Monday, 29 April 2013

‘Arc’ by Everything Everything


Everything-Everything-Arc

Point is: music can reflect the past and still be valid. Some may see it as history repeating itself, for others it’ll be brand spanking new. If you don’t think Peace are as rejuvenating as a wash of zesty orange juice over a crushing hangover then you’re beyond help. As Britain suffers from youth unemployment and economic crisis, our greatest currency is the chime of a golden tune. Peace have delivered 10 of them. So what if they’re a bunch of pirates and not pioneers?
This is their time.”
(Concluding paragraph of the NME’s 9/10 review of Peace’s debut, as brought to my attention by Neil Kulkarni.)

This is their time?

Maybe it is. Maybe this moment in history, when here in the UK the supreme accomplishment of the last century, the wonderful, vital, heartachingly admirable beacon of hope and humanity that is our National Health Service has been thrown to the wolves of private sector profiteering and will never be the same again, yes, maybe this moment belongs to a foursquare indie band called Peace.

This moment, when our higher education system, envy of the world and nurturer of critical thinking, has been privatised and told to nose out not enlightenment but cash.  When the poorest and most vulnerable in the country have been kicked to the kerb and aggression towards them has been deliberately fomented by the privately-educated millionaires and scumbag media who decide what goes in this town. When disabled people are getting shouted at in the street as scroungers and penniless, traumatised refugees are being blamed for financial privations that the ruling class have created. When making comments on social media can be parsed as thought-crime and punished with custodial sentences. When students who’ve been beaten up by riot cops have to prove in court that they’re not the aggressors. And when the mainstream left seem as utterly incapable of raising a decent response to these horrific, repressive, calamitous times as they would a piss-up in a brewery…

Maybe the present really does belong to hopelessly low-horizoned backwards-looking non-entities such as the predictably pointless Peace.

Maybe the rest of us are truly beyond hope…

So I am very glad Everything Everything exist. I’m glad they say their influences range from Destiny’s Child to Slint and I’m glad they’re not afraid to be cerebral and ridiculous as well as shiny. I’m glad their stated intention is to avoid cliche, or the cliches expected of white men with guitars from Manchester: amen to that! God, I’m so glad they want to be pioneers not pirates. And I’m glad that, despite being pop musicians, they’re not so daft as to believe that right now “our greatest currency is the chime of a golden tune” but that, on the contrary, the very least they can do in the face of this political shiteheap is to reflect the present. Anything else is doing Neo-Liberalism’s dirty work for it.

Fuck the past! Seriously, we don’t have time for that shit right now.

Arc turns out to be magnificent. Ambitious enough to be documenting a moment in history rather than disinterring someone else’s. Or rather, documenting, as is Art’s wont, how it feels to be alive right now, here at the crest of the wave when the world is clearing its throat (the album starts with a “cough cough”) and experiencing the hopefulness/awfulness something about to break.

The words come tumbling out of Jonathan Higgs’ mouth like so many bright bees, clouds and clouds of them buzzing about, so numerous and sharp such that their ingenuity, volume and ambition remind me of Joanna Newsom’s meticulous verses. He conjures up drone strikes, billionaires, footballers’ wives, broken war-heroes, landmines, volcanoes, rioters, pterodactyls, post-apocalyptic landscapes, revelatory visions. Not a waistcoat in sight.

Vocals range from falsetto to grainy keening to rich choralling, constantly on the point of breaking, full to bursting like water balloons or rainclouds. It’s as flawed and as sexy as fuck. I’d use the achy scuffed tone of Higgs’ voice to counter the criticism of EE that they’re too clever-clever to engage with, much (to my ears) in the manner of XTC, where cleverness smacks of wackiness, detachment, even privilege (of both class and gender). Making intricate choppy moves because they can. Too many notes. Too many words. EE are not Ramones by a long chalk. But that voice! Those words! They’re used because no others else will do. No fewer will work to catch the complexity.

The stream of Higgs’ lyrics is often interrupted by voices that counter or question it. Its narrative is provisional, subjective, non-authoritative. ‘Armourland’, for example, ostensibly about a love affair, is punctuated by other voices and contradictory imagery; “end, end!” it goes in a most unromantic way  and closes with the words “I’m sorry”. EE are maximalist because the world is huge and strange and confusing. They can power up a tumbling Sigur Ros-sized anthem (cf ‘Arc’) only to shoot it down with jarring synths, jabbering voices, scattered beats.  ‘Cough Cough’, with its panicky/exhilarated refrain of “I’m coming alive!” is both a man and a country waking up to change – to something terrible, something revelatory, something new. ‘Duet’ is all riots and looting and confusion but accompanied by sweetly skipping strings and anti/romantic imagery. “But of all the dead volcanoes on Earth, you just happen to retch and roll through mine… ”

Arc bursts with wit and life, it’s dazzling and bewitching, full of urgency and technique. It slams, quivers, dances, rails, shouts, cajoles and teases. It feels like NOW, so much more than Peace with their rehashed indie tropes or the fuckwitted fauxlk of the recently laurelled Mumfords, whose success in the face of EE’s very existence is baffling to me. I am glamoured by its cleverness, in lust with its cerebral flicker.

It makes me want to dance and fuck and react and think and fall in love.

It’s the sound of portents and miracles, the sound of being messily human in the midst of chaos and destruction. It wouldn’t know what to do with authenticity. Its heart beats pop.
It sounds like walking down Piccadilly in the aftermath of a demo, past pink and yellow and orange paint ball splats on the fascia of the Ritz. Like anger and danger and the potential for change ringing in the air with the shouts of the mob. Like the magnetic pull of the black hoodied kids throwing sticks towards the riot police line, waking you up, stirring you up.

