Thursday, June 28, 2012
The opening song on the eponymous debut long-player from Island Twins imagines “lying in state/in the Capitol rotunda”. Rather than posthumous accolades or presidential ambition, the fuzzy garage-pop of the Queens, New York trio is much more about live-in-the-moment pleasures and concerns. The band – brother and sister Erik and Meagan Brauer, guitars and bass respectively, and Tony Del Cid on drums – play a catchy, breezy alt-rock that skirts many US peers and forerunners. Think Times New Viking shorn of all the abrasive distortion or a pop version of the surf-fuzz of Wavves but with added angst-meets-elation melodies. Guided By Voices and Pavement never feel too far away.
For the most part the music is upbeat, positive, summery even when a title embraces the morbid (‘All My Friends (Are Dead)’) or a track dawdles along at a maudlin pace (‘Summer’). This is maintained when songs become more acerbic –sneering at the surf-bum poseurs in ‘Beach Sick’ or charting relationship woes – or when Brauer’s nasally vocals become too whiny. But the album never stands still and moves breathlessly onwards with its energetic versatility: ‘Heat’ has the lofi rush and girl group yearning of Vivian Girls and the echoing, pastoral psyche swirl of ‘Fighting Coast’ could come straight from the Woodsist label.
There’s a frayed, noisy clatter to the record but it never careers off the road into the no-fi noise ditch. Instead ramshackle tendencies are kept under tight rein and for a band who have been together less than a year it sounds remarkably, well, together. Island Twins may not get statues made of them just yet but a promising start on the path to civic recognition.
Island Twins Island Twins [BUY
Monday, June 25, 2012
This is the eighth Pulco album, following on from June 2011's "Small Thoughts" (the station where I first boarded the Pulco train). Ash Cooke aka Pulco is not just prolific, he appears to be making music constantly. The twelve month interval between these two albums has seen a free EP ("Sketchbook Season"), a collaboration with Adam Leonard (the Redlip album) and numerous Soundcloud 'field recordings' (example: ‘Pool Poem’ recorded in his car whilst waiting outside the local swimming baths).
It doesn't sound as though this lo-fi Bedroom Bard of Bangor needs any stimulus or extra inspiration to make music but for “The Man Of Lists” he has opted to record each song as a collaboration. So nine musicians or bands provide the musical setting for his spoken-word reveries and reflections on these twenty-five tracks. These range from Anglo-Dutch remixers Snippet to Scottish Gameboy wrangler Unexpected Bowtie, from the North Walian alt-folk of Gwildor to the neo-Canterbury bungalow-pop of Picturebox. It sounds like a dizzyingly diverse eclectic bunch but the music they create together sounds no more varied than a regular Pulco record: samples of the mice from Bagpuss, post-modern story-telling, kid’s voices and chiptune do not constitute surprises or variety in the kaleidoscopic world of Pulco.
These short, melodic songs, part sound collage, part monologue, have so much going on within and across them it is difficult to summarise – indeed ‘Archive’ considers Pulco as a lever-arch file, “filling up with unrelated scraps of paper...shoved under the stairs and left alone with the fluff”. But “The Man Of Lists” is always engaging – a gently unfolding voyage, sometimes poetic and lyrical (the nocturnal reverie of ‘Owl-Abuse’), sometimes comic (the hymn to failure and “a tail-spin into the mediocre” of ‘Opportunities With Music’) or just plain toe-tapping fun (the paean to country life ‘Bugger The Chickens!’ or the country lope of ‘Chips In The Rain’).
In ‘Datanet’ Pulco is the man “who dreamed of the stars, pissed outside Clwb Ifor Bach”. In ‘The Downside of Things’ the repeated, defiant cry of “I am a artist, musician and poet” is turned into a stirring two-minute electro-rock anthem by Picturebox only to end with the crushingly abrupt and stark realisation “but ultimately this will be my undoing”. There are many such tragicomic moments. ‘Cover Version For The Album’ considers a self-portrait mimicking the pastoral artwork of Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day” taken outside the pig shed door but with a photoshopped gut: “fat bastard...what would Vashti say?”
One final line from an eminently quotable album: “I hope they preserve my box of bits and bobs when I’m gone” (‘Poem Over Hovering Ambience’). Don’t leave it until the demise of Mr Ash Cooke to work your way through his lists and collaborations and boony capers. Recommended for “explorers of mutant sounds”. Onward tourists!
Pulco The Man Of Lists [BUY]
Friday, June 22, 2012
Micro-festivals(sic) came in for a bashing in a recent article on The Quietus. The piece viciously laid into the urban weekender event as typified by Parklife with its controlling corporate sponsorship and get-off-yer-tits-and-who-cares-who’s-playing mindset. But if you want the true definition of micro-festival – and something light years away from “wave after wave of dubstep also-rans” – look no further than the Imploding Inevitable Festival in Fell Foot Wood near Ulverston, Cumbria. Not only an idyllic setting on the edge of Lake Windermere, an exceptionally shrewd line-up of independent musicians plus spoken word and performance.
With the third version of Imploding Inevitable happening at the end of this month, Festival Director Baz Wilkinson answered a few questions about how it came about and what to expect.
What are the origins of Imploding Inevitable as both promoter and as Festival?
The II Festival was previously known as Imploding Acoustic Inevitable and has for almost 7 years now, been putting on shows specializing in ‘psychedelic-folk’ but also poetry and literature. Its main base is The Tudor House Hotel in Wigan which is a hive of interesting and independent music, poetry and sometimes even plays and has the technical aspects and vision from the owners Russ and Francis to support our aims.
