Tuesday, 18 September 2007

End Of The Road

The end of the 2007 festival season draws nigh, and so it must be time for End Of The Road. With more the atmosphere of a weekend-long picnic or country fete than the abject hedonism of many more mainstream festivals, it's a colorful, family focussed affair. Draped in fairy lights and bunting, End Of The Road offers a class above in friendliness, facilities, hot spiced cider and a seemingly never-ending smorgasbord of great food and music from the more mellow end of the indie-rock and alt-country spectrum. Here are some of the highlights, running order as mixed and mingled for the page as it is in my memory.

Napoleon IIIrd is the first band I see after running up the bank to the arena in the showering rain, tent still strapped to my back. A rousing set from a rising star, even if I do say so myself. Darren Hayman seems unable to put a foot wrong, unfurling perfectly formed, witty and world-wise songs with his trademark cockily tilted self-confidence and slanted charm. He later plays a set of bluegrass in the secluded piano clearing, hidden behind a glittering tree tunnel near the main stage.

All this in stark contrast to Josh T. Pearson, who looks like he's just walked on out of some yonder desert, strapping on his horned guitar for some powerfully apocalyptic, distorted, yowling tales of hopelessness, love and devils clashing with angels. He stamps his boot and the ground shakes, his eyes and teeth shining from beneath his cowboy hat and huge bushy beard. Later, The Archie Bronson Outfit deliver robust, bludgeoning rock 'n' roll with no small lack of guile, while rocking indie godfathers (& mother) Yo La Tengo run through highlights of their vast back catalogue to the delight of (possibly) the weekend's biggest crowd.

On Saturday, Antipodean trio Devastations swan onto the stage slowly, tuning, fumbling with their amps, pedals and instruments as if playing in a practice room, before launching into a series of deathly ballads and squalls of piercing but musical guitar noise. Notably, the bass player delivers a slow-handed sexually charged performance of such magnitude that it'll keep the gathered young mothers in fantasies for years to come.

Danielson and his multi-instrumental familial troupe look as likely to try and sell you cookies or win a badge for river crossing than fill a generous one hour slot on the big top stage. A cruel bit of scheduling means I don't get to see out their performance, but it's clear that they're really quite great - being happier than the Chipmunks playing a set of Monkees songs with the Krankies as a backing band and managing not be annoying doing it is really quite a skill.

The talk of the festival is a performer I had the misfortune to miss. She's a prodigious sixteen year old called Alessi, and respected sources say her name in the same breath as Bjork and Joanna Newsom, passionately describing a haunting voice and vivid, memorable songs... one to watch out for in the future by all accounts.

David Thomas Broughton

David Thomas Broughton plays three sets across the course of the festival, each characteristically unplanned in the traditional sense, but rather the living culmination of all of his performances and writing to date. The music is tossed and rewritten, toyed with, mashed together, looped and battered in whatever manner Broughton sees fit from moment to moment. He's at once a heartbreakingly fragile character, shaking and moaning grim existential tales of lost love and death in that gorgeously dark and expressive timbre, but he just as easily breaks out of the singer/songwriter mould, frustratedly pacing the room beatboxing, pausing to frown at his assembled instruments and instead storm off, striking poses and looping back improvised versions of pop songs, rants and repeated phrases, and using anything he can lay his hands on to create freeform rhythms. Every performance takes on a life of it's own, and while for some the tumbling mass of ideas provides a frustrating lack of musical cohesion, the visceral and invigorating tight-rope act of it's construction is my high point of the festival. Later that night, Broughton's beautiful ever-unfolding melodies still ringing in my ears, I glimpse my first shooting star, a white scratch across the sky that makes my breath catch in my throat. And I lie awake for hours, my teeth and bones clattering and clacking in the sub-zero black, my mind buzzing with sound and convinced there is no dawn coming.

