Friday, 16 December 2011

Live review: Low, The Old Market, Hove 3.12.11

Last time Minnesota trio Low were in Brighton they played St George’s church, where their songs reverberated through the rows of pews and Alan Sparhawk sang his dark hymns from beneath an enormous suspended golden crucifix; it swung gently overhead while he swayed gently below, apparently a fair way to drunk and the target of irritated mutterings from his wife behind her drumkit. The Old Market tonight can’t really compete with that kind of spectacle but this big beamed barn of a venue does benefit from remarkably clear sound, a seemingly sober Sparhawk and - not being seated and this being Low - the satisfying dynamics of a capacity crowd which is partisan, enthralled and not out to squash anyone. You get reverential communal rocking rather than elbows and lager in your face.

Few bands would chose to open with a long, slow, relatively new song but Low have their principles; ‘Nothing But Heart’ is eight minutes-plus of stately minimalism and blistered guitar whose lyrics consist pretty much entirely of Sparhawk singing ‘I am nothing but heart’ over and over and over, the crescendos and diminuendos of bass, guitar and drums keeping up an ominous pulse that throbs and roils below. And just as the immutability of the words threatens to tip the song over into dullness the sense of that small phrase is morphed into something other by the transformative effect of repetition; from a straightforward declaration to a mantra, a charm, an invocation, a blessing, a plea, a threat, a lament… eight minutes suddenly seems ridiculously brief, we need days of this stuff. The myriad ways of being “nothing but heart” hang over the audience, evoke images of all-embracing love as well as those of a twitching bloody mess on a surgeon’s tray. It’s quite a start, quite a song.

Halfway through their set, Alan looks out at the packed hall and praises the people right in the middle; says he couldn’t be there: “I get real nervous unless I can see the edge of nothing”. That’s Low for you: comforted by proximity to the void, disconcerted by crowds. Drawn to the darkness beyond the light, to the implicit threat contained within words of love, to the horror that lies at the outer edges of faith.

There’s something blood-curdling about being feet away from a man offering up his body as a weapon of death and destruction in the service of his god, as Sparhawk does on ‘Murderer’. The way his voice trips over the edge of the abyss on “Cos I’m CRUEL” is totally chilling. Yes, yes, it’s a song, a role, but y’know, it’s funny cos it’s true. I don’t know any other band who could write a song like it, could describe their complicated relationship with God as articulately as Low.

But Low is not just Alan and his slow-burning aches: there are times when Mimi’s voice is the most beautiful thing in this dark and endless universe. (Halfway through ‘Just Like Christmas’ is one of those times. The crowd is rapt, the air still, Mimi’s honeyed cadences ringing out as if Christmas Day itself hung on the continuation of her song; we’re all half expecting to leave the venue to find she’s conjured up a freshly-fallen carpet of snow.)

Ah, she’s not recognised as the goddess she should be, the centrepiece of this quietly raging band. She stands midstage behind her simple kit, brushes in one hand, fluffy drumstick in the other, beating out Low’s steady but compelling heartbeat. And her voice is quite, quite gorgeous. More gorgeous than you’d expect of something most often pitched as harmonic foil above or below husband Alan’s grainier lead vocals, but there she is on the cover of this year’s album C’mon, Low’s 9th LP: the everso-slightly grumpy but wholly magnificent queen of slowcore. “I love you!” a punter shouts. “You don’t even know me” she retorts. And when Alan apes one of her mumbled comments, she flashes him a ferocious look and an (unfortunately inaudible) put-down.

Low wouldn’t be Low without those lustrous male-female harmonies. It’s fairly remarkable that whether Alan or – increasingly - Mimi take the lead it’s all still primarily Low; this is an Aeolian harp of a band, whichever way you strike the collective instrument it makes a pleasing and familiar sound. Its component parts chime. Low don’t go in for wild innovation or for genre-hopping, there’re no disco numbers or funky interludes, no alarms and no surprises. Dynamics, tone, harmony, two or three lines of lyrics: the alchemy of performance makes something extraordinarily magnificent from such simplicity. Low storm the place.

Originally posted on thegirlsare

The Withered Hand Christmas Special

Withered Hand

I do love a Christmas song. I really do. (Except when sung with lacklustre perfection by Zooey Deschanel and her indie-pop “I wanna band for Christmas, Mommy!” cohorts, in which case I am reduced to spitting turkey feathers at the internet and wishing it would stop.) The best Christmas songs can sweep you up in an orgy of hopeless communal ache for what never was and never will be again, will get you joining impromptu choirs and crying into your eggnog. And even the worst have sleigh bells. Pretty much everything benefits from sleigh bells.