It sounds like walking from your lover’s bed in the drizzly pre-dawn, head a-buzz with fireflies and thrills, against the work-going tide, plod and skip at odds.

Like National Geographic films, like geological wonders, like the slow crunch of tectonic plates and the murmuration of starlings, like both laval creep and the iridescent compound eyes of insects.

Like snow in April and ever more surreal horror on the news.

Like being seduced by revolution despite deep trepidation.

Like working out that everything , everything, is more complicated than it first appears.

Like stuttery heartbeats propelling blood around a body.

Like being awake, like coming alive…

And why, now, would you want to sound like anything else, be anything less than everything?



Dear Bobby Gillespie | Re: ‘It’s Alright, It’s OK’: it’s actually really not


primal scream - it's alright, it's OK


Dear Bobby Gillespie,

Re ‘It’s Alright, It’s OK’: it’s actually really not.

Not at all.

Look, someone needs to tell you! No other fucker seems to have done it so I guess it’s down to me. I appreciate that you’re trying to invoke the spirit of ’69 with the B&W footage, the haircuts, the sound, the words… but this is 2013. I know – because you’re opinionated and articulate enough to shout about how despicable the Tory cunts running the country are in interviews - that you’d welcome change. But it’s not going to happen by rifling through faded snapshots of the glory days of protest and holding them up to view, hoping that some of the cool of those mediated images of counter-cultural youth will rub off on our hopelessness and inertia.

I don’t want to go back to the 60s and 70s, however cool they look from here. They were also sodden with homophobia, sexism, racism, every other ism in the book. And despite the cosmic threads dude, I wouldn’t want to be a mini-dressed flower girl or a doe-eyed muse: the archetypes open to women 40 years ago are beyond stale. Let’s not pilfer from the past for our revolutionary ideologues, be they hippies, striking miners, riot grrls or Suffragettes; let’s acknowledge them, incorporate their more pertinent points, learn some lessons and move the fuck on. Find some fresh ones. It truly is the only way we’re going to set anything ablaze.

The way things are now is new. The way people are being controlled, set against each other, demoralised and bled dry may have much in common with past eras of repression but let’s have some historical specificity here; this moment is unique and terrible and needs unique and terrible action to counter it. Retro-gazing is counter revolutionary, Comrade. Get with the programme.

Plus, really? *That* sound again? Make something new. Please. In that Guardian interview you speak passionately about how you see music as a revolutionary force, as psychic resistance, but that there song is the sound of utter resignation, the sound of middle-aged people giving up on sex. It’s the sound of a life crunching to a halt in the acknowledgement that anything glorious that it has ever been is behind it and it’s only by the eternal pointing out of that one shining moment when it thought it was astounding that prevents it from sinking into the mud of mundanity. It’s leather trousers worn by men in pubs. It’s an OAP still piling the remainder of his hair into his Teddy Boy quiff, which has over decades thinned to the point where it’s just a flimsy hint, a ghost of a style. It’s a desperate gathering of youthful signifiers to shore one’s existence up against death. (Which does not, in case you were under any illusion to the contrary, work.)

It is NOT the sound of revolution.

Fucking hell.

*rolls eyes*

Not OK at all.

