Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Staying on track

Since I last wrote about the pernicious message of Thomas The Tank Engine, nearly three years ago, Stanley has thankfully largely grown out of the series. Nevertheless, I can still very much appreciate the value of this critique from the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino, who refers to the programme's "repressive, authoritarian soul" and, surveying the evidence, concludes quite justifiably that the Rev W Audry "disliked change, venerated order and craved the administration of punishment".

On the one hand, Tolentino notes that as a child she was too distracted by what seemed like a "beautiful daydream" to perceive the message - but, on the other, that message is so relentlessly reiterated and reinforced that it surely sinks in subconsciously.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Know Your Enemy

"The question presupposed by the title of the Maverick Toadmeister's bestselling book How To Lose Friends and Alienate People has been fairly comprehensively answered."

The pithiest comment in Stewart Lee's Guardian piece on Toby Young, which finds him on superb form. Young is variously described as a "grindingly algorithmic controversialist", "a shit Clarkson" and, for his attempts to distance himself from his socialist father, "a raging zoo monkey" who "has wasted his life spitting cold mucus at a ghost and throwing clumps of his own hot excrement at a [shadow]".

This being Stewart Lee, there's also room for a dig at Queen (and, by implication, Ben Elton) and a reference to Amanda Holden's endorsement of Alpen, "the colonic cleansing breakfast dust".

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Soothing sounds

Much music couldn't be described as conventionally "soothing", but there's no doubt that songs can have a significant impact on the moods and psyche. Pitchfork contributing editor Jayson Greene has written a powerful piece about the way that music is being used to treat trauma - whether of premature babies who cannot have contact with their mothers, or refugees in war-torn countries - by, in the words of music therapist Katie Down, helping to "create a sense of normalcy, joy, expression".

As part of the research for his piece, Greene underwent a series of music therapy sessions himself. It would probably be easy to be cynical and to scoff at the content of these sessions, were it not for the fact that Greene's extraordinary description underlines quite how profound an impact the sessions had on him.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Quote of the day

"The obvious truth can no longer be avoided or sugarcoated: we have a racist in the Oval Office."

New Yorker columnist John Cassidy reacts to Donald Trump's alleged "shithole" comment, which hasn't been denied. Cassidy's been a bit slow in reaching this conclusion - many of us would suggest that this has been the truth since the moment Trump took office.

Dividing lines

All of the pictures in photographer Lee Friedlander's new book have one thing in common: they feature a chain-link fence. Such fences indicate a desire to divide up and separate, but are also permeable or at least non-opaque, allowing us to see through to the other side. The subjects Friedlander has shot through the fences range from a crowd at the World Trade Center to a broken-down car and a pair of randy rhinos, but what's fascinating is the way that the viewer's perspective shifts: sometimes you feel as though you're looking in, and sometimes you feel as though you're looking out.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Stimulating stageshows

A list of "ten gigs that launched a thousand bands" that doesn't feature the Sex Pistols' show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in June 1976? Only because that particular gig is the whole inspiration for the list.

Fraser McAlpine's selection is potentially contentious, but it's good to see the inclusion of Black Flag's 1981 gig at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, as well as Bikini Kill's 1991 show with Bratmobile in Olympia, which effectively gave birth to riot grrrl. The Stone Roses' Spike Island gig gets the nod over Oasis' Knebworth shows - rightly so (much as I despise the Roses), for what it represented and what it inspired.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to read about the New York Dolls' Mercer Arts Center residency in 1972, which seems to have energised the US punk scene in the same way that the Sex Pistols' Lesser Free Trade Hall gig did for the UK.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The end of the Line

The last I heard of The Icarus Line, it was 2015 and they had put out All Things Under Heaven - an attempt to repeat the trick of 2013's savage LP Slave Vows that was always doomed to failure. If Slave Vows appeared to herald a rebirth after a couple of so-so albums (Black Lives At The Golden Coast and Wildlife), and harked back to the in-the-red intensity of their magnum opus, 2004's Penance Soiree, then All Things Under Heaven saw Joe Cardamone's bunch of LA outlaws sadly stall again.

It turns out that singer Cardamone dissolved the band at the end of 2015, after a disillusioning tour in support of former Stone Temple Pilots man Scott Weiland that was overshadowed by the absence of guitarist and founding member Alvin DeGuzman through cancer. DeGuzman died in October, with Cardamone - whose lyrics are often bitter, vicious, sleazy and cynical - moved to write a heartfelt tribute to his friend.

After splitting up The Icarus Line, Cardamone decided to go it alone, and spent much of 2016 working on tracks for a project he's called Holy War. 'New Cross' appeared last year, and is quite something: its in-your-face, aggressive nature is familiar, but the embrace of electronics, the butchering of pop and the use of rap (yes, really) is entirely new, like EMA on PCP. I'm not necessarily sure I actually like it - but it certainly forces you into a reaction of some kind.

Cardamone spent the autumn touring with Mark Lanegan, which must have made for an interesting bill: as an elder statesman of alt-rock, the gravel-throated ex-Screaming Trees man has a much less confrontational approach, and while he too has shown signs of becoming increasingly comfortable with electronics, the results showcased on Gargoyle are infinitely more mild mannered than 'New Cross'.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Quote of the day

"I am a passionate supporter of inclusion and helping the most disadvantaged, as I hope my track record of setting up and supporting new schools demonstrates. But some of the things I said before I got involved in education, when I was a journalistic provocateur, were either ill-judged or just plain wrong - and I unreservedly apologise."

Toby Young, who has bowed to pressure and resigned from his position on the board of the Office for Students (hurrah!), finds a new grandiloquent euphemism for "wanker".