Anyway, I got an email from Dan Willson last week, informing me that his band had a Christmas single out. His band is Withered Hand and if you weren’t paying attention when I raved about them halfway through the year, then prick up your ears right now, because by the time they release their next LP, whenever that turns out to be, they will be HUGE. I promise. Their 2009 debut, Good News, has been the very definition of a slow-burner; it’s still getting discovered and reviewed by interhacks the world over today, who, quite rightly, have been enthralled by just that precise combination of self-deprecation, vulnerability, foul-mouthery, bitterness, heart-grabbing melodies, reedy vocals that shake with an honesty that verges on masochism, and an adroitness with a strummed guitar that gets me where it matters. Dan, who was raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family, writes about the sordid realities and the luminous glories of a life strung through with guilt and godliness. His songs are studded with Biblical imagery but with a lightness of touch that avoids any vicarish awkwardness; his verses, with perfectly pitched alterno-god worship, also contain reverent references to Sonic Youth, Nirvana, REM, Pavement and Silver Jews.

Maybe it’s because I recognise the Christian guilt thing - moulded by shame yet still hoping for heaven - that the songs resonate so deeply with me. Maybe it’s the harmonies and the fiddles and the “la la la”s that play foil to the gritty bitterness of the lyrics and elevate them from easy folk ditties to something exceptional. He can certainly write: I’d place him with the greats who walk the line between caustic filth and raw heartbreak, up there with Mark Eitzel or Vic Chesnutt or, closer to home, Arab Strap’s pair of scabrous-savant lyrical genii, Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat.*

So, yes, I was pleased to get news of a Withered Hand Christmas single. And pleaseder still to hear it, because it ticks the boxes I like such things to tick. Bells, cynicism, big swoopy tune; the will to romance thwarted by reality; ultimate redemption found, despite the coal-effect fire and plastic mistletoe, in the real snow falling from above, and in love.

Dan describes ‘Real Snow’ as “an anti-Christmas, pro-love song”, written “cos I hate feeling like I lie to my children once a year”. Ah, yes, the parental dilemma of how far along the line of Christmas bullshit do you take your precious children, how much of the silky lie to spin when the lie can make magic. I wanted to know more about his take on Christmas songs and the tribulations of being exiled from the rest of the modern world’s consumerist/pagan festivities, so I asked him some questions to set ‘Real Snow’ in context.

Does Father Christmas exist?
"In the minds of many children, yes."

Who would you nominate as Grinch of the year?

Mistletoe or wine?
"Wine please. If you both drink enough wine you won't need the mistletoe."

What are you hoping for in your stocking this year?
"As a rule, I'm far more interested in what's in other people's stockings."

What’s your favourite Christmas song?
"‘The Friendly Beasts’. I came to it through my children, and Sufjan Stevens does a wonderful version."

What's preferable in a Christmas song, communal jollity or pangs of nostalgic misery? Basically, do you want ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ or ‘Fairytale Of New York’?
"I find nostalgic misery can often be a good soundtrack to communal jollity! ‘Fairytale of New York’ wins every time for me."

Me too, definitely. Did you start off intending the two Christmas singles you’ve released to be specifically Christmas songs or were they written as songs like any other?
"One on purpose and one by chance I guess. I wrote them both at the onset of winter. In fact, I did everything I could to un-Christmas ‘It's A Wonderful Lie’. So there are two quite different versions of that song. One I can play all year round. I don't think I can do that with ‘Real Snow’ though."

(Here’s a link to 2009’s song, which was recorded in Dan’s kitchen as a free gift for subscribers to his mailing list.)

Withered Hand press photo

Do Christmas songs have to have bells on?
"No. When we recorded ‘Real Snow’, Darren (Hayman from Hefner, who recorded the track) and I differed on this. But in the end I came down on the side of it being a full-on Christmas song and we stuck sleigh bells all over it. I'm happy with that decision now but it means it is gathering dust the rest of the year!"

What are your childhood memories of Christmas?
"Those memories are always coloured with being one of the kids who knew real fast that Santa was not real and had to keep quiet about it. We didn't celebrate Christmas in our house, in fact it was a religious observation NOT to celebrate, our brand of evangelism forbade it. Also sitting out of Christmas celebrations and assemblies was a bit heavy. I had to sit and do homework in the canteen and the whole school would have to file in right past me.
"I also remember the Christmas just after my parents’ split. I got more presents than I'd ever seen before and I didn't want any of them."

What does Christmas look like to someone on the outside of it?
"It looks like parts of the whole thing are really bogus. At the same time I could see people were happy to have a reason to take some time to be together. I still feel that way about it, like it's a good thing."

What's been the best thing and the worst thing about participating in Christmas as an adult with your own family?
"The perfect foil to all of this Christmas stuff is that I never celebrated it as a kid, so I simultaneously discovered it via my own children and wife (yippee!) and also feel real bad about the big lie I compromised and participate in now yearly. The worst thing is dodging awkward questions about Santa now I am shamefully colluding in this myself. And the best thing is it sometimes snows. To be honest, I find it hard to relate to the feelings my wife describes about the magic of Christmas but I'm happy to take her word for it and hope my kids are experiencing it. Snow, on the other hand, blows my mind!"

Who's been thrilling you with their music in 2011?
"John Vanderslice - listen to his beautiful album White Wilderness."