Love from Lucy


Friday, 5 April 2013

Kate Nash interview



Ah, it’s easy to take potshots at Kate Nash! Who is she trying to be, what is she trying to say? Is it any good?! When I interviewed her recently about her new albumGirl Talk and – here’s the thing – her newfound feminist image, I didn’t find the answers straightforward, however sweet, well-meaning and friendly Nash was when we spoke; there’s a whole mess of uncomfortable contradictions to square.
It’s all about context.
Her 2007 hit single ‘Foundations’ was a little gem, its sharp, unflattering picture of a failing relationship bubbling with resentment and as gawky as the couple it depicted, but – context - Nash was stuck firmly in her mate Lily Allen’s mockney-sass shadow, and, frankly, one precocious/privileged metropolitan teenager doing hoppity-skip sarky pop songs seemed quite enough, ta.
Kate Nash, 2013 version, is still a bit of a chameleon, although she’s mostly playing a riot grrl rather than an Estuary-vowelled BRIT kid. Not everyone’s thrilled about it.
Let’s start with the feminist credentials. On the one hand, Kate Nash is a woman who releases her own records, plays with an all-woman band and hires women to work on the promotion and distribution of her music.
On the other hand, so do lots of women. Every day, across the world, in lo-fi, punk, post-punk, grunge, even, goddamn it, pop, dance and electro bands, women are working with women and it ain’t no big thing.
Kate Nash doing those things is mostly remarkable because it’s not the script she started with; you don’t expect a young, conventionally-marketed female pop star to shake off the traces quite so consciously (although who’s to blame for those expectations?). And deliberately choosing to work with women is within an industry still skewed along gender lines is an admirable identity-building act: “When you’re younger and growing up and everyone’s trying to fit you in a box, it’s like eeeeugh! Now I’m liberated, more in control!” she tells me.
But, on another other hand, she is doing all that from the position of a conventionally pretty, white, privileged in-all-kinds-of-arenas singer who makes shinybright pop rather than breaking radical new musical, aesthetic or sexual boundaries. She’s not Beth Ditto. She’s not Johnny Rotten. She’s not even La Roux.
Context.
There’s also the fact that while twenty years down the line the apparently epoch-defining Riot Grrl movement is being discussed in books, at conferences, on radio programmes and documentaries everybloodywhere you look, its direct influence on current mainstream pop is manifest by exceedingly few people. Kate Nash being one.
But… Riot Grrl’s influence is made messy flesh a thousand times over in the lower, scratchier strata of rock’s firmament; there are hundreds of bands doing the noisy girl thang; it’s hardly original.
And as Nash says “it’s important for girls of today to create new scenes, have new labels”; they might “admire the influence of people like Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love… (but) things need to change… it’s a different world now”.
So why make music that sounds like 1991? You’d think there were no other ways of being a feminist musician.
Not that I mind pastiche done well. Last summer’s ‘Underestimate The Girl’, written and recorded in a day, so irked listeners with its scrappy grrlishness that hundreds of them took to the grubby depths of the Youtube comments section to berate her furiously. Her fans seemed to be steamingly cross that the new material sounded different to the songs of five years ago: less bubbly, less obviously chartpop and more (“How dare she?!”) obviously old-school indie, in fact. Fans of said old-school indie meanwhile seemed full of some kind of pompous pique that she was pilfering from their past and showing her workings-out so clearly.
Ah, some people are so taken with indignation when spotting a familiar sound or style that their ears can’t tell whether or not the thing is being employed in such a way that the song works. My first reaction to ‘Underestimate The Girl’ might’ve been a knee-jerk “That’s Courtney’s schtick, give it back before she decks you!” but actually I really like what she’s referencing; it’s my music, goddamnit! OK, the song doesn’t sound particularly original, and OK, you can read its influences as if they were ingredients on the side of the packet, but it makes a ferocious noise and has a nice, spiky, satisfying hook. She’s not scared of the tuneless screech either. It’s a really fucking good song, OK? Anything else you might say about it seems unnecessarily axe-grindy.
Girl Talk is saturated with the sounds and mannerisms of early-nineties girl-heavy indie rock as signifiers for DIY grrl power: Breeders, Bikini Kill, Pixies, Le Tigre all present and correct. Kim-ish basslines throb and saunter all over the record, complementing lovely dark grungey guitars. Nash’s chameleon voice curls itself into American sneers and growls as well as the familiar bright London-girl tones of old.
Yes, she’s cherry-picking the bits of Riot Grrl that suit her (Courtney Love’s screech but not her fucked-up dirty edginess; Kathleen Hanna’s guitars but not the ferociously confrontational sexual politics; Kim Deal’s up-front basslines but not her peculiarly plain cool… ) but taken at face value Girl Talk has some pretty good pop moments. Of course, Nash’s songs have none of the discordant teeth of a Talk Normal, Tunabunny or Trash Kit, bands much more obviously the heirs to the grrl throne; Nash’s riot is an act, a canny assumption of cool and a nudge to her influences (which also include surf rock and Brit pop).
This is no bad thing; music has always rifled through the dressing-up box, picking and choosing its clothes. Nash is putting on a costume as she’s putting on the snarl, just as she did with the snarky kid persona on Made Of Bricks. It’s clear that her cheerful appropriation of Riot Grrl’s tropes is related to the way Nash sees the world: “once something’s already existed it becomes more of an image than a reality”, she tells me.
So fuck authenticity. I don’t care if a song wears its influences on its sleeve if it makes a fine show of doing so.
Nash even talks about feminism in terms of image and style. You might, as I did, wince a little at her excitement that feminism in 2013 is “getting more popular, it’s on Tumblr; feminism is a more fashionable thing now with stuff like Rookie mag and Tavi Gerritson” but it’s true that feminism is much more than an academic pursuit:  “it can be about studying and reading books, but as I get a bit older – I mean I’m 25 now –I feel like it’s actually just about life experience and you make your own version of it really”.
Hmm, I dunno… surely feminism is less a fashionable, personalised bolt-on to an identity than an on-going revolutionary process that engages fiercely with a structurally inequitable world? It’s not a self-development tool or “just like something to have in your life to give you confidence and make you appreciate women and realise the struggles that women face. And think about what you can do to improve that and live your own life.” Ouch.
Ah, poor kid. I shouldn’t pick hairs; in the end actions speak louder than words. As well as her proactive practice in the industry, Nash is also enthusiastically involved inRock School For Girls, an organisation that teaches girls to play rock music.
“I’ve nurtured a bunch of teenage girls, I’ve encouraged and worked with them and I’ve watched them go from a bunch of shy, angry kids that didn’t really know what to do with their feelings to performing at QEH, shouting and knowing how to express themselves, feeling confident and being able to be involved”.
This is a very good thing.
Kate Nash writes some smart little pop songs and (dread compliment) she is trying; I can’t help but feel fond of her. She’s working hard at being a creative and technically-savvy musician: “I’ve always been in control, I’ve always co-produced but with this record it was really guttural and emotional and instinct-led, so I was perfectionist about every snare hit and every sound.” These – context again – are noble aims.
And she’s clearly having fun. She’s flicking the Vs at the industry-approved career path which would’ve had her boxed-up and smoothed out by now. The truth is that she’s trying to walk the talk: maybe that’s more important than the fact that renowned rebel girls Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift were top of her list when asked about women she admired. She’s young. That’s the music business for ya. I’m sure she knows who Pussy Riot are really.
It’s revealing that the most animated she got in the interview was when we talked about fame, celebrity and the press. Yes, so this is her frame of reference. Growing up as a teenager in the public eye and being critiqued publicly and nastily on one’s appearance and choice of boyfriend must be singularly destructive of one’s self-confidence; no wonder she picks out the empowering aspects of both feminism and playing music as particular personal themes. When I ask her how negativity affects her, it all comes out in a furious rush:
“I think it’s bad for the world, not just for me. I don’t really mind it because I’ve got a thick skin, I’m over it: people have said every mean thing you can think of on the internet and in magazines so I’m not really scared of it, but after doing work in schools it does piss me off because, you know what? You might not be affecting my life but you’re affecting fourteen year olds and warping their minds, making them think they have to look a certain way and be a certain thing and be perfect princesses! I’ve interviewed almost a hundred teenagers who hate themselves and think they’re too ugly and fat to be a musician. So now I don’t have any qualms about saying “Fuck you!” to those magazines that do that.”
That’s it: we live in a culture where girls don’t think they can play music because of what they look like. It’s fucking heartbreaking. Enraging. Never the music crit, the fact that Kate Nash works directly and effectively with girls at Rock School to counter that appalling message is immensely commendable.
Here’s some context from me: five years ago I was watching a children’s cabaret at a festival and three different groups of kids (all girls) chose to sing Kate Nash songs. Which, I guess, was significant and surprising enough in itself. There was one little girl, eleven or twelve at the most, slightly plump, pony-tail, glasses, her voice shaking with nerves as she started to sing, but my god, it was amazing when she did, the lyrics of ‘Mariella’ tumbling from her mouth with a heartbreaking mix of pride and terror. You could tell that every word - every single word - was being dragged from a depth of momentous identification with the song that perhaps only the very young are capable of. All the lines about fitting in, about being clumsy and loud and opinionated, about Mariella glueing her own mouth shut in protest… that girl’s rendition was then – and remains – one of the most moving performances of any song I’ve ever witnessed. I wasn’t alone either; the marquee was thrumming with emotion. And when she bounced happily down from the stage she was a changed person, flushed with achievement, as clear an example of the transformative power of music as I’ve ever seen.
It was awesome.
Out in the world, being lived and loved by people to whom Kate Nash rightfully means a great deal more than she could ever mean to me (grown-up beyond the age where her articulation of the gloriousness and shittiness of being stuck on the cusp of maturity could ever be more than mere appreciation) her cocky little songs have quite a resonance.
So say what you like about her, oh you mouth-frothing Youtubers, those little girls singing her songs were right there with her, doing with music what ought to be done.
Kate Nash gets a hell of a lot of Brownie points for that.

