Review – The Xx

Kids today, eh? Dressing up in black, being all miserable, recording in dank studios underneath railway arches, wasn’t like that in my day. Oh hold on, yes it bloody was. Maybe that’s why, when I first heard The Xx, I got one of those weird chills. The fact that they were half my age and lived round the corner from me made it doubly weird.

Because, unlike pretty much everyone else making music today on either side of the Atlantic, The Xx like space. Lots and lots of it. I haven’t heard a band make so much from silence since the glory days of Low (and before them, the gaps between the pummelling method of Swans). There’s gaps between the mordant drums and the guitar stabs that you could safely park a truck in. The delay settings on the guitarist’s pedals are set to “Yeah, repeat what I’ve played in about half an hour”. No Edge-style 96ms delay for this lot, I can tell you1.

"You Want What On The Cover?"

But what gives me the chills the most is that this record sounds totally familiar, picking up influences from everyone from Young Marble Giants to New Order through to urban music like Grime and Dubstep, and sounds utterly, utterly unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

“Infinity” sounds like Chris Isaak2 got kidnapped by Burial and started getting Stockholm Syndrome. “Heart Skipped A Beat” features a doleful Peter Hook style bassline, like something from “Unknown Pleasures” or “Power, Corruption and Lies”. Other parts sound like some weird pirate radio staffed entirely by lonesome indie kids with an R&B fascination.

The lyrics, as you’d expect from a bunch of folk just out of their teens, are concerned with love. And not just any love, oh no – the desperate yearning of youth, all unspoken desire and thwarted emotions and the sheer heartache of being horribly, wonderfully in love. It takes me back to those days, long ago3 when a single word from the object of your desire could turn you into a quivering wreck. When you spent the whole day waiting for the phone to ring, or the whole night waiting for the touch of her hand to make everything ok. When every single cell of your body felt nothing other than the pangs of yearning. The whole record is shot through with the fug of pheromones. Kids, eh?

In case I’m not making this absolutely clear, the album is great. For a band to come out with something as different, as shot through with that pure teenage combination of total confidence and heart-stopping loneliness as you can imagine, on their first attempt, is stunning. I only hope that the success of this album doesn’t go to their heads. Maybe I’ll pop down the road and lock them in their studio so they can’t get out and hear all the nice things people are saying about them. Success will only cheer them up, and that just won’t do.

One more thing. What is it about the Elliott School in Putney that’s produced some of the most forward-looking music in Britain today? Utterly bizarre. Bless the English Comprehensive system and its lackadaisical attitude towards education.

1 Sorry, guitar geek talk. Carry on.

2 Speaking of which, quite a few reviews have pointed out the similarity, and generally done it in a negative way. All I can say is, get over yourselves – “Wicked Game” is a marvellous song.

3 So very, very long ago. Sniff.

MP3: Heart Skipped A Beat by The Xx

MP3: Do You Mind by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)

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Live Review – Stereophonics At The Royal Albert Hall

I don’t get out to see many bands at the moment. Partly it’s due to sheer incompetence in getting tickets – especially because, in London, up-and-coming acts have a tendency to sell out before you’ve bought tickets unless you’re really on the ball. Partly it’s that there aren’t many bands I’d like to see that I haven’t already seen yet. And partly there’s the financials. When you’re unemployed, you think , “Right, it’s £30-40 for two tickets, plus some food, and the babysitter, which in total ends up near £100 to watch a band surrounded by people who don’t seem to understand the concept that being out in public, watching a band, is very different to listening to the band at home. In that you CAN’T TALK LOUDLY ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE SET LIKE YOU DO AT HOME.” I once shouted at some people at a Mogwai show to “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”, to cheers from the people around me. And some baffled looks from the band. Sorry, rant over.

Anyway, when a friend told us she’d got tickets to see Stereophonics doing the Teenage Cancer Trust show at the Royal Albert Hall, it would be rude to decline. Whilst I can’t say they are my favourite band ever, I was sure it’d be a good night out. And so, here are some things I learnt tonight.