Who thrilled you most musically in 1981? 1991? 2001?
"1981? Adam and the Ants.
"1991? Nirvana or Sonic Youth.
"2001? I think I went off music for a few years around 2001."

What are you hoping 2012 will bring (either musically, personally, or globally, or all three)?
"Peace and clarity."

How's your relationship with 'folk music' these days?
"Purists bore me. Same as it's always been."

How's the real snow up there in Edinburgh?
"It's just about melted. We made a snowman though, as soon as it fell. He's looking a bit weary."

When's the next Withered Hand record out?
"Good question. A vinyl EP comes out on Fence in February. I have a few more recordings in the locker. But the difficult second album? Ask me next Christmas."

I will. And I will be hoping for one more Christmas Withered Hand weepie to toast the passing of another year.

‘Real Snow’ is released by Fence Records on mini-CD inside a Xmas Card. To own a copy of this song you must subscribe to Fence Records Chart Ruse EP Series BEFORE 16 DECEMBER 2011. More details here.

*If you don’t believe me, here’s Withered Hand’s ‘Religious Songs’:
I don't really know what I should do
Like, should I be passing this bread along to you?
And I don't really know what the wine was for
‘cos if it was Jesus' blood, wouldn't there be more?
I'm knocking on Kevin's front door
I'm singing religious songs
And getting the words wrong
My hair's getting too long for this congregation

Religious songs
I'm getting the words wrong
My hair's getting too long
And they're saying
"How does he really expect to be happy
When he listens to death metal bands?"

If there's manna from heaven then you're disinclined to share
You stole my heart and I stole your underwear
You said religion is bullshit, it's all about metaphor.
Well if I need a fence to sit on
Then I'll sit on yours, sit on yours
Dreaming of Babylon's whores
… I knew you so long I ran out of cool things to say
I still bump into friends that we both had yesterday
When they ask me how I am, I lie and say I'm doing fine
They still manage to tell me I'm an easy lay holiday
Well that's okay, remember you thought I was gay?
Well, I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon
I walk in the rain with my secondhand suit on

Beat myself off when I sleep on your futon
I walk in the rain, and I'm thinking
If I happen to die tonight in my sleep
I'll have cum and not blood on my hands
I’m inclined to say “Take that, Zooey!” but that would be unseasonally graceless.

(Originally posted on Collapse Board)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Tunabunny – Minima Moralia (HHBTM)

Tunabunny - Minima Moralia

“Sometimes the wrong time is the perfect time… "

Wrongness is an underrated virtue. Tunabunny revel in wrongness with all the grubby enthusiasm of a puppy rolling in mud and, puppylike, they come up bouncing. Two girls, two boys from Athens, Georgia, they have punk-pop history at their fingertips and noise in their hearts and like all the most creative people ever they’re unafraid to fuck right up. They do that wrong thing right.

They have also written one of the finest singles of the year in ‘(Song For My) Solar Sister’: it’s gigantic. Huggable. It moans and skips and sighs, a glorious fuzzy riff all breathless and stumbling like your best friend drunk at the end of the summer. And quite perversely references both The Stone Roses and The Posies, which only adds to the persistent and disconcerting conviction I’ve had since I first heard it that I already knew it, that it was already a song out there in the world, a canonised, lauded, Great Song which had somehow slipped between the cracks of history. I’ve woken up with it stuck fast in my head every day for a week and it always makes me smile.

So much for reality. The whole album plays with slippages in pitch and time, foregrounds the abrasiveness of the non-perfect, is expertly, mischievously, inept. The scrappy motorik of ‘Perfect Time, Every Time’ wails and waves with the grace of a skateboarder careering down urban slopes, scritchy violin quavering in its wake like a lost cat. There’s desperation shuddering in every slipped semitone and flattened melody; anyone who loves Mary Margeret O'Hara's frantic utterances on Miss America will appreciate the way the vocals scramble over themselves in ecstasy, confusion, excitement, until the song finally spins out of control into massed, orgiastic “aaahh!”s, abandoning any attempt to hold together its various parts.

‘Only At Night’ has truculent lead guitar playing hopscotch over its fuzzed-out brethren and a whole gang of snarls and yelps and slurred syllables. ‘The Natural World’ jumps and jags about the place, fantastically imprecise, errant, irresponsible. Even the boundaries between man and beast are blurred here.

‘Cross Wire Technique’ is a grit and ice affair, with syllables skidding all over the road and guitars that rumble below the surface. What it reminds me of more than anything else are the soft animal growls of Tanya Donelly, very specifically the way her slippy vocals elide with the reedy guitar lines on Throwing Muses’ ‘Not Too Soon’. Of course, Donelly and Hersh would be ‘Bunny muses, along with all the other best non-boy sprawling clatterers of the past few decades, the victors in Tunabunny's alternoverse, the ones who wrote the histories, the herstories: Sonic Youth, Breeders, Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Swell Maps, you know the culprits, the ones who bundled feedback up into a ball and threw it back full-pelt at pop.


