Happy Happy Joy Joy

What is this bit between Xmas and New Year called? The bit that, following on from the food-and-wine-and-port-and-more-food-and-bickering extravaganza of Xmas and the hedonistic fray that is New Year’s Eve (or as we now call it, “The Night Of HOW Much Is The Babysitter Charging?”), just kind of sits there like your spinster great Aunt in the armchair, looking gloomy and occasionally moaning about what’s on the telly.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a bit glum and drizzly yet strangely pleasurable. Just like (ta da!) The Savings And Loan. Hailing from Scotland, not exactly the cheeriest place on Earth, they make bands like The Twilight Sad sound like Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep1. Have a listen to “Swallows”, below, and see what you think:

Swallows by The Savings and Loan

The album “Today I Need Light” is out on Song, By Toad Records, they of the marvellous Meursault. Go on, treat yourself to something quite glum. Perfect for the New Year’s Day hangover.

1 Bet you didn’t know that the band that popularised this song hailed from Scotland. See, it’s not all haggis and suicide up there, you know.

Review Of The Year – Albums, One

2010, for me, hasn’t been a vintage year. No Yellow House, no Funeral, no You Forgot It In People, no Boxer. Some good albums, sure, but there was little that really grabbed me by the balls and forced me to listen. Here’s the first part of a three-part review of the year, with the first two featuring albums, and the last songs, gigs, and other stuff. You can sense this feeling in all those end-of-year lists that have been hosing around the web since the end of November (and, to whit, surely you should do your end of year list at the actual end of the year? No? Oh, just me, then). How many of them have actually agreed with each other on anything? Yes, you could argue that the lack of agreement between anyone this year shows a healthy and diverse musical scene, but you’d be wrong1. It just shows that no-one’s stepped up to the plate and made anything as thrilling, unusual, or just plain damn good as any of those records above.

Out of all the records released this year, there’s been a load of records released by bands who have good form. Records that you’d expect to light up the year. But didn’t. Which leads me onto….

The Year Of Disappointing Records By Bands Who Should Know Better

A whole bunch of records came out this year by some of my favourite bands. From the likes of The Hold Steady and Band of Horses, through to Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, 2010 had the chance to be a bumper year. But for some reason they all turned out to be some shade of disappointing, ranging from “could do better B-“ for Arcade Fire to “See me after D-“ for Band Of Horses. The latter compounded a poor album with the kind of heavy handed blog bullying you’d expect from Metallica or some other horrendously uncool breadheads. The Hold Steady didn’t recover from the loss of Franz Nicolay, and their bread-and-butter-rock’n’roll-with-clever-lyrics just disappointed. Broken Social Scene returned after a pair of disappointing “BSS Presents…” albums with a proper BSS album that was also disappointing. Sufjan Stevens came back with his take on Kid A – and I think about the same of it as I do Kid A. Overall, there’s lots of disappointment round here this year.

The Almost There List (or “Runners-Up”, as more professional blogs may have called them)

For each of the bands who have been plain disappointing this year, there’s also been a bunch who have released new records that haven’t quite hit the heights of their previous records, but are still pretty good.

The National – High Violet

So near, and yet so far. “Boxer” was enthralling and essential. “High Violet” is sporadically fantastic (“Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”), but never quite reaches the peaks of “Boxer”. It’s a very good album, but not quite as good as you, I, and possibly the band themselves, know they can do better.

MP3: Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National

Amazon’s The National Store

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter Of Mixed Drinks

So near, and yet so far. Etc. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” burst in at the end of 2009 and nailed it as my favourite song of the year; I had high hopes for the album, especially after obsessing over the joyously glum Midnight Organ Fight. Nothing on it even comes close to matching “Swim”, sadly, so there’s a faint air of failure around this. Still good though, and well worth it if you’ve worn out your copy of Midnight Organ Fight.

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

Amazon’s Frightened Rabbit Store

Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky

Or “How to grow old disgracefully”. If only other bands could reunite and make themselves as vital, as thrilling, and as plain cantankerous as this. See, The Pixies? This is how it’s done.