First of all, aren’t some of the songs off “Word Gets Around” just fantastic? They started off with “More Life In A Tramps Vest” and “A Thousand Trees”, which along with kicking the show off in top style, and confusing the people who were only there for “Handbags and Gladrags”, also reminded me what a great songwriter ‘lil Kelly Jones is when he puts his mind to it. “More Life In A Tramps Vest” in particular is one of the best songs about life in a small town I think I’ve ever heard. The line “Lose my rag and tell them take your bag and shop down there” is just beautiful, the way he fits it into the rhythm of the guitar, before having a quick rant about the one-way system. The sadness of some of the songs, such as “Local Boy In The Photograph” (touchingly introduced as “The song that started it all”), and “Billy Davies’ Daughter”, bring home the desperate lives of some of the inhabitants of Aberdare. Two songs about suicide on your debut album – what are you, the Tindersticks?

The second thing I learnt is that “Dakota” is extraordinary. If one is being honest, Stereophonics at their best have made some great tunes about small-town life, and to me at least, have never quite followed them up. *Cough* Mr Writer *cough*. But I still remember hearing “Dakota” come on the radio and saying to myself “What the fuck?”. It’s like Bob Dylan teaming up with Girls Aloud. It’s so different from the norm that you wonder what on earth was going on in Kelly’s head when he wrote it. All I can say is, please, please make some more songs like this. You’re a talented guy, with a great voice. You’ve done it once, now do it again. Go on, go on, go on, go on. Oh, and playing it as the last song was a nice touch. Starting with my favourite song of yours, and ending it with my second favourite is a good way of getting in my good books, you know.

And thirdly, the Royal Albert Hall is a fantastic building, which I love going to, but it’s just not right for rock music. Once you turn the gain up above, oooh, 2, the sound just gets all mushy. “The Bartender And The Thief” just disappeared into a morass of noise, and not in a good way. Thankfully, most of their best songs don’t rely too much on volume. “Have A Nice Day” worked pretty well, as did “Last Of The Big Time Drinkers”; even if it’s quite raucous, it doesn’t have that Les Paul/SG guitar assault thang going on. Muse suffered the same thing last year at the TCT. Richard Hawley, the man whose guitar amp blew up there, plays with a pretty clean sound, so it worked quite well. Joanna Newsom? Well, she’s got a harp, so she was golden. But if you like a nice dirty sound, then if you ever get to play there, tone it down a bit, eh? It just sounds rubbish.

And lastly. What a voice. It’s like Rod Stewart, at his finest, but better. On the way out you could hear people talking about it. He really does have a cracking set of gravelly tonsils on him. What is it with the Welsh and belting it out? From Tom Jones to James Dean Bradfield, top belters. Must be something in the water in the Valleys.

So, a good night out was had by all. In response to our friends generosity, we’re taking them to see TV On The Radio. I don’t think they are going to know what hit them.

Oh, and just to point out – it was a charity show, so please visit the Teenage Cancer Trust website and make a donation. As the excellent films before the show demonstrate, teenagers often get the rough end of the stick in cancer care, and this charity have done an amazing job in easing suffering of thousands of cancer victims.

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Review – Beware by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Will Oldham is an odd fellow. From his innumerable monikers, his beard, to his habit of apparently releasing an album every few months, he is on a one-man crusade to corner the “rather eccentric country-tinged singer-songwriter” market. Maybe he’s seen the duller likes of Bon Iver and Ray Lamontagne come along and steal his thunder, and he’s just not happy about it. Or anything, for that matter.