Minima Moralia is all about the grain, the noise, the buzz. The grain in a pretty postcard photocopied and photocopied and photocopied until all that’s left is a spider’s web of black and white scribble, the original beauty translated into something entirely other, the ghost of beauty. The grain in reproductions of photographs of reflections. The way that mirrored scenes can be more striking, more touching, than a full-face stare. The way that distorted layers pile on the emotive juice, exchange imagined 'quality’ for an accumulation of connections and references.

Indeed, you could spend a million dollars on recording and producing, you could breathe in the cash and professionalism and cocaine of the best smoked-glass studio in L.A. for a year, you could try with all your might to conjure up thee perfect grrlpunkrock pop explosion and you would still not be able to make this record. Whatever is essential about this record, whatever is encoded in its bumps and grinds, can’t be replicated with money: it’d take a lack to make it work. And if you don't think that's a political act, think again, think harder.

Apart from anything else the soundwaves on Minima Moralia seem to have absorbed their surroundings: you can feel their origins in the scratchy peaks and troughs of these songs, an echolocation that bounces home studios and coffee and a month of all-nighters back at you and rattles them around in yer skull. It’s not as if home recordings, cheap and dirty and immediate, are any more real than the Cowelliest chart pop - fuck real! There is no real – but Minima Moralia manages to trick us into believing that the scuff is what scrabbles at your heart.

Grain is the earth under your nails, it’s angry kids reading anarchist tracts in Snoopy tees, it’s furrowed brows, shrews, scabbed knees, borrowed dresses getting ripped on midnight rambles, it’s contortion, distortion, sense and dissonance, yesterday and tomorrow, ABBA and Crass in a scuffle over the last alcopop of the party. It’s a mess. It makes you wonder why anyone would fall for polished emoting when you can have sulky little songs that kick cans around the yard in stripy knee-socks to let you know how just pissed-off they are and still manage to be adorable as kittens. Kittenish or Kim-ish - pick a Kim, any Kim – Minima Moralia is as cute and snarly and clever as either. Beware its sharp little teeth: this 'Bunny bites back.

This review was originally published on Collapse Board.

Slow Club @ The Audio, Brighton, 29.09.11

Slow Club live

Photography: Holly Jarvis

So, Slow Club bring out the shinies. The Audio is packed with sleek-limbed gleaming girls, girls like horses, with plenty of hair and confidence in spades. There are dozens about the place, solid, happy, loud. I’m just wondering where these fantastic beings have sprung from when the band trot on and there’s Rebecca, quite clearly one of the same breed. She’s got the gob and the mane and a T-shirt which declares Rotherham to be the new Berlin. I’m not arguing.

“Hiya!” she trills and they’re off at a gallop, straight into recent single ‘Where I’m Waking’, the one with the thunderous drums and the ear-worm chorus: “You got the brains, I got the body!” It’s magnificent. Throughout the set (throughout the whole of the new album Paradise, in fact) it’s the ones with the double dose of drums that do it for me. The pounding, frenetic pop numbers as opposed to the soft rock crooners, however stadium they make ‘em. I mean, apart from anything else, a girl standing up behind a drumkit, thwacking away furiously at her floor tom as if it had called her a lady and opened a door for her, that’s always going to set hearts a-flutter, no?

‘Beginners’ has a similar big pop pow! to it, wields its almighty bass strums just so and leaves us reverberating. ‘The Dog’ employs the same trick (it’s a one trick dog but oh, what a trick): it’s chock full of brilliant bouncy moments and ends by motoring triumphantly into an anthemic Arcade Fire-alike sing-a-long finish. Stick to that exclamatory formula and new-look Slow Club can’t fail: fuck the acoustic guitars and bring on the noise! The new album’s pounders might be structurally of an ilk with the older ones but they are clearly far more polished, rounded, beefed-up with a whole cow’s worth of extra sound: they play (to huge audience appreciation) ‘Our Most Brilliant Friends’ from 2009’s Yeah, So; it’s just as marvellously shouty as ‘The Dog’ and has the same kind of loveably excitable chorus, but where it used to be shouty-spiky, rough round the edges, now it’s sanded to silk.

And Rebecca’s voice? I’m sure it used to break and strain, show up the wobbles and the cracks. While the fact that she now swoops effortlessly across the rolling tunes of the slower numbers might be impressive, even drop-dead luscious, part of me mourns the loss of the scrappy girl who sang like life had given her grazed knees.

This sea change is most obvious on Charles and Rebecca’s rendition of ‘Come On Youth’: the band sits it out while the two of them sing it as a stripped-down skinny thing, even slighter - if softer - than the recorded version’s wonky country & western incarnation, whose lines tumbled over themselves in breathy exhortation and proved irresistibly catchy. It feels almost a shame to lose the scuff.

