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February 2013

Notes on Richard Dawson's 'The Magic Bridge'

Tuesday, 26 February 2013 Category : , , 1

I originally wrote this for my friend's blog The Click of a Light. With Richard Dawson having recently been profiled by The Quietus and heading out on a UK tour imminently, it seemed a nice time to dust off this piece on his wonderful 2011 album 'The Magic Bridge'...

One of the first lessons in music journalism has always been: ditch the first person. There’s good reason for this – for a writer who’s just starting out (or, more importantly, a writer who just doesn’t really know how or what they’re trying to communicate), the first person can lead a wide world of critical sins. It’s the road to description over analysis, to pointless clauses and explanation (“in my opinion” – well, duh), to terrible narcissistic drivel more interested on unimportant trivia surrounding the writer’s life than the subject at hand. When in doubt, keep it impersonal.

Yet here, there is no option but to allow for the cloak to slip. The I is unavoidable – my relationship to The Magic Bridge is too personal, my analysis of it too entwined with my own experiences and thoughts for anything else to be possible. It’s a record that invites closeness, that aims to draw the listener in deeper and deeper until the day comes that when they place it in the player for another spin, what they’re really hearing isn’t the tones and notes and sounds of Richard Dawson but their own past brought bad to them with perfect vividness, Proust’s madeleine in CD form.

Part of this, for me, must be down to having witnessed the slow birthing and evolution of the record. Having been stunned at first sight when seeing Dawson play a quiet, third-on-the-bill folk set to a quiet End Bar - how we miss thee – on a Monday night four years ago, I became one of those lesser spotted Dawson-ologists that linger in the North-East of England, trading tales and recollections of bounteous performances witnessed and speculations over that small, rare but treasured recording output. After an unusual absence from the musical scene (save for the occasional performance under his experimental side-project Eyeballs), he started to emerge from this hibernation around two years ago, playing covert little on-the-day and unannounced appearances upstairs at The Telegraph or in other little venues, touting his three-quarter guitar and elemental voice once again. 

But now the sets were unknown, full of these new, grandiose pieces constructed during his temporary absence, and to even the most amateur level of Dawson aficionado, it was evident something remarkable was happening. Out of intimate, personal observations of the contents of wooden bags, of muggings and of deathbed moments, grand metaphysical dramas seemed to emerge: with his increasingly intricate guitar playing and song structuring and his ever powerful vocal range, it became evident that at each of his gigs over the next two years, the audience was being treated to the rare and beautiful sight of an artist just reaching their prime.

Yet as rapturous performance followed rapturous performance, as different structures were tried out and instrumental pieces were debuted, dropped and reworked, something seemed to be missing. There was no record of these beautiful, haunting works having ever been crafted or played: it felt as though they could plunge over the cliff into non-existence at any opportunity. And so the wait went on and on for posterity to finally thrown its arms around these songs.

But here we are, and here it is. I can hold the case in my hand, I can put the CD into my computer, and I can press play and listen. And what comes out isn’t an over-processed, clinical studio production, nor a scruffy live recording. One of the minor miracles of The Magic Bridge is how perfectly judged the fidelity is: low-fi enough to suit the unassuming, homespun nature of the material, but with just enough precision to let the songs shine. Moving from his customary acoustic over to a mildly distorted electric for much of the recording could have radically changed the nature of the performance, but once again this proves a shrewd move. At a time when our notions of folk music have been commandeered in the name of conservatism - small and big c – and when the acoustic guitar has become synonymous with the on-going march of The New Boring upon our nation (that beautifully apt term for the atrocities committed by the likes of Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran in the name of dumbing down and battening down the hatches on imagination and dissent), its firmly shifts Dawson’s art away from the mass-produced sludge. 

 More significantly, on the four instrumental tracks on the album, it adds a wild energy and an attack that helps the record sustain its energy even when Dawson steps away from the mike. While this might seem a slightly high instrumental/song ratio, Dawson’s supreme talent and guitar playing keeps things from mindless onanism. And of the four instrumentals, it’s the longest, the nine-minute marvel of Newcastle, that impresses the most. From sombre jazzy beginnings, the track slowly picks up movement, taking increasingly bold and impressionistic moves that outline the shape of the city. As it ebbs and flows, you feel both the urgency and tension of the modern city and the exquisite drama and beauty of the surrounding area. For me, listening back to this piece brings back every train ride to and from the city: seeing the picturesque of Durham fade to be replaced with the tower blocks and housing of Gateshead until the Tyne is crossed, and there rushing towards you lays Central Station and the welcomes and promises of a beloved city centre. It’s a masterpiece of build and release, an ideal travelling companion.

