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April 2013

Live Report - Half Memory: Richard Dawson and Warm Digits

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 Category : , , , , , , , , , , , , , 0

I'll be honest with you: sometimes, when a music journalist is really raving and ranting about a great event coming up...they're not always entirely genuine. I know, I know, you must be surprised and upset by this shocking revelation. With this in mind however, let me assure you that when I wrote a lengthy preview of Half Memory for KYEO, no fradulent product was being sold to you. Two of my favourite acts in the north-east, creating new work as part of a unique collaboration across several different local arts and history institutions? I was sold before the sentence ever started.

What unfurled on the evening though was something extraordinary, even with this in mind. The Tyneside Cinema is not the most common of gig venues, but a few teething issues aside, their Classic Cinema made for an ideal venue for the event: something different and far more aesthetically pleasing than the standard circuit, lending the whole venture a sense of grandiosity without sacrificing the identity of the event or the artists. With the gig a sell-out in advance, you could have felled almost the entire creative community of the region if some calamity had occured in the venue.


After a brief introduction, the night's off to a start with Richard Dawson's side of proceedings. With his new album The Glass Trunk largely made up of acapella songs inspired by items in the Tyne & Wear Museums archive, it's an instrument-less performance tonight (aside from a few comedy cymbal crashes between songs at least). Admittedly, just under an hour of dark, doom-laden acapella folk music would not usualy be something to appeal to this writer, but given Dawson's remarkable, powerful and deeply expressive voice and his ever-humane outlook (not to mention the astonishing prowess of his more typical songwriting fare), what we got instead was a performance of real poignancy and force.

Often straying from the album material for versions of Mike Waterson songs, his wonderfully bizzaro take on stage chat and a very enjoyable break for poetry from his father, Dawson adapted the album for stage performance as skillfully as he adapted his craft for the Half Memory project in the first place. Honing in on the preoccupations on family and belonging that lie beneath the violence and darkness of the record, he slips from the compellingly bleak danse macarbe of Poor Old Horse into the lengthy Joe the Quilt-Maker, a piece equally stoical and brutal. Closing up by inviting the audience to clap and stap along to the surrealistic chant The Ghost of a Tree, the real success of Dawson's project becomes evident - with his eye for detail and human folible, Dawson has made the ghosts of the past become as real and vivid as anything in the modern day. This is no lumpen pastiche or revivalism, but a very real reckoning with the forebearers that made us, full of compassion and horror. If there is a future for standard folk forms in the twenty-first century, it is through the heartfelt and subtly modernist project Dawson has embarked upon.

A break to scrape gaping mouths from the floor, and the night then resumed with an altogether different proposition from the dazzling duo of Warm Digits. Their beguiling mix of Krautrock sounds and disco rhythms, played with ever-propulsive insistance, is a huge contrast with Dawson's work, but the gulf in sound allowed Warm Digits to showcase a whole different musical world within the north-east, and to examine a very different legacy within it. Drawn to photographs and documents from the construction of the Metro system in the seventies, Warm Digits played through the entirety of their new album and film Interchange for their performance, offering a look back into more recent history to allow us to re-assess our relationship with an act of civil engineering that is still used by many people across the Tyne and Wear on a daily basis.

The six lengthy compositions that make up Interchange, while hitting their own peaks and following their own paths, all present a consistent forward motion entirely apt for the Metro system. On record it's an exciting and dynamic enough piece, but live, with Steve Jefferis layering soaring guitar lines over each other and setting of the pulsing synth samples that drive their music and Andrew Hodson proving his worth as one of the most shit-hot drummers out there, it's an overwhelming groove that you never want to end. Equally important is the Interchange film that accompanies their performance - as the visuals shift from direct documentary evidence and photographs of the Metro's construction to increasingly surreal, almost fetishised perspectives on the architetcure and landscape of the system, Interchange reveals itself as a journey in search of the idealism with which the future was once treated. While their use of seventies sounds and design elements could be mere kitsch in some hands, here they're a reminder of the promises and dreams we all let slip, and in returning to them, the effort is made to bring back that spirit of not just looking but actively working towards a better tomorrow. Their set is an immaculate tribute to engineering and civil progress, but on a more subtle level it works as a call to arms for utopians and idealists to reclaim tomorrow. That it's as infectious as it is just makes it slip down all the better.

Two very different performances, focusing on two very different notions of regional and historical identity. What unites them though is not just the undoubted quality of both Richard Dawson and Warm Digits, but the inventive way they pay historical tribute while using it as the base for reflections and ideas that speak directly to the present day. This unique collaboration brought together several important cultural institutions, and allowed for some magnificent art to blossom. Let's just hope Half Memory isn't the only time a north-east audience gets to see such a delight.

Iggy & The Stooges - Ready To Die

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Well, at least it's not The Weirdness.