Speak no evil

Andre Spicer's recent book Business Bullshit - published by my former employers - is a deep dive (sorry, Andre) into the world of meaningless management-speak and empty buzzwords, and his article on the subject for the Guardian serves as a concise appetiser. In it, he traces the historical evolution of such language in conjunction with the rise of the corporate manager and the various management trends that have taken hold. As his chronology reveals, modern-day management-speak has its roots in the hippie language of self-realisation and spiritual growth, which has been perverted for corporate and political ends.

Searching for the reason why business bullshit has taken over, Spicer mentions two of the most "familiar and credible explanations": that it allows its users to radiate an air of expertise and that it enables them to be deliberately vague. However, he goes further and connects the phenomenon to David Graeber's observations about "bullshit jobs", claiming that - contrary to the opinions of even those who do them - such jobs are indeed productive, if only of more bullshit. Both bureaucracy and the continual pressure for change (whether necessary or not) are to blame, Spicer concludes - both preventing people from doing their actual work.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the never-ending pursuit, development and implementation of efficiencies actually causes the whole system to be chronically inefficient. Spicer argues that, far from being something simply to scoff at, business bullshit is in fact worryingly symptomatic of this problem and thus should be dissected, challenged and binned at every opportunity.

(Thanks to Terry for the link.)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Punk portraits

CBGBs is often mythologised in histories of punk, but Julia Gorton's Polaroid pictures of the musicians who helped to make the club famous - which she's gradually publishing on Instagram - take you right there, to the heart of things in late 70s New York.

(Thanks to Dave for the link.)

Saturday, January 06, 2018


Nirvana may refer to the final transcendent state to be attained in Buddhism, when the individual is free from suffering and death, but the band of the same name are (rightly or wrongly) synonymous with angst and anger. However, Nirvana's first (and possibly only) fan newsletter - written in October 1991, shortly after the release of Nevermind - shows a very different side to Kurt Cobain and company, jovial in tone and full of goofy jokes and fabrications (about former drummer Chad Channing, Sub Pop "head honcho" Jonathan Poneman and others).

As Dangerous Minds' Martin Schneider notes, to read the letter "is to enter a pre-internet realm in which access to an Apple IIe and a copy shop provided the chance for countless struggling musicians to forge connections with their peers and fans". The letter is also a fascinating snapshot of a band on the cusp of enormous success, still having a blast and excited about reaching out to their audience - rather than the sardonic, jaded cynics they were (arguably) soon to become.

On a related note, Open Culture have taken Kurt Cobain's 50 favourite albums, as listed in his journals, and created a 38-hour playlist so you can really immerse yourself in the albums that shaped the band's sound.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Decline and fall

The festive period proved to be kind to Newcastle Utd, but prior to the win at West Ham we were on a dismal run of form. It was against that backdrop that I read Martin Hardy's Tunnel Of Love, my review of which is now up on The Two Unfortunates. The book, which chronicles the club's declining fortunes from the summer of 1996 to relegation in 2009, isn't as good as its predecessor Touching Distance, probably inevitably, but is still well worth picking up if you're a fan of either Newcastle or (in)glorious tragicomedy.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Causes for concern

Today's music festivals have their roots in the hippie gatherings of the 60s: liberal, countercultural oases synonymous (at least in the popular imagination) with peace, love and understanding. So it's particularly depressing to discover that the man behind Coachella, AEG's Philip Anschutz, has a record of donating money to right-wing causes including anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion organisations.

In truth, the story originally broke this time last year, but it passed me. Anschutz dismissed it as "fake news", presumably fully aware that echoing Trump would be red rag to a bull as regards his critics on the left and within the music community. Twelve months on and the story has resurfaced - time will tell as to whether he'll issue a similar dismissal, but in the meantime it's likely to give some of those on the 2018 bill pause for thought, not least St Vincent and Perfume Genius. Perhaps they'll follow the lead of Show Me The Body, the punk band who last year reacted to the news by vowing to play the festival but donate their "blood money" to precisely the sort of causes that Anschutz opposes.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Nothing to be ashamed of?

As its author Sam Richards suggests, if this BBC article about songs that subsequently cause their creators acute embarrassment had been pulled together only a few years ago, you could have guaranteed the featured Radiohead track would be 'Creep'. But, against all the odds, they've recently chosen to embrace their past and start playing it live. Instead, Richards picks 'Pop Is Dead' - a standalone single, thankfully, in that it doesn't spoil any of their albums.

Also (inevitably) mentioned in the article are David Bowie's 'The Laughing Gnome' and Beastie Boys' 'Fight For Your Right To Party', though Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is a notable exclusion. There's a Stone Roses song too - though, personally speaking, I would have felt embarrassed to be associated with anything they did...

Los Campesinos!, not mentioned by Richards, are a band who have disowned much of their earlier material, including 'International Tweexcore Underground' and 'You! Me! Dancing!'. The latter was their 'Creep', an unexpected hit that propelled them to popularity (albeit not quite the same level) and ultimately proved a meal ticket when they sold it to Budweiser. For me, it's disappointing that they were so soon heartily sick of a song I loved (and continue to love), but I guess that's the artist's prerogative. It'll be interesting to see if they ever do a Radiohead and come back round to playing it - though I suspect that's unlikely, not least because only three of the seven original members remain.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

"What I see is the failure of society"

Poverty is rife in the UK, but it's even more so across the Atlantic - an embarrassing state of affairs for the country that is supposedly the most developed and wealthiest in the world. You would hope that the observations of Philip Alston - the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights - would be enough to shame Trump and his cronies. To date, though, they've proven themselves to be utterly shameless and sadly it's hard to see that changing. All that can be hoped for, perhaps, is that Doug Jones' victory over Roy Moore in Alabama is an indication that Trump's days as president are numbered.

Monday, January 01, 2018

The dark Nite rises

It being the first day of January, time to look forwards rather than back. Buzz writers have already picked their Welsh musical tips for 2018, and while the likes of Adwaith and Boy Azooga were among those named, Niterooms weren't. On the strength of their new EP, as well as previous single 'Wash' and a glowing endorsement from Adam Walton, they perhaps should have been. Below is my Buzz review of the EP, as featured in the December/January issue.