MP3: Jim by Swans

Amazon’s Swans Store (yes, really)

Spoon – Transference

Still not sure about this lot, despite repeated listening to this undoubtedly good record a whole bunch of times. The problem with deliberately being all clinical and precise is that you can lose the human touch. Then again, the precision has a certain allure that hasn’t tarnished with time, yet.

MP3: Got Nuffin by Spoon

Amazon’s Spoon Store

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

Ten months on from its release, I’ve still hardly chipped into this record. Too bloody long. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own sense of beauty, the coherent vision of someone who could safely be called a genius. In years to come, it may make more sense, or it might not, but I’d like to say it’s good now and be proved wrong, rather than the other way round.

MP3: Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom

Amazon’s Joanna Newsom Store

That’s it for the disappointments and partial successes. Join me tomorrow for the albums that I properly liked. Not that I didn’t like these ones. Oh, you know what I mean.

1 So sue me

Post Post-Rock Post

You’ve got to love Mogwai. From their early publicity stunts like printing t-shirts with “BLUR=SHITE”, naming albums after (fake) Glasgow street gangs (Young Team, Come On Die Young) and having some fantastic song titles, to making some excellent examples of post-rock. Yeah, you can argue that they just take Slint’s Spiderland and repeat it in many different ways, but you wouldn’t tell them that to their faces. And I’d say you were wrong. There’s lots more to them than second-hand Slintery.

More Lovely Cover Art

And so here they come with a new record, entitled “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.”. It’s out early next year, but to tease us they’ve released “Rano Pano”.

Noisy, tuneful, even a little bit magisterial. Looking forward to the album, and the live gigs – with the fantastic The Twilight Sad supporting, no less. Hurrah! As the album’s out next year, I can expect it will not fall into the 2010 Was The Year Of Shitty Albums By Previously Good Bands trap (*cough* The Hold Steady *cough* Broken Social Scene *cough* Band Of Horses *cough* oh you get the drift).

MP3: Rano Pano by Mogwai

Buy Loads Of Great Records At Amazon’s Mogwai Store

The Wrong Beer

Maybe, when I was first thinking up a name for this blog, I should have just gone for “Look, I’ve Been Busy, Ok?”. This week has been a combination of football, laughing about the football, drinking, feeling horrendously hungover from drinking, laughing about feeling horrendously hungover from drinking, and then trying to sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.

Which is in no way a good preparation for sitting down and writing1. Sure, I did put together 300 words on How Metallica Are A Bunch Of Whining Pussies on Wednesday night whilst under the influence of Old McSouse’s Fizzy Seven-Percent Temporary Inhibition Reducer, but I haven’t dared to go back to see what I wrote. Back in the day, I was a bit of a Ranter, and though I’ve tried to curb that side of my personality, it does sweep back into view after a few.

So anyway, I’m going to try and get some posts out this week. I have an inbox filled with suggestions, and some of them are damn fine too.

First off, The Twilight Sad have been a favourite of mine since their debut “Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters”. Follow-up “Forget The Night Ahead” hasn’t quite been a success (despite my initial positive thoughts), and whilst some of the standout tracks are superb, the record as a whole is distinctly sludgy and doesn’t have that clarity of rage that made “Fourteen Autumns” such a standout.

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Seems like the band themselves haven’t been too happy with it either. They’ve lost their bassist, and on their recent tour have only been playing a handful of tracks from it. Now they have a new EP out, named “The Wrong Car”, and thankfully this looks backward as much as forward. Opener “The Wrong Car” is unmistakeably The Sad (as only I call them); all churning rage and burning ferocity and noise, thwacking great balls of noise that roll down the mountainside and thump you upside your skull. “Throw Yourself In The Water Again” takes up the “Scottish Bands Using Water As A Metaphor For Being A Bit Narked Off” meme which has been mined so effectively by Frightened Rabbit over the past few years, gives it a good kicking and then takes it drinking to make up for it.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/15198465

The Twilight Sad – I Became a Prostitute (Acoustic) from FatCat Records on Vimeo.