The reunion tour has become one of the few sure-fire cash cows left for bands in the last decade, with the arteries of the gig circuit becoming clotted up and hardened with gang after gang of bald-headed men trying to squeeze into their old trousers and relive the glory days. But once the tour intinery's been ticked off the calendar and the jaded roadies are back to working the really-they're-still-going? beat with Scouting for Girls, what do you do then? Some just count up the proceeds and consider it a job done well enough: Pavement were fairly up-front about being in it for the money, and promptly went their seperate ways immediately. In the case of the Pixies, they've managed to keep touring on and off for longer than their original existence with but one new decent-ish cult curio along the way.

For many though, the lure of proving their worth and assembling new material is unavoidable. Be it unfinished business, new inspiration or just more dollar signs in the eyes, plenty of reunited acts are in it for the long haul these days. Sometimes it's glorious - Wire, Swans, My Bloody Valentine to name just three have all come back with superb work that more than holds its worth against the back catalogue (and as a side note, what is it about '80s alternative bands that somehow lets their reunion material more often than not be up to scratch?), and showcases artists and innovators who still have plenty to say. Some, however, aren't so glorious - the ongoing Smashing Pumpkings 're-union' of Billy Corgan guitar-wanking into his own mouth, the tragically tepid final Big Star record, and most infamously, the catastrophic shit-stain of The Weirdness, a record which took one of rock's great un-fuckable triptychs and emptied itself all over. Its status as an entirely unwanted footnote has left the album at best remembered as a punchline, and at worst forgotten entirely to preserve the sanctity of what The Stooges have come to mean in the proto-punk canon.

When Ron Asheton sadly passed away in 2009, you could have been forgiven for expecting that to be the end of the road on The Stooges reunion. At least they got a final blast of belated glory with some major gigs, a recognition of how vital they were. But in a move equal parts natural and cynical, the band instead turned to Raw Power guitarist James Williamson and reconfigured themselves as Iggy & the Stooges, and set about on a new tour that focused on this end of the band's work. And in fairness, having seen them in the flesh at a festival slot - the Iggy & the Stooges line-up was kicking out the jams. Williamson had regained his chops in formidable style, post-punk lifer Mike Watt had locked in fully with Scott Asheton to make a pounding rhythm section, and Iggy Pop...yeah, he did Iggy Pop just fine.

Only now they're back, with their new album Ready To Die. Now no corner of The Stooges/Iggy & The Stooges legacy is safe. But with a different line-up, further touring, and something to legitimately prove in the wake of the debacle of The Weirdness, could this be different? Nobody's expecting a bunch of largely retirement-age men to come up with another Fun House or Raw Power, but there could be something here, right?

Well, like I said above, at least it's not the previous effort. For starters, despite Iggy Pop's best efforts - yes, there is a song here called DD's as in the bra size, and it's every bit as Spinal Tap as you think it is - it doesn't sink to anywhere close to the level of determined stupidity of that last reunion effort. And while Ron Asheton might have been the more inventive, iconic guitarist (come on, the riff on I Wanna Be Your Dog is a lifetime pass if there ever was one), the slightly more complex and glam-infused style of James Williamson is certainly a more versatile sound, with more scope for re-invention than Asheton's determined chug.

Certainly, he's responsible for the more enjoyable aspects of Ready To Die. While somewhat over-cooked, there's a handful of great riffs here: the great sleazy lead of Burn that opens up the record with a nice punch, while Gun nods it head to the Spiders of Mars sound that David Bowie and his band cribbed from The Stooges in the first place. Even if he does come out with some total gibberish these days (as compared to the inspired gibberish of old), Iggy Pop's certainly putting himself out to sell this material - sneering and cocksure when needed, more restrained to befit his elder-statesman-of-punk status at time as well.

But the moments of dumb fun really aren't enough to sustain some very weak songwriting. Despite Williamson's best efforts, the big riffs just aren't frequent and powerful enough to paper over the frequent dips into tepid auto-drive that the record makes: the saxophone sleaze of Sex and Money aims for old-school sleaze, but the disinterested coos of the backing vocals and the static nature of the initially fun riff just leaves it sounding desperate, and there's just no saving bar band blues licks as cliched and boring as the ones that prop up on Dirty Deal. Given how Mike Watt continues to push himself and deliver the goods in exciting new projects like Il Sogno del Marinaio during Stooges down-time, why they can't let him take the wheel for a while remains baffling.

Surprisingly, it's when the albums slows down and turns unexpectedly reflective that it works best. Unfriendly World is a laid-back acoustic strummer in the Rolling Stones ballad mould that seems to have slipped through the cracks of Let It Bleed and ended up here by accident. While that comparison might be selling it a bit too hard, the charming slide guitar and Iggy's adoption of a baritone croon make for an unexpectedly appealing prospect. They try a similar trick on album closer The Departed, and damn it if they don't almost pull it off until the icky, tacky decision to start and end the track on an acoustic play on the I Wanna Be Your Dog - damn guys, even The Weirdness didn't remind us of the gaping disparity between then and now quite so wantonly and ineptly.