The idea sprang from there not being an outlet in Wigan at the time (2005) for ‘folksters’ doing more experimental type music. I began Imploding Inevitable and a friend, John Togher, (who played the festival as a spoken word performer in our first year and again last year in his band, John The Baptist & The Second Coming) began running Write Out Loud and a few other poetry/spoken word events, and each of our projects then developed considerably. The festival is the next stage of Imploding Inevitable and, whilst it will still be promoting music and poetry within the North West area, it is hoped that the festival can establish itself further afield.
So what is it you look for from the artists you work with? Simply fitting a broad church definition of ‘folk’?
Here at Imploding we are very much open to many different forms. We have promoted under the banner of psych-folk but have been VERY wide ranging. However, each musician, artist, band, spoken word performer, comedian/comedienne etc that we have and continue to promote are tied together by three main facets: integrity, originality and creativity.
We believe that a promoter should put the artist first and we have always done this. We are the opposite of the pay-to-play approach and, effectively, we have adopted a not-for-profit approach. Yes, it’s nice to make money from an event that can be put back in to making your ethos and approach stronger, but we feel this shouldn’t be done to the detriment of the artist and performer.
With two years' experience of the festival and the site under your belt, what have you got lined up this year?
We’ve got a very special line up that sees two New Yorkers in Jo Schornikow and Scott Rudd to an amazing array of musicians from the British Isles such as Laura J Martin, Colorama, Denis Jones, David A Jaycock, Jonnie Common, Jess Bryant and more. Not only that but we have some nice extras such as a Woodcraft stall where you can make your own cutlery to take home with you, a crochet circle, a vintage stall, the Circle Of Yew spoken word stage and other entertainment such Pico’s Puppetual Motion puppet show. Although we have a bring your own drinks and food policy there will also be both a Hogroast and vegetarian stall that makes all its food on site and is all locally sourced.
It’s basically how a festival should be with all the ethics of the sixties where you feel free, make a load of friends and it was certainly a highlight of summer for many people last year. Add to this the setting and you’ve got yourself a superb little event.
Well you would expect a Festival Director to say that about his own event wouldn’t you? But The Imploding Inevitable Festival really does seem to have all the right ingredients in the right mix to cater to the discerning micro-festival-goer. And all for the price of what you’d expect from a weekend camping in the Lakes - with day tickets available too. And no also-rans. And no sponsorship.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Moving from first a solo act to then a fully-fledged band, and with a pair of singles tucked under their collective belts, Yngve (pronounced Ing-vuh) And The Innocent have honed their sound into a finely polished, sunny Americana. The debut album from the London-Irish country-pop outfit comes as appropriately kitted out as the band in the video below – unobtrusive drums, slide guitar, lonesome harmonica, four-piece harmonies that appear out of nowhere, all complement the frontier dwellers’ waistcoats and narrow brimmed hats. But it is the keyboard that often sets the mood for individual songs. Fleet-fingered honky-tonking on ‘You'll Be Mine’, ruminative electric piano on introspective opener ‘Weight Of Your Finger’, darkly emphatic in the sombre anthem of ‘Mr King’, or jazzy regret leading into rousingly affirmative in the the six minute orchestral pomp of ‘Every Man’.
You may pick up earlier references – The Band in the politician-dissing hootenanny of ‘You've Been Released’ or the pop-leaning moments of The Jayhawks in ‘Chip On A Shoulder’ – but Yngve And The Innocent never sound too in thrall to their elders or in swoon to trendy trappings. Yngve's vocals occupy a middle-ground, pitched between age and youth, between wearied experience and eager expectation but still possess a strong sense of character.
The final three songs on this twelve track album deliberately switch to a slower, more maudlin mood but less successfully so. The four piece - Yngve Wieland on guitars, his brother Demian on drums, Andrew LaCombe on piano and organ and Charlie Webb on bass - sound more emotionally engaging in mid or high gear rather than idling in neutral at the end of lonely street. Whilst songs mention redemption, travelling and heartbreak a plenty, those who prefer whisky-soused, antique rawness may find “The Sadness Of Remembering” a tad too polite. But for the rest, this is crisp, fun, versatile country music that's not ashamed to be sporting a fresh gloss.
Yngve And The Innocent The Sadness Of Remembering [BUY]
Thursday, June 14, 2012
The early sunshine of the third and final day of No Direction Home may have been cruelly short-lived but to brighten up the lunchtime slot on the Lake Stage here was Trembling Bells. The psyche-folk quartet sounded particularly sharp and emphatic today with some aggressive and swirling guitar. I haven’t heard their latest record of duets with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy so don’t know if that collaboration accounts for that extra thump or not. But these unheard songs did not feel lacking at all for the absence of the gruff Louisville singer. And the set included a stunning unaccompanied rendition of ‘Seven Years A Teardrop’ from Lavinia Blackwell and Alex Neilson. Consider that day brightened up (and I don’t mean by the vivid green paisley full-length dress singer Lavinia was wearing).
In the Big Top next for my first encounter with the music of the harpist Serafina Steer: "I’m wearing a full-length dress with a print of The Spirit Of The Woods and this next song is an arrangement of a poem by William Butler Yeats. You couldn’t get any less rock and roll". The harp may not have been have been rock ‘n’ roll but its sound was beautiful, an elegant and dream-like setting for her curious songs of alien invasion and disco compilation CDs.