(First published on Clash Online)

Monday, 3 December 2012

Beck - Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney's)


Beck Song Reader

Beck is releasing his new ‘album’, Song Reader, as sheet music.

As far as I can tell – I haven’t seen it but obviously that’s not going to stop me opining about it - the collection of song sheets will be beautifully designed, printed and packaged in perfect faux-antique/just-a-hint-of-a-wink-to-modernity style; a lovely, well-crafted object that will delight and amuse.

I’m ambivalent about this: viewing the world through sepia-tinted glasses isn’t my cup of Darjeeling and Beck’s choice of aesthetic only lends credence to those who think that the whole enterprise is horribly elitist/twee/smug/precious/backwards-looking and is more about gimmickry than experimentation.

It won’t help that it’s co-published by McSweeney's, the US literary quarterly/publishing company run by the writer Dave Eggers, Beck’s collaborator in this project. There’s a good case to be made that Eggers’ enthusiastic cottage industry of a magazine was the spark that set off the whole art-as-artefact, tweedgeek, retro-worship some years back; all that lauding of craftsmanship, quality, limited editions... none of which are bad things per se, obviously, but what it's led to isn't all good either, politically or aesthetically. Enough of fixed-gear bikes and wicker baskets: where did the future go? Is everyone settling for the pretence of a nebulous golden age rather than fighting to make a badly-needed new future? How does the fetishisation of marketable product - the limited print runs, the limited access – fit in a world of financially valueless, infinitely shareable digital files? Where’s the liberation, where’s the progress, where’s the shine? (Plus, isn’t this precisely one of those things white folk just love to do and write about as if nothing much else existed outside our bubble of cosy joy?)

Oh, who am I kidding?! I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Song Reader; I’ll get over my privileged discomfort. Sod reverse snobbery: mmm, pretty packaging!

According to a recent interview with The Guardian this was a seriously long-term project for Beck; he started thinking about it before the internet age, before MP3 were zipping across the globe, before the music industry as we know it juddered on its foundations with the realisation that the window of opportunity for making money from music by selling it on vinyl or plastic had begun and ended within the space of a century and a half. That particular paradigmatical ship had sunk. Of course, before then music could be sold on paper: back when every aspirational household had a piano to play rather than a radio or a record player if you wanted music, you played it yourself. And before the words cheap and mass-produced were pejoratives, intricately printed song sheets just like the Beck’s used to sell in their hundreds of thousands. Beautiful things don’t need to be small scale.

(There’s no point even trying to measure the relative moral, cultural or even goddamn psychological worth of the way music was consumed then and now; writing it, playing it, dancing to it, sharing it; concert-going or mix-tape-making or streaming or 7-inch shopping or humming it on yer paper-round: different ways and means of playing with music have their virtues and drawbacks. People were huffing and puffing just as much about the awfulness and moral turpitude of the gramophone - how it would kill music and ruin families - when it was first manufactured for home use, just as they did about home-taping not so long ago and do now about file-sharing… Change is inevitable but it certainly rattles cages, usually with solid financial reason.)

Beck Song Reader
Personalizing and even ignoring the arrangements is encouraged. Don’t feel beholden to what’s notated. Use any instrument you want to. Change the chords; rephrase the melodies. Keep only the lyrics, if desired. Play it fast or slow, swung or straight. Take a song and make it an instrumental or an a cappella. Play it for friends, or only for yourself. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance.” (Beck Hansen, Song Reader)
What Beck’s doing is lifting an old model and plonking it down in the 21st Century and seeing what happens, a kind of Borgesian experiment of form and consequence. What will it do to the songs? To the audience? To the industry? To the dissemination of the music? What is a song if it doesn’t appear as a finished package, with everything already in place? Who does it belong to?

If you publish a song as a blueprint, you can’t rely on tone, noise, interpretation, musicianship, arrangements, voice or presence to make it what it is; it has to be incredibly well-wrought, fit to survive the most execrable rendition. As Beck said in The Guardian, it “was a very disciplined process… It was like putting an X-ray or a magnifying glass on your own songwriting – it's right there, its weaknesses glaring”. You might be able to get a genius recording out of just feedback and howls but writing sheet music is a different art altogether.

