Friday, 27 March 2009

The blacks of their eyes: Joe Gideon & The Shark

The Borderline feels eerie as we enter out of the dark rain. There's water in my shoes, and some kind of sludgy blues riffing oozing up the stairwell. Down in the room, there's a large empty semi circle of floor in front of the stage, despite the fact that it's packed; that'll be the toxic vibes of one Duke Garwood, frowning into the mic through his wispy dead man's hair. His drummer is rigor mortis stiff, like a reanimated stick man from the Addams Family band. The guitar lines tangle and stretch out, not quite at home under the bright lights of London, in search of a vast sandy expanse and an evil red sky. We watch them on a TV screen, grainy and smudged, and it feels like we're in some purgatorial waiting room foot-tapping to the house band, bedeviled with confusion and peace after flatlining in A&E.

Joe Gideon hits the stage to a huge roar from the packed out room, grinning from behind his whiskers as he straps on his guitar. It starts slowly, fearlessly, with some spoken word set to scuttling cymbal touches and echoing chords. There's no pretense here, no need to hit it hard from the start, no shock and awe tactics. Joe Gideon & The Shark don't need that shit. They have enough magic coursing through them to hypnotize the room at their own pace.

There's deceptively casual musicianship here, and dark poetry; knowingly corny one-liners and stool pigeon profundity; tall tales and sad stories set to grinding blues and sweet piano reverb. Gideon speaks and sings in an affected mid-Atlantic drawl that should be bothersome but somehow isn't, staring into the middle distance with clear blue eyes and a serious, handsome face. "Kathy Ray" is introduced as a true story, and builds slowly in a dramatic arc to a joyful gospel choir infused finale. "DOL" is dark and insistent, reminiscent of the Bad Seeds in the good old days.

The Shark (aka Viva) drums like a ballerina, raising a sound like thunder, whirling, posing, striking purposefully with glee spilling out across her face at each crash of a cymbal. She never slips into a holding pattern, wriggling inside the rhythm, every song brightened by a new trick or sliver of ingenuity - whether looping vocals into a mighty wall of harmony, battering out ringing piano crescendos between songs, deftly hammering away at both drums and xylophone, or simultaneously playing guitar with her hands and knocking out a tight bass-drum-hi-hat beat with her feet. And these acrobatic feats look so easy in her hands - Viva visibly thrives on playing music, swatting it around like a plaything, a many-limbed Shiva injecting jolts of performative poise and physical drama throughout.

The teeming, adoring crowd groans loudly when Gideon announces the last song, 'Anything You Love That Much, You Will See Again'. It's a power-ballad tearjerker addressed directly to the heartbroken that should be cheesy, but instead comes off as spine tinglingly beautiful. Tonight, this band play with smiles on their faces, and they don't put a foot wrong. The reason is pretty simple. Joe Gideon & The Shark are the real thing.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone Vs. Children

Written for The Quietus

MP3: Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm (When The Saints Go Marching In)

With the grand, heavenly sound of a harp crescendo, Owen Ashworth (aka Casiotone For The Painfully Alone) embarks on another epic exploration of domestic woe and sharply observed everyday strife.

We're taken straight into the sad tale of a baby faced hood called Tom Justice - "The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL", as the song title reliably informs us. It's a story told in witty couplets over beats and piano that could otherwise be a hip-hop backing track - "they called you a choirboy, the way you cleared those safes / but you only ever bowed your head to keep your face off the tapes".

"Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm" sees a couple breaking out of humdrum existence and taking to the road, Thelma & Louise style. But throughout the course of the song, the underlying desperation that makes their exhilaration possible becomes apparent. At the very least they're in trouble, and at worst they're doomed. The song ends with a funny, rousing rendition of 'When The Saints Go Marching In'.

On album standout "Traveling Salesman's Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas In Montpelier, VT", there's another glimpse of some human warmth amidst the bleak landscape of modern life as the couple in question talk on the telephone long distance - "all our promises come so easy / they fill the distances to our next meeting". But ultimately, the kitchen sink micro-drama ends bitterly - "all our promises are so fleeting, when all I really want is you close to me, but you were already out the door by the time that occurred to me".

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone succeeds in representing a sad, kindly eye watching over the tableau of everyday life, lending a poetic importance to the unwitnessed sadnesses of small lives lived in small towns. Sometime you can see yourself in it, or someone you know. Or maybe it's an album about strangers - the overly factual song titles suggest stories plucked from the pages of mid-American town newspapers. Miserablist alt-pop socio-musical anthropology, then? Maybe. But however you choose to analyse it, Casiotone Vs. Children is an evocative and involving listen, and a fittingly accomplished fifth album from Mr. Ashworth.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Dan Deacon - Bromst

Written for The Quietus

MP3: Get Older

Truffle-shuffling Canadian electronic alt-pop star Dan Deacon sure knows how to make an impression. His music is a full on sensory assault, built from micro-melody earworms and cascading, geometric sequences of notes. His pitch-shifted proto-rap chanting slips and slides over a twinkling, gleaming, ever-evolving array of technicolour electronic sounds. It's music stuffed to bursting point, written on such a detailed OCD level that it sometimes teeters on the edge of how much the mind can take in, like the audio equivalent of a magic eye picture.