The surprise performance of the festival comes on Sunday in the unlikely shape of famed music writer Everett True, who sings three ragged a cappella versions between sets on The Local Stage (one of which, a traditional nursery rhyme-esque folk song about death, sticks in my head for days afterwards). End Of The Road signings The Young Republic are seemingly everywhere with their polite and well-formed skewed indie-pop tunes. Viking Moses has brought a big band with him, and while his voice is as arresting and unique as ever, the new format seems to struggle to bring the best out of his songs - but it's definitely in there to be found.

Best new discovery The Wave Pictures receive warm onstage mentions from Jeffrey Lewis and Darren Hayman, and it's easy to see why - they perform a beguiling set of intelligent, wry stories of modern life, sex and young love, wrapped in tatty but pretty playing. I'm left wanting a lot more.

Fireworks Night / The Wave Pictures

The same can be said of Fireworks Night, a dizzyingly talented dash-cutting ensemble trading in claret confessionals and gravel voiced, tobacco-stained drama, all told via sensitive piano work, nigh-on perfect string accompaniment and a fantastic songwriting flair. Their closing number 'Echo Swing' is among the best I have heard in recent years - this is a band surely headed for wider recognition.

Lambchop close things up on the main Garden Stage with a beautiful set drawn from their sprawling back catalogue. Three songs from 'Is a Woman' stand out - Wagner's paper-dry croak of a voice often sounds best recounting small introspections and details of American life as found in 'My Blue Wave' and especially a gorgeous drawn out version of 'The New Cobweb Summer'. 'Up With People' sees things get rowdy with a civilized clap along, then the trim 6-piece band walk off, leaving a lot of warmed hearts to wander into the cold English night.

Monday, 10 September 2007

One Part Lullaby, Two Parts Fear

Download: One Part Lullaby

Folk Implosion were a slight oddity. Like The Postal Service they were a side-project that eclipsed what they were supposed to be on the side of: in this case, Lou Barlow's main band Sebadoh.

The single 'Natural One' made them famous (via the Kids film soundtrack) despite being one of their weaker songs, but they blossomed creatively through their later work. 1997's 'Dare To Be Surprised', while patchy, contained some beautiful moments including the memorably melancholy 'Burning Paper' (listen here).

Natural One (1995)

'One Part Lullaby' (named from the Oscar Wilde quote "life is one part lullaby, two parts fear") is my personal favourite, both the album and it's stunning title track. It's an album full of indolent tales of trickling suburban dissatisfaction. This record embodies a very specific kind of pithy existential moment - listening to rumbling traffic, and staring at the wall - that desperately suits the air of boredom and blandness that pervades Lou Barlow's work.

There are several out-takes available online, such as the bombastic Synthriver, and there are lots of Lou Barlow songs available at his website loobiecore.com. The was a 2003 album, 'The New Folk Implosion', that I'm about to go and track down, but the band has been inactive since 2004 according to Wikipedia. Whether this means they're over is open to speculation, but let's hope not. What's a good website to petition Lou Barlow's face?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

In Her Own Time

Download: Katie Cruel (live recording from Cotton Eye Joe)

Tragic is a word applied to every female who picks up a wine glass recently.

While their male counterparts are alternately condemned and idolised as desirable rebels, all a female with an appetite for mild self destruction can hope to achieve is a smug dose of pity.

"The hangovers she must have! A stomach pumping?!" coo the press, too busy basking in their glee to realise that their 15 year old daughter has been subjected to the same treatment. Too gleeful to remember that they were too.

It's true that tragedy just makes a better news story but Amy Winehouse's inclusion in a list of tortured artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Jeff Buckley was a bit much. Tragic? The girl just likes a drink.

However, someone who really should have been included is Karen Dalton. The texture of her quivering, blues drenched vocals, accompanied by skilled banjo or 12 string guitar is haunting. She sings and plays so effortlessly that listening feels like pressing your ear to a wall where on the other side, unaware of an audience, she immerses herself in songs. In fact that probably would have been her ideal way to play, she hated recording and her first album It's Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best was taped secretly as she strummed and sung away in the studio, making it even more poignant.