That the most enjoyable parts of a Stooges record are the parts that sound the least like a Stooges record sums up the situation. If Iggy Pop and his band want to make a nice old-guy blooze record, then fine - go ahead. But don't try and link it into the scorched earth legacy of the Stooges. And seriously, don't try and palm off weak, pointless efforts like Job and Beat That Guy as befitting of the Stooges name. A few moments of genuine enjoyment aside, this is a record almost as pointless, unwanted and entirely unneccesary as The Weirdness, saved from the same circle of Hell as that atrocity by sheer dint that now that the discography of The Stooges has already been tainted so, doing it a second time doesn't have quite the same impact. The cover suggested a try-hard attempt at reclaiming the shock value of their youth: after listening to Ready To Die, you wish they'd even been that ambitious.

Five points on The National's 'Trouble Will Find Me'

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 Category : , , , , 0

So, lucky unpaid volunteer scribbler that I am, the good folk of NARC Magazine hooked me up with a stream of The National's new sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, out next month. I'll be saving a proper review for publication in next month's NARC, but until then, here's a little preview of the record, arranged in a fairly arbitrary list format because apparently that's the only thing you ADHD types can get through these days, and it's all about those pointless 'hits', or something.

1) Expecting High Violet II? Well, not quite...

The National have always been a band that's evolved by degrees, rather than making any major evolutionary jump. They've got a signature sound that they have fun inside, and for any fan of the group, the subtle tinkering and tonal changes between each record - compare the more cynical, angsty Alligator with the more mature orchestral mood pervading Boxer. But given that the more overtly rock, arena ready High Violet took the band to a whole new level of success, the fear might be that they could trip over the balance they managed on that record between bombast and intimacy and fall over into the latter. Well, that really isn't the case. The production values make it evident that there's a fair bit more cash to play with these days, but in songwriting term, this is definetely a more subtle and reflective offering.

2) ...in fact, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers II might be nearer the mark

Although it's the one where The National sound really starts to click, and boasts several of their finest songs - the gorgeous opening epic Cardinal Song and the raging Available remain in the live set to this day - Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers has never had the reputation of the records they'd put out subsequently. It's a surpise (and by no means an unwelcome one) then to see them reclaiming some of the alt-country turf they trod on that record this time around. When it gets to the album's more sedate, ballad-heavy second half, the likes of Slipped and I Need My Girl definetely bear the Wilco-esque DNA of their Sad Songs era sound. Coming from an older band, it's a sound that arguably fits the band better now than it did then.

3) Yes, Demons is a totally bizzare choice of lead track

A few people out there seem to have been worried by the fact that the first track we heard from Trouble Will Find Me, Demons, was far from the kind of knock-out blow of Boxer's lead-in Mistaken For Strangers or High Violet's Bloodbuzz Ohio. Time signature fun aside, it did seem to get perilously close to auto-pilot. Be assured then: it's certainly far from the strongest thing on here, and thankfully does work a lot better as part of the album sequence. Let's just pretend that 4AD cut to the chase and went straight for the absolutely lovely Don't Swallow the Cap then, eh?

4) No obvious crossover hit, but might This Is The Last Time do it in disguise?

The notion of The National as the new R.E.M. has gained a lot of ground in indie circles, and it's not hard to see why: they're both acts who have slowly crawled their way to fame the hard way - long tours, independent labels and some truly fantastic records. While The National may not have been as pioneering as R.E.M., it's also worth noting that both bands, without being particularly outré, forged distinctive and hard to replicate sonic footprints and boast hugely charismatic frontmen and lyricists. In this analogy then, Trouble Will Find Me equates to Green/Out Of Time - i.e. when global domination beckons. Given that they're already on the verge of the arena circuit, The National are certainly plenty popular right now, but they've somehow done that without any big distinctive 'hit'. There's nothing on here that immediately smacks of a pop breakthrough (if any track of theirs was going to be their anthem, it was surely going to be High Violet's England, and that never even made it to single status), but. This Is The Last Time is the album's big centerpiece, a slow-burner that starts from muted chords before reaching a sweeping orchestral coda - it's melodically rich, emotionally affecting and perfectly composed in that way National ballads always are. If there is to be a big hit from this album, I'm going to place a bet on this one doing this business.

5) Most importantly of all...

While Trouble Will Find Me is unlikely to change the mind of anyone who actively dislikes them, if you like The National, you'll like this album. The winning streak isn't over yet.

Poptimism Will Eat Itself: Are We All Patrick Bateman Now?

Monday, 15 April 2013 Category : , , , , 0

"You like Justin Timberlake? His early work was a little too boy band for my tastes, but when Justified came out in '02, I think he really came into his own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to N.E.R.D., but I think Justin has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humour. In '13, Justin released The 20/20 Experience, his most accomplished album. I think his undisputed masterpiece is Suit & Tie, a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics..."

