Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Importance Of Diaries

I've never been a great user of my diary. This may explain why I arrived into work today at 8 o'clock, put in a good hour's work and then realised that it was my day off. Sheepishly grabbing my coat to howls of derision from my workmates I headed back, aware that the double shot of coffee an hour earlier would prevent any plan of climbing back into bed. A rather infuriating start to the day perhaps, but the freedom of an unexpected day off in a rather dismal and soggy London town has provided me with the opportunity to work on this online 'diary'. Every cloud etc...
Two months into the year, with crisp Spring just days away, it's a good time to reflect on the best (not much worst, it's a grim enough day as it is!) of the year so far in the world of music.
Following the post-Christmas music industry hangover, the release of the year's anticipated albums has started to pick up speed. The year's worth of hype surrounding the Klaxons resulted in a number one album, one which toyed with and then completely discarded the scene ('nu-rave') which apparently spawned them. The likes of 'Two Receivers' and the ubiquitous 'Golden Skans' showed that the London tykes are in reality an accomplished pop group in Day-Glo disguise.
The Hold Steady's literate Springsteen-esque tales of booze and broken dreams continue to thrill, the dumbed-down Thin Lizzy riffs which roar along underneath 'Boys And Girls In America' making the gutter glamour all the more alluring.
Bloc Party's reinvention as the Shoreditch Street Preachers shows all the self-regard and righteous anger required to make 'A Weekend In The City' the alluring pop protest it is.
Long term fans have been waiting like rabid wolfhounds for Lucinda Williams' latest, and 'West' the alt-country queen's new album proves her finest work since the Grammy-winning 'Car Wheels On A Gravel Road', released more than a decade ago.
Opinions on Patrick Wolf vary from 'new Bowie' (the gist of the NME review of 'The Magic Position') to 'stop mucking about with orchestras and home-made drum machines and write some real songs' (the gist of The Observer's review). The reality is that he's a prodigious home-grown talent (in need of reining in, perhaps) aiming for the stars, and what's wrong with that?
Proggy noise-mongers Explosions In The Sky have a newie out, filling that Mogwai/Sigur Ros gap for the time being. For those with slightly shorter attention spans, The Horrors will shortly be releasing 'Strange House', full of scary organ-led garage rock blasts, Screaming Lord Sutch covers and probably some indechipherable ranting (let's face it, he's not gonna be singing Eva Cassidy covers on X-Factor anytime soon) by Faris Rotter.

Now for a few that appeared on my radar too late to make the poll of 2006's best albums, but are well worth checking out (if you like the sound of what's in the brackets).

Beirut - Gulag Orkestar (Fragile, lo-fi songs hijacked by mad Eastern-European brass band)

The Gossip - Standing In The Way Of Control (Taut, disco-punk hijacked by obese, lesbian diva possessed by Aretha Franklin)

Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury (The Neptunes' best productions in years hijacked by maniacal miscreants in a blizzard of cocaine - take that Bloc Party!)

Forthcoming albums of note:

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (5th March)

Bright Eyes' new one (late April)

The National - Boxer (21st May)

We end on a positive note for Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe and any other misguided actors silly enough to launch music careers - Jared Leto has trumped them all with his new project 30 Seconds To Mars. Can emo still be a counter-cultural force when embraced by thirty-something Hollywood actors?

Have a great March.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Acoustic Ladyland/Xerox Teens/Situationists live at White Heat, Madame JoJo's, Tuesday February 6