The acoustic versions doing the rounds are pretty decent too, so get the MP3 version of the EP if you want to give them a try. In any case, it’s good to see they’ve got lots more tracks in the bag and are working on a third LP. Whilst the last one may have been a slight mis-step, “The Wrong Car” shows they are firing on all cylinders, that they are in top gear, and they’re going in the right direction. Boom, boom.

Wonder what they’d be like if they cheered up a bit?

Buy The Wrong Car here (CD/MP3).

1 Anyone who says “Never did Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson any harm, did it?” can do one, and do one right now.

MP3: The Wrong Car by The Twilight Sad

MP3: I Became a Prostitute by The Twilight Sad

Midyear New Music (Part Four) – Meursault

I’ve been meaning to write about Meursault for ages. Partly because they are, you know, really dead good and that; partly because they’ve released an album which I’ve been very much enjoyed this past few months (All Creatures Will Make Merry), and partly because their records are released by a reasonably well-known Scottish music blog, Song, by Toad. Old Toady’s one of my favourite reads out there, because, well, he’s a sweary fucker and has a good taste in music. What more can you ask for, eh?

Anyway, Meursault have finally been getting the press they and their dramatic “Folktronica getting duffed up in an alley by assorted members of The Twilight Sad” music deserves. I’ve been wanting to write all sorts of things about them; about how music blogs can not only help promote bands like Meursault, but it can even release their records; how this could be a fantastic new model for new bands, avoiding the contractual handcuffs and horrendous business practices of the mainstream music industry; the way that bloggers chatting to each other on their special secret forums can bypass the white noise of incessant publicist emails1; and how there’s some great music coming from Scotland right now.

And then I thought, “Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s been three fucking months with you thinking about what to write, trying to do it justice and all, just post the fucking thing and get on with writing a fucking Pitchfork post”. So here it is. Buy it direct from Song, By Toad Records here. If this record isn’t worth a tenner, I don’t know what is.

1 Not that I mind incessant publicist emails; I quite enjoy them, and I’ve had some brilliant music sent to me. It’s just hard to find the time to go through them all.

MP3: Crank Resolutions by Meursault

Last Year’s Music – The Twilight Sad

In my Albums of the year post at the tail end of 2009, I mentioned that there were a bunch of records by bands I loved that I hadn’t got round to listening to yet. This week, I finally got round to listening to The Twilight Sad’s second album, “Forget The Night Ahead”. Long-term readers may recall me getting earache following their tinnitus-inducing show at the ICA. Quite frankly, it was worth it.

The Sun! It Burns!

The funny thing about hearing tracks like “Doonstairs” (ok, “Reflection Of The Television”) on record is how well I remember them. Sure, they are cleaned up of much of the huge wall of noise that is a Twilight Sad live show, but they lose little of their power in their transition to a bunch of bits. “I Became A Prostitute” is absolutely cracking and has been on near-constant rotation on my poor iPhone; there’s something of the grim, cold rainy day in their music which perfectly reflects the current weather round here. The album as a whole seems a bit more sludgy than their debut, a bit more oppressive, but dammit, fine music is fine music.

But they are miserable blighters, aren’t they?

MP3: I Became a Prostitute by The Twilight Sad

Buy “Forget The Night Ahead” (CD)

New Music – Oscar Charlie

Now, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the real joys of writing this blog has been getting emails from people – readers, bands, PR people, anyone really. From kind words about the blog to people’s own tales (one fella, Scott, emailed me a great story about the Bhundu Boys that I must post one day, if it’s ok with him!), to people promoting their music, it’s always fun to read them and listen to their songs. I am about a month behind now, but with the Xmas break coming up, I should be able to get through the backlog.

One band who emailed me back in November (see?) are Oscar Charlie from Glasgae (boy, that’ll annoy any Scottish readers. I promise not to mention deep-fried Mars Bars. Oops). They originally hailed from the Shetlands but had to move as there weren’t any synths on the islands. Which is as good an excuse as any, really.

