Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The quiet life

On their ABBA-tastic 2021 single 'The Secret He Had Missed', a duet with Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming, Manic Street Preachers perpetuated the now dominant narrative about how different Tenby-born artist brother and sister Augustus and Gwen John were. As Nicky Wire told NME, the former "was bohemian, reckless, amazingly talented but some might say wasted his talent", whereas the latter "was much more about the interior world, living an almost nun-like existence in France with very little possessions".

However, others have argued that the reality was a little more complex than that, at least with respect to Gwen - with the current exhibition Gwen John: Art And Life In Paris And London at the Holburne Museum in Bath, for instance, deliberately setting out to destabilise the received wisdom: "The ideal of the artist as an eccentric recluse is successfully challenged as she is shown as a networked, engaged, radical modern woman."

It was a tweet about my visit to the exhibition in October that prompted the good folk at Seren to send me a copy of God's Little Artist, Sue Hubbard's new biography in verse, which suggests that the truth was even more complicated. It paints a picture of a reflective and often solitary artist who was also (at least in her youth) a "radical modern woman", in particular through her passionate affair with the sculptor Rodin.

Buzz review here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Songs from the drunk tank

How better to mark Shane MacGowan's passing (other than by listening to his music or sharing that deliciously brutal Twitter riposte to Laurence Fox) than by enjoying the transcript of the remarkable summit that took place in an East London boozer in 1989, when James Brown and Sean O'Hagan somehow managed to get MacGowan, Nick Cave and Mark E Smith together for an NME interview? Needless to say, the results were enormously entertaining, with the trio creating all manner of heat and friction on everything from Elvis and acid house to the political leanings of Nietzsche.

Meanwhile, thanks to Harry Sword for pointing me in the direction of this piece from 1996 or 1997 by Innes Reekie, which was spiked by Loaded's editors at the time and finally published in unexpurgated form by Louder Than War in 2010. Who would've thought that "accompanying Shane MacGowan on a four-day drink 'n' drugs binge in his native Tipperary" could have turned out to be so messy (even if it was most messy before they even made it onto the flight)? Reekie may not have got an interview out of it, but he did get to witness MacGowan perform a luminous version of 'Fairytale of New York' in a tiny pub.

For a more sober account of MacGowan's life and times, see this article by Alexis Petridis, in which he notes how the "poet-musician" wrote "with a startling empathy and tenderness" about "a kind of underclass of outcasts" - an underclass of outcasts of which he himself seemed hell-bent on being a member. Petridis offers a firm rebuttal to those who criticised the Pogues for playing fast and loose with folk traditions, hailing them for "making folk music seem vital and exciting to a post-punk audience at a moment in history when the folk scene was supposed to be in terminal decline".

Petridis notes that "there was something unknowable about Shane MacGowan, which was clearly exactly what he wanted", and his guardedness and outright hostility towards journalists was legendary. So to find out what he was really like, perhaps it's best to rely on the testimonies of musician acquaintances such as Lisa O'Neill, Lankum's Daragh Lynch and Andrew Hendy of the Mary Wallopers. "With Shane", says Lynch, "there was just an absolute lack of pretence on every single level."

Given that Lynch's Lankum are in some ways heirs to the Pogues' crown, it seems fitting that False Lankum is topping end-of-year album lists in the days after MacGowan's death.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Oh, we did like to be beside the seaside

Given all of those who have died in the last few days, it might seem perverse to be mourning the closure of a tatty holiday park in East Sussex - but Pontins Camber Sands holds special memories. It was, after all, the site of Belle And Sebastian's Bowlie Weekender in 1999 - the event that inspired ATP to start putting on festivals.

I went to the first there, in April 2000, curated by Mogwai, and have (I'm sure) rambled on about it on here numerous times: the carnage of an early Trail Of Dead set; first encounters with Sigur Ros and Shellac; standing next to John Peel as Godspeed You! Black Emperor stunned the audience into silence; Sonic Youth's legendarily polarising headline set (meriting a mention in Thurston Moore's Sonic Life); and attempting to distract Stuart Braithwaite while he was playing goalie in an inter-band five-a-side game.

Yes, the TV aerial in our chalet was broken; yes, the handrail in the bathroom came off the wall with the merest of nudges; yes, there was a procession of ants filing across the living room floor. But it felt like a different kind of festival - certainly much less physically and psychologically taxing than the summertime canvas-and-trenchfoot mudbaths that my chaletmates and I were used to.

