Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Tonight’s opening act – and label-mate of the headliners - at a freshly spruced up and about-to-re-open Islington Mill wasn’t even listed on the poster. As Sweet Baboo pointed out: “if it was my poster I would be top”. Taking to the stage after a late-running sound-check from one of the other bands, Sweet Baboo ran through the most cursory of sound-checks of his own and then with a “shall we just go for it?” went straight into the title track of his latest album whilst most of the early doors crowd chatted away. Within minutes the chatting had been silenced by the direct honesty of his bitter-sweet folk-blues. Sweet Baboo was working tonight to a formula of “two slowies then a fastie” so following the sparse beauty we got surreal and knockabout humour.

Six songs is a ridiculously short set but it was worth the admission price alone. In a just world he would top posters nationally and internationally. Unfortunately I was so wrapped up in final song ‘Baby Let Me Let You Sleep’ I forgot how to point a camera properly.

Sweet Baboo Set List:
I’m A Dancer / Yr Lungs / Who Would Have Thought / 12 Carrots of Love / "A Song About Putting A Girl In A Pot" / Baby Let Me Let You Sleep

Unconscious Jungle are a Manchester band but they don’t follow any obvious Mancunian forebears. Instead they switch between choppy music-hall indie, all par-am-pah and trumpet, and then three-part folk harmonies-and-banjo. Add to this three of the four taking on lead vocals and you have a band potentially pulling in different directions.

With niggling sound problems and drawn-out pauses between songs it was difficult to know if this was an identity crisis or a band trying to find its feet and voice. When it all came good on the last stomping banjo number I’m inclined to the latter. However their cover of ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ – even though they were asked to do it by BBC Radio – is wholly ill-advised.

Slow Motion Shoes deliver a muscular take on twee-pop: Boy/girl vocals front a British version of Tullycraft with all the bounce and fidgeting reined in and slowed down. Early songs in the set were not really crowd-movers and didn’t stop the crowd chatting (including unforgivably members of the previous band) but again once they overcame sound niggles songs started to coalesce into a pleasing if cerebral groove. I found out later this was their first ever gig which ups my appreciation. A band for some more attention at a future time.

If Sweet Baboo stopped the chatterers through his music, Islet did it through noise and physical presence. And this wasn’t presence on stage but off it. The bass player (although he didn’t remain playing bass for long) started playing in the middle of the crowd whilst the two drum-kit set-up was given a hefty pounding whilst the fourth Islet was... well I forget what they were doing because there is such a swift turnaround in instruments, orientation (facing crowd? Facing away from crowd?) and position relevant to the stage.

There was an improvised feel to the clamorous rhythms and shrieks of Islet given extra spontaneity through band members roaming the room looking for surfaces to beat upon. What soon became apparent was this musically was actually well-drilled mayhem– less so the physical choreography as the yanking of instruments across the stage and the repeated sorties in the crowd left a spaghetti junction of cabling and fallen instrument stands littering the playing area.

It was thrillingly chaotic and intensely noisy as Islet delivered their "seven fasties and one slowie" but it didn’t appear to animate the crowd as much as the band. Audience members with a few, rare exceptions looked more like immobile observers of some art installation rather than a gig-goers. Also the band’s performance was never confrontational; it was in and around people but not at them which might have provoked more interaction. So I understand the reputation they have gathered as live performers and would recommend checking them out (take ear plugs) but I think I may be one of the rare people who prefers them on record to live.

Islet Wimmy [BUY]
Sweet Baboo I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin’ [BUY]

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In MCR this week: Q&A with STANDARD FARE

Sheffield’s ace indie-pop trio Standard Fare last graced Manchester in April shortly after the launch of their highly recommended debut album. “The Noyelle Beat” is thirteen tracks of spiky guitar pop which dials down the tweeness of some of their contemporaries and ups the edgy drama as it picks over the complications, uncertainties and hang-ups surrounding modern-day relationships.

And this October they are back not once but twice. They are playing The Castle on 15 October alongside Windmill, Plank!, Working For A Nuclear Free City and Beat The Radar as part of the Akoustik Anarkhy vs Melodic Records showcase for In The City. But first – and THIS Friday – Standard Fare play Kraak Gallery in the Northern Quarter as part of the launch of new night Mashed Potato supporting Brighton’s Shrag.

As a prelude to these two trips over Snake Pass, I asked them a few questions about song-writing, dancing and art.

None of you are originally from Sheffield - how did you meet and end up making music there?

Dan: We originally met when we all lived in the Peak District.
Emma: I moved to York and Dan and Andy still lived in Buxton (Andy did move to Sheffield to study Graphic Art and Design though). Sheffield was in the middle and made great sense geographically and it's also a city home to a lot of our favourite friends, bands, labels, venues, promoters.

Does being a three piece make song-writing and decision-making easier? Or is it a limitation in anyway?

Emma: We've been together for 5 years or so now so we know each other pretty well and so although we're still evolving we have a good basis for communication and decision making. I think we all like the roles we have musically in writing the songs. We're looking to add some more instruments maybe to the next album but as it's always only three of us in the practice room the songs will always be based around our prinicipal instruments.
Dan: Yeah we normally have quite a few different ideas, it'd get a bit confusing if there were any more of us suggesting things.

The details in songs like 'Philadelphia' appear specific and autobiographical. Has writing about friendships and relationships led to any friction or embarrassing incidents or is it all sufficiently fictionalised?

Emma: It's not particularly fictionalised, I'm not very imaginative lyrically. Generally most of the songs on the last album were written about people I'm not in touch with anymore so that's not been a problem. I think (and hope) that some things I've said in my songs have touched the people they're about. ‘Wrong Kind of Trouble’ was written about a friend and I think she was surprised about how much I'd noticed and thought about what was going on for her.

"Always going to come a time when we should just go dancing". What are your favourite dancing songs?

Emma: Ah so many! Um I wrote that when I was listening to all kinds of music. When one goes out dancing it is more often than not 90s dance music which is fun but probably wouldn't be my choice? We normally just stick weekend morning mixes on so Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Joan Baez, Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Richard Hawley....
Dan: I think ska music has to be my dancing weakness, and the faster more modern ska like Reel Big Fish just gets me going every time.

"This wonderful life I've been given" What are the ingredients for a wonderful life as far as Standard Fare are concerned?