I had spent most of the previous week getting to know – and loving - the debut album from Cold Specks released last month. And boy was the live encounter just as special as that album. Initial songs were just singer Al Spx with sparse strummed guitar. But what a voice and what raw power: as she later proved she can make even the theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” sound soulful, grandiose and significant. The five-piece band – second guitar (and kick-drum), saxophone, cello and baby grand - provided restrained accompaniment as the songs grew more ornate, a swelling backdrop to the raw, gospel-infused vocals. I started day one of the festival looking for a quasi-spiritual experience and this set came closest to that. Another gold standard festival highlight for me. And now the sun was properly shining too.
I managed to squeeze in a few songs of the jangle-pop of Nat Johnson and The Figureheads before heading back to the main stage for The Wave Pictures. Can a band who you are a big fan of and have seen many times live still surprise you? Well not this time, but they did remind me how adept they at playing festival stages plus – I say it every time - how bloody good they are live. Fairly uncool in appearance, casual of manner between songs, they turned in super-charged, tight versions of songs today with only a more introspective slowie in ‘I Thought Of You’ to close. Good to hear 'Long Island' (as requested by the crowd) but the opening four-song salvo - 'Susan Rode The Cyclone', 'I Love You Like A Madman', 'My Head Gets Screwed On Tighter Every Year' and 'Eskimo Kiss' - was a bracing, career-spanning statement of intent.
More energy next from Sheffield boys The Crookes whose melodic pop-rock was played with gusto, big beaming smiles and a few none-too-serious (or were they?) rock postures. They provided plenty of debate in my party: were they going to be huge (“like The Vaccines” sic) or just remain local heroes. I think the latter. Fun but too obvious for me (hmmm that usually means ‘huge’ then).
Martin Carthy occupied a similar trad folkie slot to Martin Simpson the previous day but was accorded living legend status (“without him it is likely your record collection would be a very different place...”). Carthy’s approach to this billing was to play a leisurely meandering set with introductions and stories nearly as long as the songs themselves. Rather than playing the role of the “man who has been changing the face of folk for fifty years”, this was the softly-spoken grandparent who had earned the right to take his time. Songs included Napoleonic war marches, traditional airs and witty slapstick in an acappella, comic re-telling of “Hamlet”. Good to see the robes of living legend worn so lightly and with good humour.
I knew Father John Misty as the new vehicle for ex-Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman but not his music as either J Tillman or under his new moniker. I was also expecting a band. Not sure how much of the set or the act was Father John Misty and how it compared to J Tillman but what we got from the solo performer with just acoustic guitar and denim shirt opened to his waist was a masterclass in having your cake and eating it. Playing the 70s singer-songwriter lothario (and looking not unlike a young Kris Kristofferson) his songs were simultaneously celebrating and mocking his role as a ladies’ man and performer. He made fun of himself, his looks, the lack of stage show but also boasted of “the greatest entertainment you will see all afternoon” and came close to delivering it. One song lambasted the environmental waste of producing a piece of vinyl (“and then there’s the shrink-wrap, and the gloss cover”) before acknowledging it is the only piece of him that will survive this death. Witty, thought-provoking, contradictory and compelling.
Sadly I missed the Slow Club set (there’s always Green Man Festival this August) but this sacrifice did lead me to one of the best chickpea curries I’ve ever eaten. Or that might just have been the embrace of anything hot and nutritious that wasn’t cider.
Next I took a chance on Alex Highton on the Floating Boat Society stage, noting with suspicion that Liverpool singer-songwriters could often wallow in sentimentalism. Now Highton did have one unashamedly sentimental song about his young daughter but he also had songs and stories about Cambridgeshire village life, swingers and escaped mental hospital patients. Not as dark as that sounds, they were humbly touching and sweetly engaging. Lovely stuff.
The Unthanks are adept at filling festival stages but here the four-vocalists-plus-grand-piano version were joined by “Champions of Britain” The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – 30 plus musicians in purple and gold braid uniforms. It was an impressive sight making an impressive sound too. Familiar Unthanks ground – cows, death and mining disasters - were given a richly different spin alongside some more comic moments: a “Manhattan Transfer” swing number and (predictably? Sadly?) the Brass Band’s novelty hit ‘The Floral Dance’. Many took these light-hearted moments in the right spirit. I wanted more death and Unthanks.
I only got to see Laura J Martin live for the first time this January but have been so diligent in making up on lost time it may seem as though I’m stalking her (I’m not). Such diligence is rewarded however, because as per her introduction by Howard Monk, her live show is “top drawer”. The combination of looped and layered flute and mandolin with her sweetly demure yet feisty vocals is as exotically intoxicating as the diverse locations and characters of her songs. Tonight with the sun setting by the lake a magical highlight was an intense version of ‘Salamander’ but also in the eight song set were two new songs ‘At The Close Of Day’ and to finish ‘Red Flag’ - one from a forthcoming EP, the other from a new album “probably out next year”. Not everyone is as impatient as me for those releases: after the applause died down, Laura J Martin was surrounded by a horde jostling to buy this year’s highly recommended album.
I saw Richard Hawley on the 2007 “Lady’s Bridge” tour and had given his latest album exactly 1.5 listens before his closing headline slot. So an acquaintance rather than a friend, and one I haven’t caught up with on their recent news. Hawley’s news was that following a trip to Barcelona (details were omitted) he had broken his leg. So arriving and leaving the stage by wheelchair he performed seated with four-piece band. A good mix of the older, lushly romantic numbers with the more psychedelic heaviness of the new album worked for me. Plus his sweary sentimentalism about the support he’s received from fans, family and wife (“I’m a soft fucker”) felt touchingly appropriate for closing a festival. A day of sentimentality plus a near-spiritual experience then. Or maybe in was just the sleep deprivation finally kicking in?