* * * * *

Niterooms are aptly named: their hazy songs swim in and out of focus, the beats often muffled and only distantly audible, as though heard from the darkened recesses of a comedown cave in the bowels of a club. Abstract, texturally adventurous android r'n'b that holds considerable promise.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Feel good hits of the 31st December

An end-of-year special, covering some of the things that didn't make it into the SWSL Top Ten.

1. 'I Promise' - Radiohead
Further proof, as if it were needed, that Radiohead were absolutely untouchable during the OK Computer era. How they could choose to leave a track as good as this off the album is beyond me.

2. 'Namekuji' - Part Chimp
Reviewing their April gig at Clwb, I described this track as sounding "like descending into the depths of hell in lead boots". It's a description I stand by. More songs should be written about mythological Japanese slug-beasts that invade and eat your dreams.

3. 'Mess Of Wires' - Metz
That Strange Dreams was strongly reminiscent of In Utero came as little surprise (earlier tracks like 'Eraser' had prepared the ground), but Steve Albini's fingerprints were all over it. Opening track 'Mess Of Wires' exemplified the Torontonians' modus operandi: intense noise-rock with a seizure-inducing video.

4. 'Star Roving' - Slowdive
I was a bit too young to appreciate the shoegaze legends first time around, and I wasn't as smitten as some with their comeback LP (it ended up top of the pile in the Sounding Bored end-of-year poll), but 'Star Roving' was a corker.

5. 'DNA' - Kendrick Lamar
I probably wouldn't have listened to DAMN without the strength of David's endorsement on Episode 24 of Sounding Bored, and in truth I found it lost my interest quite quickly, but second track 'DNA' - a furious and righteous statement about identity - was jaw-droppingly good.

6. 'Walk' - Philip Selway
Step aside (temporarily), Thom and Jonny. 'Walk' was the highlight of the Radiohead drummer's soundtrack for Let Me Go.

7. 'Mirror Reaper' - Bell Witch
Some songs you can get lost in, but you can always find your way out. Not so 'Mirror Reaper', the 83-minute-long behemoth that formed the entirety of drone-doom duo Bell Witch's third LP.

8. 'Darkjewel' - Gallops
Gallops supported kindred spirits Battles and 65daysofstatic and released a debut album at the tail end of 2012 before lapsing into inactivity. 2017 saw the release of the Wrexham outfit's second LP Bronze Mystic and a headlining slot at the If Not Now, When? festival in Oxford. 'Darkjewel' exists in the fertile area between experimental rock and Fuck Buttons-style noise-electronics. Cheers to Gareth for the tip-off.

9. 'Pristeen' - Julian Cope
The opening song on 1991's Peggy Suicide, 'Pristeen' was far from new in 2017 - though it was to my ears, as the superb climax to his rescheduled show at Tramshed in April.

10.  'Anymore' - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are a band whose career I've lost touch with since their 2009 self-titled debut, so it was thanks to a Spotify algorithm that threw up the cooing, fuzzy 'Anymore' after a spell of listening to The Jesus And Mary Chain. The Echo Of Pleasure wasn't exactly prominent in end-of-year lists, but I'm still inclined to give it some time.

11. 'The Castle' - The Flaming Lips
After the uncharacteristic and unrelenting bleakness of The Terror (an album I really like, incidentally), 'The Castle' signalled a return to the (relatively) accessible, technicolour Lips of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

12. 'Here We Come' - Sleater-Kinney
2015's No Cities To Love was such a good comeback that news of a new Sleater-Kinney track was bound to arouse significant interest. In truth, 'Here We Come' - released on a compilation in support of Planned Parenthood - was an offcut from the No Cities To Love sessions, but it went some way towards slaking our thirst ahead of (hopefully) a new LP.

13. '100 Percent' - Cap'n Jazz & Hop Along
Not a great cover (recorded for the AV Club's Undercover series), but any excuse to listen to the Sonic Youth classic.

14. 'The Fall Of Home' - Los Campesinos!
Sick Scenes hasn't yet grabbed me in the way that previous Los Campesinos! albums have, but that's not to say that it won't, given a bit of time.

15. 'Over Everything' - Kurt Vile & Courtney Barnett
A perfect marriage in so many ways, so I feel like I should really love this more.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Criticism: a question of give and take

Nettled by a musician's recent stinging criticism of amateur music bloggers, one such blogger, Michelle Lindsey of Highway Queens, posted a reasoned but firm defence. She argued that enthusiasm and the personal dimension are the most important things, that moaning about unprofessionalism is ridiculous, that everyone has the right to a voice and that ultimately what matters is "to share the love of music".

I found myself nodding along in agreement - but was then struck by the thought that doing so effectively makes me a hypocrite. After all, when it comes to sticking the boot into bands, I'm guilty as charged. If it's unfair to castigate and mock amateur music writers for doing something they love, then is it not also unfair to castigate and mock amateur musicians for the same reason? To accept the former proposition but reject the latter is, at very least, an uncomfortable position to hold. Lindsey doesn't deny that some writers are better than others - and perhaps we have to accept that writers of all hues should be as fair game for criticism as musicians are.

Certainly, I have no problem in subscribing to the view that the efforts of musicians are legitimate targets for negative as well as positive commentary. In that respect, I wholeheartedly agree with Luke Turner, who has argued the case for genuinely critical criticism in a recent piece for Crack, in the course of outlining why changes within the media mean that such reviews appear to be a dying breed. It's vitally important that critics shouldn't feel pressured to be dishonest and write only in positive terms that will keep PR flunkeys happy - something that sadly seems to be on the increase.