Following on from last year’s “Is This The Sea?” and “Lie Down In The Light” comes “Beware”. The quality of his albums has taken something of a hit since “Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music” back in 2004. This was not well received, causing something of a storm back in the day, and prompted a seriously negative review in Pitchfork, amongst others. The criticism was largely thanks to reinterpretation of his own work as Palace Brothers/Music/Records, as pure Nashville Country rather than the cracked alt-Country/Americana everyone had kind of got used to. Now, I rather liked it; or some of it, at least. The versions of “West Palm Beach” and “New Partner” really shone, were better than their original lo-fi recordings, and as a whole I thought it worked nicely. But many felt he’d taken the piss and wrecked his own mystique.

So, since that album there’s been “The Letting Go” and “Lie Down In The Light”, both of which were disappointing, plus rather a lot of collaborations, of which “Superwolf” was ok, and the rest less than essential. Can he make a return to form with his new album, knuckling down and finally returning to the excellence of, well, much of his work from 1995 to “Master And Everyone”?

Listening to “Beware” I was at first disappointed, then a little buoyed (those darn glockenspiel!), then disappointed again.  Look, I know I’ve already bummed out M Ward’s Hold Time, but this is turning out to be a bit of a poor year for some of the old stalwarts.  Where to begin?  Well, first of all, for all the swinging country vibe, it just doesn’t catch in the brain.  Will Oldham has always managed to pen tunes, that for whatever odd reason, stick in the head.  Not quite earworms, exactly, but tunes that dance just on the edge of conciousness, all day long, until you just have to listen to them again and again.  Subliminal earworms, if you like.  But this?   Nothing.  I pretty much forgot most of the songs the instant they stopped playing.

Is this just not having had enough time to listen properly, and let those tunes seep into my head? Possibly. But neither of his last two albums succeeded in doing that, and I’m not sure this one will either. It’s not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong. The single “I Am Goodbye” is carried along jauntily by all manner of countrified accoutrements – pedal steel, jangly Telecaster, flutes, fiddle. And loving the beard:

“Death Final” is a beautiful, fiddle-drenched ballad. Well, I say it’s a ballad, I get the feeling he’s being Bad Will again. “You Don’t Love Me” shows his wicked wit again, saying how his paramour “loves the way my stomach jiggles” and how “my kiss rates as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10”.

But the album has the feel of a man who’s running out of ideas, and is trying to make up for them by piling on instrument after instrument hoping no-one will notice the shallowness underneath. I really want to like this album more, but at the moment it’s just not doing it for me.

Funnily enough, I was thinking of Smog/Bill Callahan whilst listening to “Beware”. Bill came to prominence at around the same time as Billy, and whilst their music is generally quite different, it comes from the same dark place, and with similar influences, from old country and folk, seen through the prism of The Velvet Underground’s more narcotic numbers. Now, Bill had a similar downturn, with albums like “Rain On Lens”, but he pulled himself out of it, partly thanks to, well, cheering up a bit (and the lissom charms of Joanna Newsom can’t have hurt, either¹). His last two albums have featured a few songs which are up there with his finest, like “From The Rivers To The Oceans” and “Rock Bottom Riser”. Wonder if Billy C could take Willy O out for a beer, watch some Nascar, so one ol’ dog can show another some new tricks.

¹ Speaking of which, if you were at the Homefires festival at the Conway Hall back in 2004, or 2005, when both were on the bill, were they seeing each other then?  We have fond memories of her heckling him in the most elven, delicate way, by yelling “YOU RAWK!” very loudly in her best Valley girl voice.  Answers on a postcard, please.

Review – Love’s Easy Tears by Cocteau Twins

Do you ever walk down the road and get the sudden desire to listen to a song that you’ve not heard for years?  Happened to me yesterday, it did, and that song was “Orange Appled” by Cocteau Twins.

If you were going to play a song by Cocteau Twins to someone who’d never heard them before, what would you do?  One of the classic singles, like “Iceblink Luck” or “Carolyn’s Fingers”?  A great album track, like “Cico Buff” or “Lorelei”?   Or would you choose a song that was first released on a free 7″, by NME, and then only later added to the CD release of a reasonably obscure EP?