There were a few minor musical disappointments for me over the three days at No Direction Home but these were dwarfed by the quality and surprises elsewhere. As you would expect the festival is a mini-me version of End Of The Road – a strong focus on the music programme with a great supporting cast (and very friendly stewards and security too). There a few issues with the layout of the site – there was too much sound bleed between the two large stages and in it's first, untried year it didn’t feel as natural a fit as Larmer Tree Gardens. But these things are easily fixed. It’s good to have a festival in the North. Even better is to have one of this standard. Early bird tickets are already on sale for next year’s event (31 May – 2 June 2013).
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Day Two at No Direction Home started with relief - the tent was still standing after the night’s heavy winds. Then on to see Laish open the Lake Stage. The South Coast five piece politely threatened to be too genteel: witness one song ‘I'm Enraged’ about moving to Lewes “because it's only 12 min by car”. However this song and many others despite their folk whimsy trappings – beards, tweed jackets, clarinet and violin – were upbeat, rousing even beefy all powered by a hefty rhythm section. Laish could also tug at the heartstrings too - a genuinely poignant song about the singer’s relationship with his parents called ‘A Happy Accident’. It would not be the last of its kind today.
Over at the Electric Dustbowl stage then for New Zealand’s Tiny Ruins. Here Hollie Fullbrook on acoustic guitar was accompanied by double bass for a set of slow, affecting songs that didn’t sound as close to Laura Marling as the programme made out but those notes were right about the emotional depth.
Liz Green’s antique folk-jazz on the Lake Stage put a swing into the afternoon and was predictably as witty and entertaining as ever; finishing one song, tugging at her top she turned all Alan Bennett “ooh after that I’ve got a bit of a folk-sweat on”. Alongside her “inappropriate” songs of funeral watchers, midnight blues and death (“This is ‘The Quiet’. It was called ‘Death’. I was advised to change it. By The Powers That Be.”), it was great to hear four new songs. Now last year’s “O, Devotion” album took five years to realise – does this mean we don’t have to wait so long for a follow-up?
On the Electric Dustbowl, Seamus Fogarty was being asked to prove he was Irish. Does being amiable, garrulous, witty and musical, alongside that name, provide enough evidence? This was quite a different set from the solo one I saw last month supporting James Yorkston. Here he was supported on violin and vocals (Emma?) and as well as three songs from album “God Damn You Mountain” he went back to songs from his Chicago days, playing bars and working the building trade, plus some (I think) new songs. And did I say ‘talented’ as well? Entrancing.
Martin Simpson, despite better advice, I had already pigeon-holed as too trad for my tastes. But what an astonishing performance from the humble and softly spoken Yorkshireman. His lightning quick finger-pickin’ and mixture of British and American accents and styles was impressive enough but two songs were devastating. One ‘Never Any Good’ was a loving celebration of his father’s life, both his service in two World Wars and his impractical nature which meant he agreed to keep his son despite being in his fifties when he was conceived. Heart-breaking – and his father never go to hear it. One of his final songs was a Leon Rosselson cover ‘Palaces Of Gold’ about privilege and inequality. Raw, emotionally devastating and then politically incisive. That’ll teach me to write off folk music as “too trad”.
Folk of a more contemporary hue followed back in the Big Top with four-piece The Cornshed Sisters – one keyboard, three guitars and lots of soothing close harmonies and good humour. It could easily have tipped into saccharine but remained on the right side of this. Very pleasant mid-afternoon fare but I was never bowled over (I may still have been a bit over-awed by Martin Simpson).
“Can anyone play guitar?” Euros Childs asked the crowd from the Lake Stage at the end of his band’s first number. “Anyone? Only need to get through about thirteen songs. We’ll give you the nod for the chord changes”. Somehow Huw Evans of H Hawkline had missed joining the rest of the band – Sweet Baboo on bass and R Seillog on drums – for the opening number. Belatedly arriving on stage, the now-completed four-piece played a blinder.
Songs from yet-to-be-released album “Summer Special” plus last year’s “Ends” dominated this ‘something old, something new’ set (“Nothing borrowed – there’s no covers. And blue? We’ll save our sex set for the campfire”). It was impassioned, muscular and quirky with many humourous interjections plus a Gorky’s song too with ‘Poodle Rockin’ (“actually that one’s quite erotic”). Euros Childs is touring the UK this September – this time with The Wellgreen as his backing band but still unmissable.
Controversially I passed on seeing Woodpigeon (for what would be the sixth or seventh time) to see Ichi who I’d had never seen. Both the programme and the introduction at the Flying Boat Society promised ‘you’ve never seen anything like this’. Go on then, surprise me. The Japanese performer reached the stage by walking on stilts through the crowd with cymbals attached his knees playing a kazoo. What then followed cannot accurately be described or captured on video. The first song was played on a typewriter. Next one of those stilts turned out to be a two string instrument when plugged into an amplifier. It was inventive, playful, unpredictable mix of playground rhymes, primitive blues and outsider music played out on hand-made contraptions, steel-pans, inflatable devices and of course stilts. He deservedly received the loudest and warmest applause I’d heard all day.