Beck's contrariness is pretty appealing; whether it's enough to counter the argument that Song Reader is self-indulgent and elitist and will only sell to privileged aesthete-bores and those few (outside the classical world) who still know how to read music is another story.
Well, the internet changes the game entirely. It throws out a challenge to the whole world, opens that niche market wide, and, with PDFs of the pages already circulated for free, makes it a mass-participatory, exciting, collaborative, evolving global project. It's no longer limited to those people who buy the pretty package. The songs are already being recorded, shared, listened to; videos being made and uploaded and commented on. There are concerts planned, with chamber orchestras and ukulele bands. Versions are informing other versions, changing the way the songs are heard and are interpreted in a marvellous, unpredictable feedback loop of ideas. That, to my mind, is not retrogressive, despite my reservations about the craft-snob monster McSweeney's spawned.

"I want to hear how far away they are from the original way they were written," Beck told The Guardian. "I can play them live, but I'm more interested to hear what people do with them.” Yes. Me too. I want to see dubstep versions, versions played on stylophones and on trumpets; I want kids to have a go, Mongolian throat singers and cellists and pop divas. Never mind the staff of the New Yorker playing 'Old Shanghai' surprisingly well, I want to hear Beck songs played by elephants and by wind sculptures and London taxi cabs. Make it so!

I think he’s done something beautiful. Generous. Trusting. Democratic. Humble (this is no way to make a fortune). I admire the fact he's letting his songs go out into the world and his remarkable lack of control-freakery: if he ever records those songs the resulting recordings will just be cover versions among cover versions. It’s exciting to imagine what the world will make of them when it gets its hands on them; I know the results will be peculiar and wonderful and silly and magnificent and unexpected and all kinds of extraordinary, because that’s what happens when artists (Bj√∂rk, Amanda Palmer among plenty of others) do this kind of thing. Never mind how good his songs actually are: it’s in the nature of cover versions that whatever the raw material, something amazing can be created.

And I know, absolutely know, that a blossoming of creativity will be the inevitable result of setting those sheet music seeds. It makes me feel hugely warm towards humanity. Because when they aren’t fucking themselves up, shooting each other or despoiling their planet, accepting dares and making music together are some of the very best things that humans beings do.

Nice one, Beck.
Old Shanghai - Beck
Old Shanghai
I'm going to leave the last word to musician Chris Anderson, who had this to say in answer to accusations that publishing sheet music is elitist because so few people read it anymore:
"I don't get the whole attitude that regards sheet music as nostalgic, quaint, elitist etc. It is the only universal language there is and a fuck sight easier than learning so-called contemporary 'languages' like say Javascript or Python or whatever. Just because music teaching curricula often eschew simple music theory doesn't mean that trying to learn to read music is in any way backward looking. I'm rubbish at sight reading but with a little perseverance wonderful things can be achieved and like anything, the more you try the easier it becomes. Music is just a language which exceeds words. It speaks across continents, cultures, faiths and politics. It draws us all together where words chosen without care can undo these good things terribly. A badly chosen note on the other hand, if repeated may become the right note and become a Number One hit, as occurred in the main riff in Gary Numan's 'Are Friends Electric?' 

By learning to read music - which involves mainly being able to subdivide four or six (not elitist really) and know your ABC - you have combined elementary mathematics with elementary literacy to create any emotion you care to, and, if you love language so much, you can just add words into the recipe and hey presto, a song. By writing it down you share it in its purest form for anyone to interpret as they wish. Innit."
You can get Song Reader from the McSweeney's store.

Micachu and the Shapes @ Coalition, Brighton, 13th Oct




The great thing about seeing a band play live rather than hearing their music through yer own solipsistic headphones is that you get context. When Micachu & the Shapes play here at Coalition, down on Brighton beach on a dark damp Saturday night, under the Victorian brick arches of the venue’s cavernous insides, you get a whole world of context.
At most gigs a band’s particular generic style is clearly echoed in its audience: I’ve almost drowned in beard’n’flannel when watching Americana acts and the stripy tops going in and out of phase at hipster indie shows can cause hypnosis in susceptible beings. It’s a bit of a surprise to see such an oddball as Mica Levi mirrored in her audience but here she is, in the baseball caps and androgyny of the friendly teenage-Grimester-to-middle-aged-indie-kid crowd in front of the stage. [At one point a boy, here with his dad, all of 13 in his cut-off Joy Div tee and cap, is greeted with great delight by the similarly-attired but older and queerer Micachu fanbase.] It’s good to see in practice who it is that loves this quirky stuff: overwhelmingly positive reviews from the faceless critics [especially those of The Shapes’ edging-into-avant-garde-territory collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, at whose concerts apparently the audience didn’t applaud between songs] aren’t necessarily translated into actual bodies dancing in a nightclub under Brighton’s promenade.
And dance they do. We’d love to see a film made of someone pulling shapes to Micachu music; perhaps, a la Thom Yorke in ‘Lotus Flower’, it’d be all gawky slink and sway, with no time for the dancer to get into a groove before another shift of tempo or tune, a constant morphing of pattern and colour, the aural equivalent of an unfolding Jacob’s Ladder. It’d be good, whatever. It’s good here, because while the foundations of a Micachu song tend to have a crash-bang simplicity about them, there’s that drummer, knocking out precise reggae rhythms or hip-swinging ska beats or relentless Fall-ish sycopations over the top of a foursquare playschool -simple riff, turning it into a remarkably funky – if still kitchen sink clattery – beast.
The three members of the band stand on the stage in their co-ordinating shirts, each printed with a different shape [square, triangle, circle] like toddler shape-sorter boxes. Square pegs, round holes. Does this lot fit in? Well, perhaps, if you care to go looking you could find progenitors and peers [The RaincoatsBush Tetras,CocoRosie, PramTricky’s Nearly God project; bands which tend to attract epithets such as quirky, amateur, off-kilter, dissonant, wilful, shoddy… ] but the fact remains that Micachu and The Shapes won’t easily fit into any box. They don’t sound that much like anything else. They certainly don’t sound like the past, which is a rarer thing than you’d imagine. I found myself thinking of Throwing Muses [another band which sounded like itself if not actually something utterly alien] while watching them, not least because Mica Levi’s face – clear, youthful, unprettified – has certain similarities with Kristin Hersh’s, which is also often to be seen twisted into a grimace of, what? Anxiety? Wry amusement? Concentration?
We get to hear much of Never, in all its short sharp stabby funny sweet ramshackle noisy maximalist glory. We dance along, not exactly gracefully, not exactly with groove, but certainly with huge amounts of cheer. It becomes clear that MatS are resolutely anti-twee; there’s not a hint of cupcake about them. They’re robust, angular, strong, self-aware and witty without having to resort to the dreaded detachment of the terminally ironic. There’s not a hint of machismo either, not until a hefty and frowning security guard prowls on stage to kick aside the bra that someone’s thrown at Mica, causing peals of laughter from audience and band alike. The exhilaration is obvious: there’s even something immensely pleasing and telling about the incongruity of a shiny laptop perched on a stool next to a zither played with a travelcard…
Micachu’s shapes might be contrary and twisted but they have charm in buckets. Get yer gawk on!