I’m sticking with ‘ambivalent’ for the non-Drum Ones, the power-pop ballads: they’re too goddamn smooth for my tastes. I’m just never going to love the streamlined swoons of ‘Never Look Back’, for example: they conjure bad things, like Wings or Bryan Adams, and I’m not ready to forgive those yet. Sorry, Youth, you’ll have to go on without me there.
Of course, the definitive Slow Club thing is the fabulous boy/girl-vocals; Charles complains tonight that a reviewer pronounced their Rebecca-less numbers “boring” and then proceeds to lead in a quiet little song that never quite stomps and whinnies as it might. If it had had Rebecca on it ... Sorry, but it’s true: I want them both belting out the tunes in different tones of the same glorious substance, to make something dappled, gendered, fierce, sweet. Like, ah, Battenberg. Perhaps.

I know, I know, it’s not exactly fair: Rebecca on stage is a force of nature, cascades of blonde hair and feist beyond Feist. I don’t think anyone – let alone beardy men – would stand a chance with girls like that around.

Good thing too, I’d say.

(A version of this review was first published by thegirlsare and this version was originally published on Collapse Board.)

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Amanda Palmer @ The Concorde 2, Brighton, UK 01.09.11

Amanda Fucking Palmer.

This isn’t a gig, it’s a communion.

It’s not even about the music, not really. Which isn’t to say that the music isn’t tremendous, but that’s not the point: it’s about Amanda. It’s about the event. It’s about the costumes. It’s about the crowd, who’ve been primed on Twitter to come razzle-dazzled-up and who have obliged, mightily. It’s about Neil Gaiman, hovering by the entrance in a frock coat, looking proud and happy and, “I wrote the best Doctor Who episode this year and Amanda Palmer married me” in a pleasingly low-key kind of way.

It’s about the fact that Amanda Palmer is a cyber-queen, who uses crowd-sourcing in her creative life like no one else I’ve heard of yet: she clicks her fingers on Twitter and is dressed, supported, videoed, re-tweeted, disseminated, argued with, accommodated, provided with instant horn-sections, video extras, venues, entertainment, new friends; you name it, AFP commands it, in the blink of a new era’s eye. It’s how she lives and works, post-Roadrunner break-up. Her network of friends/colleagues is a remarkably efficient and creative resource, and stretches out to embrace the whole vast army of her online fans. Though ‘fans’ is an out-of-date term to describe what these people are, given the participatory nature of their relationship. They have ownership of what’s happening here tonight, and that might explain why the audience is pretty much the nicest, sweetest, happiest crowd I’ve seen at a gig, perhaps ever.

It’s about the way she is using this small tour to test out four new songs on the ears of the faithful: “Basically, if you guys don’t dance to them, they don’t get recorded”. I don’t know any of their names but they got us dancing. The new album – her first proper release since 2008’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer – is going to be worth the wait.

It’s about ‘Map Of Tasmania’ (if you don’t know the term look it up): a light and ludicrous ditty which manages to combine a paean to unshaven pudenda with a clamorous call to arms (“They don’t play the song on the radio/They don’t show the tits on the video/They don’t know that we are the media!/They don’t know that we start the mania!”) and which, during one of her crowd-sourced set-list moments, was requested by a line of people at the back of the venue by holding their hands up in the shape of cunts. (I don’t even know if that song exists as a physical, conventionally-released entity but it certainly doesn’t need to: it’s out there in fan-made videos and remixes and YouTubed ninja-gig performances, a totally new way of distributing music, as far from handing over your pocket money for a disc of black vinyl as Luton is from 4chan.)

It’s about how AFP’s assistant, SuperKate, opens the show with a sizzling goth-girl belly dance, all tattoos and sinuous moves. And later reappears in nightmare 80s Lycra to lead the entire venue in some pumping calisthenics, as a prelude to the band hopping off stage and into the audience to bop wildly to ‘The Safety Dance’; we and they are lost in this gurning bounce of a tune as if we were steaming away all hot’n’sweaty at the school disco, except that there’s Amanda Palmer, like a human glitterball, whirling around next to me.

It’s about the fact that after our exertions Amanda Palmer says, “You’re getting a reward for that. I thought, ‘”What’s the nearest thing to candy that you can play?’” and the violinist strikes up the first absurd chittering chords of INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. Which, as you know, and as I most certainly do because I bought the bloody single from a Woolworths bargain bin for 20p in 1988, is pretty much the most marvellously overblown chugchugchug horror of a song ever ponced about to in stadia the world over, every note as portentious as a cavalcade of warlocks. And Amanda Palmer and her band do it justice. Bah Bah BAH BOOM! There’s a set list from this same tour that suggests that they did ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ justice the night before: there are no guilty pleasures in the Palmer lexicon, only delights, uncomplicated and wide-eyed and shiny.

This isn’t Kasabian. This isn’t bloody Beady Eye. This is a party in the Church of Palmer. It would obliterate any posey white boy laddishness it encountered in an explosion of mascara and sass and spangles and pansexuality, like matter meeting antimatter.