A real scoop this one for the folks down at White Heat and the public squeezed into Soho’s Madame JoJo’s (Radio 1’s uber-muso Steve Lamacq among them) as no-wave jazz-punkers Acoustic Ladyland are making quite a reputation for themselves, two albums since they started out playing jazz covers of Hendrix and Strokes’ songs.
Unfortunately, openers The Situationists hadn’t been informed that The Futureheads aren’t due their own tribute act yet. Not that there was anything offensive, or even unaccomplished, in their ragged harmonies and rehashed 1981 guitar lines, they just arrived three years late for their own party. From the three-pronged front-of-stage line-up right down to the quirky cover version (step up Daft Punk’s ‘Digital Love’), when the 'Hounds Of Love’ crew become globe-conquering megastars The Situationists could mount a decent career at weddings and bar mitzvahs. A few fringe music press publications and people in the know have fallen hard for the next act recently. The first thing to notice about Xerox Teens is their unusual stage set-up, focusing all attention to the centre and the relentless drummer.
The second is that they make quite a groovy garage rock racket, almost like some sort of mutant genetic splicing between The Fall, Dr Feelgood and The Muppets’ house band. Also, it must be mentioned that the singer has clearly been studying Mark E Smith and Lou Reed a little too hard for his too-cool-for-school exterior to ring true.
A discernible buzz of expectation greets the on-stage arrival of Acoustic Ladyland drummer Seb Rochford to set-up, preceded some thirty seconds earlier by his Biblically-proportioned mane of hair. Flanked by two studious-looking Toms (Cawley and Herbert, keyboards and bass respectively) front-man, saxophonist and sometime vocalist Pete Wareham arrives a few minutes later. Perhaps pushing the crossover potential AL possess, he’s decked out in skinny black jeans and studded belt, looking every bit the self-conscious indie teen, until you remember that he’s a jazz musician in his thirties.
Sensibly they choose to open with 'Road Of Bones’, the riotous fusion of sleek jazz and filthy riffage that opens their most recent album ‘Skinny Grin’. Much of the set consists of tracks from this new opus, an uncompromising rebuke to their critics within jazz circles which moves them even further away from their contemporaries in the modern British scene. Wareham plays his saxophone with unfettered intensity, at times looking as though every blood vessel in his face is about to explode, particularly noticeable on ‘Last Night’. For those not au-fait with the protocol of the jazz gig, there are welcome forays into vocal tracks, with mic duties handled by Alice Grant, Anne Booty and Wareham himself. ‘Red Sky’ is an early highlight, with the contrast between icy keyboard and melodious sax line broken up by the barely-restrained violence of the bass-playing.
The packed crowd nod along in bemused fashion to Rochford’s effortlessly extraordinary drum patterns, while the fluidity between the other members is evident throughout. Towards the end, Coco Electrik’s Anne Booty comes out to add the sultry vocals to ’Cuts And Lies’, the infectious new single, which could propel the group to reach a wider audience than the periphery of scenes they currently occupy. It’s clear from tonight’s performance that when more acclaim is afforded Acoustic Ladyland, they will be more than able to back it up in the live arena.