Despite support from Bob Dylan among others ("Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed."), her two studio albums failed to sell, her personal life spiralled downwards and her music into obscurity.

In the last few years, reissues have done their best to resolve this, released with sleeve notes written by fans such as Nick Cave. Once heard she's impossible to forget.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Last Tango In Belgrade

Download: Beirut - Guaymas Sonora

It would seem that everybody has been going totally crazy for Beirut over the last year or so. Melancholic wailing, Balkan pop pastiche and the fact he is really rather handsome has turned him into some drunken messiah, supposedly in the same way that the Arcade Fire grabbed us with Funeral. New saviours and geniuses seem to come much faster with the internet, don’t they? Tortured geniuses to save our lives are piled on us constantly by Pitchfork in their desperate quest for the new Neutral Milk Hotel and none of these new heroes have really lived up to the tag. Funeral still sounds majestic, but Neon Bible has proved that that level of transcendence remains a one-off; Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were frankly rubbish; and, truth be told, Zach Condon is good but not really that awesome.

Enough has been said already about the fact that Beirut isn’t the real deal, so I’m not going to moan about that. I said of Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s debut, that it was almost a case of ‘style as substance’. It was homage to European music, a celebration by appropriation, a tribute to the enduring and widespread appeal of Balkan sounds, that they could be adored and meaningful whether played by a cute indie boy in Albuquerque, New Mexico or gypsies in Serbia.

Of course, this ‘style as substance’ approach was never going to have enduring appeal. The arrangements were lush and fascinating, the voice was suitably melancholic, the atmosphere mysterious and boozily European, but there were few engaging melodies or lyrics. Sometimes Condon showed flashes of interest in song-writing, the irresistibly catchy Postcards from Italy or Elephant Gun were little slices of pop in what otherwise could be a surprisingly difficult album (the sound certainly wasn’t for everyone), whilst Idle Days (Mount Wroclai) showed that the boy could write decent words, despite an expressed disinterest in them. The problem was, though, that Gulag Orkestar was too tied up in the importance of its arrangements to provide any lasting tunes, and so it blurred into one lovely, hazy atmosphere rather than a collection of Balkan-flavoured songs.

And this brings us to the new album, The Flying Club Cup, a record supposedly influenced by French chansons in the same way that its predecessor was influenced by Balkan gypsies. The problem is the French influence doesn’t really appear. Fleeting glimpses of it are caught in repeated listens: snatches of French dialogue, Gallic inflections, but really this is just Gulag Orkestar Part II – only with even fewer tunes. There, after a gigantic preamble I’ve dismissed the fucking thing in three sentences. There is a saving grace though, the gorgeous Guaymas Sonora, still Balkan tinged, but impossible beautiful. Gorgeous string arrangements (I believe provided by string arranger du jour, Owen Pallett), glockenspiel, yearning vocals and a lilting melody combine to make you long to be wandering down the Left Bank, hand in hand with some beautiful, chain smoking girl who you want to be with but know deep down you don’t really love. The type that smiles at you condescendingly, saying “You’re not really good enough for me”, but kisses you back anyway. The type who inspires the lust where you get drunk and just stare across the table of the café-bar and shake your head as a single tear drips down your face, and maybe hers too. The sort of girl who drives you from the analytical towards over-cleverness and Sixth Form poetry that you know is clichéd, but is kind of arrogantly beautiful anyway.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Team Brick

Download: hawk.mp3

Team Brick is a powerful and unique musician from Bristol. His performances incorporate all kinds of instruments, equipment and techniques, including clarinet played through a loop pedal, drum abuse, chiming bells, plucked strings and a cappella rants. His vocals are similarly broad in range, encompassing throat singing, speaking in tongues and cathartic off-mic bellowing, activating the acoustic properties of his whole body. Together, these sounds create an evocative, resonant and mysterious body of work that offers a half-glimpse into an intriguing world of its own.