She also covers Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ (no, er, surprises if you’ve heard her ukulele Radiohead covers album) as a sparkly minimalist chant and Le Tigre’s ‘Deceptacon’ (which they introduce as a public education service and rightly so: it’s canonical girl pop) and plays it just as breathlessly fiery as the original, so it’s not all hammed-up Big Rock, despite the guitarist’s Marc Bolan locks/aviator shades/glittered skinny-Tee get-up, or the drummer’s naked torso and the black sequined sash around his hips. (Damn, she picks sexy folk to play with: the pretty violinist is slinky and feline and when AFP duets with Georgia from support Bitter Ruin on her old band Dresden Dolls’ ‘Delilah’, the entire room is abuzz with pheromones.)

This isn’t really about the music, how clever or pertinent it is or is not. It’s about the moment and the magic and the goddamn show.

Oh, OK, if you must: it’s about LOVE.

And sex, of course. That too. Neither love nor sex sticks to one genre. Love is as present in Palmer’s Weill-inflected punk cabaret moments with their clustered piano chords and smokey-eyed clattery Modernist dramatics (‘Girl Anachronism’; ‘Missed Me’; ‘Mrs O’:) as it is in her renditions of the shouty rock-out numbers from Who Killed Amanda Palmer (‘Leeds United’; ‘Guitar Hero’) that stick their tongues out at the world and dare you to disapprove. Love’s there in skyfuls in among the extravagant crashes of ‘Astronaut’, bruised but still aloft, and caught in the throat of ‘Delilah’’s aching swoops; there’s love for life in ‘Oasis’ (banned by some radio stations for mixing giggles and teen popfandom with the topic of abortion, as if any experience, no matter how grim, could possibly be encompassed with one reaction) and love spilling out of ‘In My Mind’, which reduced me to tears at the Concorde.

Love for the world and love for performance, no matter the kind of music running through her heart.

Amanda Fucking Palmer is truly some kind of new-minted goddess. You’d better love her too.

Friday, 5 August 2011

An almost completely random collection of things I’ve loved so far in 2011

Everything Everything - Man Alive

Here are some (not six) of this year’s (or not) highlights, picked today over all the others I’ve forgotten at the moment, probably just because it’s sunny out. The clankingindustrialgrindiwannadie column will have to wait for another day.
(And you can take PJ Harvey, Thao & Mirah, Lykke Li, EMA, William D Drake, tUnE-yArDs, Kristin Hersh’s autobiography, Tunabunny, every single fucking song on Everett True's half-year mix tape and PJ Harvey as read.)


LADY CHANN – Treble To Your Bass

Well, just listen to them! Aren’t they fantastic? Aren’t they? How much more pop could you squeeze into those two songs? Bursting with the stuff. Nicola’s chanting of “L! O! V! E!” and her sliding moans: aoooh ... The ridiculous boingy break in the middle. The fabulously under-glossed, kid-querulous vocals with their precisely slippy attitude to tuning. All ace. And Lady Chann, feistiness personified, clippity-clop hoofbeats behind her, twisty tune unfurling above, drilling the words into the head of anyone who’d dare disagree with the persistence of a small neon woodpecker: irresistible.


It starts like some tune from years ago, a shimmery electropop school disco number, all keyboard skirls and slow growing glory. Wolf’s vocals, dark and glossy and mannered, reminding me of the chanteurs of my childhood, the twinkling Billy, the Orchestral Manoeuverings; you can just see the billowing white shirts, the floodlights, the DRAMA. It heads off into its own thrum, whirling gracefully about the chorus like that unselfconscious arms-wide-open dance you’d do at 15 when your heart was swelling fit to burst with the nowness of it all.

It turns out to be about settling down into domestic bliss, in a lovely house, with Suffolk stone and love all around, delighting in the turning of the seasons and the laying down of roots and even in the certainty of eventual death. Perhaps it takes the recognition of cold oblivion to relish the ordinary warmth of life.
Not very rock'n'roll. But very wonderful.


How to do a cover version. Make it anew. Change the mood. Give something sassy and pop a chiming melancholia, so the words that emerge through the bells and the piano lines and the strings are those of heartbreak and pleading, drenched with longing for the rain which will come, which will inevitably come. Oh, and be good. Sing like you're warding off disaster.
I don’t love this more than Rihanna’s version, but I do love it alongside it.
Ella, ella, ella, ay ay ay


I know nothing about either of these men. Almost nothing. One is Scots. One is an electro kid. They make this, this gentle folky howl of a song. It’s beautiful. “And no doubt it's the white flour in my diet, it's going to be the death of me, sweet drumroll for those embittered big ideas. It’s such a waste of all that we had. It’s such a waste of all that I am,” he sings. It would make granite weep.

SWIMMER ONE’s remix of WITHERED HAND ‘Love In The Time Of Ecstasy’ is not from this year but is so marvellous that you should hear it anyway. It’s another apparently ‘folk’ song given the electro treatment, opening it up and sharpening the edges. This one is deliciously unfolky in its tropes. Which is all to the good.