Poptimism was a school of music criticism and fandom that came of age in the early noughties: the same time that illegal downloading went from a niche pursuit to a dominant method of consuming music, when blogging became mainstream and when a lot of the certainties of the music industry started to look a whole lot more shakey. With many of the traditional pillars having been found to be made of salt, poptimism was a reaction against the continued death grip of rockism. In this new frontier, why should we be doomed to a life of old print publication that, for purely generational reasons, still insist on the primacy of white heterosexual middle-class men with guitars, and that Exile on Main Street is mankind's finest work.?

Certainly, the liberating aspects of this aesthetic aren't to be overlooked. The desire to celebrate the new and the exciting, to embrace new technology and ways of delivering music, to want to be part of something exclusively 'now' - well yeah, you do have to be an old dinosaur to refute that. And as luck would have it, while much of the pop charts were filled with the usual nonsense at this time (just like the rock charts, the dance charts, the hip-hop charts...), there was a period at the start of the noughties where pop and dance genres - R&B in particular - did seem to be going through an exciting phase. Each new Timberland production pushed forward an increasingly futuristic sound, while the likes of Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue acted as trojan horses to sneak out some truly astounding production work in Toxic and Can't Get You Out Of My Head respectively. While the indie world went into crisis and clinged to false prophets of the past like The Vines, the real innovation and excitement was going on right in front of Total Request Live.

Poptimism's already had its fair share of backlash and revial and slide into disuse several times over by this point (Rob Horning was damning it as "the death of pop criticism" back in 2006), yet its influence has remained, forming the backdrop of the Tumblr-ised post-ideology mess that we find ourselves in now. In the noughties, pop music has crawled up the criticism food chain from the truly revilved, then to the "guilty pleasure", and now it sits perched right at the top of this little fiefdom: for he who dares to criticise Queen Beyonce, the hangman and the noose await. Yet the truly curious thing here isn't so much that pop rules the roost: it's that alternative culture has subordinated itself so entirely, so completely to the world of the pop mainstream that it's annihilated itself entirely.

Not only is pop music now the highwater mark to hit critically - something that's very much disputable in many cases, but we'll save that for another day - it's also become the only game in town for the up-to-date hipster. The kids who were all buzzing about Merriweather Post Pavillion in 2009? Give them Rihanna or give them death. It's not like pop music has had one of its occasional bouts of shock therapy, where the underground lunatics gets to play around in the asylum for a year or two before being put back in the box, a la the synth-pop explosion of the early '80s however. If anything, pop music now might just be the dumbest it's ever been, with any trace of songwriting sophistication or knack for an earworm substituted by an endless succession of four-to-the-four Guetta-esque LOL pop concerning diverse subjects as a) being in a club, b) heading to the club and c) looking at the ladies in the club. (Or, if you're really unlucky, you get anti-feminist icon Lana del fucking Rey.) Any notion of a utopian Golden Age can be swiftly dismissed, so the question is: just what happened?

Imagine Guetta droping a beat on the human face forever.

Well, my theory is this. Poptimism first launched itself at a time when alternative music was (in terms of the stuff that got press coverage anyway) going through a pretty rough patch. The fight-back as it was only came with the most milquetoast sounds and looks imaginable, an endless parade of just-so-tussled hair, Converse sneakers and lazily pilfered Mick Jones riffs. Where before mass culture had had to wait for a look to emerge organically before it could be co-opted (see the grunge scene, itself going through a dumbed-down, smothered fashion look as 'soft grunge' - oh Lord, we know not what we do), this sound and look was a bastardised corporate chimera from the start. Indie became dominant again in the mid-noughties because it did as much as possible to look and sound like the pop music it was sold as being a credible, authentic alternative to. But when a sound and look is dominant, exactly what kind of an alternative is that?

So, with any notion of alternative culture having become increasingly dumbed down and passive with each newest incarnation, when this latest indie revival itself inevitably succumbed to its own emptiness, this pop-alternative culture just became...well, pop. The people who would have gone to V Festival to see Radiohead and Morrissey in 2006 now head there in 2013 for Kings of Leon - The Eagles in all but extended solos - and Beyonce. And to help make alternative culture make its final wrist-slit into total non-existence, the poptimist call for a recognition of pop's worth became key.

For anyone who still thought there was something to believe in the r'n'r dream, poptimism became the intellectual justification for the abandonment of any spirit of independence or inquisition by the people who were supposed to be challenging the mainstream. You think Nicki Minaj has lost her way since she sidelined her rap ability for chart dance? Oh, that's so indie and cute. Really, you didn't check out the new Cheryl Cole song? Oh babe, you're such a rockist. Beyond the now token criticism of Chris Brown for being the unfathomably cunty atrocity that he is, pop music has now entered a real where, if you want to keep pace with the cool kids, it's now totally beyond criticism. Not the cutesy fence-sitting "well, I really liked this production", or "yeah, Robyn's got some great songs if you listen" - a school of offend-nobody criticism that comes with its own problems - or statements of credible, informed insight.. No criticism end of. Praise only, or GTFO. It's all about being compliant, reblogging the right GIF sets and keeping any unwelcome thoughts quiet if you want to be suitably 'alternative' these days.