Another letter to the poor sods at Uncool magazine...


Mumford & Sons - Grammys

Mumford & Sons’ singular importance in rock’s current moment cannot be underestimated,” is not a sentence I ever imagined I’d read.

Especially not in the debut article deployed by a potential music webzine as a Kickstarter carrot, and especially not one which trumpets itself as offering A NEW KIND OF MUSIC JOURNALISM.

And extra especially doubly definitely not in one which has just come under articulate fire for its lack of diversity/ambition.

Mumford & Sons! Seriously?

Look, here’s the thing, Uncool: Mumford & Sons have become the embodiment of the kind of privilege-blindness you’ve just been accused of; why on Earth would you write a feature focusing on their apparently glorious, genre-spawning ascent at all, let alone this week?

Maybe it didn’t cross the water, all the righteous furore about them and their nu-folk compadres, the privately-educated kids with guitars hijacking rock’s avant cool and using their boorish mass to de-claw its fury at the exact same point in history when the working class is being battered by cuts and joblessness. (Here's an overview of the debate; unfortunately Simon Price's fantastic article in The Word which sparked it off is not available online.) Maybe it hasn’t bitten the blogging rock writers of America how fucking frustrating it is that people who are top of the heap privilege-wise (I’m thinking specifically of the frontman of M&S pals Noah And The Whale, Charlie "I don't think where we come from really comes into it Fink) can dismiss class as way of analysing music. Or that they can refute so easily the idea that someone’s sociocultural location might contribute to the content/sound/reception of their music in ways worth dissecting. Maybe this particular Brit-crit seethe, the reason why the band is referred to the length and breadth of Facebook GB as Bumford & Cunts, has escaped the editors of Uncool?
Which, OK. Whatever. You’re missing it because they’re missing it because you’re both from the same particular dominant demographic in the indierockverse. As Dorian Lynskey says in his perceptive blog post on rich kids in rock, it’s not a coincidence. That’s the way the kyriarchy works. (He also says this: “Entitlement and complacency – the sense of going through life without touching the sides – are the enemy of good art, and I hear them in a lot of young bands” which is a crucial consideration if you’re not just going to be slagging off posh boys for being posh boys, fun though that might be.)

If kyriarchy’s a new one on you, I’d advise you to stop what you’re doing, click and learn and come back when you know what the hell I’m talking about. You’re welcome; here to help. It’s all about who you are (in terms of your race, sexuality, gender, physical ability, age, financial security, cisbodiedness, education, class etc) and how where you’re caught in those complex intersectional webs of dominance/oppression affect what you understand of the world and what you project out into it.

You’ve just projected Mumford & Sons. This see above is not a coincidence.
So when people respectfully suggest that you take a long hard look at the way your own privilege and sense of entitlement gives you cultural and political tunnel vision the last thing I’d suggest you do is run your first article about a band infamous for epitomising just that.

And, furthermore, don’t use that old chestnut, the Death of Rock, as leverage to give your new-minted genre oomph. Because if you think “festivalcore’s ascent has sacrificed some nuances upon the altar of mass appeal” and then go on to say, “So be it: let them die so rock may live on among EDM and hip-hop and pop” then that’s its appeal stone cold dead for me. (Dampening nuance for mass appeal is meant to be a good thing?! Since when where those things necessarily at odds anyway? Who the hell are you writing for? And why?)

Plus, of course, anyone who says, “And it might be the last hope for the future of rock music” about ANYTHING, even the most sparky, eccentric, outsider strain of pots’n’pans girlcore gloriousness, let alone heard-it-all-before, happy clappy nu-folk waistcoatery, has not a single clue about history. We have no idea at all what marvels will unfold before us but the ever-mutating, ever-evolving, curve-ball-chucking glittershow that is rock music keeps on rolling on. (Lord help us if its only salvation were really in the kind of meh music even the author of the piece says doesn’t move him unless he’s watching it at sunset with his mates at Coachella. Fucksake. The only people who think rock’s dead are those who are mourning the death of their own youth. Rock does not belong to one generation. Write that out a hundred times and go listen to some Micachu.)