But it’s the six vocal songs that form the mighty, indomitable heart of The Magic Bridge. Blurring the lines between confessionalist, abstract and metaphysical lyricism, Dawson spins six tales of heartbreak, longing, loss and sensual experience. One of the record’s crowning jewels, Wooden Bag, spins a yarn about everyday objects – sticks of expired toffee, contraceptives, stolen ballpoint pens – into a history of modern man, tracing around the edges of everyday existence and looking for the poetry that lies within, all beneath a beautifully looping, flowing guitar line. Again, folk traditionalism is met with jazz disruption and the intrusion of modern ephemera, keeping this away from the museum and pushing it squarely into the here and now.

The real trick Dawson achieves is that the more personal his anecdotes and tales get – the self-descriptive account of his grandfather’s passing in Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations, the tale of want and hope in We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed, the illness and loss of eyesight detailed so movingly and so imaginatively in the nine-minute centrepiece Man Has Been Struck Down By Hands Unseen – the more universal and affecting they get. Rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator, Dawson presents the life and experiences of a real flesh and blood human, with all of the joys and defeats and triumphs and flaws and greatness that implies. As such, there’s an empathy and a depth to Dawson’s work quite unlike any other songwriter currently working . On The Magic Bridge, there is no division between the real man and the artist – they are one and the same.

All this is just more meaningless words for the void though if this majestic album remains overlooked. Richard Dawson is not cool: he is no hipster-friendly, blog-ready, photoshopped, ready for Pitchfork to hype and drop or for the front cover of the NME. He is not pioneering a new sound of 2012, releasing a free mp3 or starting a fashion label. He is not the latest sex icon nor an aristocrat nor the young new pretender or any of the other categories that have become the only ways so much of the internet media can cope with music. He is nothing but heart. And what a heart it is.

Atoms For Peace - AMOK

Monday, 25 February 2013 Category : , , , , , 0

There's a reason why the supergroup normally gets a bad press. A bunch of rich, pampered rock stars, usually well past their creative prime, reaching out to one another in the spirit of ego massaging, 'jamming' loosely without aim or intention because by this point, they've got the money and they've got the fans, so what's at stake anymore? The supergroup - an entirely inaccurate euphemism for the collective masturbation of rock'n'roll salesman steadfastly refusing to push each other out of the comfort zone. The supergroup as where art goes to die.

Formed originally to tour Thom Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser during a break from Radiohead duties in 2009 following the In Rainbows campaign, Atoms For Peace mixed the obvious (Radiohead and Thom Yorke's constant producer from OK Computer onwards, Nigel Godrich, was an inevitable contributor), the suitably talented but low-key (sessionists Joey Waronker and Marco Refosco) and the frankly bizzare (the slap-bass one from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) into a veritable musical clusterfuck. While the band worked well in fleshing out Yorke's solo material, when it was announced the group were headed for a full-length studio collaboration on new material, the mind still boggled at exactly how it was all going to work. Was the Radiohead mastermind now at risk of putting out his own Lulu?

To start with the obvious then: if this is indeed a collaboration, then it's the most uneven one imaginable. Thom Yorke (and, as producer, Godrich's) fingerprints are all over AMOK, with only the slightest trace of influence from Joey, Marco or Flea. It might be coming out under a different name, but for all intents and purposes, this is really the second Thom Yorke solo album - it just so happens this time that he's already got the players lined up for a live tour beforehand.

As opposed to an extended list of contributors, the difference between Thom Yorke's The Eraser and Atoms For Peace's AMOK lies in their rspective takes on dance music. The Eraser was Thom Yorke's interest in twitchy, discomforting IDM taken to its limit, a suite of subdued ballads fuelled by little more than glitched beats. On AMOK though, it's the more open, club-ready sounds coming from Flying Lotus and the Brainfeeder collective, twisting live samples and fluid percussive lines into by far the most dancefloor orientated record of Yorke's career to dare. As opposed to the apocalyptic, black-and-white Stanley Donwood artwork adorning its cover, AMOK is a fully technicolour work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the album often works at its best when it's at its most dense and saturated, a whole array of synths, sound effects and beats carryng on behind Yorke's still beautiful falsetto to weave a dynamic, powerful web. On opener Before Your Very Eyes..., a twitchy burst of Afrobeat guitar slowly becomes overpowered by the electronics in a shifting soundscape that gets proceedings off to an astonishing start. There's also the album's greatest outlier, Stuck Together Pieces, which acts as as the sunny, laid-back twin to Reckoner's exquisite melancholy. and the one moment where the two percussionists Joey and Marco and Flea's bass playing really make their presence felt. On these tracks, the rhythmic complexity Radiohead explored on The King of Limbs gets pushed further and allied with the most strikingly optimistic (or at least, least oppresive) material Yorke's composed to date.

If there's a drawback to the album, it's that the constraints of the project - to produce something approaching a bone-fide dance record - do clip Yorke's wings at times. While it's refreshing to hear a record of his that's actually lacking in ballads, at times there's a lack of the emotional heft that's always been such a part of his brilliance. (It's for this reason also that the deeper, darker closing pair of Reverse Running and the title track mark the album's high-point.) The point also has to be made that putting Ingenue on the tracklisting, an enjoyable and stunningly textured piece that nontheless slows the album down following the imperial lead single Default, as opposed to the brash, funky Default B-side What The Eyeballs Did, scores something of an own goal.