Emma: Ah good question! Family, friends, enough money to not worry about food or rent too much, sport, music, a job you mostly enjoy and even more importantly doesn't mind you leaving early a lot.

Where are you up to with plans for album number two?

Emma: We've recorded the first few songs including the first single which we're gonna release in December and we're gonna be recording lots more over the next few months and then hopefully release the album sometime next year.

You're playing this week in an art gallery. What would be the ideal piece of art for Standard Fare to perform in front of?

Emma: Something made by someone we really liked that's probably not too offensive but still interesting.
Andy: My all time favourite artist is Joan Miró, it'd be a great privilege to perform in front of a piece of his work. Not all that sure if it describes our music but its great art to look at.

Mashed Potato launches at Kraak, Stevenson Square (behind Hula) in Manchester’s Northern Quarter on Friday 1st October with Pull Yourself Together DJs as well as the two bands. Doors 9pm “‘til proper late” and admission is just £5.

Standard Fare The Noyelle Beat [BUY]

Monday, September 27, 2010

DEER TICK "The Black Dirt Sessions" + UK Tour

Deer Tick’s first album “War Elephant” released in 2007 was largely a solo recording effort from John McCauley. Initially performing live as a trio, with departures as well as additions over the intervening years, the Providence, Rhode Island band is now expanded to a quintet. The constant figure is bandleader John McCauley who provides one of the defining features of Deer Tick through his gruff vocal which rasps, strains and emotes as though he were sixty-four rather than (an unlikely) twenty-four years old. For such a relatively young band Deer Tick sound not only mature beyond their years but authentically steeped in the traditions they traverse. The music on their third album “The Black Dirt Sessions” is a rich confluence of country-rock, folk-blues and a gnarled Americana, shot through with a dirty strain of good ol’ rock and roll.

Named after the upstate New York studio it was recorded in, “The Black Dirt Sessions” was released in June this year to a less than complimentary review from Pitchfork, which attacked the band for a lack of progression amongst other things. The band responded with an equally scathing but much funnier parody of the review. The latter is worth enjoying but rather than wasting time with the views of Pitchfork I’d suggest diving straight into the record.

It starts with the soft organ and twitching guitars waltz of ‘Choir of Angels’ featuring – yes – a children’s choir. Its innocent tones may be soothing or even hopeful but the outlook for the remainder of album is frequently bleak. “Everyone is alone in this world” is the central theme of ‘Hand In My Hand’. ‘Goodbye, Dear Friend’ is a sad pall-bearer elegy with just piano and croaking voice: “you carry on / in pictures and in song”. ‘The Sad Sun’ is a strummed acoustic number of world-wearied (and potentially suicidal?) hopelessness: “The sad sun was telling me that / You'll never see his light again / All rolling around with no skin / And your wrists cut from start to end”.

For all the despondency and the flashes of anger in McCauley’s raw, exposed lyrics and his rawer vocals, the music is often quite uplifting. There is also something quite traditional about the record – it is not ‘alt-country’ in the sense of pulling apart the genre or undermining it. The disparate styles are treated with a workman-like even joyous reverence that counters the lyrical dejection. There can also be uniformity to some of the mid-tempo numbers where the maudlin country-rock unmemorably merges into one. But there are enough distinct and stand-out tracks to bring praise to the record as a whole.

And some more of those highlights. If I’ve suggested I’m against the bleakness, I adore how it informs ‘Christ Jesus’ - a raw-throated and pained rasp of anger and loneliness with just stark, echoing piano and background string accompaniment. The five minute-plus ‘Mange’ starts with Southern boogie guitar which morphs into a solemn but chiming komische rhythm with touches of crashing cymbals and then honky-tonk piano before escalating into a noisy flailing guitar freak-out. Dark, self-loathing and intimations of mortality (“I’ve gotta tie up all my loose ends before my skin turns to mange”) are turned into a soaring almost triumphal anthem.

It’s the second song on the album but ‘Twenty Miles’ feels like a good song to finish on if it all sounds too bleak for your liking. McCauley still rasps through this song - but he is at his least embittered. Set to gorgeous piano and violins, the main cause of despondency in this love song is the distance between him and his beloved: "Now I'm 20 miles outside of the place that you live / And I need one more chance now that time's running thin / Well you are the things that make up my dreams / And I've spent every dime that jingles in my jeans / I deserve every stone that's thrown out at me / And I think of your smile, I'm in love with your teeth

True there is nothing revolutionary about “The Black Dirt Sessions”; but ignore the hipster pasting and there is plenty to be absorbed by. Deer Tick are equally engaging live. NYC Taper has a recent concert from Maxwell's, Hoboken from July this year, NPR caught them live at Newport Folk Festival in 2009 or this week you can catch Deer Tick live across the UK and Ireland.

28 Sept Cargo, London [BUY TICKETS]
29 Sept Brudenell Social Club, Leeds [BUY TICKETS]
30 Sept Deaf Institute, Manchester [BUY TICKETS]
1 Oct Captain's Rest, Glasgow [BUY TICKETS]
2 Oct Auntie Annie's, Belfast [BUY TICKETS]
3 Oct Whelans Dublin [BUY TICKETS]

Deer Tick - Twenty Miles by Partisan Records

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Sunday at Larmer Tree Gardens was another sluggish and grey start but by midday the skies were blue and the sun was shining. The plan for day three was unformed – let’s see where the mood takes us – with no particular expectations or must-sees. Of course, End of the Road would end up surprising us.

First up were The Minnikins in the Tipi Tent. Brother and Sister duo Gabe and Ruth were joined by pedal steel player Chris Hillman (“Hey we’ve got one of The Byrds in our band! It never stops being funny does it Chris?”) to play a soothing selection of country and blue-grass numbers – more trad. than alt. but played with affection and charm. Ruth told us they are recording a concept album about the history of their family and its journey from Scotland to Nova Scotia several generations ago. On this outing it’s a record well worth looking out for.

Next it was Smoke Fairies on the Garden Stage. My knowledge of the Sussex duo was limited to “folky” but having missed them at Green Man in August I was keen to see them here. And here they were supported by a three piece band (drums, bass and violin).