Because Orange Appled is that song. Strangely neglected by the band when first recorded, it’s one of their absolutely finest songs. Less than three minutes long, it’s about as conventional as Cocteau Twins songs get – you know, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight/solo, chorus, end.  It’s got the signature mid-80’s Cocteau sound, with drum machines, about three layers of vocals, fluid basslines, and some seriously messed up guitar sounds¹.  But it just works so beautifully, and it gels together into one short lump of absolute gorgeousness.

Admittedly, the EP was released at an odd time for the band.  They’d already recorded “Victorialand”, without Simon Raymonde, and “The Moon And The Melodies” with Simon and Harold Budd that year.  The former was disappointing, the latter really quite good, and still worth a listen now.  So, releasing a proper Cocteau Twins EP at the end of 1986 rather than writing the rest of the material for a 1987 release was decided to be the best route (“Blue Bell Knoll” was the next release, in 1988).

So, EP it was, and “Orange Appled”, for some strange reason, almost got lost.  Still, the band loved it enough to have it recorded live and broadcast on the fantastic Snub TV, four years later!:

Which leads me onto another digression².  Cocteau Twins, despite being a huge studio band, were also a fantastic live band.  There’s an additional urgency and passion to their music live that they never really captured in the studio.  Of course, later in their career this was because Robin Guthrie was off his nuts the entire time, and Liz Fraser was doing her best to avoid him (what with them being married, and all), leaving poor Simon stuck in the middle.  But even in the late-80’s, when all was (fairly) well, they were still a great live act.  I was lucky enough to catch them live in Sheffield on the “Heaven Or Las Vegas” tour and still consider it to be one of the best gigs I’ve been to, nearly 20 years and about 300 bands later.

Anyway, Orange Appled rocks.  Which got me onto the rest of the EP.  As it was written at the height of wibbly-wibbly-trees-flowers-ethereal-woo nonsense lyric time, there really isn’t much sense in dissecting what Liz was on about.  Some remarkably brave people have posted lyrics; I’m not 100% convinced they are correct, or even close, but what you can see is that they don’t make much sense3. Liz famously strung together proper words in nonsense sentences, to form another instrument, and expression emotion in the way she sang, rather than what she was singing. However, she did state in an interview back in late 1986 that “Well, I do sing about life. Life with Robin; coping with him. They’re all words that I sing. There’s none of it that’s just nonsense. You can’t just go out there and sing noises all day because you’d end up making the same noises all the time”. Still, whatever she’s singing, it sounds gorgeous, as you’d expect.

“Love’s Easy Tears” opens the EP and is probably one of the loudest songs they ever did. Ok, we’re hardly talking about Swans loud, but still, it fairly explodes at the chorus, thumping drum machine taking no prisoners. Whilst it’s rare to pick up external influences to their music, you can certainly hear the Spector Wall Of Sound in this one. And as far as their music goes, it was one of the simpler numbers, but hugely effective. Ah, those chiming guitars!

“Those Eyes, That Mouth” is a bit quieter, thumping drum machine not withstanding, and after what could fairly be described as a humdrum verse, suddenly bursts into life in the chorus, with Liz doing some amazing vocal gymnastics. The last minute sees her singing against herself in the most stunning way. Continuing the slightly Spanish sound of Tiny Dynamine/Echoes In A Shallow Bay, it has that otherworldly feel that marks the finest Cocteau Twins songs and makes them damn hard to copy.

Then comes “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell”, calming things down somewhat. Much gentler, Liz’s vocals float gorgeously over Robin and Simon’s guitar and bass, guitar cheerfully chiming away until a belated chorus, again with Liz’s voice singing multiple harmonies to wonderful effect. Sonic cathedrals of sound, indeed.

