’s all about the words. Even backed by the most sympathetic band I’ve seen him with, your brain is working ten to the dozen to glean meaning, rather than being distracted by a beautiful tune here or there. “Our Anniversary” tells its tale amongst the backdrop of a humid Southern night, all chirping crickets and singing bullfrogs.

Even the addition of harmonica didn’t spoil the atmosphere, despite Bill’s concerns that “I had a nightmare that you would all walk out when I played this”. Only “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” didn’t work; the band seemingly playing a different time signature and possibly a different song entirely. As for the rest? Superb. Wonderful. Somewhat disturbing. He’s one of the finest living singer-songwriters doing the rounds, and you are a fool to yourself if you haven’t dived deep into his sizeable back catalogue. Or seen him live.

Harmonica, Melody, And Bill

Who are the others? Well, I’d put Sufjan Stevens and M Ward up there too, both of whom are visiting London this week. So, The Week Of American Greats it is then.

1 Without meaning to sound wanky. I lived abroad for many years.

2 See Ben Thompson’s marvellous “Seven Years Of Plenty” for a brutally apt description of his early shows.

MP3: Riding For The Feeling by Bill Callahan

Buy the wonderful “Apocalypse” (CD/MP3)

The Role Of Hangovers And Social Media In Discovering New Music

Pootling around the web first thing this morning, whilst having a quick break from work (working from home is wonderful from time to time), and nursing the sort of hangover you get when you go drinking with some good work buddies and a vendor who who decided that alcohol poisoning was a perfectly valid sales technique, I came across a Tweet by the marvellous We Listen For You. Now, whilst I don’t always agree with their tastes, I do find their reviews well written, intelligent, and thought provoking. So a tweet loudly exhorting that The Antlers new album had been played constantly for the last three days deserved to be followed up.

So off I tootle to Hype Machine to see what they have, and blow me down, those folks at WLFY appear to be onto something. Compared to the overegged pudding that are Wild Beasts, The Antlers Burst Apart is a far more refined and pleasant listen. The singer appears to be able to sing high (sing looooow!) without sounding like a total pillock, which is nice. Now, I’ve only had a quick listen to the record, but it does sound like a keeper.

Speaking of Hype Machine, they’ve now got a Hype Machine Radio app, available in the iTunes store. Haven’t had a play with it myself yet, but hope to soon. Looks funky though.

Right, back to work. And coffee. More coffee. And more water, please.

Pre-Order “Burst Apart” Here


Cumbria’s Wild Beasts made quite a splash a few years back, variously described as “Epic”, “Proggy”, or “Epically Proggy”. Much was made of singer Hayden Thorpe’s challenging vocals, the kind of effortful falsetto that makes you think that he’s trying just that little bit too hard to Emote. Jeff Buckley or Andrew Montgomery he’s not. Hearing their stuff a while ago I wasn’t immediately impressed and, as per usual, got distracted by something else, consigning Wild Beasts to my “Can’t be arsed” bin.

But when their new record Smother started getting rapturous write-ups in trusted places such as Drowned In Sound and Sunday Times’s Culture section (essential reading, by the way), my curiosity was slightly piqued. The whole curiosity piquing continued to grow on reading an interview with them that namechecked Swans and Cocteau Twins, two bands that really ought to be namechecked more regularly by Ver Yoof Ov Today. Checking out their video for lead singled “Albatross” on YouTube, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, blimey that’s an awful video. Secondly, the band don’t half take themselves seriously. And thirdly, the song is rather good, all yearning and hidden secrets, with a wonderfully subdued musical backing.

Not sure I can say the same about the rest of the record yet. The bands seriousness and (choosing my words carefully here) a particularly torrid view of life and shagging make me wonder if this is one of those bands that a man approaching middle age just finds a bit embarrassing. You just want to take them to a lively bar, feed them Jaegerbombs, give them a hug and tell them that things will be fine. Some music is meant for those who are still going through that painful and bruising part of life, before their hearts and skin toughen up, more ready to take those inevitable knocks of life. And shagging.

And it has to be said – both singer’s voices take some getting used to.

Wild Beast’s Smother is out on Monday.

MP3: Albatross by Wild Beasts

Feed Them To The Dogs Again

There’s been talk of a Twilight Sad acoustic EP for some time now. Assorted videos have popped up (on Drowned In Sound and elsewhere), and originally “The Wrong Car” EP was to feature a bunch of acoustic songs, but didn’t. Now, thankfully, the band have released a free EP, cunningly entitled “Acoustic EP”, which is yours for nothing. Nada. Zilch. Nichts. Nowt. Ok, your email address. Just pop over to their relaunched blog here and sign up. Do it! Do it!

For the Acoustic EP is, frankly, superb. You’d think that their songs are by and large exercises in being loud and quite grumpy and that the underlying songs possibly aren’t up to much, but you’d be wrong. Some songs – “I Became A Prostitute” and “Interrupted”, for example – are better done this way than with the waves of noise. Stripping them right down shows exactly how great these songs are. And if you’ve not heard their stuff before either way, just go and sign up and get a marvellous free gift.

I love it when bands do this. Stars, they are, stars.

MP3: That Birthday Present (Acoustic) by The Twilight Sad

Buy “Forget The Night Ahead” (CD/MP3)