I checked in for a few songs of the finely costumed, carnival pop of Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny on the Lake Stage before securing a front-row (well rail) place for David Thomas Broughton. Like Ichi, another unpredictable performer who I cannot do justice do with these poorly formed strings of words. What was misdirection, what was theatre, what was a confused man on stage looking for his watch?
Tonight’s show featured drones from Mark ‘Woodpigeon’ Hamilton and Rob St John but all eyes were centre stage on Mr Broughton whether lying down, kicking something over or throwing rock star moves with his lion’s mane hair (these always ended in an awkward pose). I recognized ‘One Day’ and ‘Perfect Louse’ amongst the songs but it was the combined effect of performance and music that made this uncomfortably bewitching piece one of the festival highlights. “Verging on mental illness” was the best summation offered to me.
Other Lives provided a lush backdrop for veggie enchiladas (but I still don’t get it) then on to Joe Gideon And The Shark in the Big Top. I was expecting something more raucous and initially couldn’t find anything in the duo’s electro-blues to latch on to – Gideon’s semi-sung monologues weren’t distinct or memorable and the pair (or rather I) didn’t lock into a groove. However the imagined (I think) tale of one of Ray Charles’s backing singers ‘Kathy Ray’ was both hypnotic and theatrical. Must give them some listening space.
To the Lake Stage for Gruff Rhys. I recently dismayed someone by telling them I had never really listened much to Super Furry Animals. And to continue that heresy, I haven’t really listened to Gruff Rhys’s solo output either. So this sixty minute set was my longest and most sustained exposure to the Welshman, here backed by Y Niwl plus vocalist and trumpet-player. I can now understand the devotion without necessarily sharing the unconditional adultation. A winning collision of Beatlesy psyche-pop with Welsh oddball melodicism in which the more wacky moments – arriving on stage in red rain mac and motorcycle helmet or interrupting a song about driving to give (fake) Sat Nav directions to Sherwood Forest – felt happily part of the charm.
Wooden Shjips off-shoot Moon Duo provided a disappointment after a string of successes. Performing in near darkness, the sound mix felt all wrong. Drum machine and some doomy keyboard chords dominated but the vocals and guitar were indecipherable and under-powered. Sanae Yamada’s seductive, slow swishing of her long hair from side to side never got boring but the rest of the package lacked volume, impact and the churning groove I was hoping for.
Andrew Bird appeared on stage to open his headlining set with blanket draped over his shoulders and wearing a woollen hat. Solo he looped first plucked violin strings, then his whistling before adding some elegant bowing of the violin. Pace yourself Mr B, I thought, you don’t want all your tricks out in the open so quickly. But this introduction served as overture with all those elements beautifully repeated through the 90 minute set. It took him four songs to warm up – fingers that is not figuratively – but although an elegant, classy performance it never did warm up consistently.
Mid-set the guitar-heavy pairing of ‘Eyeoneye’ and ‘Fitz and Dizzyspells’ were thrilling, ‘Effigy’ and ‘Distant Shore’ dedicated to Levon Helm were sweetly engaging with tender vocals and then ‘Give It Away’ and a Townes van Zandt cover performed “travellin’ style” around a single mic was a great, fun conclusion. But I wanted this from all the songs, all the time. Cerebrally celebratory rather than mind-blowing this was still a strong finish to an excellent day of music. No quasi-spiritual experiences yet but unpredictability and heartbreak amidst the rain.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Eskimos have many words for snow. And Nottinghamshire has many types of rain. Or at least it did for the first day of the inaugural No Direction Home festival on the Welbeck Estate near Sherwood Forest. I arrived to an rotating selection of heavy drizzle, steady drip, horizontal sheets and occasional but sudden downpour. But with a new festival site to explore and a 40+ band line-up ahead, a ‘bit’ of rain wasn’t going to dampen spirits.
Opening the Lake Stage, the largest of the three music stages, was Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. The five piece played a leisurely, languid Welsh Americana , starting with an acapella number then folk covers, some English language songs and this near ten minute story of going away to war “set in a Swansea village... it’s probably a roundabout now”. Great opener.
Peter Wolf Crier who followed on the same stage were a genial American duo (“if anyone wants any musicians with a habit to join them around the campfire later, we may know some”) who took electric folk-blues to a more arty and complex place. Definitely not ‘stripped-back’ it was constantly shifting through intricate twists and jagged riffs but was never off-putting. As intelligently engaging as their geniality.
Then to the second stage, a big-top circus tent clumsily named The Electric Dustbowl (The Eclectic Washing-Up Bowl rolled off the tongue just as easily), to see Boat To Row. The lead singer of the six-piece told us his last trip to Sherwood Forest had been a Dads and Lads trip with the Boy Scouts. Judging by the band’s youthful appearance, this was probably quite recently. Their pleasant rousing alt-folk may have followed a familiar template – the one given a woefully bad reputation by Mumford and Sons – but this was much more invigorating and genuine and sounded as fresh-faced and companionable as the band.
Diagrams, the new project for ex-Tuung man Sam Genders, came armed with a ten strong band – including three-piece horn section – plus two bags of balloons from the Streatham Hill Pound Shop. Their colourful, bouncy math-pop sounded good on the big stage with such a large ensemble and was then matched on the last song by the crowd filling the darkened sky with balloons. Fun and making it appear effortless.