On its own merits, AMOK is an expertly realised slice of intelligent, detailed, ideally executed dance album that makes for a striking and hugely enjoyable contract to The Eraser's subdued charms. There's enough great moments here - the chorus of Default, the bass-lead outro of Dropped, the acoustic guitar and cut-up beats of Judge, Jury And Executioner - to keep any fan of Yorke's work more than happy. The nature of the project though results in an album, however, still results in an album with less of the emotional resonance that marks out his finest work. To call AMOK a slight work is a perverse compliment to the remarkable discography it's been born into. But to anyone who's been keeping track on him, AMOK stands as an enormously pleasurable yet still slightly hollow effort. And in this supergroup, it's not the bass player with the sock on his cock to blame.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Thursday, 21 February 2013 Category : , , , , , 0

Failure was never an option. Through his various musical incarnations - the rabid frontman of post-punk nihilists The Birthday Party, the blasted gothic and heroin detrius of the early Bad Seeds records, the melancholic, hard-won beauty of later Bad Seeds records and the priapic, perma-erect mid-life crisis rock of Grinderman - Nick Cave has remained one of the most consistent recording artists of all time, both in the high quality of his output and his subtly shifting yet primally unshakeable persona. Even the one album most Nick Cave fans agree is somewhat below-par, 2003's Nocturama, contains the astonishing, hilarious Babe, I'm On Fire which acted as the first catalyst for the grotesquely comic garage rock that would reach its peak on 2008's Dig! Lazarus Dig!

Even so, the question coming into Push The Sky Away was: where was he headed now? On Grinderman 2, the rich seam of psychotic Carry On material that Cave had been mining for several records was evidently running out of steam, with that record's superb first half spluttering out into lacklustre filler like Kitchenette and Palaces of Montezuma. Much as The Good Son had been the cooling salve to the mounting ills of the Berlin records, as The Boatman's Call had been the intimate, sobering response to the climatic darkness of Murder Ballads, on Push The Sky Away a reaction to the mounting rockist excess of recent Nick Cave records was necessary.

Instead of the 'sad piano ballad album' many had expected though, Push The Sky Away presents a far more intricate and hard to define take on the Bad Seeds sound that brings together the classicism of No More Shall We Part, the humanity of The Boatman's Call and the paranoia of Your Funeral... My Trial whilst utilising a new interest in loops and textures to craft a very different kind of Bad Seeds album.

This is not to say that the last few records have exactly been forgetten though. The text-speak of travk names likes We No Who U R and We Real Cool and classic Nick Cave come on's like "She was a catch, and we were a match / I was the match that would fire up her snatch" show that, whilst slumbering, the beast most definetely dwells within. The album also confirms Warren Ellis's role as Nick Cave's right-hand man in the wake of Mick Harvey's surprise departure in 2009, with Ellis being responible for the loops that underpin the songs, playing most of the instruments in the studio (with many of the other Bad Seeds seemingly relegated to sessionists, if the album credits are anything to go by) and having co-written all the music with Cave, it's not surprising that some of the more stark moments here recall the pair's soundtrack work on The Proposition and other films.

It's this delicate mixture of fragile beauty and barely contained wrath that defines the album, be it the throbbing bass of Water's Edge (reminiscent of Barry Adamson's work on early tracks like Cabin Fever, who in an interesting development has now re-joined the Bad Seeds for the Push The Sky Away tour) or the clanging percussion and haunting backing vocals of Finishing Jubilee Street. Throughout, the streets of Nick Cave's adopted hometown of Brighton become the scene for crazed visions and intoned threats - the London girls "wired to the world, like Bibles open" for the local boys on Water's Edge, the prostitutes and criminals that fill Jubilee Street (as vividly depicted on the track's music video), the "mermaids [hung] from the streetlights" on Wide Lovely Eyes - that relocate the apocalypse of Cave's early work to more earthtly, recogniseable terrain. If Grinderman and Dig! Lazarus Dig! were comic repudiations of middle-age, here the fears and furies of old find themselves creeping into settled everyday life.

