Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Wishing I lived on the Coast

It was Albert Schweitzer who said 'There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats". And he's right. As the owner of 2 cats I can vouch for that. But when the two things combine (sadly not very often), the results can frequently be awesome. This can, I'm happy to report, be said about Best Coast's album. Just look at the cover, for starters! That alone makes me want to buy this on vinyl.

These days I'm naturally suspicious of anything generating hype, but this is a lovely album. I fell in love with it pretty much on the first listen, which doesn't happen often. Perfect lazy summery tunes, sounding like 'Wall of Sound' in a garage. If I was a stoner or a drinker, I would drink and get stoned whilst listening to this.

Snacks the cat is also getting in on the act with his own twitter. Follow him!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Dylan In The 80s - Revisited

I've been listening to and re-appraising much of Bob Dylan's 80s output recently.

Whilst I'm fascinated by a lot of songs featuring religious imagery, I don't have the stomach for evangelical posturing, no matter who's preaching. So I find parts of 1979's Slow Train Coming hard to take, the first of his so-called trilogy of 'born again' albums, which in turn pretty much informed my decision to not touch Saved, the album he opened the new decade with.

Shot of Love holds a certain fascination for me, because it was released the year I was born (1981). And though it is considered his last hard line Christian album before moving on to more secular topics, only Property of Jesus unsettles my agnostic ears. It also contains a few sparks of genius, particularly The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar, and Every Grain Of Sand, which, whilst still being a little bit churchy, still has the power to resonate within the heathen.

I got Infidels, from 1983, a number of years ago, but didn't really begin to appreciate it until recently. 'I And I' is one song I keep coming back to. I appreciate a good rant as much as anyone, especially when it contains such lyrical gems as 'Someone else is speaking with my mouth but I'm listening only to my heart/I've made shoes for everyone, even you, but I still go barefoot.' Wow. The reggae stylings that gently permeate the album make for a welcome departure and a rewarding listening experience.

I've always enjoyed Oh Mercy, it's probably my favourite Dylan album after Highway 61 Revisited. He ended the decade on a high, that's for certain. Most of the Time is just as moving and as bittersweet as anything on Blood on the Tracks, and, I'd like to imagine that he is singing one final kiss off to the very same woman who inspired that landmark album, his ex wife Sara. Many Dylanologists seem to agree on that point. It's also the album from his much maligned decade that was the most critically acclaimed, and seems to sound the most fresh. I love Daniel Lanois' somehow 'swampy' but minimal production. Shooting Star also deserves a special mention, a gentle romantic lament and a great album closer. Although the song seems to be about a separation, the very first line makes me think of my wife, it makes me smile.

The biggest surprise to me was 1985's Empire Burlesque, which despite some very dated production and a terrible front cover, contains some great moments. Dark Eyes sticks out like a sore thumb here, mercifully free of drum machines and synths. Tight Connection To My Heart is frequently commented upon as a stand out moment, Emotionally Yours in my opinion also deserves a look in.

Real Live, recorded on his 1984 stadium tour of the UK and Ireland, seems to be universally derided, hated even by its maker (it wasn't even available on CD until recently). It does however contain a fascinating rendition of Tangled Up In Blue, with whole sections of the lyric completely rewritten. And it has some fine guitar playing, with Dylan trading bluesy licks with Mick Taylor and Carlos Santana. Whilst Hard Rain is still comfortably his best live album, I don't think Real Live is as flawed as others may suggest.

There are other hidden delights from that decade, many of which have now surfaced, first on Biograph, and then the Bootleg Series. Of my top five favourite Dylan songs, two of them, Series Of Dreams and Blind Willie McTell (left off Oh Mercy and Infidels, respectively) would have never appeared on an official release. Blind Willie McTell single-handedly puts to bed any snotty opinions about Dylan's vocal limitations, the power and control of his voice on display, along with sublime imagery in the lyrics, and spooky minimal instrumentation, all come together to create something truly astonishing. Similarly, Series Of Dreams, with its shimmering guitars, galloping drums and shopping list style retelling of dream sequences, leaves me awestruck every time I hear it.

I've never heard Knocked Out Loaded or Down In The Groove, apart from having Brownsville Girl and Silvio (both fine songs, each from a terrible album, seems to be the consensus) on compilations. I do wonder if either of those albums has a hidden surprise or two. I'll look into it.