The first trip to the Flying Boat Society stage at the lake’s edge also brought the first surprise discovery of the festival for me. I suspect the leader of Orlando Seale and the Swell may come from aristocratic stock so upright of bearing , high of cheek bone and well-spoken was he. Whatever his genetic make-up, the irrepressibly smiley Mr Seale and his multi-player orch-pop folksters provided a hugely entertaining, witty and humble performance. A great set that left everyone off-stage, as well as on, smiling despite the blustery conditions just outside the thinly covered makeshift stage.
The Lanterns On The Lake album is a joy, both graceful and epic. The songs, with alternating male and female vocals, came across well on the big stage but they never quite soared as I hoped. The band weren’t helped by a broken guitar and the delay of over-long tunings. ‘A Kingdom’ was a highlight despite the delays with some furious bowing of the electric guitar and an powerful thump to it but this was the first performance of the day were it felt like the musicians weren’t enjoying themselves as much as the crowd.
The intro from The Local’s Howard Monks (“I’ve an MA in Stage Compering”) was so long, joked Denmark-via-Iceland’s Snævar Albertsson (aka Dad Rocks!) That his eight song set was now going to be only six in length. I didn’t keep count but his performance was one of the day’s – and the festival’s – highlights. Rich, funny songs about fast food, erotic novels and nappies, played on acoustic guitar with violin and harmony vocal accompaniment. On record – the highly recommended “Mount Modern” – there are fuller arrangements but the simplicity here gave extra poignancy or humour to their gentle insights and wit.
The many and disparate homes of the members of Django Django were given a shout during their set – Leeds, Dundee, Northern Ireland. Their music on record can be even more far flung, pulling in subtle global influences to their danceable electronic art-rock. Live it loses some of these rich flavours and is reduced to – admittedly still enjoyable – dual vocal melodies and a danceable pulse. Fun for those who wanted to move their arms in the air but without knowing all the songs well lacked substance beyond that for me.
A quick dash around the stages to catch songs from Eyes and No Eyes and Peaking Lights ensued before settling back at the Lake Stage for The Dirty Three. Instrumental chamber post-rockers may seem unlikely co-headliners but the visceral power of their Australian trio’s music plus the towering stage presence of Warren Ellis deserve the slot. Their music may be dark and foreboding – heavy violin riffs, creepy and almost detuned guitar and muscular, flowing drumming – but the hilarious stories of Ellis (becoming trapped in a portaloo in Phoenix, Arizona in 45 degree heat where “I nearly met the Hand of God” was a favourite) brilliantly counterpoint or even introduce their elaborately titled songs. And Ellis is a blur of movement on stage incorporating side-kicks and projectile spitting into his energetic playing, only pausing to tell another anecdote.
I’ve spent the last couple of year’s missing Veronica Falls many shows in Manchester so it was good to come away to the woods and finally see them live here headlining the second stage – and with some new songs to boot. Their infectious death-fixated indie-pop with dreamy girl/boy vocals was a treat, given some extra punch from fiercely loud drums; my only quibble was those vocals felt a bit low in the mix.
I maintain high expectations of The Low Anthem having had near-religious experiences watching them on both festival stage at dusk and in a Salford church. And there are other lesser performances that were still excellent. Not sure tonight if it was the familiarity with their set or the sogginess of the evening, but the performance from the touring five-piece felt a bit lacklustre. I wanted more heart-break (‘To Ohio’ and ‘Ticket Taker’ just didn’t create the hairs-on-neck moment they should have) and more spontaneity and engagement.
The last three or four times I’ve seen them, for ‘This Goddam House’, Ben Knox Miller invites the crowd to join him in creating a communal eerie, crackling feedback coda to the song using mobile phones. Here he performed this alone on stage. It felt indicative of the set – not seizing those moments to absorb and enthral the crowd. Excellent musicians and worthy headliners delivering a very good performance but after 11 hours straight standing up in muddy fields, my expectation wanted more. Maybe the next two days would bring a quasi-spiritual moment? And I don’t just mean another Hot Spicy Cider from the Somerset Cider Bus.
Friday, June 08, 2012
“Second verse / it’s always worse” claims the song ‘Pages’ on this the debut long-player from Easter. As Thomas Long describes in last month’s Q&A, the current line-up for his band is Easter Mark II. But those words hardly apply to the group themselves. The four-piece – Long on vocals and guitar, Danny Saul on guitar, Gavin Clarke on bass and Andrew Cheetham on drums – combine and spar in a way that speaks not just of laborious stretches of rehearsal-room jamming but of an intuitive click between the players. Their debut album "Innocence Man" is only six tracks long but what an epic, rich navigation lies within those half dozen, tersely titled songs.
The first two – the slow, caustic grind of ‘Somethin’ American’ and the choppy ‘Damp Patch’ – are the more traditionally structured ‘pop’ moments, built on 90s US alt-rock foundations – think a holy trinity of Sebadoh, Slint and Sonic Youth as the floor-plan. The following four songs on the album all swing upwards of six to eight minutes, and as well as those heavy hooks and riffs, the band add longer instrumental post-rock passages. It’s never a simple formula of loud-first-half-quiet-second-half. These denouements vary in length, dynamic and intensity, no doubt informed by the extra-curricular activities of the other players including earlier solo albums of experimental noise and stints in improvisation duos.
Thomas Long’s voice is flinty stern throughout but never wearied despite some bitter emotions and experiences: the 2pm drift and smash-your-head-against-the-brick existence of ‘Damp Patch’ (where those much quoted “Crumpsall pipe-dreams” remain resolutely out of reach), the acrid scorn of ‘Never Me’ and the heart-ache and leave-takings of ‘Begin Again’. The guitars also spiral through many sounds, scales and moods –as well as angular riffs and chug they move from caterwaul and pained screech in ‘Never Me’, to fog-horn mournful in ‘Holy Island’, to long, aching chimes in ‘Begin Again’, contrasting beautifully with sombre cello on the latter.