Two cases in point. One: after years and years trying to get his acting career off the ground to mixed results, Justin Timberlake gets round to doing his third solo album. His first two were already industry-standard patchy affairs, redeemed in each case by a handful of superior singles. But for The 20/20 Experience, we wouldn't be so lucky. After the heady combination of laziness and arrogance of lead single Suit & Tie, what emerged was an album of overlong ramblings, half-bazed efforts to ride on the success of Frank Ocean's channel:ORANGE and terrible sexual come-ons that sounded less like suave sophistication and more like - well, like the guy from the book pictured before really. (Not that I'm saying Justin invites prostitutes round, tortures them, pushes rats into their orifices, kills them and eats the remains. But if he did, would anyone really be that surprised?)

Most early reviews called up the album on its numerous flaws: a mega-ton flop was predicted. But a curious thing happened. The listenership, if not exactly enjoying the album, forced themselves into approval. Twitter feeds became full of "well, it's brave" and "if you cut the songs in half" and all these other excuses to avoid having to actually face the reality that, in the name of cool, they're willingly subjecting themselves to eight-minute long slow jams about vaginas from pampered multi-millionaires. In 2013. Monster egotism is one thing (and a man who used to have Axl Rose cornrows claiming he's bringing sexy back can only count as such), but at least when we're talking about a Kanye West or a Michael Jackson, there was some substance to prop up the pomp. This, however, is bullshit of the highest priority. But we've invested so much in it, been ordered to invest so much in it, that failure is not an option. And so, the pop-hipster has become the industry's crutch one again.

Justin Timberlake, or Axl Rose? Guess the arse...

Two: the seemingly endless campaign of teasers and trailers for what may or may not be a new Beyonce album. She's already reformed her old girl band just to act as her backing singers for the Super Bowl (singing one of her solo songs as well - that's some Mike Love levels of cold right there), promoted a forthcoming tour called The Mrs. Carter Show, a production whose title and poster position her somewhere between Marie Antoinette arrogance, Elena Ceausescu complicity and Cleopatra egotism, and actually had the gall to put out a teaser for a fucking Pepsi advert (seriously!). Just to put the turd-scented cherry on top of the shit cake, the advert for the advert was promoted with the Twitter hashtag #BeyHereNow - an unwelcome, and presumably entirely un-aware reference to one of rock music's most unfortunate moments of dim-witted hegemony.

As if she hadn't already strained the whole 'imperial' pop metaphor to breaking point already, the track Bow Down told her already slave-like fanbase to "bow down bitches" - presumably before they regain any spectre of self-respect, or forget to keep posting a million GIFs of her while explaining how a multi-millionaire, married to another multi-millionaire, is somehow 'fierce' or 'sassy' or in any way distinguished from any other chairperson of a large multinational brand. Christ, Beyonce's not even a singer these days - she's Donald Trump. A logo, a slogan, a trojan horse proferring feminist independence whilst within lurks a dark core of patriarchal conformity: seriously, this is our fucking icon of twenty-first century feminism? Who needs enemies indeed.

Let them eat hashtags?

The nature of the pop and rock industry has always been this way. Michael Jackson earned his sobriquet of 'King of Pop' through constant press releases describing him as such, and the denial of access to him to media sources that did not refer to him as such - rather unsurprisingly, as the PR department got more bossy and the music videos became more expensive, the music took a shocking and irreversable nosedive. Guns 'n' Roses, that heavy metal caricature of fighting against nothing whatsoever, released two double albums on the same day, trailed by million dollar music video productions in a shock and awe effort to render any resistance futile. But that's the point: it was expected that there would be an alternative to these commerical goliaths. Don't want to listen to 80s pop? Fine, here's the American collage rock circuit or the British indie scene that birthed The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Smiths. Not a fan of laboured cock rock? Well, just as well that grunge and acid house are doing something different for the kids.

Yet at our current historical moment, it is expected that due deference is to be paid to the rulers of the fiefdom. It's as if the internet, that great revolution in communication whose 'long tail' was meant to provide some space for all kinds of outsider communities and alternative expressions, has rendered us speechless with its complexity and so left us without discernment or credulity. Or, given the long history of youth movements and counter-cultures being co-opted and bastardised for a cheap dollar, we've been conditioned not to bother and just to plump for the big shiny blockbuster spectacle in the first instance. (That this is a tragedy for this author, and a grave demonstration of our generation's gullibility and compliance may just be self-evident.)