Finally it’s “Orange Appled”, which I’ve already gone on about. Just one more thing to say, though. Robin Guthrie often said that he used so many guitar effects to hide his bad playing, but listen to the solo on this; it dances round like the best of Tom Verlaine. Personally I think he’s hugely underrated; he showed what could be done with a Fender Jazzmaster, loads of effects, and more coke than you could shake a rolled up £10 note at.

You might be able to buy the EP as a CD cheap off Ebay, but you’re much better off buying the huge compilation “Lullabies To Violaine”, of which you can buy Volume 1 here. Volume 2 isn’t as good, frankly, and the original 4CD set now sells for around £80. Eek!

So, if you don’t have any Cocteau Twins stuff, or you’ve been curious as to why they are so highly regarded by pretty much anyone with any sense, have a listen to these two songs, then go out an buy “Lullabies To Violaine Volume 1”. You won’t regret it.

¹ If you know how to replicate it on a Line 6 Pod XT, please feel free to let me know!

² Anyone who knows me IRL will know I do this rather a lot.  Sorry.

3 From “Heaven Or Las Vegas” onward, lots of the lyrics do make sense. Check out the link, and also Leesa Beale’s site.

Orange Appled by Cocteau Twins

Review – Dark Was The Night – Various Artists

Dark Was The Night is a new charity compilation released by those lovely folks over at 4AD. It features a bunch of newly recorded songs, both new songs and covers, by some of the brightest and greatest bands around at the moment, from Grizzly Bear and The National to Feist and Sufjan Stevens. The charity Red, for AIDS sufferers around the world, is the benefactor, and the album assembled by the Dessner brothers from The National.

Now I’ve got to say that some of the bands on here are top favourites round L&L Mansions, so I was rather keen to give this a spin (can you spin MP3’s?) to see what they’d come up with. And it’s mostly pretty good. A few things I have learned from this album. Some artists can be covered, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Others, like Nick Drake, just sound like weak interpretations, no matter how skilfully done. Sorry, The Books. That the pairing of Anthony Johnson’s voice and Bryce Dessner’s guitar is a match made in heaven (and I’m not really much of an Anthony fan). That The Decemberists still sound like an American Levellers. That Sufjan Stevens, though a genius, isn’t always perfect. And neither are Arcade Fire, bless them.

That My Morning Jacket have a nice line in 50’s doo-wop. That Dave Sitek, stripped of much of the cleverness of TV On The Radio, can be suprisingly charming, though still bizarrely reminiscent of AR Kane. That Stuart Murdoch sounds like a Scottish Nico. That Cat Power, Buck 65 and Spoon should go and take a long, hard look at themselves for what they have done.

Feist and Grizzly Bear combine on the old Grizzly Bear track “Service Bell”, which is not quite the sum of its respective parts. But Grizzly Bear’s own track “Deep Blue Sea” is one of the highlights, and finds them in pleasant acoustic live mode rather than we’re-going-to-creep-you-out Yellow House mode. And the track is followed up by a new The National song, “So Far Round The Bend”, featuring a string and horn arrangement, from Nico Muhly, who’s also worked with Grizzly Bear on their new album Veckaitimawhatsit (by the way, check that link out – a blog purely devoted to the new Grizzly Bear album). Incestuous? Ah, who cares if the music is great. And this song’s a peach, boding well for whatever The National do next. For yeah, sayeth the Lord, Boxer was top.

And there are loads of other decent tracks on here. I haven’t even started wittering on about Yo La Tengo or David Byrne. Or Iron & Wine. Or how I still don’t get Bon Iver.

Anyway, charity albums have a habit of having a couple of good tracks with lots of filler, or re-released material. Dark Was The Night manages to serve up a whole load of what’s called alternative music these days, and it’s a treat for fans and newcomers alike. You might even find yourself listening to it a whole bunch of times. Well done, folks.