Where the first seven tracks of the album build the tension up and up, on the final two Cave and the Bad Seeds instead take the action elsewhere and turn the album on its head. Higgs Boson Blues (which as several reviewers have already observed, has the vibe of a plugged-in Ambluance Blues to it) covers a trip to Geneva to see the Large Hadron Collider that folds everyone from Robert Johnson to Miley Cyrus into its psychogeographic road trip, the band coming as close to their full force as they're allowed on this record as Cave's trip gets darker and more fantastical. The musings on mortality and meanings then carry on in very different from into the record's concluding title track, where over a backdrop of chiming keys and subtle percussion as blank and pristine as the album's cover, Cave concludes:
And some people say that it is just rock'n'roll
Oh, but it gets right down to your soul
You've got to just keep on pushing
Keep on pushing
Push the sky away
If much of the album is defined by unresolved dread and the juxtaposition of suburban normality with the allure of sex and the threat of violence, then the imaginative blast of Higgs Boson Blues and the quiet rallying of the title track amount to a resolve not to give in to, as Matt Berninger put it, "the un-magnificent lives of adults" or to fall sway to the memories of youthful mistakes but to mediate between the two and keep on pushing. It's this attitude that has made Nick Cave such a consistently rewarding artist, and which make Push The Sky Away - if perhaps not in the top-tier of Bad Seeds albums with Tender Prey, Let Love In or The Boatman's Call - such a strong statement from an artist who's pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat.

Live Report - Jerry Sadowitz, 'Comedian, Magician, Bawbag!'

Monday, 18 February 2013 Category : , , , , , 0

More comedy, and this time it's a report of Jerry Sadowitz's Leeds appearance on the 'Comedian, Magician, Bawbag!' tour. Here's what happens when you go to see the most furious and offensive performer out there...

From his first performances in the early 1980s onwards, Jerry Sadowitz has been synonymous with controversy and boundary-pushing provocation, mixing his billious and raging comedy material with deft and hilarious feats of magic. A brief period of relative popularity in the late 1980s/early 1990s aside (including a never-repeated BBC series, The Pall Bearer's Revue, in 1992) aside, the relentless and uncompromising nature of Sadowitz's work has kept him very much a cult concern.

In recent years however, Sadowitz's legend has blossomed and a new generation - this writer included - have become aware of the reigning king of shock-comedy. Never mind piss-weak imitators like Frankie Boyle : this is comedy where nothing is off-limits, nothing is not up for criticism and nothing is safe. The scarcity of material available - only a few poor-quality bootlegs circulate in lieu of any official releases, with Sadowitz himself frequently patrolling the internet to take down any work of his - has made him a unique case in the age of information overload. (Given the unrelenting, hate-fuelled rants anyone who manages to find any bootlegs will be subjected to, perhaps it's just as well he remains an essentially live-only concern -  this stuff could probably cause riots if it ever got into the mainstream. But I digress.)

As someone who likes to believe himself relatively hard to shock who has found himself both in thrall to gales of helpless laughter and occasionaly genuinely horrified by the bursts of abuse coming through my speakers from the bootlegs I'd heard, losing my live Sadowitz virginity was almost as exciting as losing my actual virginity, and certainly a good deal more terrifying. With a friend of mind already planning to attend, I booked a ticket for the Leeds date of his current tour and assumed the crash position.

With his 1987 album Gobshite having been withdrawn due to his retrospectively proven attacks on Jimmy Saville, and his current tour being promoted with a YouTube video riffing on this following recent revelations, some more material on the man Sadowitz once referred to as "a great British evil cunt" was obviously on the cards. Having Sadowitz come out on stage in Saville regalia to launch into ten minutes of material on the child abuse scandal, in character as Saville, including plenty of references on other accused figures however...well, it's with good reason that his shows are advertised as for adults only. Two hours later, it would be clear that this was the light relief in the show before he ploughed through the really dark shit.

An audio recording might give you an idea of the type of material Sadowitz deals in: bleak, shocking rants on anyone and everyone, with no clear ideology or agenda beyond pure unyielding anger. Being at one of his shows though? Well, whereas the former might be like going to the zoo to see some dangerous lions in their enclosure, the latter is more like breaking into the enclosure at night and putting your head in the lion's mouth. If you're going to enjoy Sadowitz live, note this: you will be offended at some point. That's just a given. You will be subjected to thoughts and ideas far beyond you comfort zone, wherever you sit politically. While other pseudo-shocking comedians always stop conviently just at the limits of acceptability, Sadowitz gleefully leaps over it, calling you all a set of fucking cunts as he does so. 

Even at his most indefensible though, what keeps the whole enterprise so engaging is the phenomenal comic talent Sadowitz has at his disposable. Getting people to laugh with a concept they can agree with is one thing: still getting them to laugh when they actively loathe what's being offered is quite another. While fuck's and cunt's might litter the set like wedding confetti, there's a remarkable eye for comic detail and for the perfectly constructed turn of phrase that makes his material shine, even at its darkest. Threatening to shove a red-hot poker up Michael McIntyre's arse cold end first, so he can laugh at him burning his hands trying to pull it out? Now that is how you construct a deadly accurate insult.

In a recent interview with NARC, Darren Hubbard asked which was worse, "the Guardian reading lot that over-analyse [his] comedy and think that it’s all irony, or the Daily Star types that take [his] brutal material at face value?" The thing about Sadowitz is, you can't explain it away so easily either way, and he knows this. As he says himself, on one level, it's all irony. But beneath that, he means it. But beneath that, it's all a joke. But beneath that, he really fucking hates you. But beneath that...