“Innocence Man” is extraordinary listen: an immense, brooding and ruggedly beautiful journey, as monumental and carefully hewn as the carvings at Mount Rushmore or the implacable Victorian brickwork of Strangeways prison. Easter is, as per the name, a re-birth for this second line-up but it’s also the sound of potential realised. And how. Long goes on to sing in ‘Pages’: “You haven’t seen the best of me yet”. What a dizzying prospect.
Easter Innocence Man [BUY]
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
When you come across a seven-piece band in which the cornet player is also the glockenspiel player (step forward the superbly named Tallah Brash) you rightly suspect you are dealing with artier and orchestrated end of the Scottish indie-rock spectrum. However Jesus H. Foxx’s slippery rhythms gently push against crude pigeon-holing as the slew of band comparisons they attract shows. Their last.fm biog cites Pavement and Deerhoof for their formative years maturing into Architecture in Helsinki and Broken Social Scene. Then there is this wonderful quotation from Drowned In Sound: “amalgamates The Modern Lovers’ apathetic composure with the rhythmic deviancy of Pavement”. None of these are quite satisfactory because of subtle contradictions of Jesus H. Foxx. There is a rich, lush sound on debut “Endless Knocking” that would never pass muster as lo-fi but also sparse, disjointed passages and minimal, repeated lyrical chants and phrases. The songs have a precise, studied poise but also a loose-limbed rhythmic freedom. The band remain controlled rather than giving into ecstatic abandon but there are frenetic moments – the final section of ‘I’m Half The Man You Were’ - where the seven players almost sound as though they are gloriously battling to outdo each other.
So ‘The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away’ opens with a sawing fiddle and syncopated claps like Andrew Bird fronted by Stuart Staples’ introspective mumble – it’s a great contrast of jaunty and croaky minimalism. ‘Permanent Defeat’ and ‘This Is Not A Rental Car’ take this a step further with a jazzy white-boy soul sway, almost quite tropical with their taut rhythms and cooing female backing vocals. ‘Elegy For The Good’ mimics Talking Heads-cover-Al Green - spiritual soul meets angular alt-folk-rock with sparring guitars and glistening trumpet over a limber bass-line and loose, rolling drums.
Then the delicate climbing rhythms of ‘I’m Half The Man You Were’ incorporates slightly countrified steel guitar and violin, and bursts of summery, almost African jit guitar. Upon first listen I thought “Felt meets Tom Tom Club” - another of those unhelpful band comparisons but it shows just how elusive and shape-shifting this song and others are. It then finishes, naturally, with the previously referenced battling guitar wig-out.
As the band expanded from four- to seven-piece, they also expanded the time taken to record “Endless Knocking”- finishing it apparently only to mix and then re-record and re-mix it again. Like this patient two-and-a-half-year process, the album can feel a bit too cautious and precious at times. I want the band to let rip and scuzz it up more often. So a controlled, poised recommendation rather than a delirious one fittingly - but there’s still plenty to admire in the catchy, easy-going sophistication of Jesus H. Foxx.
Jesus H. Foxx Endless Knocking [BUY]
Monday, June 04, 2012
I’ve been fairly obsessed with Julia Holter’s “Ekstasis” since it was released earlier this year. I can’t remember who or what tipped me off but from first listen I was hooked – and then worked backwards to her debut "Tragedy" (which was re-released in the UK in an expanded version this year by Night School Records). Both are astonishing records but subtly different. The former is more abstract and freeform with ambient passages and snatches of opera woven into its ethereal swirl. “Ekstatsis” is a more immediate listen, with more clearly defined song structures, but creating a beguiling dream-world by layering electronically processed and natural voices amongst a gentle collision of synthesised and organic sounds. The common thread is Julia Holter’s sharp-but-faraway inflections which, whether vocodered or not, ring out clear and true.
So I had high expectations of this concert mixed with a sense of intrigue about what to expect from Julia Holter live. The band set-up tonight was a trio: Julia centre on keyboards, drums to her right and cello to her left. This was the first time I’ve been to a gig where I’ve seen a flight-case lid full of effect pedals... for a cello. It was the sort of array of effects I was expecting to see deployed on Ms Holter’s voice. Instead she stood behind the keyboard stand with just a single mic, simply asking for more and more reverb on her voice between songs (“Can I have more? I like MORE”).
What was extraordinary to watch was her singing: largely motionless except for a graceful sweep of her arms over the keyboard and controlling the range of sounds through the position of jaw, tongue and shape of mouth. Sure there was plenty of reverb but it heightened her natural voice rather than masked it. The set alternated louder, punchier numbers – ‘This Is Ekstatsis’, new song ‘Gaston’ and an extraordinarily eerie ‘Try To Make Yourself a Work Of Art’ with cascading cymbal crashes and dark pulsing stabs of the cello – with the more drifting, ethereal ones, culminating is a six-and-a-half minute, lingering version of ‘Goddess Eyes’ and final song ‘In The Same Room’. Throughout there was a focused, cool precision to the playing but also a floating, magical elasticity.