Review – Hold Time by M. Ward

Hold Time comes at a critical moment for M. Ward. His profile has slowly been building up over five albums, with songs ranging from ragtime (Duet for Guitars #2), fascinating covers (Let’s Dance, To Go Home by Daniel Johnson, and Well Tempered Clavier by, er, Bach), campfire songs (Fuel For Fire), to soulful country rock (Outta My Head, Hi-Fi). An amazing guitarist (have a look at the YouTube clip below – just look at those fingers! See how he can suddenly turn from smashing out chords to fine fingerpicking in an instant), he’s head and shoulders above most other singer-songwriters around these days.

This is his sixth full album, and follows on from his work with Zooey Deschanel as She and Him. He’s been getting big props from everyone from Conor Oberst to Noel Gallagher. He’s been recording, producing and co-writing songs with the likes of John Fahey, Norah Jones, Jason Lytle and Neko Case, so his alt-rock credentials are about as high as they can get.

So, is this the album that finally propels him into the big time?*

Well, I’m not sure. M Ward albums have always had this lovely ancient crackly quality to them, making them sound like something dredged up from the bottom of the Hudson river from 1947. Even on Post War, his most modern sounding album, it still felt like a window to a lost world. But Hold Time seems largely lifeless and lacking in the soul that filled his previous records. Much as I love the variety of his writing, he’s starting to sound like he’s simply running through the numbers here; “Hold Time” and the cover (featuring Lucinda Williams) “Oh Lonesome Me” excepted. “Oh Lonesome Me” in particular shines through, sounding like She And Him should have been if he’d recruited a vocalist who could sing and had a sense of timing, rather than being Auto-Tuned into soulless oblivion.

But for the rest, the outlook isn’t so good. “For Beginners” sounds like it was knocked off in a couple of minutes (irony?). “Never Had Nobody Like You” is a lazy glam-stomp, and not necessarily in a good way. “Jailbird” starts to show some of the old M magic, but starts to drown under a sea of strings. And so it goes.

Could be that I’m just being harsh. It’s tough for any artist to have a run that lasts for more than three or four great albums. But to me, Hold Time sounds a little too dashed-off, as though he’s been so distracted by everything else going on that he’s forgotten to write the kind of album that got him noticed to start off with. There isn’t as much of the fantastic fingerpicking and inventive songwriting that so characterised his last few records. Worst of all, this album just hasn’t grown on me in the way that Transfiguration of Vincent, or Transistor Radio, or Post War did. Am I expecting too much?

In any case, I really do hope that other people listen to this and love it, and start to explore his older work. And I really do hope it doesn’t put people off, for M Ward’s music is (almost always) something to treasure.

Hold Time by M Ward

Oh Lonesome Me by M Ward featuring Lucinda Williams

*Something that would help would be to play bigger venues in London. You’ve just sold out the Academy, and the Bush Hall show sold out in minutes, so why not play somewhere bigger like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, so more of us can actually come and see you? Come on mate, sort it out.

Review – Blood Bank by Bon Iver

Bon Iver was, along with Fleet Foxes, one of the big new things of 2008. The backstory was interesting, with a chap called Justin Vernon so hacked off with the breakup of a relationship that he tootled off to his dad’s shack out in the woods of Wisconsin to mope get over it. And what with the wonders of modern technology, he wrote an album there too. It won plaudits all over the shop, but personally, I was a little underwhelmed. It just seemed a bit, you know, whiny, frankly. And I’m a big fan of whininess, but I personally like a bit more grit, like say, Nick Drake (who was so unhappy he possibly killed himself), or Elliott Smith (who was so unhappy he almost certainly killed himself).

Not that I want my rock stars dead or anything, but you know, if you’re going to be miserable, do it about something proper; like serious depression, drug addiction, or the horrific death of your entire immediate family from a hideous, tragic, and somewhat hilarious accident involving a cauliflower. Not that your bird has dumped you. Seriously, just get over it by going out, doing tons of drugs and putting yourself at extreme risk of catching a sexual disease. Go on, Bonnie mate, get pissed and shag a stripper, it’ll cheer you up immensely.