On his second album, 'Bromst', Deacon has decided to take the famously cathartic, joyful, 'tribal' aspect of his live show, and run with it in a quite literal way. Across the course of the record we're treated to Lion King style cartoon chanting, vaguely oriental instrumentals and chopped up Irish acapella folk, mixed with buzzing, chirping synthetic sounds and pounding sampled drum patterns. 'Bromst' is a genuine but wry exploration of the dreamlike place in which Deacon's passionate hyper-pop touches on religious musical fervour - the album artwork spells out as much with a glowing plastic tent pegged out in the dark wilderness of nature.

Sausagefest '08

The opening trilogy - "Build Voice", "Red F" and "Paddling Ghost" - continue the insistent, euphoric sound of "Spiderman Of The Rings", injecting Deacon's trademark pitch-shifted vocal squiggles into tumbling rhythms, soaring synth lines and searing electronic noise meltdowns. Plucked string sounds are stretched and looped and repeated, fracturing their familiarity and unleashing worlds of possible miniature variations. Sounds, structures and pieces of unused tune and rhythm lie all around each segment, with Deacon whirling gleefully through his workshop plastering it all together into constant new configurations. It's like being sucked into someone else's manic episode, in the best possible way.

Later on there is some respite: the choppy female vocals on "Wet Wings" is a surprising but fitting addition. "Woof Woof" features a sharp cut-up bassline and is an album highlight, also standing out as the most accessible of the bunch. It breaks down into another unintelligible percussive cat-rap, any kind of continuity exploded once again in a completely thrilling way. Dan Deacon has found a brilliantly individual style of maximalism, a prysmic, childlike, no-holds-barred expression of an internal world that is rammed with wonder. To some, the ceaseless ear-assault and willful flirtation with sonic overload may prove too much to bear, but inside this bizarre and intense record there lies a vivid and imaginative alternative world waiting to be discovered.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Micachu & The Shapes - Jewellery

Written for The Line Of Best Fit

MP3: Curly Teeth

Mica Levi is the kind of burgeoning pop star that inspires a particularly devoted kind of fandom in her admirers. Her diminutive frame is draped in her trademark yellow and white hand made tee. Her face scrunches up endearingly as she mumbles out the words to her songs, her lip curled back and her eyes tight shut, rocking back and forth with her miniature guitar at chest height. She's part East London DIY street kid, part Waitsian musical innovator, part preternaturally wise ingenue; she's an endearing and intriguing presence, and all of her character seeps and shines out through the songs on this amazing debut album.

The sound of Jewellery is an elusive, nomadic lean-to of influences and styles. Discordant twanged strings mix with loops and beeps, jittery rhythms and squeaking, squalling keyboard, all feeding into the short, sparse melodies. It's a weird amalgam of urban DIY melodies with dancehall rhythms, neurotic autobiography and outbursts of punky racket screwed and glued on for good measure. Percussive detritus clatters and tinkles throughout, from cowbell to wood block to drum machine and the chopped up hum of a hoover mechanism. The experimentation isn't for the sake of it, but for the sound of it - the palette of sounds is economical and controlled, rather than throwing the kitchen sink into it for no reason. There's a distinctive sense of a keen musical intelligence at work behind this record.

Micachu's inventiveness and gift for turning out a catchy turn of phrase and a catchier tune has seen her quickly become a darling of the underground, but there's no reason for her success to stop there. As a classically trained musician with a seemingly endless imagination and Rough Trade behind her, Michachu is one "hotly tipped" new artist that will hopefully be sticking around for a good long while.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Crystal Stilts - Alight of Night

For: The Line Of Best Fit

MP3: Crystal Stilts

Shoegaze has been going through something of a renaissance of late. With the return of My Bloody Valentine, and the genre-reinventing success of bands like Deerhunter, M83 and Maps, suddenly the reverb-with-everything sound is rife once more. Stylized bone-pickers like Ariel Pink and John Maus are creating amazing echo drenched alternate universe retro-futurist pop, and Bradford Cox is certainly pushing the envelope with his "nu-gaze" (i know, I know) solo project Atlas Sound. It doesn't add up to a genuine musical movement, but Crystal Stilts are part of a periodic realignment in the zeitgeist, resulting in a new exploration of a familiar landscape.

But despite all the elaborations and broadening out of their counterparts, Crystal Stilts stick firmly to the straight and narrow. Their backward looking debut album, Alight of Night, sounds like music beamed directly out of the past.

The vocals are unapologetically doleful, and the sound is full to the point of clutter and enveloping to the point of smothering. Sometimes they sound like The Jesus & Mary Chain with the buzzsaw edge taken away, sometimes like Suicide without the thread of teetering psychosis, sometimes like a high school prom band in a drunk dream, via Joe Meek. Sometimes they sound like Joy Division on a television with a bad signal, white noise overlaid and vocals distant.

Which doesn't sound all bad, right? And that's because it's not. It's alternately engrossing and alienating - a stylistic win wrapped in a musical fail. Live, they shake off the malaise that chokes Alight of Night, delivering the songs with laconic effortlessness. But here on record it's turgid, and while it might sound like the past, it sure won't go down in the history books.