The initial appearance of the pair – youthful, pale, willowy and hesitant – was almost at odds with their music. And with their witty, deadpan introductions and chat ( “Sorry to be playing such gloomy songs in the sunshine [pause] This one’s called ‘Frozen Heart’”). The music mixed trad. folk harmonies with brooding alt–folk rumble - as though the Unthank sisters had been shorn of regional accent and reference and had spent a fortnight in a darkened room listening to Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See A Darkness”. I found it utterly entrancing and the purchase of debut album “Through Low Light And Trees “ followed soon after at the Rough Trade stall.

Then to the Big Top for Kath Bloom who towards the end of her set told us she “works with children”. Again my initial reaction was she looked more like the strange, scatty mad woman who lives by herself at the end of the street and scares the children not tends them. Now she is undoubtedly scatty, re-starting songs after forgetting words, distractedly rummaging through her harmonica belt, but she was also charming, endearing and her eccentric folk warble and tender songs were deeply moving.

For the second half of the set she was joined by Brad and Jessica from This Frontier Needs Heroes which I felt diminished the impact of her songs. But not for everyone: as I left the woman behind us was in floods of tears.

In The Local there was a competition with the first prize of “shouting abuse at Steven Adams”. Faithful festival partner Mr P won this (I say ‘won’ but it was a game of chance) and so got to take to the stage to introduce “the band who blew Flaming Lips off the stage at Green Man”. Three weeks on from seeing The Singing Adams all was still in order: smart lyrics, catchy indie-rock strum, and sarcasm: “Thanks for coming to see us... despite what it said in the programme”.

As well as the songs listed here the band returned for an encore of 'Injured Party'. The band are “working on an album” – I can’t wait to hear it.

Brief visits to The Antlers and Django Django then led to see Ben Ottewell in the Tipi Tent.

This was not what I was planning especially being totally unfamiliar with his band Gomez. However he had a secret weapon. Just one or two songs into his set, seated alone on stage playing acoustic guitar he was joined by his kids: dressed in capes, blond, twins and two and a half years old by my reckoning. I think this was a spontaneous stage invasion rather than planned but the unself-conscious dance moves of the kids were a great foil to the more grown-up songs of Dad.

Then caught the last two songs from The Felice Brothers from the back of the Garden Stage arena. I was surprised by the relative youthfulness of said brothers – I imagined a grizzled fraternity of forty somethings. More of The Felice Brothers later.

Hotly tipped new bands can often disappoint. Over at the Big Top Stage Yuck didn’t.

The Anglo-American-Japanese four-piece channel 25 years of American guitar music into a familiar but fresh formula mixing jangle and shoegaze, noise and melody, not unlike a youthful, laid-back Dinosaur Jr. Will be eagerly looking forward to future releases from the band despite the appalling name.

Then to the Garden Stage with brief calls in to see Ólöf Arnalds and Mountain Man en route. The first thing to observe about The Low Anthem was that Ben Knox Miller appeared to be completely over last night’s whisky-drinking excesses. The second and more important thing was what a magical and enchanting performance this was.

As dusk set and the stars came out and bats flew over the stage, this was a beautiful setting for the quiet reflection of ‘To Ohio’, ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ and ‘Ticket Taker’ – the latter (“I thought it was a song about chaos and the apocalypse”) was the closest I got to ‘weepy’ this weekend. The set also included several new songs from the forthcoming album including ‘Smart Flesh’ which was written backstage at EOTR twelve months earlier. It was heart-wrenching to leave ten minutes early but we wanted to make sure we beat the rush for Deer Tick over in the Tipi Tent.

Opening with ‘Choir of Angels’, Deer Tick got about two or maybe three songs into their set when the power went (again). Undeterred and in darkness the band played a acoustic number with Mountain Man on harmonies then continued playing as they went walkabout through the crowd.

Eventually returning to the stage they played a medley of songs, all unplugged, including a snatch of The Replacements 'Can't Hardly Wait' and even a crowd singalong to ‘Silent Night’. Somehow the band had managed to turn potential disaster into one of those special moments you cannot replicate anywhere else (but I still think the power should be pulled when they play Manchester later this month. Just in case).

I know some but not many Adam Green songs – mainly from "Friends of Mine". However lack of familiarity with the – count ‘em – six album back catalogue was irrelevant. Against my expectations this turned out to be great fun – good-natured showmanship in a straw boater, madcap verbal gymnastics and uncoordinated jerky dancing all in front of a devoted following with frequent forays into the crowd. Throughout he came up smiling and continued to race across the wide stage (not a single photo I took came out in focus).

Potty-mouthed and nonsensical he may be but during ‘In The Prince’s Bed’ there was a definitive shiver of emotion to be felt. For the end of the set he donned a silver, woman’s slip thrown on stage to turn ‘Dance With Me’ into a Bowie-esque glam-stomp before returning for an impassioned ‘Jessica Simpson’. If you told me before the weekend that this would be one of the songs I would go home singing I would not have believed you.

As End of the Road started to wind down it was time for a walk through the enchanted woods with Wilco playing in the background. No secret sets now just happy festival goers in the piano room or drunkenly playing table tennis.

This was the second time in three weeks that I have seen Caitlin Roseplaying stages too big for us” as she and her band have stood in for others. At Green Man it was for a delayed Mountain Man; here it was for a cancelled Steve Mason. Not a like-for-like for replacement this time then.

However her easy-going brand of country – three-piece as at Green Man but here expanded to four players with the addition of pedal steel – was delightfully mellow and engaging. Called back to the stage by an enthusiastic crowd, Caitlin, now up against the clock, finished with an acoustic version of ‘Shotgun Wedding’ and a two minute Dylan cover.

So the main acts were over but there was still the secret sets. However the first of these was clearly no longer secret with the Tipi Tent packed out with devoted (and a few drunken) Felice Brothers fans. I guess they must have announced this from the stage earlier. Despite the crush I still managed to get fairly close to the front - and what impressed was not the relative youthfulness but the scariness of The Felice Brothers.

White vested and heavy-lidded singer Ian looked more like a backwoods serial killer than a musician. At the end of the set when he was told they could only play one more song, with his snarling and vehement reaction he looked as though he could literally murder someone. Others like the bearded and bear-sized brother Jimmy were more jovial but there was still moments of intimidating danger - when Jimmy heaved his accordion high up into the air or when the fiddle-player smashed (and I mean SMASHED) the cymbals from a running jump with his washboard.