Turner's article appears to have been prompted by the reaction to his Quietus demolition of Public Service Broadcasting's Every Valley, as discussed in a previous post. Regular readers of this site will know that his characterisation (caricaturisation) of the LP as "a tacky and inept album that turns the collapse of the Welsh mining industry into a gin-in-a-jam-jar musical turn at a bunting-strewn village fete" is not one I endorse - on the contrary, I recently named it my favourite of 2017. But we can agree to disagree over the album's merits. What really rankles is Turner's declaration that "The best criticism takes the weaknesses within a piece of art and turns them against it, rather than personally attacking the artist themselves. The critic has a duty to the artist to treat them fairly, to not go in studs up with preconceptions". Absolutely right - but something that Turner himself completely ignored in savaging Every Valley. As he admitted on Twitter: "I've always disliked that band but you need a review to hang it on. Or hang them on." In demanding honesty of everyone else, Turner should remember to hold himself to the same standards.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Viewing pleasures

My first two contributions to Buzz's We've Been Watching feature were short reviews of Motherland and James & Jupp. It was largely as a celebration of Welsh places both familiar and unfamiliar that I enjoyed the latter, while the former was ultimately a bit of a disappointment in comic terms, if excruciatingly accurate in its portrayal of parenthood.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

SWSL Top 20 Live Performances Of 2017

I've done the albums list - so why not follow it up by ranking the best live performances I've see this year? 'Tis tradition, after all...

20. SWEET BABOO, Cardiff Transport Club, 7th December

19. ELVANA, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, 15th September

18. MELT-BANANA, Cardiff Globe, 4th June

17. ROYAL BLOOD, Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, 13th November

16. GINDRINKER, Cardiff Globe, 4th June

15. TWISTED ANKLE, Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach, 27th April

14. IDLES, Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach, 5th April 

13. BO NINGEN, Cardiff Tramshed, 3rd February

12. PINS, Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach, 10th April

11. AMBER ARCADES, Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach, 30th March

10. SACRED PAWS, Cardiff Undertone, 19th February
(also seen at Cardiff Transport Club, 20th September)

9. THE FALL, Cardiff Tramshed, 3rd February

8. PART CHIMP, Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach, 27th April

7. AT THE DRIVE-IN, Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, 13th November

6. NADINE SHAH, Cardiff Globe, 15th October

5. GNOD, Cardiff Moon, 8th June

4. JULIAN COPE, Cardiff Tramshed, 20th April

3. THE BESNARD LAKES, Cardiff Globe, 30th May

2. THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, Cardiff Y Plas, 3rd October

1. PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING, Cardiff Great Hall, 13th October

Bands/artists also enjoyed/endured: Baby In Vain / Bryde / Chain Of Flowers / Deep Hum / False Hope For The Savage / Farm Hand / Gauche / Grey Hairs / Infinity Forms Of Yellow Remember (x2) / Patrick Jones / Kid Carpet / Lawndale High / Lice / LIFE / Little Red / Mai Mai Mai / Mugstar / Neurotic Fiction / People And Other Diseases / Shadows Into Light / Shopping / Silent Forum / Spinning Coin / Sunshine / Tall Ships / Tender Prey / Tricot / White Manna

Monday, December 25, 2017

SWSL Albums Of 2017

I've not done one of these for a few years now, but what the hell - it's Christmas. As ever, this comes with a caveat: I'm not claiming these are the best albums of the year (I've heard only an embarrassingly small fraction of the records that have populated most of the end-of-year lists you'll find elsewhere) - they're just my personal favourites.

10. BLANCK MASS - World Eater
Club classics for the apocalypse - very 2017, in other words.
Taster: 'Please'

I'm not sure it's actually better than her self-titled album, but MASSEDUCTION's arch avant-pop has finally landed her a spot in an SWSL Top Ten.
Taster: 'New York'

8. MARK LANEGAN - Gargoyle
It turns out that old dogs can learn new tricks - and not lose their trademark growl, bark and bite in the process.
Taster: 'Beehive'

7. JANE WEAVER - Modern Kosmology
Psych pop motorik par excellence from an artist really finding her own voice.
Taster: 'Loops In The Secret Society'

6. NADINE SHAH - Holiday Destination
I can't imagine there were many more potent, politically charged expressions of indignation released in 2017 than Nadine Shah's third LP.
Taster: 'Holiday Destination'

5. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM - American Dream
That James Murphy appeared to have bowed out with This Is Happening was a source of huge disappointment; that he hasn't, and that American Dream contains songs like 'Call The Police', is cause for serious celebration.
Taster: 'Call The Police'

4. MOGWAI - Every Country's Sun
A similar story: the marvellousness of Every Country's Sun was only magnified by the fact that it followed the letdown that was Rave Tapes.
Taster: 'Crossing The Road Material'

3. AT THE DRIVE-IN - in.ter a.li.a
Not as earth-shatteringly good as Relationship Of Command. Very little is. Get over it - I did, and can now see in.ter a.li.a as the familiarly incandescent follow-up it is.
Taster: 'Governed By Contagions'

2. THURSTON MOORE - Rock 'N' Roll Consciousness
Unmistakeably the work of the former Sonic Youth man - and hence a shoo-in for inclusion in any SWSL Top Ten. There are signs that the young punk is starting to become an ageing hippie, but he wears it well.
Taster: 'Turn On'

No other record released this year affected me so profoundly as Every Valley, the third LP from a band I hadn't previously taken much notice of. Sensitive, poignant, passionate.
Taster: 'They Gave Me A Lamp'

(The top five were my contributions to the Sounding Bored end-of-year poll, as revealed and discussed in Episode 24.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

It was like we never left

Rather than watching each of the anniversary episodes of The League Of Gentlemen when they first aired, I waited so as to be able to digest them all in one go - and last night was the night. It was a decision that paid off.

The three new episodes were just as grotesque, dark, bloody, disgusting and downright hilarious as ever, with the macabre elements perhaps even turned up a notch. There were lovely touches and cross-references at every turn (a treat for nerdish fans of the previous three series) - most notably Mickey returning home from work in a fireman's outfit.