Withered Hand - Love In The Time Of Ecstasy (Hunterheck mix) by Hunterheck

“Why did Nirvana ever bother to play here?
Hey there, I don’t want to stay here ...
And this town, this town is killing me now,
I can't believe I waited so long,
From the shopping trolleys on the riverbed t
o the sound of the bass bins booming
Can I see your face in this acid light o
f another suburban evening?
As I roll my eyes up to these dirty skies t
ill I count the days till I am leaving”
Actually, it’s another Scottish folk song. So many good things from Scotland at the moment. The growly feline gorgeousness of Pumajaw (whose forthcoming album will surely get its own moment of glory). The afore-mentioned Swimmer One (pulling influences from Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, the Pet Shop Boys and sounding just like themselves). Those foul-mouthed darlings, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, both separately and together, here covering Slow Club. Yup, my heart is yours, you Scots, ‘unfaithful servants of filthy, fucking language’, as Mr Withered Hand says.
And if it’s not Scotland, it’s Canada.

BRAIDSNative Speaker

Braids are great. Even better to see them live, to know how young and dorky they are, how all four (two boys, two girls) are brow-furrowedly engaged in constructing the sound. Which is math-boy clever but has a big pop heart, filled with loops and samples and uneasy noises and twin delayed guitars rippling through it all.
“ … and what I, and what I found is that we
we're all just sleeping around.
All we really want to do is love.”
(This version isn’t quite as punchy as the recorded one but it’s worth it to see them. Watch the keyboard player making the noises at the beginning and the singer trying – failing – not to swear. God, they’re adorable.)

ORCA TEAM - I'm Waiting

Here's a perfect 2'11'' of icy pop. "The sound of a surf made of tears crashing on the glacier shores of Antarctica" says Mike whose record label, HHBTM, releases Orca Team (excellent name). It's haunting, removed, in the sense that it comes at us through walls of chill fog or from the past or from the darkness outside the party. Being cynical, pale and definitely no California Girl I quite like the idea of cold surf music. It's rather a startling video, too.


This could be it. This could be it. Doom on you, as my kids are fond of saying, doom on you, all those who insist that pop music now is only endless rehashes of the past, that there’s nothing new, that the olden days were the best and kids today, eh, kids today, Simon Cowell, Simon Cowell, BeiberBeiberBeiber. Fuck that and nyah nyah nyah to you: if this could have been released at any time other than NOW (2008 at a push, given that the magnificent single, ‘Suffragette Suffragette’, came out at the end of that year) then I challenge you to name it. (Yep, this is a round-up of 2011 and I am making a point about modernity, so what if the album came out last year? These are my ears, all right?) ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ is key, of course: it has growlingly macho basslines that periodically come crashing in between the verses’ perky stabs of synths like a hot drunk, shirtless man sweeping glasses from a table and swings from swagger to fey in a breath, while the remarkable Jonathan Higgs sings in the shrill, lust-raw tones of a man totally overwhelmed by the rules of sexual connection.
My death throes, this – indefinite pose, her flesh codes – inconceivable – oh suffragette, suffragette I wanna be outlawed and AWOL – no alphabet can be used yet no cassette is available – oh, I dunno how, I dunno how I’m going to reset my whole radar – forget, forget … Who’s going to sit on your face when I’m gone? Who’s going to sit on your face when I’m not there? ( … And the ball's in your court; in the court, your balls)

Oh the words! So many words. I don’t know when I last pored over the lyrics on a sleeve like I have with those on this clever, brilliant album. Self-aware po-mo bunnies that they are, Everything Everything know the mechanics of a pop song and are happy to turn it in on itself and unlock the cogs when necessary. Man Alive is spiky enough to unsettle and delight, whether in the chill/cool manner of their fellow-silverspacesuited-travellers Metronomy, the jerky XTC-isms of Field Music or the muscular restlessness of Wild Beasts (Two Dancers and its sexed-up dynamics rather than the newie, mind), but there are enough moments of absolute, glorious beauty (yeah and yer actual TUNES) to allow it a seat in the category of swoonsome rather than simply sorted. Cos they know what’s what. They have a political canniness that so many fĂȘted bands don’t at the moment, apparently not being able to pull their self-satisfied heads from their sunkissed Brooklyn arses long enough to notice the world collapsing. Everything Everything know that it’s all about the collapse and the horror, but it’s also all about the sex, because humans keep on with that even as the walls fall in on them. Witness the bombsite jitters of 'MY KZ YR BF':

And you’ve got to keep on at it with them. Keep yer ears peeled. It gets better the deeper your go; you’ll get your nightvision soon enough and then the subterranean depths will glitter for you. Promise.

And, let’s not forget, they performed at Glastonbury wearing taupe boiler suits and bright yellow wellies. Good work, lads.

The final 75 seconds of BRIGHT EYES’ final song on The People’s Key. No, scrub that, make it the final 10 seconds. Just them. ‘Course you have to listen to the rest of it too, otherwise it’s meaningless; instead of being a floodgates-opening epiphanic distillation of Conor Oberst’s latest project it’s just a word. But, whoa, that word. It gets me. That deep grainy old man voice. The world-weariness, the rolling of the ages, the peace. “Mercy,” he says. “Mercy.” This album might sound like a big jaunty potluck pop feast but it's actually an elegy for the awful, fallible, wondrous humanity. How fucking sad it all is, how random and disastrous, the broken hearts, the broken world, the staring into the abyss, but how beautiful that humans carry on. Hold hands. Fight. Carry their love with them.