"Behold! I, the bell, do not speak of vain things!" he tells John Brainlove.

What's the first instrument you remember picking up?

The Yamaha keyboard my granddad gave me at the age of three or four. Though I had a toy sax around that time, too, and I can't remember what predates what though.

It's funny, in my imagination it was probably something like The Red Violin from that film where the violin maker paints it with his dead wife's blood; the violin that travels through the centuries, from collectors to gypsies and causes trouble wherever it goes... but that's not really a question is it. Erm... so have two:
a) have you ever owned a violin painted in blood? And…
b) I guess what I'm saying is that your music has deep resonances - does it have any attachment to some kind of hidden history?

a) I've never, I'm not fond of painted instruments; I like them to be their natural colour. And b) Perhaps 'morphic resonance' comes into it somewhere, though I can't be sure.

There definitely seems to be an element of channelling in your live performances, is that something you have developed intentionally?
As that's the first time I've been picked up on that, I gotta say I haven't noticed, and looking back, I can't ever remember what I've done afterwards, so I can't really consider it either...

So do you find performing quite an immersive, instinctive process? You must have some idea of what you're gonna do, you know, with the instruments and devices you bring along...
For the immersion aspect, it's quite dependent on the volume: if it's loud, most of my thoughts disappear, and I think that's why I can never remember my shows... I have a vague idea of what I'm going to do – I prepare some things rather than rehearse – but a lot of the things I use are borrowed or found on the night, and I have little idea of what's gonna be done with 'em.

I think that kind of fits with what I'm getting at - watching you live, I'm curious about where exactly the music is coming from. It seems so rich and resonant, and to hold so much weight... I'm curious about what informs you musically, your musical development; how you reached the point you're at now. Kind of from the first time you picked up an instrument, really. I guess phrased as a question that would be: can you recall significant moments from your musical life that have informed where you find yourself now?
Spending too much time in my bedroom as a teenager? I read a lot of crap about the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras in particular, music of the spheres and all that gubbins, ratio, 'alignment with the universe' and other hippy bullshit... I have to remain sceptical about even myself!

I don't know much about that stuff, could you explain it a bit? "Music of the spheres"...?

As far as I know and can understand, it's the idea that the orbits of our solar system's planets are of musical proportion, and are one huge piece of celestial music - on a non-hippy side of things, it kind of makes sense.

Maybe related to Tesla's "perception of the earth as a conductor of acoustic resonance", (as puzzled over by Jack 'n' Meg White in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes)?
I don't know of Tesla, I'm still fairly new to this - might have something to do the resonant frequency of the planet? Somewhere 'tween 11-13hz...

It's funny, I'm going about interviewing all the most intriguing and fascinating bands I've come across on my travels lately, part of an ongoing effort to fight journalistic laziness, and the first band were talking along similar lines - Fuck Buttons. They were describing how they try to see themselves as conducting energy and sound that actually comes from elsewhere. I guess the question of whether music comes from people or through people is the tip of a philosophical iceberg.
Possibly? I guess on record, through. I like to keep the disciplines separate.

What did Pythagoras have to say about music? I only know him from his acclaimed triangle work.
It was Pythagoras who came across something like the 12 notes we know today (excluding the ongoing war between supporters of Just Intonation and those of Equal Temperament). He walked past a smithy's place and heard them hammering anvils, generating fourths, fifths and octaves. He got a bit of a hard-on and went home to look into it.