Which brings me to (yet) another gripe; this festivalcore you want to get instated as newbie genre on the block seems to me to be very clearly more a consequence of timeplacedrugsfriends than the particular music being played.

Festivals are big business; yes, there’re all those American beardy anthemic dudes hanging about the place but I’d say that their presence is due more to the play-it-safe bookings policy of the US indie-centric festival managers or the cultural preferences and influence of a certain tranche of the music world who go to and report on those events than the birth of a specific kind of music that comes into its own outdoors, at dusk and in front of a sea of thousands of sun-pink smiley faces. Any kind of big music suits festivals, and new(ish) bands booked to play a good early evening slot who tap into the hand-wavy feel-good vibe can find their star ascendant, but to focus only on the bands which fulfil those criteria within the already narrow milieu of indie rock and then dub them festivalcore is missing the rest of the picture. All the other non-indie bands who play rousing sets at festivals and all the other non-indie-focused festivals, for a start. The electronica-heads, the jit jivers, the big beats boys, the riot grrls, the rappers, the multi-platinum mega popstars, the punks, the taiko drummers, the old dogs game for a second chance, all of the virtual roof-raisers of festivals around the world... how come they're not festivalcore too? Why they don't count?

My festival-going this year has mostly been limited to party festivals with solidly rabble-rousing DJs at night and the kind of hybrid gypsy-folk-ska-funk-hip-hop that can get a mashed crowd jigging happily but aren’t necessarily known outside the circuit (there’s a surprising number of them; I’d coin a genre to accommodate this fact if I could be arsed). But I can tell you that last year at Bestival – perhaps UK’s closest equivalent to Coachella? – the acts which stood out by creating a storm of communal up-rush were none of them beardy nor white boy nor bland. I saw Bjork with her finely (ahem) nuanced polyrhthymic confections, extraordinary custom-made instruments, dancers, choirs and head-spinning visuals. I saw PJ Harvey sending shivers down massed spines with her dark, pretty, disconcerting, despairing meditations on war and nationhood. I saw Public Enemy - 20 years on from their heyday as a fiercely political, ragingly zeitgeisty proposition - light up a hillside with the force and thrill of their music; thousands of fists raised en masse, a whole valley of bouncing monied middle-class kids (never mind the false eyelashes, the glitter or the tiger onesies) shouting along. FIGHT THE POWER! FIGHT THE POWER! (You are the fucking power, you twats. Party on.)

I saw The Village People too. They were fucking phenomenal.

Here's a nice quote from an article from last year about the UK version of the phenomenon:
The historical trajectory of British pop's bourgeoisification can be traced most clearly in what Karl Marx sadly never got around to calling "the UK power-ballad nexus". Picture yourself in a series of large Glastonbury crowds over the 10 years from 1994 onwards, singing along to a wilfully vague lyric cunningly designed to promote sensations of mass emotional uplift. Now look at the stage and note the incremental increase in poshness from Oasis to Embrace to Travis to Coldplay to Keane.
This isn't just about Coachella and beards.

So the idea that Mumford & Sons are the start of something new, are the saviours of rock, are significant in any way other than as a happy glow in the avaricious mind of the music industry’s end-of-year financial reports or in the bellies of a bunch of kids who’ve timed their drop to bring them up as the sun goes down is both repellent and nonsensical. They don’t fit in any grand narrative I can be bothered with. I do not see the outsider allure you refer to: M&S mainline mainstream. They’re about as counter-cultural as a Bourbon biscuit. They wouldn’t know outsider art if it shat in their nice cup of tea.

Look, if you’re gonna coin a genre, make it one you LOVE! (Or HATE to the bone.) Where is the passion in this flagship piece? You’ve set up your premise and you’ve pushed it off into the choppy chippy waters of the internet but you’ve forgotten the wind to puff out its sails. Bangs - as my overwrought editor is fond of saying and with good fucking reason - wept. Seriously, who gives a fuck about “singular importance” if there’s nothing special about the music that a pill and an open sky couldn’t do for any band? You could (they did) put the bloody Wurzels on at Glastonbury and you’d get people claiming epiphanic moments and heartlifting bliss.

These things matter. Music matters. Critical thinking matters. Yes, M&S are the easiest targets on the wall, and yes, this is about much wider issues than a promising new music magazine (and yesyesyes, before you say it, I'm probably just jealous). On one level this is horribly unfair to you. I love the idea of a music journal publishing think pieces and paying its writers, I really do. Best of luck with that. I liked your point about rock being moulded by its means of dissemination: a material analysis of the industry is fine by me. Observing then describing a new genre: all good stuff. Please take this as constructive criticism because if Uncool pulls off uploading one decent, articulate, captivating, debate-generating article about music a week that would be a truly marvellous thing. This just may not be the most judicious starting point. On this showing, anyone interested in a new kind of music journalism is going to have to look elsewhere. Luckily the musical world is chock full of amaze right at this minute and there are a thousand reasons to make a stand for the innovative and the exciting. And, while you're at it, have a hand in dismantling the soul-destroying establishment.

WHICH, INCIDENTALLY, I TOTALLY BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE AND ELEVATION OF SUCH A SHOWER OF POINTLESS TWEEDBRAINED, STATUS QUO-UPHOLDING, FAUX-PEASANT, LOW-HORIZONED, COMPLACENT TORY NON-ENTITIES SUCH AS MUMFORD & FUCKING SONS.

OK?

*

(Note for the fuming webby hordes: check your privilege before you start frothing at the mouth. Don’t be offended if you’re in the demographic I’m calling out for entitlement-blindness or if you love M&S; just consider that where you stand might be affecting who you are and how you read the world, which bands you listen to, which writing you approve of. This is not an attack on you personally, this is a critique of a phenomenon. Man up.)