Joined at points by Deer Tick, the Felice Brothers played a ragged songs of booze and bad luck, guilt and redemption with fiery passion and arms-in-the-air devotion from their fans which ended in a stage invasion during ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah’. It had very little to do with God but praise be. I’m not sure why I have never listened to The Felice Brothers before but I couldn’t have had a better live introduction.

The final and closing act for End of the Road 2010 had also been announced. Mark Hamilton way back on Friday in the Big Top had said that Woodpigeon and Eagleowl would play an all covers set. They opened with two quieter and not too surprising numbers - The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’ and Herman Dune’s ‘Not on Top’ - before entering less obvious territory.

Sneaking a glance at the set-list beforehand I knew some of what was coming but Violent Femme’s ‘Blister in the Sun’ and R Kelly’s ‘Igntion’ were not only unexpected but joyously faithful. Well as faithful as you get as a pale Scotsman called Malcolm playing an ukulele whilst singing ‘Ignition’ could be. This was hilarious and exhilarating stuff. Given both bands are quiet natured souls it might not have been able to match the intensity of The Felice Brothers but it was a winning combination of fun, surprises and celebration and a perfect finale.

End of the Road is undoubtedly a special festival. Clearly the music programming is at the heart of this. But I made choices to miss some bands (Yo La Tengo, Horse Feathers, Cate Le Bon) which I would kill to see on any other occasion – but I am not left feeling regretful or cheated. It takes a special kind of event to do that.

Next year’s End of The Road Festival is 2-4 September (“with Thursday opening” – this year this was Meursault, Willy Mason, Darren Hayman and Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan). Early bird tickets have already sold out.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

PRINCE RAMA "Shadow Temple"

Paw Tracks, the label set up by Animal Collective, has a surprisingly broad roster of artists. Alongside fellow travellers in cosmic americana like Tickley Feather and Ariel Pink the band have also signed the kitschy show-melodies of Dent May And His Magnificent Ukulele. Maybe the roster isn’t actually ‘broad’ but eye-brow raising additions like Dent May are outliers that push the core aesthetic in different directions. The latest band to join Paw Tracks are outliers in a different way.

Prince Rama was whispered into the ears of Taraka Larson, Nimai Larson, and Michael Collins in the summer of 2007 by the clanging of prayer bells and goat-skin drums. They left the Hare Krishna farm where they were staying to go to art school and form a creative nucleus in Boston”. At first I doubted the veracity of this press bio however the surreal and overwhelming strangeness of “Shadow Temple”, the band’s fourth album and first on Paw Tracks, makes me think it is be closer to the truth than I imagined.

Shadow Temple” is an eight song collection of Sanskrit chants, ritualistic drones, tribal percussion and drumming. It’s a psychedelic horror soundtrack made by Amon Düül and Yma Sumac in a voodoo jam showdown, produced by Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and Deakin (this last bit is true – it is actually produced by the AC pair and Rusty Santos).

The pair of opening tracks are spine-tinglingly scary: ‘Om Mane Padme Hum’ and ‘Om Namo Shivaya’ are made up of ominous incantations and howling suggestive of dark almost occult rituals. It is difficult to work out if the wordless chanting is ecstatic outpourings - or the voices of the tormented and the damned. But combined with the reverb-drenched rhythms and relentless drumming the sonic effect is shocking and intense. My initial reaction was what kind of chemicals were these people taking when they made this record? But according to an interview with Pitchfork, Prince Rama abstain from drugs. This only makes the record stranger and the influence of that Hare Krishna upbringing stronger and more sinister.

After the opening two songs “Thunderdrums’ is not as dramatic as the title suggests: instead it is a slower, sultry lope with ethereal recitations, over looped fuzzy guitar riff and cymbal crashes. The fourth track ‘Storm Worship’ is a quiet almost serene bridge into ‘Lightening Fossil’ which combines skittering drum clatter, whirling synths and the operatic vocal stylings of Diamanda Galas or Zola Jesus. The use of synths is even more prominent on the dark and pulsing ‘Satt Nam’ which ventures into synthwave territory recalling the dark dance-pop of Cold Cave.

“Shadow Temple” is a dark and eerie trip. Although ‘Mythras’ two-thirds of the way through the album's 35 minute duration feels like a re-tread of the opening track, elsewhere Prince Rama inject sufficient variation to move the listener through the different phases of this hallucinatory journey. The album’s singular intensity is a double-edged sword – undeniably powerful as the relentless brain pummelling is, its effect is best restricted to small doses. This is an esoteric cult that I want to visit occasionally as an interested observer rather than become a fully immersed devotee.

Prince Rama - Lightening Fossil by statemagazine

Prince Rama Shadow Temple [BUY]

Saturday, September 18, 2010


During the Friday night at End of the Road Festival it had rained heavily. It may have stopped but Saturday morning was a sodden and grey one with rain-threatening clouds looming ominously over Larmer Tree Gardens.

Luckily by the time the first bands were taking to the stage it did seem to be brightening up. Brooklyn’s Forest Fire opened proceedings on the Garden Stage with the song ‘Slow Motion’ from last year’s album “Survival”.

The steady, slow pace of their ramshackle alt-folk-rock suited the just-waking-up mood. And the occasional frazzled guitar and shocking red eyeshadow of their guitarist also helped remind everyone of sore heads and how they might look if only a mirror was at hand.

The Tipi Tent was crammed to capacity for the first of the weekend’s performances by Daniel Lefkowitz, the crowds no doubt drawn by the Low Anthem associations of the newest signing to End of the Road Records. With the tent so full I only managed to catch two songs from the back – the VERY back – before returning to the Garden Stage. Here Woodpigeon were replacing the last-minute cancellation from Timber Timbre.

The Woodpigeon-backed-by-Eagleowl set was the same as yesterday’s Big Top set but on this stage the sound was clearer and stronger. And with the sun now breaking through, lying on the grass soaking up this glorious music a second time was an unexpected delight.

Next I caught two songs from Nurses in the Big Top en route to the Tipi Tent to catch the lofi post-folk of Edinburgh’s Eagleowl – now performing in their own right after two turns as Woodpigeon players. Accidentally introducing themselves as “Eaglebowel”, their pared-back and unrushed set was another soothing treat. They introduced ‘Blanket’ as the “nearest we get to a pop song”.