There's a few cracks in the armour, such as his introduction of his support act, where we might see something approaching the real Sadowitz. (Certainly, evidence suggests a different temperment off-stage). The point is though, you're never meant to know where you stand with him. You're not meant to agree, or disagree, or do anything really other than laugh and laugh. As merciless as his material is, the most vicious terms are always reserved for himself. Christ, this is a 52 year-old Glasweigian Jew whose current tour has him wearing an SS helmet for half the show while espousing praise for dictators: do you really want to say that we're meant to take that at face value? He's not trying to campaign for anything, or change our views. What he is trying to do is to shock us, surprise us, offer something unlike anything else out there. Away from the constraints of political correctness, he offers a warped kind of equality where everything is equally shit in his eyes.

Jerry Sadowitz is, inevtiably, never going to be for everyone. He's never going to be for most people, and I can't blame them. Gervais might make money out of playing (as he would have it) mongs, but it's through a gossamer-thin layer of irony and with a substantial disdain for an audience that's made him a millionaire. There's a strong argument to be made that the artistic laziness and sneering media-elite attitude of him, Boyle or Jimmy Carr is actually a good deal more offensive and problematic than anything that can come out of the mouth of a middle-aged, working-class Glaswegian who's never 'made it'.

Make it through a Sadowitz gig, and you'll be awarded with expert stand-up, some hilarious comedy magic (once he finally gets round to it) and the strange joy of knowing that you've looked the abyss in the eye, got told to fuck off and still made it just fine on the other side. Comedy, more than any other art form, has the great potential to confront humanity at its very worst and explore the unthinkable, because it can be serious without actually being serious. With humour comes the possibility of catharsis, if you're willing not to cling on to any closed-minded beliefs. You're not meant to believe a damn thing Sadowitz says, otherwise you're as fucked up as he is. Just strap in and enjoy the ride of a master craftsman laying waste to all constraints.

Live Report - Simon Munnery, 'Fylm-Makker'

Wednesday, 13 February 2013 Category : , , , , 0

Hang on a second, but this isn't music...what kind of nonsense is this?

Well, pretty damn fine nonsense really. Simon Munnery has consistently been one of the most surreal and distinctive British comics around for the last two decades. Whether in character as Alan Parker: Urban Warrior or The League Against Tedium (as whom he made a low budget, sporadically brilliant and sadly ignored BBC sketch series, Attention Scum!), hosting one of his unique experiments such as conceptual restraunt La Concepta or touring the stand-up circuit, Simon Munnery's mixture of outlandish intelligence, sharp one-liners and genteel silliness is reliably hilarious and delightful.

One issue that can be raised about his work, especially in recent years, is the re-use of material throughout his shows. Understandable perhaps with many of his newer ideas being funnelled towards his Annual General Meetings during the Edinburgh Fringe or projects like La Concepta, this has still left his touring stand-up show underwhelmingly static and predictable.

For his new touring show however, Simon Munnery has not just revitalised his own act but also come up with what may well be the most inventive hour of comedy this year. Debued at the Fringe last year, Fylm-Makker sees Munnery attempting to bridge the gap between live performance and 'dead' film. Sat at a desk at the back of the audience, Simon Munnery's face is projected onto the stage, allowing him to address the audience whilst also cutting away to his own live, lo-fi animations - live films, or in Munnery's parliance, fylms.

Ably assisted by Mick Moriatry on guitar, what ensues over the next hour is a fast mixture of short sketches, home-spun animation and puppetry, comic songs, frantic scribbling and plenty of other glorious pissing about. There's far too many highlights to mention (and when writing about comedy, trying not to spoil the punchline is usually a good idea...), but percolating around my brain today as I remember the night's proceedings are the night's Fall-esque theme song, D.I.Y. animations concerning Mexican bandits and The Stations of Lacrosse, plenty of messing around with the show's innovative format and one utterly, utterly perfect joke around throwing babies: trust me, the joke and pay-off are superb, unexpected and quite inarguable.

Beyond the obvious novelty of how Munnery stages the show, Fylm-Makker also gets to the heart of what makes Munnery such a formidable talent. The rough, cut-and-paste constructions in Fylm-Makker's animations bear the influence of Terry Gilliam's work with Monty Python, but the greatest trick Munnery's cribbed from them - both in this show and throughout his career - is his inate understand of how grounding a flight of fancy within the real and the mundane makes them infinetely funnier and more surreal. Just as the drab London suburbs that hosted the menagerie of oddities that littered Flying Circus made them even more outlandish, the cheap effects, D.I.Y. equipment (complete with light bulbs courtesy of Wilkinson's and colour filters from a Coronation Street tin) and dips into deadpan underline the remarkable imagination that fuels Munnery's comedy.