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Fat Possum)


Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Fat Possum)

Art can do what the hell it likes.

Art can mock and ridicule. Art can stomp over precious tropes with its big fat arty boots. Art can steal and appropriate and recast. Art can trash tradition and deify trash. Art can shock and horror and razzle and dazzle. Art can use violence and misery to its own ends, be those ends high or low. Art can be Grand Canyon magnificent in its righteousness or as shallow and plastic as Cher Lloyd’s reedy voice and still be Art and fuck any thoughts of what is or is not "proper". (There’s no real, there’s no fake! Simulacra upon simulacra! Rock on, Monsieur Baudrillard!) Art can glorify or sully or spend its whole day in its knickers making mud pies out of your memories. Art can stick its tongue out at the bourgeois and piss on the vicar’s flowerbeds. Art can fire canons at pettiness or ridicule your dreams.

Art has no responsibility. Not to you, not to me and not to the starving children of Africa.

Because Art has LICENCE.

Bully for art.

Spiritualized have made another album. Their Art (it flaunts its capital, that one) is no mischievous Clockwork Alex spitting in the faces of pensioners; there’s no glee or gunfire here: Spiritualized’s Art is both slavish and somehow vicious despite its languor and shine. It feathers its nest with other people’s words (Sweet Heart Sweet Light? Seriously?!), snaffles glitter from other eras, takes Instagrams of cool and props them up among the rubble of stylistic jetsam that approximate a coherent style; less a Frankenstein’s monster of rock’s reanimated corpses than a pop-cultural Mr Potatohead. I’m too fucking appalled by this endeavour apparently being wholeheartedly earnest and not some kind of cunning Situationist jape that I’m not even going to bother matching the signifiers to their original begetters, identifying who the stoned drawl belonged to, whose those drones are, which genre’s choirs it has bribed to cross over to the Dark Side, whose lyrics (but if you see Lou Reed point him in this direction). It’s even more enervating than poking fun at Primal Scream for their look-back boredom.

The new album sounds like Spiritualized. Which means it sounds like Cool Old American Stuff. It’s well produced. It knows how to pimp out its dynamics. It can layer up the harmonies and polish shimmering chords like there’s no tomorrow (there’s only yesterday). It’s canny in its distillation of retro-chic sound. It’s not real but it knows a man who is.

I don’t give a shit about notions of authenticity. I’m not riled because Spiritualized deal in the old and think colouring cool by numbers means it gets to rub off on them in some great spiritual whoosh rather than conjure the revelatory out of their own tiny British heads. There’s nothing new anyway; even the very best, the most extraordinary, is to some extent rehashed. Art, take what you want and make it your own. I don’t care.

But if a middle-aged white man from Rugby, trailing his privilege and his money and his production vales behind him like old school ties, appropriates the experience and style and musical tropes of the vulnerable and the oppressed he had better tread extremely carefully. Yup, it’s Art-legal but is it wise? Does ripping off Gospel and Blues and liberating them casually from the weight of their history and context to use as stripped-down signifiers of someone else’s ecstatic experience just make you a douche?

The truth is that I cannot bring myself to listen to this album with equitable ears. I am not suitable, I am not qualified. Sue me. It’s not just the years of Pierce and his compatriots playing with drug and booze references as if the reality of those things was hazy sunshine and endless sex with God rather than gutters and indignity and the possibility of death in your forties, because of course the great unspoken truth about drugs is that people just do them because they make 'em feel good. He can have that one if he must, although it makes him look a twat. (Fun isn’t the same as cool and early death is neither.) No, this time it’s the video for the new single which I loathe with a passion and which has irrevocably tainted my listening of any further output, despite the massed fawning of music writers the world over who obviously have a stronger constitution than me.

‘Hey Jane’ wears its NSFW like a smug little badge and is a 10 minute long micro-film about a black transvestite prostitute with a small and frightened child who ends up beaten to a bloody pulp by a repressed and shamed white trick. It is repellent and upsetting and I don’t care what Art is allowed to do, I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that every fist fall, every crunch of boot on facial bones, is filmed in detail and at length. I don’t like what it appears to be saying about people. I don’t like that said whiney, white, self-pitying, copyist, imagination-free, privilege-flaunting cisman from England has used this story and these characters from waaaaaaaaaaay outside his experience, knowledge or culture as entertainment, however much Art has given him a hall pass to do so. That he thinks he can harvest grit by association. That he has licence to use such sad and graphic images of others’ sexuality and poverty and lifestyle and even death to imply his own hipness/toughness.

Hell, I don’t even like the fact that the name "Jane" has been co-opted for its associations.
Watching that video made me nauseous. I watched the last bit through clenched fists and only because I suddenly, urgently, needed to write about it. What the fuck gives an extended drone-out love song the right to use such explicit imagery to sell itself? It's pain porn for white boys. To depict the vulnerable as worthless violence-magnets? To capitalise on the representations of other people’s misery in order to appropriate "cool"? Jesus, how many more oppressed groups do you want to exploit, guys? This video feels like is an insult to every trans person who has been punched or killed for ruffling the order of things; to every sex worker who has lived with the threat of violence in order to feed themselves or their family; to every person of colour or single parent whose lives Spiritualized think are fair game to poach or parody for a pop video.
Jason Pierce and Art have some explaining to do.

M. Jean "Everything Goes" Baudrillard might have been yawning along to Spiritualized when he said that that, "Perhaps the world's second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore" but he was wrong. The worst crime is fostering inhumanity to our fellow beings. While Spiritualized obviously aren’t as worthy targets as Nick Clegg or Mitt Romney the callousness with which they kick pain around as if it were cans in the yard repulses me.

Fuck it, Art: your licence is revoked. And Pierce: you’re a cunt.