For the last number ‘No Conjunction’, the four piece were joined on stage by members of Meursault, Woodpigeon and Allo Darlin’.

I had heard promising things about Coventry beatniks Don’t Move, a four-piece featuring skinny ties, shaven-headed accordion player and a car-plate registration sign. However my expectation of danceable Mod or Two Tone-influenced sounds was not met – their tense, jittery rhythms reminded me of (not-my-cup-of-tea-at-all) Wild Beasts. For me: it didn’t move.

On The Garden Stage, the Rhode Island five-piece Deer Tick were basking in the now strong sunshine. Or maybe large aviator shades are part of their everyday appearance?

The band play a grizzled, rock-and-rolling Americana that owes as much to The Replacements as to The Band. This was a loud and energetic set that finished with an intense rendition of ‘Mange’ including bandleader John McCauley and his guitar going walkabout into the crowd.

Then back to the Tipi Tent for the first (new to me) Canadians of the day: The Wilderness of Manitoba. With banjos and braces aplenty, the first of their old frontier songs was a quiet affair. The next - “a ghost story” - started to up the volume and included an instrument not seen at End of the Road festival yet – a pair of singing bowls. I’m not sure about the Fleet Foxes comparison but this is a band definitely worth giving more time too.

And at this point the camera batteries gave up. At The Garden Stage I saw the first ten minutes of The Unthanks set I saw a few weeks earlier at Green Man. And again I left. Not because of the band but to check in on Monotonix and the much talked about roaming live sets from these Israeli rockers.

Entering the Big Top stage only minutes after they had started, I fully expected the band to still be on the stage. How foolish. All band members including the drummer were already in the crowd. Up close this might have been thrilling but from the fringes of the crowd all there was to see was a tight cluster of figures and the distant noisy and not particularly attractive punk-metal throb of the music. So instead I took the opportunity to stock –up and then returned to see the closing numbers of The Unthanks set.

This was a winning combination of the rich resonant Northumbrian folk - played beautifully by the elegantly dressed band and string section - and the down-to-earth humour and banter from the Unthanks sisters. Oh and the tap-dancing. I still haven’t stood through an entire set but what I have seen is enough to ensure I don’t make the same mistake in future.

Leaving the Garden Stage, Monotonix were now playing outside the Big Top tent - still in the middle of a packed throng. The singer did not appear to have many clothes on.

At the Tipi Tent the set from Annie And the Beekeepers was interrupted by a power failure so they continued playing their rustic Americana acoustically. Which was no good if you were stood at the edges of the tent and straining to hear. Also by now I had had a bellyful of rustic Americana and was looking for something a little louder and faster.

This came from Brakes in the Big Top stage with their spiky and short outbursts. There was a loyal core following in to watch them but also a much larger crowd (others seeking some noise?). It’s always a surprise how tight and proficient the band are for a group initially dismissed as a joke side-project and that doesn’t seem to take itself seriously either. They got a whooping great reception and the whole set – including one new song about voodoo called ‘Hoodoo’ on the set-list below – was huge fun which even a broken guitar string couldn’t hold back.

From this list a couple weren't played including 'NY Pie' and 'Huevos Rancheros'

After a boxful of veggie curry, I opted for Jonquil in The Local. The six-piece mix subtle Afrobeat flavours with indiepop – as if Vampire Weekend went to Oxford Technical College rather than ivy-league colleges, dropped the pretentiousness and upmarket product placement and wrote better songs. It was a smallish crowd (the band were competing with Yo La Tengo and Black Mountain) but fun and upbeat even if like me you were unfamiliar with the material. The band played a cover of a song by The XX but they should stick to their own material – it is far superior to the disco-lite of tonight's cover.

Then it was over to the Tipi Tent for the three late night surprise slots. The first was announced in rather sombre tones “At 11pm every night a new band is born. It is now 11.15pm”. Were they called Snakewolf? Wagonstage? Or Snakewagon? The name was irrelevant. This was an expanded The Low Anthem featuring ex-member Daniel Leifkowitz and a sixth member on bass playing a none-too-serious but uproarious set somewhere between Americana jam band session and a drunken hoedown. With a backdrop of a beach towel with a wolf on it, a stuffed meerkat on stage plus a ragbag of fancy dress including sacking, German helmets and random pirate outfits, the band ripped through songs of underage love, pretty girls and the laws of inevitability. Towards the end the levels of inebriation on stage became apparent as a drunk Ben Knox Miller attempted to drum using a now empty bottle of Jamieson’s. Fun entertainment that only the most po-faced could fail to enjoy.

Next up was Dylan Leblanc ahead of his Garden Stage set tomorrow. I found the first couple of listens to his Paupers Field album quite unmemorable but recently his rich country sounds had start to earworm their way into my head. However this set, proficiently delivered though it was, became a retrograde step in my appreciation or otherwise of Mr Leblanc. It all felt a bit too somnambulant and lacking in distinctive hooks. It could have been in part the unfortunate sequencing that saw them to go on after such inspired nonsense from Snakewagon. Dylan Leblanc’s attempts to empathasise with the crowd also backfired: “Weren’t that last band GREAT?” he asked us. “Yes” came the reply “Bring them back on”.

The final surprise slot of the evening was from brother and sister duo This Frontier Needs Heroes who have been touring Europe in their own right but also acting as backing band for Kath Bloom (more of her in Sunday’s report to follow). With just acoustic guitar and tambourine accompaniment to beat out a rhythm, the pair used their contrasting voices – Brad’s deep bluesy growl, Jessica’s crystal clear higher register – to sing songs of space babies, reckless girls and war. This was perfect end-of-the-night listening. The only thing that interfered was their rambling banter and tales between songs – definitely likeable and occasionally amusing though it was, I thought their music did all the talking that was necessary.

Not a day with as many highlights as Friday but those surprise slots – well at least two out of the three - had ended the day on a high.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


End of the Road hit its fifth anniversary this year. I first visited Larmer Tree Gardens in North Dorset for the second festival in 2007. Returning three years later, it all looked reassuringly familiar. And that’s because End of the Road got it all – stages, line-up, amenities, art and surprises - right from the start.