Catching the first night of the tour at The Stand comedy club in Newcastle, there are a few teething issues with the equipment beyond some of the comic pseudo-ineptitude that litters the show, and long-time Munnery fans will notice routines on modern art vs. comedy and the fate of the Hindenburg returning in the current show. In this instance though, the innovation of the form does change the material and breathes new life into it in a way that justifies their inclusion.

Whether you're a long-time fan or a newcomer to Simon Munnery's work, Fylm-Makker is a comedy show unlike anything else that you'll have seen before. Rough round the edges it might be, but the density of the ideas and the sheer gag ratio make it unmissable for any comedy connoisseurs. Check the Simon Munnery website to see the rest of his tour dates for this show.

Live Report - Richard Dawson, Agerskow, Therunningchelsea, 04/01/2013

Thursday, 7 February 2013 Category : , , , , , , 0

Let’s get a few things out of the way early on: it’s very rare you get a bill this good in the Steamer these days. And yes, I am also an unapologetic Dawson fan boy. So it always going to be unlikely that this would be an especially barbed review.

But bloody hell, what an evening. Starting things off was Tom Hollingworth, better known as Therunningchelsea. Usually to be found toting his loop-pedal assisted talents around the city’s open mike scene, tonight’s longer opening slot allowed him to showcase the full extent of his lyrical and musical virtuosity and even preview some of his quite splendidly eccentric new album In The Future, We Will Spinn.

Bringing things to a more intimate level was Agerskow, now an alt-folk power trio with enough restraint and nuance to let Kate Edwards’ personal songs and superb voice breathe but still add extra colour to the edges to bring out the power of songs like closing number Fast Hands.  Subtle, memorable and classically melodic pop.

Given the dedicated local following he now commands, it’s pretty packed for Richard Dawson’s headline set, but as usual there’s enough of a sonic and emotional heft to his music to swiftly dominate the room. There’s several previews of his next (largely acapella) project of revived folk songs, but it’s when he dips into 2011’s majestic The Magic Bridge – especially an astonishing We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed – that the night really soars. See you at the Academy next time?

Acrobatic Society - Kick Me, I'm Down

Tuesday, 5 February 2013 Category : , , , , 0

Acrobatic who? Well, keep quiet and pay attention...

Having been in and out of the north-east music scene for several years with varying line-ups, in the last two years Acrobatic Society have become a stable five-piece with a reputation as a live juggernaut, tearing into ambitious and ferocious noise-rock jams that run the gamut from sharp post-punk paranoia to epic Daydream Nation panoramas. Thus far, their only recorded output has been the Meat Meets Meat EP, a collection of very worthy and energetic material marred by some underpowered production.

With their new EP Kick Me, I'm Down though, they now have a document that comes close to bringing across the sheer force and dynamism of their current live set. Due out on Tiny Lights Recordings on 4th March, this new six song release collects some of their best writing to date with exponentially clearer production than before, whilst also expanding the range and sound of the band in interesting ways.
Opening track and free download Deek It! opens with a twisted guitar line jumping around the speakers, a mere harbinger of the chaos that happens when the full band kicks in. It's a perfect summation of the Acrobatic Society sound: unexpected and surprising guitar and violin lines weaving around a thunderous, grooving rhythm section, threatening at any moment to fall apart but holding together to conjure up some serious apocalyptic anthems.

The real heart of the EP lies in the closing duo of Surgical and Death Industries. It's when the band stretch out and let their natural chemistry do the heavy lifting that they really achieve lift-off, and for these eleven minutes they show off all their best tricks - dystopian lyricism, unorthodox scales and harmonies, racing surges of tempo and noise - to dazzling effect. Kick Me, I'm Down also showcases other sides of the band not found in their live act in the crystalline guitar instrumental Pink and the dark electronic ambience of Only Cholesterol Can Break Your Heart. 

Whether you're a long-time follower or have only just heard the name, Kick Me, I'm Down sets out the Acrobatic Society stall with style and verve for twenty-five minutes and left this reviewer desperate to hear where they go next. The EP is up for streaming now at the Tiny Lights bandcamp, and also available for pre-order. If you're in Newcastle, make sure to catch their EP launch gig on Friday 8th March at the New Bridge Project with support from hot new post-punk act Yellow Creatures, York's scrappy college rock revivalists Fawn Spots and the brilliant O'Messy Life to get the full picture.

Is Anything - Impressions of My Bloody Valentine's 'm b v'

Sunday, 3 February 2013 Category : , , , 0

So "maybe 2-3 days" was slightly over-optimistic. Does it matter? After twenty-two years of rumours, suggestions and promises, twenty-two years of waiting for My Bloody Valentine's next step after Loveless, it's finally here. The mythical third album, started in the mid-nineties when the band signed with Island Records but abandoned after several years, only to be revived following the band's reformation for touring in 2008-9 when Kevin Shields realised the potential of some of the material from that period - the third album's actually here. For real.