And propping this up as the useful idiot's ideological tool is the ghost of poptimism, no longer a vital and funny reaction to rock pomposity but a symptom of the music industry's desperate, last days of Rome orgy of wilful stupidity and undisguised contempt for the consumer, every bit as arrogant and loathsome as what it once opposed. It's become a paper thin, piss weak justification for a musical-industrial complex that has dumbed itself down to unprecendented lows, that shits out narcissistic garbage and wraps it up in a pretty bow. There's always been naff pop that's appealed to the middle of the road: that's not new. That it's also infiltrated a culture that's alternative in name only is a new development however, and one that can't be healthy for anyone who cares about a culture of innovation and expression.

So now, we are all Patrick Bateman, hipster sociopaths latching onto whatever marketing campaign has been sold to us this week in order to keep up appearances, belabouring to anyone in earshot of how deep and important this vacuous nonsense is. Desperate to prove that what we've chosen is of value, desperate not to fall out with the dominant clique. This state of bread and circuses will not last forever - but what happens when the barbarians break though and we've spent all this time convincing ourselves that any of this was important while ignoring the real issues.

Well, sitting through a Taylor Swift album just so you can tweet about it will do that to you.

James Blake - Overgrown

Tuesday, 9 April 2013 Category : , , , 0

So, first question: what the hell even is dubstep these days? Not since emo has a terminology become so overused and then so misused. First describing an offshoot of garage emerging from London and Bristol's nightclubs that pushed a minimalist palette clipped drum sounds and deep bass, then a more catch-all term for all kinds of weird and wonderful electronic and dance music coming out as last decade drew to its end, and now...apparently these days dubstep is a hugely moronic breed of dance music for American frat boys to beat up women to that is largely propagated by a former hardcore singer with ridiculous hair. Eh?

One of the first signs that the generic tag was becoming utterly implausible must have been the rise to prominence a few years back of a talented, idiosyncratic young producer called James Blake. On three EPs with the R&S label in 2010 - the glitchy The Bells Sketch, the immaculate R&B touches of CMYK and the stark, piano-dominated Klavierwerke - he pushed the formula of slow tempoes and overwhelming sub-bass to its limits, using it as a frame for his diverse production experiments. Then things got really strained, when his 2011 debut album shifted course entirely to focus on a futuristic singer-songwriter form where bass hits and drum programming are just one part of the toolkit in bringing Blake's melancholy piano meditations to life. It was as astonishing, hermetically sealed record that maneged to be perfectly of a moment whilst stood at a remove, nodding at trends whilst moving in its own direction. By the time he was covering Joni Mitchell on the Enough Thunder EP, it started to look as though he was ready to turn his back on his dance roots entirely and set to courting the Radio 2 crowd.

After a silence, James Blake reemerges to a very different musical landscape with his second full-length Overgrown. Dubstep is no longer cool, instead an insult to be hurled towards the dumbest productions out there, whilst the introspection and stillness of his songwriting is almost entirely out of synch with the current pop climate. It's to Blake's credit then that the record sees him continuing very much down his own path. Instead of trying to fly the flag for post-dubstep intellectualism though, or ditch those pesky drum machines for an all-out sad piano man bawler, Overgrown attempts to bring the strands of his output thus far together, and whilst the album may very much remain in the song-based milieu of his debut, there's also a far greater use of dance music's technology and aesthetics that results in an even more pronounced hybrid.

There's certainly plenty of moments here where it feels like Blake is trying to drag the fans that first heard him through his Feist cover out onto the dancefloor with him. Digital Lion and Voyeur provide a heady rush within the album's mid-section, hitting about as hard as he's ever likely to: the former warps Blake's gospel-influenced vocal line over an ominous synth wash whose tension finally breaks half way through as a snare rush and horn sound finally puncture the surface, while the latter's clipped jazz piano finds itself layered with cowbell and apreggios until it's hit its full Love Cry potential. There's even an enjoyable, if somewhat baffling, RZA collaboration, which sees the Wu Tang Clan spitting about...fish and chips and Guinness. (Who saw that one coming?)

There's still plenty of gorgeous slow jams abounding the record, but even these boast a greater force than their predecessors on the self-titled album. First single Retrograde starts out in the same haunted, electro-blues ballpark as Unluck (or, yes, Limit To Your Love), but with Blake's declaration that "suddenly I'm hit", we're zoomed into the most impressive and mighty chorus of Blake's young career, a thing of beautiful, breathless power. As for the opening title track, the subtle build of both Blake's vocals and the slowly assembling backing track sets the stage for an intimate but dramatic surge. 

Whilst silence and blankness remain vital tools within Blake's songwriting, Overgrown displays a far fuller, more confident sound that blurs the distinction between the 'electronic ones' and the 'piano ones' on his debut into a far deeper, more unified sound. As a whole, Overgrown might not posess the same dramatic impact and emotional heft as its predecessor - there's nothing here as intense as I Never Learnt To Share's high-end pyrotechnics - but the advances it makes are largely worth it. It's a bold, single-minded record that proves how strange a presence he is within the current pop landscape, one that, if not quite the finished product, still marks a new stage in Blake's sonic alchemies. Even if it is to be a stepping stone in his evolution, it's still a stunning and immersive listen whose evolutionary nature suggests at further triumphs to come. And thank goodness he didn't spoil it with that hideous original cover.