Themes for this year’s festival seemed to involve harmoniums and banjos. And Canadians – lots of Canadians – but this was a good thing. However my End of the Road started – after an early morning departure from Manchester and a “that’ll do” approach to tent-pitching – with a trio of Americans.

The Daredevil Christopher Wright kicked off the Friday programme on the Big Top Stage with the eponymous song from their debut album “In Deference To A Broken Back”. From this quiet start – just harmonies, acoustic guitar and the gentlest of drumming – they moved through whimsical reflection (‘The East Coast’) to the jangly clatter of ‘A Conversation About Cancer’ with several new songs along the way plus winning brownie points by telling us that on this their first UK trip they had already tucked into fish and chips with mushy peas.

The album is an unsung gem from this year’s releases and the trio captured the spirit and variety if not the subtlety of it live but were not well served by the booming sound in the Big Top (more of this later).

A quick check-in with the hobo blues of Charlie Parr on the Garden stage (good) and then the opening two songs from New Zealand’s The Ruby Suns (not so good), led me to the Tipi Tent. Here I caught the end of the set from Olivia Chaney.

Lovely lilting folk from a trio performing on keyboard/harmonium, cello and violin. My immediate thought – “classically trained” – was confirmed by the fact that one of the songs of her five track CD being sold is a cover of Monteverdi’s ‘Oblivion Soave’. Classy in all senses.

Next up on the same stage was Allo Darlin’. The first thing the band did was tell us the tent rules: “no sitting down - you have to stand up”. A smart move that got the afternoon crowd on their feet, instantly closer to the low riser stage and more engaged. The band’s debut full-length released earlier this year on Fortuna Pop is another gem – bitter-sweet tales of romance, infatuation and disappointment set to swooning indie-pop with catchy melodies and singalong choruses.

As well as five songs from that record the band also debuted a song which they had never all played together before called ‘Darren’ dedicated to “well, you know who it’s about” (Darren Hayman watched on from the side of the stage) and a solo number from Elizabeth called ‘Tallulah’ about listening to the Go-Betweens. This combination of music fan affection and allusion with such glorious songs make Allo Darlin’ a near-perfect package. A real highlight of the festival under the belt within the first couple of hours of being here.

Next I caught the end of Elliott Brood on the Big Top Stage. The besuited Canadian three-piece played foot-stomping folk with joyous rasping vocals, a thumping backbeat and infectious bonhomie.

They enthusiastically called on the crowd to help them with claps and cheers which were enthusiastically returned. The feel-good atmosphere and crowd appreciation was palpable. I didn’t hang about to see but I suspect they shifted plenty of copies of their latest album (Canadian release only currently).

Instead I caught the first two songs from Trembling Bells on The Local stage. In a larger tent than has previously hosted The Local, this half-size circus tent lacked the relaxed intimacy of the smaller one. It’s unfair to judge on the first two songs alone but I’m still to hear Trembling Bells recreate the magical allure of the records live.

Lavinia Blackwell’s psychedelic swirl dress with medieval drooping sleeves and built-in chocker is worthy of mention in its own right though. Put the brightly coloured circus tent to shame.

Next on The Big Top stage was Woodpigeon. Here Edinburgh’s eagleowl (plus the drummer from Meursault) provided the restrained orchestral backing to Mark Hamilton’s songs of loss and love including of course ‘Woodpigeon vs Eagleowl’ (“about how my bird is better than your bird”).

Mark Hamilton is a prolific songwriter so as well as songs from the Woodpigeon albums were new songs about First Nation myths inspired by a visit to Waterton National Park, another about climbing Arthur’s Seat to gain his manhood (“I broke my foot”) and a Withered Hand cover ‘No Cigarettes’ (“a song about dependency, self-hatred and – eventually – love”). Eagleowl were a fine stand-in for the normal band and with the witty and poignant storytelling in both word and song this was a great afternoon treat that managed to dodge Big Top sound problems neatly.

Then to the Garden Stage for more songs about disaster and emotional damage from The Mountain Goats. Songwriter and band leader John Darnielle, suited and bespectacled and continually checking the set-list in his jacket pocket after each song, looked more thoughtful novelist or trendy academic than rock star. But whilst singing with a devilish glint in his eyes and leering smiles, he appeared more like a cold-hearted salesman luring the unsuspecting in.
I clearly belong to the school of thought that says at 6pm on the first day of a three day festival what you want is bitterness, angst and despondency. And The Mountain Goats delivered this in spades but with a winning, wry humour. The crowd singalong for the spectacularly cynical ‘No Children’ (“and I hope you die / I hope we both die”) was - somehow – totally life-affirming. The only disappointment was this was over so quickly.

Time-out to re-stock and re-fuel meant I missed all but the final two songs from Wolf Parade. I’ve never really given time to the Montreal band’s cerebral indie-rock but this brief encounter and the audience response makes me think I should try again.

Then back to the Big Top. Here Edwyn Collins delivered a career-spanning set: starting with the title track from his new album ‘Losing Sleep’ and delving back to solo tracks from earlier records and several Orange Juice songs too. It was surprising to hear how many of his songs prior to his 2006 double brain haemorrhage reference physical infirmity and illness: ‘ Make Me Feel Again’, ‘Dying Day’ etc.

The five-piece band (included The Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook on drums) seemed a bit nervy for the first couple of songs but by time we hit ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Falling and Laughing’ the set was more about the audience celebrating that Edwyn Collins is still with us and writing songs and not about the proficiency of the band. The three or so new songs suggest the reports of how good the new album is (out next week), are to be believed.

The New Pornographers (more Canadians) were the headliners for the Big Top Stage tonight. This was my second encounter with the band this week having seen them in Manchester on Wednesday. This was a very similar if not identical set but finally songs from the latest album “Together” are starting to click for me.

On record the Dan Bejar-penned songs give a diversity in tone and style. Without these live the set appeared a bit samey and wasn’t served well by the sound again – Kathryn Calder’s glorious vocals were at times obscured in the mix. However unlike Wednesday it was great to actually be able to watch all six members of the band at work including some impressive eight-feet-in-the-air drumstick twirls from Kurt Dahle.