They liken themselves far more to bands such as Mew than the current crop of Scots indie bands (Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit), and to these ancient ears they’ve also got that innate sense of drama that the late lamented Geneva specialised in. This is, of course, A Good Thing.

I’ve only really listened to “Vandals” so far, but as it managed to take up earworm residence to the extent that I drifted off in a meeting the other week with it playing merrily in my head, staring happily out of the window until someone asked me a question, I can safely say that it’s a great tune. Got to say I’m looking forward to hearing what else this lot come up with (starting with a single on January 12th 2010).

Listen and enjoy, my beloved.

MP3: Vandals by Oscar Charlie

Frightening Rabbits In East London

“Ah, The Troxy, we meet at last”.

After two aborted attempts to get to London’s newest swish venue, The Troxy, in the past two weeks – missing The Flaming Lips due to a prior engagement (hey, Kate!), and Monsters Of Folk due to illness – it was nice wandering down Commercial Road to see Frightened Rabbit there. Well, when I say nice, I mean it was nice not getting mugged. Let’s just say the Troxy is a salubrious venue in an insalubrious part of town. The barstaff are nice, if somewhat disorganised, and the vast team of people working in cloakroom seem cheery enough.

I was at the Troxy to watch Frightened Rabbit support Gomez, seeing as I’d managed to miss them at The Lexington earlier in the month1. Now, I’ve only known about Frightened Rabbit for about a month or so when I was sent a link for the video to their new single, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”. To say I was gobsmacked is not even the half of it. I’ve played that bloody song 43 times according to my iTunes, and their last album “Midnight Organ Fight” has been played rather a lot in the past couple of weeks.

Since recording that album, they’ve expanded to a five-piece, and they shambled onto the stage and launched right into “The Modern Leper”. The audience was bigger than you’d normally expect for a support act, and they were treated to Scott’s impassioned yelling of the final chorus (“Well, are you a masochist, to love a modern leper, on his last leg?”), joined by his brother Grant on drums who was happily yelling away too. The band then tumbled through “Old Old Fashioned”, with Grant again going, frankly, a bit mad. The reception was positive, if somewhat muted.

But if the crowd weren’t quite sure about the Rabbit after the two opening tracks, they should have had their minds made up by “Good Arms vs Bad Arms”. It’s a great song on the album and it’s even better live, with the rest of the band providing lovely backing vocals to Scott’s entreaties to his ex to “Keep her naked flesh under your favourite dress”. That song got the hairs on my arm standing to attention, I can tell you.

During “Fast Blood”, Grant’s attitude veered between frantic and laconic, which is quite a trick if you can manage it. There’s a lovely thick richness to their sound, with various band members swapping guitars, keyboards, odd pedal things and a lone bass. Not sure the sound guy was quite up to it, though, as the sound sometimes descended into swampiness2.

Then came “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”. As Scott introduced it, there were more than a few cheers from the audience, which got him looking up at the crowd, astonished. Slower than on record, it’s still best song you’ll hear all year. There’s a gorgeous Calendonian melancholy to it that perversely lifts the soul. 43 times in my case.

The last pair of songs – “My Backwards Walk” and “Keep Yourself Warm” – show the band’s darker lyrical side. Now, when I first posted about FR, I said that they were much lighter in tone than their compatriots The Twilight Sad, which prompted a comment from a lovely chap called Drew pointing out that their lyrics were somewhat darker than I’d realised. And indeed, he is quite, quite right. For example, “My Backwards Walk” starts off with Scott talking about how he keeps returning to a woman he shouldn’t return to, including the great line “These trousers seem to love your floor”. The song then ends on a far darker note of the repeated line “You’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it”. I wonder what the massed hordes of Gomez fans thought about that one?

Even better, the last song has the great, bitter, twisted line “It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm”. Oh, and then “I’m drunk, and you’re probably on pills, if we’ve both got the same diseases, it’s irrelevant, girl”. Charming words for sure, and part of the reason why they are such a cracking band. They say things that your brain might conjure up in dark, desperate moments, and chuck them on top of songs filled with tunes and hooks. It’s a combination many bands grasp at and by and large fail, but Frightened Rabbit succeed with aplomb. What’s better, they can do it live too.