Los Angeles-dwelling Julia Holter said this was her first visit to Manchester – pause – “and I like the rain”. Well on a dreary, soggy June night that was difficult to tell from February or November, it was apparent she was not put off by climate. “Ekstasis” is certainly one of the records of the year for me and tonight was an intimate and revealing re-presentation of those songs in front a quietly reverential crowd. Thanks to promoters Comfortable On A Tightrope and Faktion for making this – her only headlining date on this UK tour? – happen. Special in many ways.
The Set List:
Take Time To Make Yourself A Work Of Art
Betsy On The Roof
Boy In The Moon
Moni Mon Amie
In The Same Room
Friday, June 01, 2012
So a jubilee bank holiday weekend brings either an overdose of bunting and flag-waving for an out-dated institution or an excuse for a series of all-day gigs. Joining the returning Dot To Dot, Eurocultured and Parklife festivals in Manchester this June, there are one-offs this long weekend at Soup Kitchen (God Save The Queen daytime line-up featuring Wild Birds, The Louche, Champion Lover, Laser Dream Eyes and more), at Kraak (Jubilee Band Love-in featuring Sacred Paws, Butchers, Temple Songs, Sex Hands, Waiters and more) and Night & Day (British Wildlife Goes West featuring Wooderson, Bearfoot Beware, Cowtown, Klaus Kinski, Well Wisher, Sex Hands and more). The first cost £3, the last one £5 – bargains both.
This month also sees debut album launches for two Manchester-based bands both featured on the mixtape below: grizzled country-rock Americana from Blind Atlas and noisy alt-rock pop-hooks from Crumpsall pipe-dreamers Easter. And starting it all off tonight is the excellent three band bill at Fuel courtesy of Manchester Scenewipe: Emperor Zero, Embers and – see below – Uranium Lake. Even more of a bargain – that’s free of charge.
As ever a mixtape [63 mins / 74 MB] of bands playing Manchester this month to help inform your gig-going decision-making - link in the post below this one.
Mcr Gigs in Music Mixtape: June 2012 [63 mins / 74 MB] - download here
The See See Three More Days [2.36] (9 June The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Easter Damp Patch [6.13] (22 June Kraak BUY TICKETS)
David Thomas Broughton Ain’t Got No Sole [8.38] (7 June Kraak BUY TICKETS)
Jack ‘Lesser’ Lewis's Awkward Energy Whitey [12.18] (16 June The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Vinny Peculiar A Vision [14.55] (21 June The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Joyce The Librarian When The Wood Comes Down [18.18] (25 June The Castle BUY TICKETS)
Liars Scissor [21.55] (15 June Ruby Lounge BUY TICKETS)
Temple Songs Someone Get Her Outta Here [24.49] (29 June Roadhouse BUY TICKETS)
La Sera Please Be My Third Eye [27.12] (11 June Ruby Lounge BUY TICKETS)
Cory Branan Prettiest Waitress In Memphis [30.19] (7 June Tiger Lounge BUY TICKETS)
Wooden Wand Motel Stationery [37.26] (27 June Night & Day BUY TICKETS)
Anais Mitchell Dyin’ Day (Daytrotter Session) [40.32] (2 June Ruby Lounge BUY TICKETS)
Blind Atlas Pouring Rain [43.53] (20 June Kings Arms BUY TICKETS)
Uranium Lake Farley Granger [45.56] (1 June Fuel BUY TICKETS)
Sex Hands Rembrandts [48.45] (14 June Bay Horse BUY TICKETS)
Yeti Lane Analog Wheel [56.36] (20 June Kraak BUY TICKETS)
XXL Disco Chrome [59.27] (24 June Soup Kitchen BUY TICKETS)
Julia Holter Goddess Eyes [62.53] (3 June Anthony Burgess Foundation BUY TICKETS)
And not forgetting:
1 June The Liftmen + Sam and the Plants Band on the Wall / 1 June Emperor Zero + Embers Fuel / 2 June God Save The Queen Soup Kitchen /3 June British Wilderlife all dayer Night & Day /3 -4 June Eurocultured various venues / 4 June Dot To Dot various venues / 4 June Cursive Ruby Lounge / 4 June Fawn Spots Night & Day / 4 June Theesatisfaction / 5 June Nightingales Night & Day / 6 June R Stevie Moore Night & Day / 6 June Austra Soup Kitchen / 7 June Towns The Castle / 7 June Gabriel Minnikin + Dreaming Spires Night & Day / 8 June Narrows Soup Kitchen / 8 June Tom Williams & The Boat Deaf Institute / 9 June Future Of The Left Deaf Institute / 9 – 10 June Parklife / 10 June John Stammers + TG Elias + Jo Rose The Castle / 10 June Jim White The Lowry / 11 June Sunn O))) The Ritz / 12 June Lucy Wainwright Roche Ruby Lounge / 12 June Gnod Night & Day / 14 June Paws + Dolfinz + Waiters Bay Horse / 15 June Jess Bryant Art of Tea /15 June Citizens! Deaf Institute / 16 June Justin Townes Earle Academy / 17 June Best Coast The Ritz / 18 June The Miserable Rich Cornerhouse / 21 June Air Cav Sacred Trinity / 24 June Shels Ruby Lounge / 25 June Emily & The Woods The Castle / 26 June Warm Widow + Secretaire Night & Day / 29 June Mount Fabric + Glass Ankle + Vei Kings Arms / 29 June Milk Maid Roadhouse / 29 June Chew Lips Soup Kitchen / 29 June Zaimph St Margaret’s Church / 30 June Jesca Hoop Academy / 30 June Lydia Lunch’s Big Sexy Noise Ruby Lounge