Basically, in conclusion, some of the man's music from this period is creatively flawed, ill advised and over produced (not to mention the awful suit that he's wearing on the Empire Burlesque sleeve!), but all too often his entire decade is unfairly written off by self appointed judges. I encourage you to dig through the dirt to get to the gold. You may find something that gets to you, as I found a few things that got to me.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Stick it where the sun don't shine

Apple have just launched their new iPhone. I could not care less. If they can't make a pair of headphones that last longer than five minutes before disintegrating, I'm not interested in anything else they have to sell.

That is all.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Band of Horses = Band of Awesome

I heart Band of Horses. Thanks mostly to my friend Carolina, I was introduced to their second album 'Cease to Begin' a couple of years ago (I missed out on its predecessor, I was a little slow to catch on). It's awesome. Singer Ben Bridwell reminds me of Neil Young but without the out of tune bits, and there are some beautiful guitar sounds ranging from wide and epic to intimate and cosy, accompanied by simple yet effective, and often moving, lyrics, beautifully delivered. The playful country stomp of 'The General Specific' perfectly compliments the rocky 'Ode to LRC'. It's a perfect album that leaves the listener wanting more, it never outstays its welcome. I love it. You know how you have a band that you want all your friends to listen to? Well for me, Band of Horses are THAT band.

I've been listening to their new album, 'Infinite Arms', and it's a belter. The production is grander, but without making its predecessor feel inferior. Opening song 'Factory' is a string drenched tale of life on the road, and looking forward to coming home. The rest of the album is full of great moments, with a classic West Coast feel to it. Go get it. And the first two albums as well. I guarantee that if you have any taste at all, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Democracy at work... kind of...

I wonder how many other bands out there decide on their set lists this way?

What do you do when you have more songs than you can actually play at your next gig?

It all started after Lennie informed us that she would rather not play Find Me, despite the reaction it got at our last gig. Probably something to do with the fact that we had never played it, during my tenure as guitarist, until the Wednesday before the gig. I then proceeded to nearly make Andy cry when I piped up that I don't want to do Six, which needs a rest in my opinion, before I go and revamp my guitar part for it. Lennie then said, with a very excited look on her face: 'Let's do a ballad!' My first though was 'I'm not sure how a Celine Dion cover is going to fix this difference of opinion, and there's not enough time to work on it be fore the gig...' but it turns out she actually said, and meant, 'ballot.' (Occupational hazard: when you've been playing in bands for as long as I have, your hearing starts to go a bit silly).

So, with paper in hand, we all wrote down our choices. None of us are really sure why we did it this way, as a show of hands would have sufficed, maybe we were all caught up in the spirit of the general election - which by the way, was the first time I ever voted. My dad thinks I'm a disgrace.

Will took the longest to finish, and immediately doubted at least one of his choices. We were all expecting a curveball from Andy. So we folded our papers and put them in the spare mug, taking it in turns to pull the answers out.

We knew there were a few safe seats, Shades of Grey, because it's the single and we still have to shift it, plus we all still like it. Piccadilly & I, because we've just recorded it, our record label loves it, and everyone who's previously heard us play it has loved it too, and it was missed at our most recent gig. A Million Marlborough Lights, because it's our traditional opening number. All three songs got unanimous votes. Out of Rage and Find Me each got one vote, so they're out. Mother Knows Best and Fields got three votes each, so they're in. So it came down to a split decision over Six and Thin Ice. I had earlier suggested that Lennie should get the casting vote in the event of a tie, due to them being her songs. But she was undecided, so it would have to go down to either a coin toss, a rock paper scissors match, or, what Andy ended up doing, which was screw up two pieces of paper and pick one. We ended up going with a fourth choice in the end, which was the 'Butler Swing-o-meter', an imaginary spinning arrow which followed Andy's finger. So Thin Ice made it in. Everyone seems reasonably happy with the result.

Now we just have to decide on the running order.

Six days till gig time...

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The trouble with opinions presented as fact

Spin magazine over the pond has recently published a list of 'the 125 most influential albums of the last 25 years', with U2's mega epic 'Achtung Baby' at number 1. Apparently the list was compiled by their editors. Whilst there are some very good albums on the list, presenting a few hacks' opinions as some kind of definitive statement on the state of modern music is a little pointless, borderline counterproductive, and potentially harmful.