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the music, a few points of interest to raise. As already noted, this new album isn't entirely new per-se. This is, from the few interviews Kevin Shields gave prior to its surprise release in the early hours of Sunday morning (once the website started working, anyway), all material that has been re-recorded and completed recently, but all has its roots and origins from what would have been their debut for Island if all had gone to plan two decades ago. Bearing this in mind, it's interesting to note the effect the time-lapse has on the music: when in comes to the album's back half especially, the sound is both strikingly original in its execution and yet, due to it drawing from then-contemporary sources, somewhat dated also. Talking to the NME last year, he claimed "I feel like it really frees us up, and in the bigger picture it’s 100 per cent necessary." Essentially, this is the material they had to complete, the follow-up they had to deliver before they could ever move forward, so they could become a real band again. If nothing else, since they're finally spending their spring and summer touring a new album, mission accomplished on that front.

Of course though, if what had finally been uploaded to their website had been a last-minute rush-job to get the fans off their back and help shift any remaining tickets for their upcoming dates, the backlash would have been immediate and unforgiving. And given the many stories of the hellish three year production of Loveless, Kevin Shields's reputation for perfectionism and studio revision, and the unprecedented delay in new material, it's safe to say a perfunctory, ah-that'll-do record was always an unlikely prospect. (Although that said: twenty two years, and the best title you could come up with was your band's initials spaced out?) This record is the final holy grail now that SMiLE and Chinese Democracy are available, the last great 'what if?' of the twentieth century. Like both those records, it's the work of one artist attempting to pursue a singular vision who found themselves becoming unstuck in the process (if 'artist' isn't too grand a word for the tosser behind this nonsense), a potentially revolutionary work that disintegrated underneath its ambition and hubris.  Yet at least there were excerpts and tracks from both those records available in the meantime. Until one track emerged at a live concert in Brixton a week earlier, My Bloody Valentine's leigions of fans had nothing to go on.

Getting over the shock that it's out there, available for all to purchase, and sat on your computer just waiting for you to press play then in something of a shocker. Perhaps that's why, compared to the mighty percussive blasts that opened the first two full-lengths - the loud, percussive, lusty Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) from Isn't Anything and the still heart-stopping force of Only Shallow - m b v introduces itself to the astonished listener with unpredicted subtlety and restraint. Sure, the guitars are distorted and produced unlike any other act out there, but She Found Now is a slow, layered ballad closest in arrangement and mood to the Loveless ballad Sometimes than anything else in their previous work. The song itself, in the context of the album, does set the tone for the more intricate and labyrinthine structures employed on this material, but for a band who in recent years have, thanks to the deafening 'holocaust' that ends their live sets (here's a full version from the gig I attended at the Manchester Apollo in 2008 as evidence - and trust me, this recording barely hints at the brute power of it), becoming more renowned for deafening crowds than for any hint of delicacy, it's a surprising and contrarian choice that deconstructs expectations deftly from the outset.


After that, it's business as a-lot-closer-to-expected. There's two beautiful, floating tracks following straight on that come on like fuller imaginings of the more sophisticated, '60s indebted style previewed on the solo Kevin Shields contributions to the Lost in Translation OST. Only Tomorrow sees Billinda Butcher's enchanting coo return on a track that feels like the perfect come-down after Loveless closer Soon, the nocturnal quality that's always been present in their sound brought right to the fore. It's a song that, like much of the album, cuts down on the density of their previous recordings, allowing those stunning guitar parts (and Colm O'Ciosoig's inventive drumming, thankfully driving many of the tracks on m b v) far more room to breathe than before. As with the following track Who Sees You, there's a lightness here that's new to the band and a complexity and classical quality to the chord changes and guitar outros that makes the first third of the album incredibly, surprisingly inviting.

It's evolution as opposed to revolution in the album's middle as well, with two more Billinda-led tracks that take the established MBV sound and layer it onto compositions of a greater maturity and sophistication and before. Many commentators have already noted that If I Am has a certain John Barry quality to it, and the soft organ sounds and wah-wah guitar -yes, Kevin finally bought the one pedal he didn't already have - that fill the background of the track add to this layer of nostalgic refinement. Forget all the chinchilla rumours, maybe Kevin actually spent most of the nineties sat around in a velvet smoking jacket learning how to mix cocktails properly. Then we get to the song that was our first taste of the album when rough live recordings circulated last week, known first as Rough Song but now titled New Me. It's by far the most immediate and poppy track on the album, and quite possibly the most immediate thing they've ever done. Featuring some punchy synth bass and a floating keyboard hook with more than a hint of Boards of Canada to it (one of the times on the album where Kevin perhaps tips the hat to the acts who took the legacy of Loveless and placed their own spin on its innovations and aesthetic), it ups the tempo from the otherwise languorous pace of the album so far, and it's a brilliant piece of craft. Again though, it reinforces the idea that for the first two thirds, m b v is set on piloting the band back down to earth after the extra-terrestrial territory of the Tremelo EP. Maybe there was just nothing left to explore, no new ground to conquer. Instead, it's just time to settle back and enjoy some great songs, the feedback and fury of My Bloody Valentine past subdued into a hazy, twilight glow.