Oh, and as for the story about killing deer, what did you do, sing to them until they fell into a coma?

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, and the album just hasn’t caught in my mind properly yet. Sometimes music does that – you think “Meh” the first few listens and the next thing you know, you’re getting out of bed at 3am just to go and have another listen.

Which leads me onto this. Blood Bank is the new EP by our miserable cabin-bothering chum, recorded with his touring band, and it’s…well, not a huge difference really. It’s quite pleasant in an undemanding way, or at least until you get to the final (fourth) track, Woods. And here Bonny “Moany” Iver breaks out the Autotune in order to become the acoustic guitar playing Kanye West. The result? Well, it’s interesting, I suppose. The problem is, when you try something different, is whether the technique you try adds anything of value. See, for example, Grizzly Bear with production I can best describe as immensely creepy, or Animal Collective. Both manage to sound hugely different even though, underneath their songs are fairly normal (Marla, by Grizzly Bear, is a 50-year old song, but manages to sound both modern and ancient at once). But Woods, to me, sounds like someone arsing around. Still, it could lead onto more interesting things, so good luck to you, fella.

Maybe I really am just being harsh. Hey, give it a try yourself.

Woods by Bon Iver

Review – Further by Geneva

Do you ever hear a song for the first time, and when it’s done just sit there in astonishment at the beauty people can create? No One Speaks by Geneva was one of those. Driving home from work one night listening to Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley (yea, verily, it was the mid-90’s, and that was what was done in those days), and Jo announced the first single from a Scottish band just signed to Nude, Suede’s label. So there I was thinking the worst – a Scottish Suede, aaargh – and the first few bars of slightly jangly, rather melancholy guitar made me think, oh sweet Jebus, another Smiths/Suede ripoff.

And then the singer sang. And when the song finished I had parked my car outside my house and sat there for a couple of minutes with my mouth open. Really, I’m not making this up.

Look, I really don’t want to start going on about sonic cathedrals of sound, voice of an angel, blah blah blah, like everyone did once they heard Andrew Montgomery’s singing, so if you haven’t heard it yet, click on the link below and have a listen. He is truly, truly astonishing. Yes, he sounds like a choirboy crossed with Lisa Gerrard. Yes, he’s got a near 4-octave range. His voice has a timbre that is simply astonishing. And what’s more, he understands better than most other great singers that the key to putting emotion in your singing is to be restrained, so that when you do finally let go, it sounds all the more heartbreaking. Go on, listen then come back.

There was a story I once heard that his mates had never heard him sing, and on a drunken night out he suddenly jumped up onto a table and started belting out tunes, much to everyone’s astonishment. His friends then told him, frankly, to form a band and do something with that voice of his. Not sure if it’s true, but hey, it’s a nice image.

Anyway, he formed Sunfish with Steven Dora and some other fellas, then renamed themselves to Geneva. No One Speaks was there first single, followed up by this album Further. And you can tell that this lot weren’t the chirpiest buggers around (and not just because they’re from Aberdeen). The first song, Temporary Wings, is about suicide. The second’s about being a bit pissed off. Closely followed by more songs about despair, loneliness, depression, paranoia, and other such cheery subjects. But aside from Worry Beads, it doesn’t really feel like an unhappy album, thanks to the marvellously dextrous guitar playing and Andrew’s vocals, which continue to amaze me even now, thirteen years after I first heard him. It must be said that some of the songs haven’t aged particularly well, but No One Speaks and another song, The God Of Sleep, stand up well.

The God Of Sleep possibly shows off Andrew’s voice at it’s finest. It’s a lullaby, of sorts, starting off with the old “Now I lay me down to sleep/pray the lord my soul to keep”.

Of course, it all went wrong – difficult second album, hopeless record label, breakup.

Andrew is now recording under the moniker St Famous. Check it out.