When leaving the stage they got a huge cheer, and hopefully won over a fresh set of new fans. On collecting my bag, the cloakroom staff (and someone in the queue) asked why I was leaving. I told them I’d only come to see the support act, had to rush home to babysit parent3, and then gushed over-verbosely for a couple of minutes. One guy said “That’s quite a testament to how good they are, I’ll check them out”. Mate, do it. There aren’t many better bands in the UK right now.

Catch them on tour now round the UK, supporting Gomez (on some nights) and Modest Mouse (on others). One day, with any luck, they’ll be bigger than both of them. And if “Swim” is anything to go by, new album ‘The Winter Of Mixed Drinks’ (out next March) will be a real treat.

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

MP3: Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms by Frightened Rabbit

1 Even though it may seem that way, I’m not totally and utterly disorganised or anything. Honest.
2 Which, curiously enough, my friend S mentioned about the Monsters of Folk gig. Though she put it more along the lines of “I was going to punch the soundman because he was shit”.
3 A shame, because I wanted to see Gomez again. I love their singer, and the quote I once heard of “Somewhere, in the Mississippi basin, there’s a grizzled old blues guy who sings like Morrissey”.

Buy “Midnight Organ Fight” (CD/MP3)

Run Rabbit Run

Writing a music blog has its ups and downs. Sometimes, you get the feeling that every song you listen to, you’re doing it to see if it will fit into the blog and you spend your time trying to find an interesting thing to say about it (and usually failing). For the worrisome types like me, that can get very wearing.

But other times, you hear something new and within the first ten seconds you just think “This is special. Really, really special”. I’ve had it in the past with the likes of Grizzly Bear and Broken Social Scene. I got that today with Frightened Rabbit.

Hailing from the same record label – Fat Cat Records – as The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks, they come from the charming Borders town of Selkirk. Maybe it’s the beautiful rolling countryside or the elegant Courtroom in the Market Place (you can tell I’ve been on Wikipedia, can’t you?), but they are an altogether cheerier proposition than their labelmates.

The Glory Of Selkirk

The Glory Of Selkirk

That’s not saying much, mind.

So anyway, I caught the video to their new song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and it blew me away. I mean, the video is a thing of sheer beauty, with that crystal clear digital look illuminated by swaying torches, but the song is something else.

Starting with a chiming guitar line reminiscent of Johnny Marr’s gentler moments, the song turns into a rollicking singalong replete with strings by Hauschka and a horn section. I can’t stop playing it. As singer Scott explains:

“’Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ was the title I had in my mind before I even started writing the album; I was becoming more and more interested in the idea of a rejection of the habits and behaviour most people see as normal, and in turn embracing a certain madness. It’s about losing your mind in order to reset the mind and the body. Forget what’s gone before and wash it out. This is not necessarily a geographical journey, as the ‘swim’ can involve any activity in which you can lose yourself. It’s a good introduction to the record as the theme unravels therein.”

That’s what you get if you go and live in tiny seaside towns in Fyfe. Must try that myself, as it seems to have done him the world of good.

No Wonder They Are Frightened With That Lot Behind Them

No Wonder They Are Frightened With That Lot Behind Them

Then, digging around a bit, I found a b-side, a marvellous cover of N-Trance’s “Set You Free”, which somehow turns a Euro-trance number into something Bonnie “Prince” Billy would have knocked out in his prime. Utterly fantastic.

Anyway, the single is out in November and there’s a whole bunch of live shows here. Must get me a ticket for that Troxy show.

I really like this blog writing business, you know. And I think I’m going to be exploring this lot’s back catalogue….

On another note, thinking of Selkirk reminded me of the phrase “Gone To Falkirk”, which reminded me of this:

Surrealism at its very finest.

Buy “Midnight Organ Fight” (CD/MP3)

MP3: Set You Free (N-Trance cover) by Frightened Rabbit

MP3: I Feel Better by Frightened Rabbit