Just as well then that Kevin made sure to keep a few curveballs back to show that there's still new ground for My Bloody Valentine to explore. Breaking up the easy sway of the album's first half is the surprising, keyboard driven drone of Is This and Yes. While keeping with the mood of stillness and contemplation the album works towards at this moment, it features possible the most counter-intuitive yet utterly right arrangement choice of any My Bloody Valentine song to date: that's right, it's an MBV track almost entirely lacking in guitar. Starting off like an escapee from a mid-period Stereolab album, the track steadfastly refuses to add any distortion or clutter to the mix. Instead, there's a slowly evolving synth part which really brings out the Beach Boys references Kevin Shields had suggested at (think the extended mix of 'Til I Die specifically) whilst still sounding utterly right within the context of the album. Bold through its restraint, it demonstrates just why the My Bloody Valentine sound has always eluded genuine imitation: it's not just the loud guitars, but it's the fragile heart of the songs themselves that are always so unique.

And then, there's the last three tracks. Thought that maybe Kevin had been a bit complacent up until now? Well, any such doubt gets blown clear away just seconds into the remarkable In Another Way. A frantic guitar squall that sounds alarmingly like bagpipes cuts out as Colm O'Ciosoig comes in with a rampaging rave beat and a cavern of distorted guitars and moaning synths bursts through. Late into the day, My Bloody Valentine as rock band rears its ferocious head, roaring through a twisting arrangement that finally, finally, takes the Loveless sound and pushes it somewhere distinctly foreign. For this writer, it's one of the album's two great masterstrokes, and already stands tall as one of the finest achievements the band have ever achieved. If they can get this one worked into the live set for the UK dates in March, jaws are going to be hitting floors.

From then on, it's a race to the finish line. Nothing Is ramps up the tempo even further, its rockabilly-gone-wrong riff and shamanic drum beat leading out into three-minutes of crazed repetition and tension, standing out as one of the most explosive and violent recordings ever released by the band. As for the finale...well, Kevin Shields really has saved up the biggest surprise for last. Rumours had swirled in the nineties of a new drum-and-bass influenced direction, of unreleased songs powered by unrelenting and unfathomable beats, and in this closing track, all such gossip is confirmed and then some. Wonder 2 is, without any shadow of a doubt, the most far-out and experimental My Bloody Valentine song of all time. There's those remarkable airplane guitars in the back ground, the first time the force of the live You Made Me Realise experience has ever found its way onto record. Synths and guitars blend into one for a riff that's equal parts Brian Wilson and early Warp Records, while motoring away out of control throughout is a blitzkrieg drum machine pattern that spins around the central melodic rhythm. In fact, the Kevin Shields vocal line is the only thing that really sounds anything like My Bloody Valentine on here. Distraction Records made the observation that the track sounds like Swervedriver, Autechre and a Boeing 747 all colliding on the same track - even this doesn't quite sum up what's going on here. It may be two decades late, but the future is finally here.

So what to make of m b v as a whole? As shockingly and thrillingly new as the final third of the record is, as a whole it's not a statement as definitive or inventive as Loveless was. But to expect any record from the same artist, let alone one with such a lengthy gestation, to redefine the possibilities of guitar music anew is a exceptionally tall order. While the transition from peaceful slumber to fast, dizzying experimentation over the album's running time makes for a compelling narrative of the sleeping beast of shoegaze finally awaking from its lengthy slumber, the final third of the album does still come from a very different mindset and soundscape from what precedes it.

Why m b v is ultimately a success however is because of how superbly conceived and executed every second of it is. Within the album, the Loveless sound gets pushed to the limits of both edges - She Found Now and Is This and Yes strip away and engage directly with the heart, while In Another Way and Wonder 2 find new areas of abstraction and force and offer something genuinely new to guitar music. And between those two extremes are five of the best written, most superbly produced, and above all absorbing indie songs to come out since My Bloody Valentine first downed tools back in the mid-nineties. The singular emotional pull of the band at the finest - undefined, vague, yet with a moving yearning and passion - has been retained and magnified. From the grandiose reach of its illustrious predecessor, m b v takes stock and makes the most of some more earthly pleasures, just before finding somewhere new on the map entirely. It is, quite simply, a triumph: a personal one for Kevin Shields and the rest of the band for finally being released, certainly, but a vindication for Kevin's remarkable musical gifts and for his long-suffering fanbase. The emperor was wearing clothes all along, the wizard behind the screen was for real. Their earlier successes were no fluke, no accident or quirk of fate, but the hard-won victories of a true talent. And with this album, they're back to full duties once more. If and where they go from here is anybody's guess, but My Bloody Valentine are now back in the game, and as brilliant as ever. No fan could have hoped for anything better than this.

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