Sunday, 11 February 2007

Fear And Loathing For The Weekend

Bloc Party - A Weekend In The City

Something is rotten at the heart of the nation’s capital. A thronged mass of automatons swarm to bars and clubs every weekend, hell bent on hedonism and escaping the futile ache of modern life. Their tools are an endless stream of booze, cocaine, “sleeping pills and Marlboro Reds”. Politics are never approached in conversation, for fear of bringing down the uplifting euphoria of the chemical high.
Relationships are fleeting and unloving. Monday morning looks bleak, the future’s not even worth thinking about. Bloc Party’s second LP is a state of the nation address, approached via the microcosm of a weekend spent partaking and observing of this madness in East London’s trendy locale Shoreditch.
A band as earnest and sometimes self-regarding as Bloc Party are bound to polarise opinion. Many of pop’s best cultural commentators (think Ray Davies or Jarvis Cocker) disguise their intentions with liberal helpings of satire and irony, the first few seconds of ‘A Weekend In The City’ assure that is not be to the case here. ‘Song For Clay (Disappear Here)’ begins with Kele Okereke announcing “I’m trying to be heroic in an age of modernity”, carefully enunciating each syllable. Written in reference to Brett Easton-Ellis’ novel ‘Less Than Zero’, where LA socialite Clay becomes gradually more aware that his life cycle of casual sex and structured drug taking is morally repugnant, the opener is the album’s key track. The drums pound harder and Russell Lissack’s guitar roars louder than on any of debut 'Silent Alarm’, while Okereke lambasts his peers and himself for living “like the ’80’s never happened”.
One of the album’s oldest tracks 'Hunting For Witches’ details the climate of fear and anger following the 7/7 attacks on London’s transport system in 2005. Predictably the Daily Mail is held as the paragon of the following moral panic, although the band’s musical progression is perhaps more important to this track than the band‘s stance, which is apparent just from the title. Expanding on 'Silent Alarm’s jerky rhythms and widescreen guitars, ’A Weekend In The City’ shows an appreciation of New Order, electro and first single 'The Prayer’ seems to be taking its inspiration from pounding hip-hop sub-genre crunk.
Both 'The Prayer’ and 'On’ deal transparently with cocaine use, which is a key theme and catalyst throughout the set. In Okereke’s defence, he does detail the plus points as well as the face-numbing indifference it permeates, but he also labours the point somewhat.
The most impressive issue-based track is ‘Where Is Home?’ which confronts the alienation felt by UK immigrants with an undertow of intellectual violence, while ‘I Still Remember’ with its swirling guitar provides this album’s equivalent to the gorgeous ‘So Here We Are’ from their debut.
‘A Weekend In The City’ winds down with the sentimental hangover ode ‘Sunday’ and 'SRXT’s afterthought of poetry before Monday morning’s return to the corporate grind. An accomplished, thought-provoking and expansive work by one of our most talented bands, the bottom line is that this will fail to win over any new converts. Worthy as the points they raise may be, it is unlikely that Bloc Party’s manifesto will convince the nation’s hedonistic armies to change their ways any more than Easton-Ellis’ novel, but this doesn’t lessen the importance of making these observations. Whether you see them as a beacon of truth in an industry which more readily sells tales of ’Living For The Weekend’ or looking good on dance floors, or as po-faced party poopers, ’A Weekend In The City’ confirms that they’re not going away anytime soon.


Thursday, 1 February 2007

Metric live at Dingwalls, Lock 17, Tuesday January 30

Though lacking in the sort of critical salivating which accompanied Arcade Fire’s most recent London shows, fellow flag-bearers of the Canadian invasion Metric warmed up for their upcoming support slots for Bloc Party by packing out this multi-tiered (though admittedly small) venue. The task of wowing the capital was made all the more tricky by the mesmerising support act Fields. Yet to release debut album ‘Everything Last Winter‘, this Anglo-Icelandic five-piece roared through a half-hour set, showcasing their knack for both languid, harmonised melodies and intense, full-throttle freak-outs. Subtle use of slide guitar and continuously ferocious drumming stood out amidst the enveloping, full-bodied sound. The real star, however, was the angelic, honey-voiced Thorunn Antonia, who flitted between keyboards and accordion, effortlessly capturing the audience‘s attention throughout.
Metric’s last album ‘Live It Out’ shifted focus from the Ladytron-like electronica that characterised their debut, giving more exposure to Emily Haines’ guileful songwriting - which surfaces early in their set via the melancholy ’Poster Of A Girl’. Haines then assumes centre stage for the more raucous new-wave of ‘Patriarch On A Vesper’, her enigmatic presence reminiscent of Debbie Harry, as her band at times recall early Blondie. After an impressive start, the performance begins to lose momentum in the mid-section and the subtleties of Haines’ songs are often lost in the electro squall surrounding them - her drawn out, cliché-ridden asides also begin to wear the patience of the crowd.
The band’s biggest hit to date, ‘Monster Hospital’ - with its huge, Clash-aping chorus (“I fought the war, but the war won”) - should have been Metric‘s saving grace. However, even this fails to provide the requisite momentum to get the set back on track, save for the frantic reaction of a few energetic die-hards pressed up close to the stage.
Finishing up with the bass-driven highlight of their first album ’Dead Disco’, Metric regain some of the excitement lacking earlier. Unfortunately it is too little too late for this performance, hopefully their upcoming support slots will lessen the expectation and allow them the opportunity to upstage their illustrious headliners.