Most of the characters you would hope to see made an appearance at some point - I was particularly pleased to see Geoff Tipps and Les McQueen given plotlines, while sweary vicar Bernice made a perfect replacement for Roy Chubby Brown as the mayor of Royston Vasey. Arguably the best scene, though, was one of their occasional stand-alone monologues, in which Mark Gatiss played a bingo caller reminiscing on the job - it was bleak, touching and funny all at once.

My only complaint would be that it was all over far too soon. As the concluding dialogue between Val Denton and Benjamin hinted, though, the door remains open for further visits to Royston Vasey in the future. Here's hoping that becomes a reality.

In the meantime, however, we can at least look forward to a fourth series of Inside No. 9, which returns to BBC2 on 2nd January - ideally timed to make the grim post-festive period that bit more bearable.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Punk perfection

In the (surprising) absence of a Toppermost post about Fugazi, this piece by Travis Just for The Vinyl Factory will do just fine as an introduction to one of the most important (and best) bands of the last three decades. He picks out an excellent collection of songs from across their back catalogue, and indeed from before they were born - the list includes tracks by Minor Threat, Rites Of Spring and Happy Go Licky.

If I was ever faced with the task of choosing ten Fugazi songs to write about, my dilemma would be which tracks from In On The Kill Taker to leave out...

Friday, December 22, 2017

Special delivery

Until I read this BBC article, I'd never heard of "mail artists". I'm sure post office workers, already overworked at this time of year, are delighted by people who deliberately make their jobs more difficult just for their own amusement. That said, I did find the story of W Reginald Bray intriguing - a true British eccentric, by the sounds of it.

The article makes the concept of posting yourself sound like a jolly jape - Bray did so together with "his faithful Irish terrier, Bob". But it makes me think of 'The Gift' by The Velvet Underground, an altogether less cheery story.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Making connections

I'll always have a soft spot for the A1. Growing up within a couple of miles of it in Northumberland, it was the main route anywhere, north or south. Connecting the capitals of England and Scotland like the Great North Road before it, once upon a time it deserved a similarly grand title, but has been eclipsed by the motorways that now criss-cross the country (though not rural Northumberland).

The motorway experience is a largely dreary, soulless one of dull, broad carriageways and homogeneous, eye-wateringly expensive service stations (with a few exceptions: the M6 through Cumbria, the M62 between Leeds and Manchester, the M50 towards Ross-on-Wye, the Gloucester Services going northbound on the M5). By contrast, journeying along the A1 is far more interesting and in some ways feels like travelling back in time to an era of staging-post towns and idiosyncratic roadside cafes.

Peter Dench's photo series Britain on the Verge - itself a homage to a similar series taken by Paul Graham in 1981 - captures much of the unique identity of both the route itself and those who live and work by it.

(Thanks to Jen for the link.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Post-Christmas Shopping

All being well, I'll be part of the crew discussing Shopping's forthcoming LP The Official Body on Episode 25 of Sounding Bored, set to be recorded here in Cardiff in January. For a sneak preview of my own verdict on the London-based trio's third LP, due out early next year, here's my review for Buzz.

This month's round-up also includes others' assessments of new records from big hitters Frank Turner, U2, Van Morrison, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and some horrid old racist who used to be in The Smiths.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"A champion of loud, filthy, scuzzy, rowdy and downright strange noises"

Who better to pay tribute to the Too Pure Singles Club than some of the bands who got to enjoy a day out at Abbey Road and whose profiles subsequently benefited from a leg up over the decade of its existence? Among those singing the Club's praises in this Line Of Best Fit article are Spectres, Black Moth, Esben And The Witch and Menace Beach. Its founder Paul Riddlesworth is repeatedly lauded for his passion and enthusiasm for music (something Cassels note is alarmingly rare within the industry), so it's to be hoped that The Anchoress is right and he's soon back in the game with a new label.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Pick of the pops

Luke Haines might have thought that everything was rubbish in 2017, but we at Sounding Bored certainly didn't. Our end-of-year top ten was revealed in Episode 24, with discussion from host Rob, founding member Niall and David. Every single contributor to the podcast over the last two years voted for their top five and, not to divulge the overall top ten (you'll just have to listen), only one of my picks made it in. Over on Twitter, we're gradually running through the top 50 - personally speaking, a reminder of all the many things I've missed out on and really need to hear.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A life through a lens

It's not every day that you get your photo taken by a Magnum photographer - even if it was with what he called his "Snappy Snaps camera".

The imminent opening of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Wales, Swaps, consisting of images given to or swapped with David Hurn over the course of his distinguished career had prompted us (Buzz) to contact him about the possibility of a phone interview. "Why don't you come to the house?" came the reply. And so it was that on a glorious early autumn day we found ourselves at his cottage in Tintern, snuggled in the crook of the River Wye, being generously treated to coffee, a tour of his home and studio and a two-hour conversation that ranged over everything from how he got started to how he sees photography in the increasingly visual culture of the present day.

Hurn rehearsed for our benefit the extraordinary story of his big break: deciding on a whim to travel to Hungary to cover the 1956 Revolution and finding himself commissioned to take pictures for LIFE magazine. It was by virtue of this serendipitous series of events that he began to establish his reputation. By the 1960s, he was working on a series of dream assignments, including (probably most famously) shooting behind the scenes of A Hard Day's Night, Barbarella and a series of James Bond films. An honorary Welshman, he moved back in 1970 and has stayed ever since, the country becoming one of his most enduring subjects.

As Hurn explained in a segment of the interview captured in Jaydon Martin's short documentary film, he's not interested in post-production touching-up or tweaking, and describes a camera, regardless of the quality and cost, as essentially a box with a hole in it: what matters is the trace or image that is captured. Developing a signature style is predominantly a question of distinctive subject matter rather than technique. It's a source of immense frustration to him that everyone now has a camera in their pocket but all too often we point it at ourselves; for him, photography should be outward-looking rather than narcissistic, an engagement with the real world beyond ourselves and our own narrow purviews.