Then it was over to the Tipi Tent for the first of the weekend’s late-night surprise sets. A rumour was circulating the tent that one of them was going to be Belle and Sebastian which felt unlikely (“they’re a bit up-themselves these days aren’t they?”) but you never knew the strange powers of End of the Road.

Instead New York’s Freelance Whales took to the stage. Performing a largely acoustic and hushed set (“like when we used to busk”) on banjo, harmonium (again) and mandolin these six songs or so were pleasantly diverting rather than exceptional.

I didn’t know who the next surprise band was until after they finished playing. It turned out to be Plants And Animals which was a huge surprise in itself. I had assumed that Plants And Animals peddled a gentle, rustic variation on the Animal Collective sound. Instead the Canadian (of course) trio’s set involved extended blues ragas, crunching indie-rock and intense riffing.

Some songs noodled on a bit too much for my liking but when they kept them taut and brutal I was more inclined to them. Plants And Animals said that they “weren’t expecting” to be playing this late-night set so soon after their earlier appearance in The Local. Interesting. Maybe Stuart Murdoch et al did cancel at the last minute then??

All this, Pieminister and no rain either. A first day that didn’t disappoint.

The Daredevil Christopher Wright
In Deference To A Broken Back [BUY]

Friday, September 10, 2010


Akoustik Anarky appear to be settling in nicely to their new home for their monthly nights: the Ducie Bridge pub on Corporation Road. If you are in or around Manchester tonight, this gig is definitely one worth catching.

Nottingham's The Soundcarriers headline following the release of second album "Celeste" earlier this year. Described by Piccadilly Records as nodding "to a warm West Coast sound, under-pinned by a Kosmische/Can groove and topped off with a delicious female vox, bringing to mind the likes of Broadcast and Stereolab". Do you need any more recommendation?!

Excellent support from Wigan's The Maladies of Bellafontaine (I know: The Best. Name. Ever) and Liverpool's Nick Ellis. The latter is not familiar to me but according to AA he is ex of "frontman from Liverpool's greatest ever band - The Maybes?"

Plus aA DJ sets too - all this for just £5 advance.

The Soundcarriers
Celeste [BUY]

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

JOSH RITTER "So Runs The World Away" + UK Tour

It came as a shock to find out Josh Ritter is on album number six. He’s one of those artists, like Ed Harcourt or Ron Sexsmith, who I bundle together as fine craftsman: intelligent, literate songwriters, steadily constructing solid bodies of work which I ignore imagining that may just be a bit dull. This clearly says much more about me than Mssrs Ritter, Harcourt and Sexsmith.

So here’s “So Runs The World Away” that sixth album released earlier this year. The title is from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Whilst making this record Ritter was also working on a novel and of course this Idaho-native turns out to be the son of two neuroscientists – so far, so brainy. And my first listen did conform to (my) stereo-type: finely crafted singer-songwriter fare which treads a middle ground between genres so you could never label it ‘americana’ or ‘alt-folk’ (or indeed ‘alt’ anything). On that first listen the two tracks that stood out were ‘Folk Bloodbath’ and ‘Rattling Locks’.

The first starts as a gentle lullaby building to rousing folk anthem in which the lives and deaths of a host of American folklore characters collide. It is not as gory as it sounds but delivered with just the right amount of spooky atmospherics. ‘Rattling Locks’ is equally atmospheric - taut, jerky guitar and ominous drumstick clatter soundtrack the dark thoughts of either a spurned lover or possibly a stalker. If the dial had gone around a few notches it could easily be Califone.

It took a few more listens for me to open up to other songs - once I’d got past my cloth-eared prejudice. Ritter’s voice is some between Josh Rouse and Nick Drake – not as warm and boyish as the former and not as dry and frail as the latter. Initially it can appear a bit characterless – but on closer listens it is subtly effective, even emotional. Some songs are quite poppy – ‘Lark’ is a Paul Simon-like ditty – or are overloaded with romatic yearning and start to drift, like ‘Southern Pacifica’. But overall, even where there are polished exteriors to songs, Ritter manages to give them real depth and substance.

Some lyrical conceits could easily head-down cul-de-sacs marked ‘cliché’ or ‘pretension’ but Ritter steers them away from this. So although ‘Lantern’ is build around the premise “be the light in my lantern”, Ritter creates a more panoramic sweep to the song placing this in the context of an epic, dangerous, even Biblical, journey and struggle. ‘The Curse’ is a conversation between lovers, one apparently immortal awaking after sleeping for thousands of years. Rather than toe-curling it is actually poetically tender and delivered with a graceful minimalism.

Ritter on "So Sails The World Away": “It’s a record pre-occupied with the extremes of scale… where the songs felt large to me.. I wanted them to feel like the steel hulls of massive ships sliding by deeply from below. Where they were small, I concentrated in on the smallest details that I could."

As well as the cover artwork and above words from Ritter, the record is full of imagery of ships and sea voyages. One or two of the thirteen songs do drift a little close to the doldrums and normally I want a bit more grit or rawness from a record (the emphatic bluesy stomp of ‘The Remnant’ satisfies some of my need for a bit of anger). But Ritter manages to engage through subtle shifts in mood and tone, smartly poised musical arrangements and literate, layered, but not too brainy lyrics.

An mp3 of ‘Change of Time’ is available via Ritter’s website in return for your email if you want to sample more. And later this month Ritter tours this album with The Royal City Band (most of the musicians who played on “So Runs The World Away”). Support for all dates is from Dawn Landes - who is also married to Ritter and is definitely worth arriving early to see.

17 Sep Town Hall, Oxford
18 Sep Oran Mor, Glasgow
19 Sep Albert Hall, Nottingham
21 Sep St Georges, Bristol
22 Sep RNCM, Manchester
23 Sep Barbican Centre, London

Monday, September 06, 2010

SWEET BABOO "I'm A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin'"

Sweet Baboo (aka Steve Black) has long demonstrated a love for the self-referential: his first album was not only called “The Mighty Baboo” it opened with ‘Recapping All My Other Songs’. Now two years and two albums down the line here is the third Sweet Baboo record “I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin’”, doubly titled as it is also released on vinyl with a title for each side. Repeated lyrical themes are also important to Sweet Baboo – virtually every track on 2009’s “Hello Wave” seemed to feature the word ‘darling’ – and the songs on this record do indeed feature dancing and sleep. But so, so much more as well.