And there’s a rather nice archive where you can listen to lots of lovely Geneva goodness here.

The God Of Sleep

No One Speaks

Review – American Music Club – Love Songs For Patriots

I was never a huge fan of American Music Club in their first, late-80’s to mid-90’s incarnation.  They seemed to sensitive, too yearning, and frankly the production seemed a bit, well, late-80’s.  For all the hype that they were the next REM, they never seemed to deliver.  Plus, their frontman Mark Eitzel sounded humourless and spiky, and let’s face it, we had Mark E Smith to be spiky and at least he had a sense of humour, odd though it may have been.

So when they reformed in 2003 and released Love Songs For Patriots, I wasn’t really bothered.  Until I came across a couple of songs, and I, quite frankly, was blown away.  Released in the dark days of the second Iraq war, calling your album “Love Songs For Patriots” was a perverse move that I rather liked.  Plus, the third song on the album, Patriot’s Heart, is about a male stripper, which is about as anti-Neo Con as you could get in those days.

Frankly, the album’s a beaut.  From the opening clang of Ladies and Gentlemen, through Another Morning’s reluctant anger, right to the hope of Myopic Books, it’s filled with fantastic songs.  The aforementioned Patriot’s Heart, telling its tale of a male stripper, starts off with “If you wanna see something patriotic, there’s a stripper/He don’t look that good, but he’s got an all-American smile”.  And any man who’s ever wandered into a strip club (either straight or gay, and not that I have, of course *cough*) would surely recognise the line “And after a few tequilas, I become something holy.”  It’s pure, wholesome entertainment.

To me, the highlight of the album is the pair of tracks Home and Myopic Books.  Home was written following a drunken argument in his local bar, when he realised afterward he was a miserable, drunken wretch, picking on some young guy for no reason other than he felt like it.  There’s a nod, presumably intentional, to The Smiths in the line “Why do I waste my time with people who’ll never love anyone?” (“In my life/Why do I give valuable time/To people who don’t care if I live or die ?”).  Mark’s anguished yells of “Home, home, home/I hope I make it home” are heartbreaking, the drunken yelling of a man who has got lost.  And I mean that in a metaphysical sense, of course.

In Myopic Books, Mark sings about getting over the pain of a breakup by visiting a bookstore “I was just hoping/for a bookstore like the one I prayed for/and the music they’d play there would be Dinosaur Jr./and the people who worked there would be super skinny/and super unfriendly – and that would make me happy”.  Now personally I much prefer personal service like you get in Daunt Books or John Sandoe but hey, that’s just me, I’m not a ex-drug addict, middle-aged gay singer-songwriter.  I do dig the Dinosaur Jr bit though.  Anyway, I’m rambling again – it’s a delicate, simple number, and absolutely wonderful.

(Digressing somewhat, but if you ever want to play AMC songs on your guitar, invest in a decent tuner – he’s a big fan of alternative tunings.  I mean DADF#AD?  For pete’s sake)

As for the humour.  Well, me and Mrs L&L went to see them live a couple of years ago.  I warned my wife that it might be a bit of a sullen evening, but we decamped at the front of the stage at Dingwalls anyway.  Out comes Mr Eitzel, dressed in a shabby suit, and I think the worst.  Then he starts telling jokes.  Asks me if it’s too loud for me.  Then a funny story about how, whilst on heroin, he and a friend try selling some drugs back to their dealer. Then a story about how writing a song about an ex can backfire when he turns up to your show and starts camply yelling “This songs about me!” whilst you are pouring your heart out on stage.  He’s one of the funniest front men I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Teenage Fanclub and the hugely amusing Tony Crow playing with Lambchop).  If you ever get a chance to see them live, do.

Anyway, there are a few less than stellar tracks on there – Song of the Rats Leaving The Sinking Ship brings forth my worries about whining that I mentioned at the start – but I truly love this album. And the production’s pretty good too.

Home.mp3 from Love Songs For Patriots