The creator of many incredible photographs himself, he regards the "most important" image as being the one taken during a colonoscopy that identified he had cancer of the colon. Not only has photography given Hurn a living, it has also saved his life.


Transcribed highlights of the interview, which appeared in Buzz

My review of the Swaps exhibition

BBC News piece on Hurn

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Comedy comebacks are for 2018, not just for Christmas

It just gets better. Contrary to initial expectations, the festive episode of Vic & Bob's Big Night Out won't be a one-off, with a full four-episode series announced for next year. It'll be on BBC Four rather than BBC Two, though - an interesting decision, given the generally higher-brow content of the former's programming and the duo's trademark silliness and scatalogical humour.

What's more, there'll be further League Of Gentlemen material to enjoy in 2018, with the news of a tour in August and September. It kicks off in Sunderland, the only place they can be pretty much guaranteed of an audience even more grotesque than their own caricatures.

And all of this on top of the new Alan Partridge series. Plenty to look forward to, then. Sod's law, though, that Donald Trump will have ensured we've all been vapourised in World War III before we get a chance to see them.

Know Your Enemy

"No records of the year from me. Or books. Or films. Nothing. I didn't enjoy a single thing. It was all rubbish."

Christmas 2017 has its very own Grinch: step forward, Luke Haines.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Capital of culture?

I must admit to rolling my eyeballs when first catching sight of this Quietus article - but, contrary to expectations/fears, it's not a patronising piece written by a London-based music journalist who's briefly stopped gazing at his own navel, looked up and realised with a degree of incredulity that there are actually vibrant music scenes in "the provinces".

On the contrary, the article - and author Daniel Dylan Wray's various interviewees - make the powerful point that it all comes down to cash: at a time when incomes are threatened but costs continue to rise, musicians, producers, labels and PR people can actually carve out an affordable existence outside the M25, something that is increasingly difficult within it. What's more, with the some of the financial stress alleviated, and therefore less of an urgent need to earn money, musicians have both more headspace for creativity and more time to explore ideas. It's perhaps for that reason that Liv Willars of One Beat PR notes, "the music I find most exciting at the moment is made by artists from outside of London".

All of the interviewees concede that the music industry is still concentrated in the capital, with some adding that that sometimes means making headway can be difficult if you're based elsewhere. But, as musician and label boss Michael Kasparis observes, "The power imbalance feels in flux, mostly because in 20 years the only people left in the capital will be the uber rich who have no interest whatsoever in putting on underground gigs".

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The boy is back in town

Tickets for Sweet Baboo's hometown show at the Transport Club on 1st December sold out before I got my arse in gear, but thankfully all was not lost. Christmas being a time for giving, he generously afforded those of us who missed out a chance to redeem ourselves by playing at the same venue again six nights later. The evening was memorable as a celebration of the former folkie's blossoming into a sonic chameleon (as evidenced by this year's LP Wild Imagination) - but also for delightfully daft support slots from Farm Hand and Kid Carpet.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sound city

More good news in Cardiff's fightback against the forces that would have it fall into silence: today it's officially declared a Music City, the first in the UK. Sound Diplomacy are going to be working with Cardiff Council and stakeholders of all kinds, from bands to planners, "to develop policies that treat music as infrastructure and deliver a healthy music ecosystem, which will create vibrant communities, build an international profile and increase the value of music in the city".

It's heartening to hear music treated so seriously, and such a difference from the doom and gloom of the early months of the year, when so many venues were closing or under threat that the scene was in danger of being snuffed out. The announcement is once again testimony to the hard work of those behind the Save Womanby Street campaign, as well as those who have picked up and championed at the level of local and national government.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Conspicuous consumption

As a fan of the humble sandwich, I thoroughly enjoyed Sam Knight's superb Long Read piece for the Guardian. The concept of putting some kind of filling between two slices of bread seems simplistic, but his article is rich with detail: on the sandwich's history; on the extraordinary rise of the pre-packaged sarnie (a trend that, incredibly, was only kicked off by M&S in 1980); on the state of the industry today (the enormous scale, the technology, the R&D, the jargon, the fierce rivalry); on how the sandwich's popularity is both a symptom of and a catalyst for modern on-the-go, cash-rich and time-poor lifestyles; on the potential impact of Brexit on an industry that relies heavily on immigrant workers; and on the future, which, if the likes of Greggs have their way, might see the sandwich conquer the "evening day part" as well as lunch and breakfast.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Northern highlights

If I'd appeared on Episode 23 of Sounding Bored, which focuses on the music of Scandinavia (specifically, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but not Iceland), I would have guaranteed one thing: more than just a cursory mention of the mighty ABBA. That said, Amy does implicitly credit them with kickstarting Sweden's extraordinary contribution to pop music, which continues to this day with the proliferation of middle-aged men like Max Martin who are the puppeteers standing behind much mainstream American pop, and there's the prospect of a whole episode dedicated to Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid in the future.

As usual, the episode finds each member of the panel talking up a different act: Rob and Amy plump for dreampop duo The Radio Dept and The Sound Of Arrows, while Brian's pick are Motorpsycho, Norwegians with an unbridled enthusiasm for music but a pathological fear of ever being pigeon-holed. Genres specifically identified with Scandinavia (indiepop, black metal) are considered, and there's a nod to the region's assortment of best-forgotten chart-botherers (Dr Alban, Whigfield, Rednex).

Discussion of The Knife leads on to some thoughts on Fever Ray's new LP Plunge - a difficult listen, by all accounts, though fascinating all the same, and lyrically filthy to boot.