With Black playing in so many other bands (Cate Le Bon, El Goodo, Spencer McGarry Season, Euros Childs, Wickes and H Hawkline for starters) the moniker Sweet Baboo is probably a good tactic to remind himself who and where he is when writing his own songs. But Sweet Baboo is so much more than a stage name. Behind the casual, boyish appearance (check the teenage bedroom collage album artwork) and apparent nursery-rhyme simplicity of some songs, is a complex personality and a sophisticated and witty songwriter.

The first, full-band version of ‘I’m A Dancer’ which opens the album may possess a casual bravado in the boasts of dancing prowess but on the second, stripped-down and slower version which completes side one, what becomes apparent is the fallibility and even vulnerability of Sweet Baboo. In this heart-laid-bare version, you realise how ‘dancing’ is a metaphor for infidelity and how he longs to be caught out and damned to hell. The transformation from upbeat to heartbreak confessional is stark.

That all sounds a bit grim but “I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin” is actually a hugely fun – and funny - listen. A collection of folk-blues tall-tales, about moles, lungs, drinking or growing extra thumbs in compost (“you’ll need three for loving me”).

If you’ve seen Sweet Baboo live you will know what a genuinely funny entertainer he is. Here the uptempo skiffle of 'Who Would Have Thought' continues that tradition with uproarious lines about zombie collages and cut ‘n’ paste demons. But even the most jovial songs can reveal some hidden doubt, self-criticism or admission of weakness. And then there is the tenderness and heartfelt emotion of ballads such as ‘If I Died Would You Remember That You Loved Me’. As I said: this impressive record is about so much more than dancing and sleeping.

Over the three Sweet Baboo records there is a clear growth in confidence and ambition as a song-writer. But for all their convoluted lyrics, surreal imagery and emotional depth, these are instantly accessible and catchy melodies, delivered with minimal studio trickery and a refreshing lack of à la mode flourishes.

I’ve tried to think of other singular artists who could be compared to Sweet Baboo (Daniel Johnston? Euros Childs? Woody Guthrie? Loudon Wainwright?) but all feel inadequate or inappropriate. The mark of a true original? It is equally difficult to find a single song to represent the album – and on each time I listen I discover a new favourite. Currently this is the quiet pastoral folk of ‘Y’r Lungs’ – and it only takes one listen to this to realise that Sweet Baboo is so much more than a “fool on a North Walean hill with a bottle of rum”.

Even the Welsh tourist board has recognised the talents of Sweet Baboo – earlier this year they used a re-worked 'How I’d Live My Life (aka The Bumblebee Song)’ from “Hello Wave” to soundtrack a TV advertising campaign. I hope this new record (his first for Shape Records) continues to win recognition and fans for his music. It deserves to - you will be hard-pushed to find a more humane and witty record this year. Despite his claims otherwise, the only thing clumsy about “I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin” is its title.

Sweet Baboo - Y'r Lungs via FollyOfYouth

Sweet Baboo
I'm A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin [BUY]

Sunday, September 05, 2010

JOHN GRANT "Queen of Denmark"

The initial press coverage for the April release of John Grant's “Queen of Denmark” tended to focus on the role of Midlake as backing band supporting Grant during recording “The Courage of Others” or comparing the tone of Grant’s first solo record to Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue”. I’ve listened to neither that Midlake record nor Dennis Wilson’s 1977 album. I’ve also not listened to John Grant’s previous underachieving band The Czars. All this was good because I came to the record without baggage. John Grant on the other hand....

What is inescapable from first listen is Grant’s issue with personal identity, a lack of comfort with his own body and self, and a wish to change, move on, escape. Some of the song titles alone tell you this. ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’ starts with unbearably sad piano then blossoms into a day-glo hymn of escape to a confectionary-laden paradise. It is so beautifully realised it is tempting to believe that ‘Marz’ is real but the constant tug of sadness running under the song, and the video too, suggests it is little more than an illusory dream.

Then there is ‘Sigourney Weaver’: a ballad full of elegance and pomp in which Grant claims kinship with a procession of Hollywood actresses who fought alien monsters, vampires and demons. And such battles are things Grant knows plenty about. Brought up in strict Presbyterian household, keeping his sexuality secret and then using alcohol as a crutch during his time with The Czars are all some of the demons he has had to fight. ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’ is a brutally raw portrait of living with bigots who demonise homosexuals – and almost any other minority group you can think of. You can taste the hatred and sense what it must have been like living through this in the reported words of the bigot and in the singer’s reaction (“I've felt uncomfortable since the day I was born / Since the day I glimpsed the black abyss in your eyes... I can't believe that I've considered taking my own life / Cos I believed the lies about me were the truth”).

Not all songs are as troubled or full of bile as this but in each one feelings are never swept under the carpet but rather paraded up and down on full display. The delivery throughout is reminiscent of the impassioned 70s singer-songwriter, lush but sombre with touches of orch-pop drama; it can be mannered but is unflinching in its honesty and never feels artificial.

If this all sounds unrelentingly gloomy it’s not. There is a rare beauty and even occasional flicker of hope in those songs of escape; and elsewhere the soft-shoe shuffle of ‘Silver Platter Club’ or the hilarious ‘Chicken Bones’ lighten the mood.

There’s even a love song in ‘Caramel’ in which Grant comes across like a low-rent Rufus Wainwright – and for me sounding less like himself is a bad thing. For all his personal issues with identity, he cuts a distinctive presence throughout the record, whether pained, vulnerable, bitter or angry. The final song ‘Queen of Denmark’ is breath-taking, a bitter tirade at a ex-lover shot through with admissions of his own weaknesses and guilt, a solo piano piece during the verses, it angrily erupts into a full-band stomp for the spat-out chorus.

From coming to this record with no baggage or expectations, it grabbed my attention in the first play and has never let go. And with repeated listens it only grows in stature. I feel for the pain that John Grant has been through and still carries but he has turned it into a memorably powerful record, and one of the best of the year.

I got "Queen of Denmark" shortly after it came out in April, wrote this in July but was prompted to finally post this following Grant's performance at Green Man Festival this August. And the intervening time and the video for 'Chicken Bones' has given me a new mental image for John Grant: a down-on-his-luck super-hero, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always trying to right wrongs - his own and those of others.