On a personal level, I love 'Achtung Baby' - it's probably my favourite U2 album. But I have a problem with these kind of lists, whether voted for by the public or by the self appointed taste makers who write for the music press. There's no point. And how can it be possible to conclusively prove what is the best, or most influential, album on a purely objective basis? It can't be done. Every music review ever written has been written from a subjective viewpoint, basically it boils down to whether or not the reviewer likes it, and therefore whether or not he or she wants you to like it. A well written review can be a very useful guide to help inform your decision to investigate an artist further, but should never be held up as a beacon, and must never be a substitute for your own eyes and ears.

Over the course of my life, I've been influenced by a few of the usual 'influential' albums, but if I see 'OK Computer' anywhere near the top of any of these lists again, then I won't be legally responsible for what happens afterwards! That's what makes me a beautiful, individual, potentially insane human being.

If you know your own mind, you won't like being told what you should have been listening to all your life. I know I don't.

Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody's got one, and most of 'em stink.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Denying Madchester

I came across this blog recently which has been causing a bit of a stir in Manc-land, have a look, it's a very entertaining read for anyone who enjoys blasphemy as much as I do.

I'm honestly getting sick of all this Madchester revival nonsense too. It's like a bad circus that will never leave town. I'm glad that there's other people out there who feel the same way.

I'm too young to remember any of the Madchester stuff when it actually happened. I was a child. And even when I was getting into music properly a couple of years later, the majority of the sounds that captured my attention came from further away. The whole hacienda thing was alien to me, the Madchester scene has never meant anything to me other than act as the soundtrack to some mis-spent student nights in 5th Avenue. I never liked New Order/Joy Division and I hated the Happy Mondays. I have both Stone Roses albums, but have listened to neither for years (I always preferred the 2nd one anyway). I think it's disingenuous to hark on about a supposed 'golden age' of Manchester music, scenes evolve, they're changing constantly. It's just that, for some reason, whenever a new local band comes through the ranks and begins to court national press, there are always comparisons, no matter how undeserved they may be, to one of said above bands.

Some people just need to learn to let go, man...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

You're all above the Surface

So the Surface Unsigned Festival is about to roll into town again. Their unsavoury business practices and litigious trigger finger have been well documented elsewhere on the web - just work your google on your internet machine and you'll see what I mean. What I will say to anyone considering getting involved with this, or any other 'pay to play' gig scenario (where you are required to either buy a minimum number of tickets upfront, or guarantee a minimum number of punters, on pain of making up the shortfall yourselves) is, in a word, avoid.

It's a fact of life that creative people are often bad at marketing themselves. Two different skill sets you see. In a nutshell, it's not a musician's job to promote gigs and sell tickets. Doesn't matter if you're in an unsigned band or Kasabian, the same template applies. A musician's job is to bring the tunes, not a minimum 50 mates. There are plenty of other things for the gigging muso to worry about, and if the only people you play to time and time again are the same group of your friends and family, you've got little to no chance of actually acheiving any exposure. Obviously a group of friendly faces can help boost your confidence come showtime, but at the end of the day, why should you do someone else's work for them as well as your own?

I don't really want to get into naming and shaming (if pushed I will, privately, though) practicers of such an abhorrent philosophy, anyone who's been around the scene long enough will know who they are anyway.

I will however, make a note of the people who care enough about making their event a success to actually promote said event rather than screw bands for easy cash. One such beacon of hope is Tony Thornborough of Helmets4Men. Our recent gig at Islington Mill was an absolute stonker, with great bands and a great crowd who paid a reasonable price and weren't solely consisting of mates of ours or the other bands. We took a fair few with us, but gained a few fans on the night too. So Tony, we salute you! More like this, please. You can read a review of the gig here.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

New blog!

This is a brand new blog. I've tried to blog before, but couldn't be bothered keeping it up. So I deleted the old one and resolved with myself to do it with a bit more frequency.

I wanted to call it 'Freedom in Exile', (without quite remembering where I've heard it before) on account of me being a Mancunian living in Salford, a quick google search revealed that it is, in fact, the title of the Dalai Lama's autobiography. Great start, trading off the leader of one of the biggest political struggles of recent times. So I decided at that point to go for something else, even if it is slightly less catchy.