As for news, Brian mentions the ongoing saga that is the Freddie Mercury movie Bohemian Rhapsody, Amy recommends pop history podcast The Hit Parade and Rob pays tribute to Johnny Hallyday, a rock 'n' roller adored in his native France but largely ignored elsewhere.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Brass Eye = solid gold

When it was announced that Brass Eye movie Oxide Ghosts would be coming to Cardiff, I was rather excited - and suspected that I wouldn't be alone. That much proved to be the case, with Snowcat Cinema ending up putting on two consecutive screenings on Tuesday just to satisfy demand for more twisted brain-wrongs from a one-off man-mental (to use Chris Morris' own words).

Needless to say, we weren't disappointed. Considerations of space (as well as a concern about spoilers) prevented me from discussing its contents at length in my Buzz review, but suffice to say that the scene in which a Morris character asks David Sullivan to define pornography is worth the entrance money alone. The Q&A with director Michael Cumming was a bit chaotic, but very illuminating nevertheless.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Not-so-fine dining

Back in June, Vice's Oobah Butler wrote about a sequence of dinner dates he had with people with a history of leaving spiteful reviews of restaurants on TripAdvisor. It turns out that there was a particular reason for his fascination with reviews on the site: he was in the middle of a secret attempt to get the shed in his garden to be ranked as the #1 restaurant in London, without actually serving a single meal. Incredibly, he succeeded - here's his tale of how it happened, and what transpired when, with mission accomplished, he finally made the fiction a reality and started serving up gourmet grub procured from, ahem, Iceland.

In a review of Michael Cumming's Brass Eye film Oxide Ghosts that I've just written for Buzz, I echo the director's view that creating hoaxes is far harder in the internet age because facts can be verified at the click of a mouse. Perhaps, though, as Butler's project illustrates, the opposite is somehow also true: social media and sites like TripAdvisor can actually fan the flames of hoaxes, rather than extinguishing them, with gullible punters falling over themselves to experience something that's talked up as exclusive, extraordinary and secret.

(Thanks to Abbie for the link.)

Friday, December 08, 2017

A sorry state

Well, here's some cheery news in the run-up to the festive period: a fifth of the UK population is now living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. As poverty levels increase and the inequality gap widens, the finger of blame is being pointed squarely at the Tories' welfare policies, in conjunction with rising prices. The situation is so severe and concerning that "the entire board of [Theresa May's] social mobility commission quit over the weekend" in frustration and protest.

Reassuring to think that we're cutting ourselves adrift from Europe to be left at the mercy of these utter fuckers, isn't it?

(Thanks to Owen for the link.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Fantasy football

Happy 25th birthday to Championship Manager - now called Football Manager, and much more than a mere computer game. A worldwide network of scouts now yields data that is so extensive that many professional football teams actually rely on it in the early stages of looking for new recruits. I must confess to only having owned Championship Manager 2 - a good thing, too, as it used to take me half an hour for a single game weekend, so anything more detailed and complex would have consumed my whole life.

For his BBC article celebrating the game's impact and longevity, Alex Bysouth simply had to speak to one of the original game's superstars, Tonton Zola Moukoko, who was at the time a hot prospect at Derby. The anticipated glittering career never materialised, and while manufacturers Sports Interactive have a meeting room named after him, it's a bit cruel for the company's director Miles Jacobson to describe players like Moukoko and Cherno Samba as "data errors".

In the second version of the game, my favourite under-the-radar signings were attacking midfielder Ivica Mornar and central defender Teddy Lucic. Neither could be considered "data errors", given they were both full internationals in real life, but when they found their way into the Premier League with Portsmouth and Leeds respectively, neither excelled in the way they did for my title-winning Newcastle sides.

It was probably a "data error" or at least a deficiency in the realism of early versions that allowed me to get away with playing an absurdly attack-minded 3-4-3 formation that saw Zinedine Zidane on the left of a three-man defence, Alessandro Del Piero in defensive midfield and a hyperprolific ex-Peterborough striker called Mike Eyre up front...

(Thanks to Sam for the link.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Know Your Enemy

"What an absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make it up as you go along, couldn't run a piss up in a brewery bunch of jokers there are running the government at the most critical time in a generation for the country."

Ed Miliband with a tremendous verbal assault on the Tories. Either the normally mild-mannered Miliband has had his Twitter hacked or he's been spending a lot of time listening to Napalm Death.

The gift of laughter

Hang on a moment, BBC2 - after revealing you're going to be treating us to both three new episodes of League Of Gentlemen and an Alan Partridge documentary this Christmas, there's MORE? Incredibly, it seems there is - in the form of a one-off Vic And Bob's Big Night Out on 29th December.

I don't know about gifts that keep on giving, but the channel is certainly in an extremely generous mood this year.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Another one bites the dust

Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has already had a somewhat turbulent history, and now director Bryan Singer has been fired for erratic behaviour including a big bust-up with star Rami Malik. The show must go on, though - and despite the recent shut-down it's supposedly still on course for release in December 2018.

Apparently Tom Hollander (of Rev, among other things), who is playing Queen's manager Jim Beach, also had a falling-out with Singer and walked out, but has since been persuaded to return - a good thing, too, as he's bound to ensure the film is at least partially watchable.

I'm no hardened Queen enthusiast, but there's a potentially great story there waiting to be told - whether it is indeed told remains to be seen.

Back to basics

I'll admit that my interest in Parquet Courts had waned since the release of Sunbathing Animal in 2014 - but Andrew Savage's comments about their forthcoming record have grabbed my attention anew: "I wanted to get back to writing raw songs. Things you can dance to and things I could harness my anger into, which is plentiful being in America right now. I didn't write any love songs; it's all rippers." Bring it on, I say.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Twisted tributes

In his recent article on "superniche" cover bands, the Guardian's Michael Hann may have overlooked my chums Elvana, about to head out on their first overseas tour, but he did mention an outfit they've previously supported, Bee-Gees-gone-metal jokers Tragedy.