"One for the righteous, one for the ruling class, 
One for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb. 
One for the struggle, one for the lasting peace, 
One for you 
And one for me."


As for writing about music, the site I read more than any other (except for Collapse Board, naturellement) is the UK’s DrownedinSound. And the DiS writer I read more than any other is Wendy Roby, who breezes through the weekly singles column in a style so apparently mannered, ickle-girly and sugary you’d want to brush’n’floss afterwards. First time I read anything by her I hated it. HATED IT. Why would a woman caricature herself in such an extreme way, as if childishness, incompetence and petulance were hard-won laurels to be flaunted? It seemed the height of self-disempowerment. But she introduced me to good stuff. The fact that she’d write ‘exactly’ as “HEGGS ACKERLY!” or drop an “Oh, how perfectly dread!” into the mix like a flighty female Bertie Wooster mattered less the more I read. She name-checked Dave Eggers last week, and I had an “Ah ha!” lightbulb moment.

However, her style is utterly her own, and that’s surprisingly rare in the great grey tides of internet opining and has got to be to her credit. She refuses to pander to notions of tick box reviews; she’s as likely to describe how the circumstances in which she was listening to the single in question (at her mum’s house over roast dinner; on an iPod while riding her bike; moping over a broken heart) have affected her appreciation of it than bore on with facts. So I like her a lot. I’ve come to terms with the girlieness, because why the fuck not? The world has enough cock-led gonzo lads writing about music via the aggrandizing of their own drunken exploits, why privilege that style over something explicitly feminine? There’s room enough. She might be whimsical but she’s no shrinking violet. She is astute, bright, funny, inventive, fierce, sorted. As a comment under her column had it recently, “I enjoyed reading about these songs much more than I enjoyed listening to them”. Tick.

DiS has its other gems, despite having a readership that shows its best side on the lively community discussion boards but bays like unfed hounds when denied simple things such as descriptions of what the music sounds like or a proper appreciation for back catalogue. So my next nominee is Chris Trout, who was recently called a “douche” by a disgruntled reader for not providing the standard review fare, instead handing over a meandering, witty, critical disquisition on the state of music, far more interesting than trotting out the usual. Here’s the debate which ensues when the readers try to tell him how he ought to review records: it’s a fascinating argument about what is expected from criticism. And them readers aren’t ever going to win. Also, check out his own website, which, among other highlights – it’s all worth reading - has a wonderfully constructed, intelligent, cantankerous, funny (really funny) dots-joining take on last year’s best albums; it’s not in any way a list, mind, more a rambling autobiographical essay about loving music. Anyone – that’s you, that is – needing to read why Arcade Fire “are as punk rock as a battered shoebox full of gerbils dipped in Crazy Color at their own request” start here. I dare ya.

Finally, here’s a quite astounding piece of writing on my other favourite UK site, The Quietus. Neil Kulkarni has written here on Collapse Board before so you might already know what a passionate, funny, insightful writer he is. (Ngaire-Ruth describes reading his stuff as "like skateboarding, while hitched to a rare, classic car, driving, at speed, in zigzags through bustling city streets". Quite so.) This (another autobiographical essay) is fantastic: a three-part look at life growing up in Coventry as a second-generation immigrant through the music he listened to and loved. It’s like nothing else you’ve read. So go find it.

PS: Do musicians writing about cooking count in the listeners writing about music stakes? You get to the same place in the end anyway, whether you start off from pate or Pavement. So, here is Luke Fucking Genius Haines' food blog, peppered liberally with excellent swearing and copious amounts of booze while talking you through rabbit stew and Hawkwind. "Leave the whole fucking shebang cooking on a low, low heat for another hour, or until you hear 'You Shouldn't Do That' bursting out of your kitchen at the end of CD2 of Space RitualIf Hawkwind are saying 'You Shouldn't Do That', I'd listen to them, cos whatever you're doing must be pretty bad if Hawkwind are telling you to stop doing it. The stew is done".

Compare and contrast with Steve Albini's food blog, which shows him - as if we needed telling - to be as meticulous in his cooking as Haines is slapdash. But quite as equally entertaining and often just as filthy: "Most of the red meat I've eaten recently has been grilled by Tim Mydhiett in his back yard. He masters a beautiful ceramic egg barbecue oven and tends to rub things on his meat* before sticking it in there*. Lately he has been using a rub of finely-ground espresso, salt, pepper and sumac, and it has been exceptional every time I've had it ... I didn't have any sumac so I used the other spices for a whiff of the exotic. Yma Sumac was a Nice Jewish girl from the Bronx named Amy Camus anyway".**
*You'll have to go to the blog to get the footnotes.
** It's worth it.

First published on Collapse Board