Is Wayne Coyne Dying? Review: The Flaming Lips - The Terror

Wednesday, 3 April 2013 Category : , , , 0

"I only take MDMA and coke and stuff. I've only done acid a few times, but these drugs are like the recreational fun drugs. That's what I call them." Now, if ever there's a quote to make a fan worry about the forthcoming album from an artist they like, that's it right there. It could be Oasis before Be Here Now, Primal Scream before Give Out But Don't Give Up, Fleetwood Mac before anything after Tusk...you get the picture. White lines before a fall. Unfortunately for us, the man currently grinding his teeth to dust instead of writing any actual tunes is the irrepressable psychedelic dandy Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. And in good and bad, The Terror is the latest entry in the hall of too-much-damn-coke albums.

Their magestic 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, which traded distorted guitars for electronic orchestras and Beach Boys chord sequences, was a stunning and emotional statement which finally made The Flaming Lips (irrespective of how great much of their previous work was) more than a grunge-era one hit wonder. But with this triumph slowly curdling into formula - 2002's still pretty good Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and 2006's patchy At Way with the Mystics - it also became something of an albatross around the band's neck, as they toured the glitter-happy Soft Bulletin set-up around the world year after year. 2009's chaotic, lengthy Embryonic suggested that in shifting back to the loud guitars but with the added experience and influences accumulated in the previous decade, The Flaming Lips had found their way again: on stunning rockers like See the Leaves and Watching the Planets, it sounded like they had just stumbled onto their next great act.

However. What followed from this apparent re-birth was instead de-evolution on a shocking scale. A series of increasingly attention-seeking pranks - putting tracks on USB sticks inside gummy skulls and then actual skulls, six and twenty-four hour long pieces - and idea-free collaborations that ran the gamut from the midly disappointing (Nick Cave, Lightning Bolt, Erykah Badu) to the out-and-out moronic (fucking Ke$ha?!?) that were eventually complied onto the piss-weak The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends compliation.

On The Terror then, we can at least be assured that they have finally got their ADD selves together for long enough to sit down and actually to a full, Ke$ha free album. Also on their side: The Terror has been promoted as the final death below to any lingering twee-ness attached to The Flaming Lips brand. This is a dark, severe album that sees the band trying out some stark new arrangement ideas, powered by thudding drum machine patterns to emerge with a sound quite unlike anything in their catalogue. The malaise of At War with the Mystics is certainly gone: however, the songwriting prowess and emotional connection of their past has been jettisoned with it.

Look....The Sun is Rising make for a haunting enough opening, juttering into life with a devilish synth refrain and frazzled, sun-burnt drums in the way only Dave Fridmann can conjure up (his bright but ultra-distorted style of production being one of the few consistent high points of the record). It's threatening, it's loud, it sounds huge...and then Wayne Coyne's vocal comes in. Whatever goodwill this dead-eyed post-punk dystopia has built up so far are ruined as soon as his voice comes in, and it becomes clear that it's utterly utterly shot. What had been cracked and endearing is now audibly struggling to hit the notes, across any range - and this just gets worse and worse as the album goes on.

The first track also sets up the unfortunate template for the rest of the album, where a hook or production idea that seems strong in a small dose - the lolliping rhythm that runs through the title track, the return of that serrated-steel guitar sound on Always There...In Our Hearts - almost invariable runs out of stream halfway through the tracks. Chief offender, and absolute momentum killer, is attempted centerpiece You Lust. What starts off as a far stronger representative of the dark ambience and bleached out sound aesthetic of the album, paired to some actual honest-to-god hooks, becomes agonisingly monotonous after six minutes...and you're still only half-way through. Instead of dynamics or progression with the songs, here the band are contempt just to whack on a few more whacky synth tones they stumbled upon instead. (Much of the critcism headed towards The Knife's hugely ambitious and undoubtedly difficult Shaking the Habitual ultimately applies far more stongly here - it's pseud ambition and drugged-up pretention over any actual statement).

And this, perhaps, is the most damning thing of all about The Terror. That powerful emotional tug that lay at the heart of The Flaming Lips' most enduring moments is nowhere to be found here. They don't even manage to make any gain out of their own dead-eyed, drugged-up nihilism in the way acts as varied as The Birthday Party, The Weeknd or Suicide (whose mangled, primitive take on electronica is evidently a major influence on The Terror's sound pallete). Instead of a flip-side of the hard-fought beauty and optimism they've so often expressed - which certainly has the potential of being a promising direction to take the band in - this just comes across as the narcissistic whining of a rich, pampered rock star going through a mid life crisis in a truly ugly manner.