I'd heard of (and loved) the concept behind Ye Nuns (an all-female Monks cover band), but was surprised to discover that they include a whole clutch of former members of bloody awful Britpop bands (Echobelly, Salad, Gay Dad) in their ranks.

A particular debt of gratitude is owed to Hann for introducing me to Jewdriver, "who perform the songs of the neo-Nazi punk band Skrewdriver, reconfigured to remove the nazism", and Electronica Wizard, who prompted me to (finally) listen to Dopethrone by their inspirations, doom metal band Electric Wizard. It's somewhat Sabbathy, shall we say...

(Thanks to Ronan for the link.)

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Good Friday (and Good Saturday and Good Sunday)

2017 isn't even over yet and already we've got a tasty line-up for a 2018 festival to look forward to. As was the case this year, Wales Goes Pop will take place over the Easter weekend (30th March to 1st April) at the Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, and will feature an impressive cast including The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Drahla, Peaness, Shonen Knife, Brix & The Extricated, Jeffrey Lewis and local hero Sweet Baboo.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

And the refinement of his decline

First day in the new job yesterday, and I have my very own office, with a view* and my full professional title on the door, and the prospect of international travel.** As I enter my fifth decade, it seems I'm finally living the dream.

Forty, then. Fuck me. All downhill from here - though in truth it has been for some time.

* Of an industrial air-conditioning unit.
** A day of training in London.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Fighting talk

You know what you're going to get with The Lovely Eggs: generally jovial daftness with the odd powerchord but nothing that'll upset the C86 janglepop kids too much. Or, at least, you knew what you were going to get with The Lovely Eggs. Relatively abrasive new single 'I Shouldn't Have Said That' and particularly its B-side, 'Melody For Meathead', suggests that they might be changing. Perhaps it's best if I get myself along to their gig at Clwb on Valentine's Day next year to find out whether they really are now more fighters than lovers.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Quote of the day

"In 2002, we owned the scene completely. If you look at the sales of NME, there's a long slow curve of downward sales from 1964. But there are two blips where they increased - '77 to '78, when NME had finally jumped on the punk bandwagon, and '02 to '05. It happened for us in a way that it didn't happen with indie in the 80s or Britpop in the 90s, and the difference was that we owned the scene. Britpop was owned as much by the tabloids as by NME - the whole Blur vs Oasis thing - whereas we owned a scene that nobody else could get inside. You suddenly had Kasabian, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Kings Of Leon, The Killers, this explosion of really fucking great music, and nobody else could really understand what was going on, because it was based in the live experience. People say to me, 'Oh you were so lucky, because you had such a great scene, great bands and stuff'. We fucking built that scene. It doesn't appear by itself.

I ran it as a very visual paper. I basically said, 'I'm not interested in putting anybody into the magazine who doesn't have good hair and good shoes'. It doesn't matter how good the music is, I can't get excited about a band that doesn't look good. When Franz Ferdinand turned up at the end of 2002, they had fucking great hair and brilliant shoes. The conversation we'd had with record industries, the signals we'd put out, record labels know if they wanted to get into NME they needed to look fucking great. Putting that filter in place suddenly got bands like Kasabian rocking up. Whether it meant anything didn't matter, because you've suddenly got something to write about.

The idea of starting work at 10am is just nuts now, but that's what we had to do because most of them had been out the night before. You'd look at the gig listings, send out emails to PRs with minutes' notice and they'd get you on the guest list. Then you'd get cabs bouncing from one gig to another, and then all pile into the Marathon Bar in Camden afterwards. It was like living in some kind of rock and roll theme park. But the office could be a really brutal environment. I brought in very brilliant journalists and editors who just crashed and burned, because you can get rejected pretty fucking quickly. Some people are allowed into the clique, some people aren't. It is incredibly intimidating to walk over to the office stereo and put something on that everybody is going to listen to. That's the fucking job. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be on the paper to begin with."

Former NME editor Conor McNicholas, talking to Vice's Alexandra Pollard about his time at the magazine. It's long but worth quoting in full, as one of the most preposterous statements I've ever read. It's almost as if he's determined to give Donald Trump a run for his money in the self-aggrandising, delusional buffoon stakes, while also incorporating some Accidental Partridgisms.

It's genuinely hard to know what's the most ridiculous bit. The hubristic claim that he and the NME "built" and "owned" the scene? The even more mind-boggling assertion that "Kasabian, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Kings Of Leon, The Killers" constitute an "explosion of really fucking great music"? The argument that establishing a "filter" - that bands had to have "good hair and good shoes" - should be considered a good thing because it resulted in "bands like Kasabian rocking up"? The suggestion that working conditions were "brutal" and that putting something on the office stereo could be "incredibly intimidating", which makes the office sound like some kind of warzone?

He's right about one thing, though: the fact that, under his editorship, the NME became "a very visual paper". In fact, it became a contentless comic for morons, one that's now distributed for free and comprised mainly of advertorials for branded sportswear. It would be far more credible and less hubristic if he were to claim to have played a significant part in the demise of music print media.

(Thanks to Luke for the link.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Merry Christmas

Gawd bless BBC2 for an apparent determination to make this Christmas particularly merry. Not only will the channel be screening the three new episodes of League Of Gentlemen during the festive period, it will also be building up to the forthcoming new Alan Partridge sitcom with a documentary called Alan Partridge: Why, Where, When, How And Whom? Back of the net.

According to the press release, the programme - which promises new material and unseen footage and features a host of comic actors who have worked with Coogan's creation - "will explore Alan's unprecedented cultural influence, his impact on the comedy landscape, and how the most entertainingly contemptible man in fictional light entertainment has become permanently embedded in the national vernacular". Recognition of his influence and impact is certainly merited, and the press release is also spot on when it ventures that Neil and Rob Gibbons "have taken the character to new heights".

All in all, a fine way to ensure that the new series is even more feverishly anticipated.

(Thanks to Matt for the link.)