And "alignment of the universe”?
Something involving weighted strings (strings were of the same thickness and length, the variable factor was the weights involved) and an instrument called the monochord - by finding the fifth of each note using the hemiolic ratio (3:2), he kept going round until he came back to his first note - only when it came back, it was a little sharp - thus planting the seed that would start the war of Just Intonation / Equal Temperament. I could go on for fucking hours about that shit. ‘Alignment of the universe' - I'm a little embarrassed to use that term, but I mean - if the universe, as with everything in it, is ruled by number, as with music, the music we hear is of numbers relative to that which we cannot hear (i.e., the proportions of the orbits of the planets, cycles, seasons, growth, death, rise and fall etc...). So in my mind the music we make is like a ‘to scale’ model of the universe. Also I suppose that the opposite is possible too – it’s possibly attuned to microscopic things also. 'Just Intonation / Equal Temperament' - Nah, I'm not gonna 'go there' right now - I'm not confident enough on either subject to talk on them, though Equal Temperament is the common system for western music. Blah.

Okay. We should talk more about it sometime though, as it's really interesting. The ongoing arguments about the nature of what sound even consists of...
Sound consists of numbers.

Aren't numbers just a way for us to understand things? That seems reductive.
I don't believe so. The dimensions of a tangible object are ruled by numbers, and the same thing applies to sound. A sonorous sound has many 'dimensions' - it has its primary frequency, coupled with its harmonics, some more obvious than others... other factors include the size and shape of the room you're in and yadda yadda yadda AGH. I really can babble on about this cack for days, though not as lucidly as I would like.

Are your performances largely improvised, then? I was curious about the speaking-in-tongues section. Put most people in front of a mic and they'll freeze up without structure, but you seem to thrive... I was surprised when you told me it was made up, I thought it was some kind of Jewish prayer.
Semi-improvised... a lot of the vocals are largely prosodic... though I do sing in English from time to time, and sometimes sing a couple of lines in Latin from a prayer I like.

What's the prayer?
I only remember the first two lines, which are: "En ego campana, Nunquam denuncio vana" - "Behold! I, the bell, do not speak of vain things!"

Do you speak other languages?
Pidgin German. A couple of phrases in badly pronounced Japanese.

Are you religious?

Are you from a religious family?

What faith?
The usual one!


Are your parents and grandparents English, or from elsewhere?
Mum's side: from Rugby and Somerset, lineage back to Edward I. Dad's side: Welsh, lineage back to Romany gypsies.

Were their musical choices any good when you were a kid? My parents were all about the Abba and Bob Dylan.
On my mum's side I was raised on folk, English and foreign; my dad's side was mostly brass bands, but some good ‘60s pop bands like the Beach Boys.

Where do you position yourself in terms of what you do now, within contemporary music? Do you see much out there that you relate to, or feel affiliated with?
I dunno, y'know... not really?

What kind of bands do you tend to get put on with? Seen anyone you've liked?
Hell yeah! When I was younger, I played with a lot of dull indie shite... though recently the bills have been a bit more cohesive.

Best line-up you've been on?

Maybe in Leeds with Jeremy Smoking Jacket? I dunno, dude!

How's it all going at the minute? I hear you're touring and building up to some releases.
I've never toured as Team Brick before. I’m still recording an album for Invada, writing a 7" for Victory Garden, and sending things to labels all the time. I play the syntho for Crippled Black Phoenix.

How did that come about?

Justin saw me play a show and liked it... started talking to me about two or three weeks before the first tour, asking me if I could be a multitask guy... we only communicate via Morse Code and lewd scribbles on Post-Its, except for Dominic, who communicates via the medium of slap bass.

To which I would probably reply through the medium of punch. What's your album going to sound like?
A bee trying to get pollen from spinach. At the moment, just very long. Been doing actual pieces... instruments thus far: all the regular ones plus pedals, synth, argument, violin, cello, clarinet, Wurlitzer, Hammond, piano, Rhodes, CD rack, wine rack, accordion, trombone, voice... erm, I think that's it.

What do you think is important to your music that we haven't talked about yet?
I dunno. I don't understand my music myself...

You don't?

Not really - it doesn't make any sense to me why I do it. I can't elaborate.