This isn't an album completely without merit: it's an audacious attempt at a stylistic overhaul, and there are one or two moments where sound and content gell together ideally - Try To Explain is the bruised, haunted reflection of previous cosmic odes like The Observer - but the failings of this album are too significant, too obviously self-inflicted to ignore. From star-eyed purveyors of technicolour beauty, The Flaming Lips of 2013 have found themselves gazing blankly into their navel, sitting idly by for inspiration that doesn't come. This doesn't have to be a fatal wound for the band: they've certainly bagged up plenty of jewels in their catalogue to give them the benefit of the doubt for another album or two before they get thrown on the garbage alongside Weezer. But right now, this is a muddied, half-baked and above all boring album that doesn't deserve the Flaming Lips name. Wayne Coyne might not be dying, but his songwriting sure is.

At War With The Urban: A Critique of Leeds Trinity Centre

Tuesday, 2 April 2013 Category : , , 0

"In the morning and in the evening and at night in his dreams, this street was filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted human figures and [...] it seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and converging everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force.”- Franz Kafka, 'Amerika'

Much of Leeds's claim to be the dominant city of Yorkshire has been based in shopping. Come ye mighty, and despair with the barely-pubescent goths that flock to the Corn Exchange, or to The Light, for cinematic and culinary experiences guaranteed to have been scrubbed clear of any unwanted culture value, or to the Harvey Nichols - we're just like London baby, but with added provincial self-importance. This is not to say that Leeds does not boast some wonderful views, buildings and venues, because it does, but it is not on account of its virtues that Leeds lays claim to flat-capped godhead. No, for Leeds, quality is measured in exchanged capital and consumers weighed down by their purchases and ego.

As such then, it is perhaps not such a surprise to find the city answering recession with exactly the kind of faux-grandiose gesture that summed up the zombie economy that fell to the ground so violently. Whatever noble intentions might have been behind this attempt to re-invigorate the high street at a time when the British high street is in such a dire state have been crushed by the terrible, mind numbing inevitability of what has turned up instead. Worried that everyone is just going to the out of town centres? Just plonk one of those forsaken dumps down in the middle of the city then.

One of the must curious aspects of the Trinity Centre then is how un-urban it feels. You might have just stepped off Briggate, but walk through the white arches and it feels like you've stepped into the duty free zone from hell. The recent trend towards glass structures and plain, blank surfaces (intended to give an impression of cleanliness, even if it just ends up at clinical) started out in the airports of the West as an easy shortcut to the utopianism desired when one is about to defy gravity, but in its dominance in current architecture it has never quite shaken off the tedium and the frustrations inherent in longeurs that come with flying. The other-wordly effect could be pleasing, if it were not so mundane. Not even a temple of capitalism, the Trinity Centre is a waiting zone lacking a final destination

Where the duty free zone succeeds, on a financial level if none other, out of sheer inevitability - coop up thousands of people for two or three hours before they begin the journey they want to undertake, and of course they'll try to spend their way out of the boredom - Trinity Leeds again is set up to disappoint. The out-of-town centres have thrived because of the (imagined) convinience and novelty of having all your most tolerated brands situated together in one site. Trinity Leeds has attempted the same (with several brands having moved from the high street into Trinity - nice work on saving the high street then), but with most of the major selling points either being stores that already existed before the Trinity - Topshop, Marks & Spencer - or a new branch of something already available in Leeds (yes, the mediocrity of Nandos continues its beige dominion here), the convinience and novelty factors run rather low on the ground. Aside from a One Direction shop selling branded onesies for £80 a pop to further ravage the wallets of parents, there's precious little here that didn't already exist here in Leeds, or in every other retail outlet the county over. It's the repetition of an already failing idea from people who somehow expect this to end up with a different result.

On my visit to the Trinity, all the allusions to spaciousness and neo-classicism were rather diminished by the uncomfortable crowding throughout the entire complex, the featureless nature of the design making it impossible to successfully navigate and causing huge clusters of humanity to crash into each other as people try and work out where they came in from and, more significantly, how the hell they can ever escape. This is presumably a deliberate ploy to try and confuse the consumer into spening more within the centre, but with an annoyance factor this high, it's not hard to see most people swearing off the place after one or two frustrating visits. In trying to reduce us to swarms of ants with wallets, the designers behind Trinity might have done the exact opposite and awakened our individual conscious so we can get out of the bloody place.

In short then, the Trinity is a block whose pseudo-tasteful design emerges as a paper thin facade for an astonishing disdain for the experience of urbanism. There are to be no unlicenced spectacles here, no opportunities for chance: the only collisions will be between fellow dazed walkers, dulled into compliance. If this is to be the savour of the high street - this unaesthetic, pointless, cynical mess that has erupted through the city centre like some alien infection - then the concept is clearly already lost. This can only serve to drive people away from anything of value, and further the terrible glistening gentrification that has advanced through the city in the last decade. It's money at its most base, dull level. Come come, you friendly bombs, and fall on the Trinity Centre.

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