By the time I went to another ATP weekender, for the Breeders' bash in May 2009, they'd relocated to Butlins in Minehead - but the December 2012 event curated by house band Shellac was back on the Sussex coast, the festival's spiritual home.

It was Luke Turner of the Quietus who alerted me to the news via a Twitter post. If it hadn't been for the 2004 weekender there, he's said, he and John Doran would never have become such good friends, bonding over Throbbing Gristle and copious quantities of hallucinogenics - so we've also got to thank the place for the existence of the best music and culture site around.

With all due respect

A decade after Tish Murtha died a relative unknown, it's some consolation to know that the photographer's work is finally getting the recognition it so richly deserves. Paul Sng's wonderful documentary Tish will help to accelerate that process and cement her reputation - and hopefully do more besides.

I went along to Chapter last Saturday to see the film and listen to Sng in post-screening conversation with Claire Vaughan. Here's my report for Buzz.

Friday, December 01, 2023

"In photography, thinking isn't of much use - you have to see"

Of all of the celebrity deaths yesterday - Henry Kissinger, Shane MacGowan, Alistair Darling, Dean Sullivan - that of Elliott Erwitt is likely to command the fewest column inches in print and online, at least in the UK. But the passing of this resolutely unpretentious titan of twentieth-century photography, a Magnum mainstay, should not be overshadowed.

As Jonas Cuenin notes in this piece for Blind, Erwitt was certainly a political photographer, but perhaps above all he was a keen observer of the "human comedy". The mischievous streak came out in his work; even in the early days, "[h]e would poke fun at the world, de-dramatize what would be shocking, hunt down the comical, and photograph the street as if it were a comic strip".

I first encountered Erwitt's work at an exhibition in Cardiff in 2017: an image of a bird mirroring a tap, gifted to David Hurn as part of the latter's lifelong Swaps project, which perfectly encapsulated his eye for amusing juxtaposition. Wit is so often lost or neglected in serious talk about celebrated photographers; with Erwitt, that seems impossible.

This Guardian gallery showcases some of his finest pictures, Marilyn Munroe and assorted dogs being recurrent subjects.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Motion pictures

Taking exhibitions of David Hurn's photography - first Ynyshir: 25 Mile Radius and most recently South Wales Valleys: Colour - on tour in the local area has proved to be a wonderful initiative by the Workers Gallery, enabling the images to be seen and enjoyed by many people who would otherwise have missed out.

In doing so, the Workers is following in the footsteps of London's Half Moon Gallery, which in the 1970s also hit upon the idea of laminating prints and sending them off to be viewed elsewhere. In a neat twist, that strategy has given rise to an exhibition of its own - of the posters created to advertise the different shows.

As this Guardian article illustrates, Photography On The Move - on display at Four Corners in London until the end of January - underlines that the Half Moon's curators had a keen eye, organising shows by photographers of significant contemporary stature: Martin Parr, Paul Trevor, Janine Wiedel, Nick Hedges, Daniel Meadows and more.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

No laughing matter

Typically, it's taken the death of one of their number - guitarist Kevin "Geordie" Walker - and the subsequent torrent of tributes and obituaries to convince me that Killing Joke might be worthy of serious investigation. That's only been further fuelled by this article by Quietus founder John Doran, written earlier this year and shared by its author to mark Geordie's passing.

Doran argues cogently that Killing Joke (and some of the other forefathers of goth, such as Bauhaus) have had a raw deal from sniffy critics and historians, who - for various reasons - have failed/refused to acknowledge their status as originators and innovators. He traces their influence in metal and post-punk in particular, enthusing about their capacity to evoke "the collapse of normal values and negative transcendence through the intensity of music alone".

It would be bittersweet if it took Geordie's death to kickstart the critical reassessment and rehabilitation that Doran feels Killing Joke are due.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Chamber music

Blame a malingering hangover and a busy day that took in both the photobook fair up at the Workers and the Cardiff Zine Fest at Chapter, but it was something of a struggle to haul my carcass off the sofa on Saturday night - unusually so when live music's involved. But haul my carcass off the sofa I did - and the rewards were rich, in the form of a storming headline set by bdrmm and fine support from Damefrisor.

Buzz review here.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Listening post

Despite my disappointment that Chapter weren't screening the films about The Birthday Party, Redd Kross or Pavement's Gary Young, and that scheduling meant that I couldn't make either the documentary about Earth or Free Party: A Folk History, I was determined to make it along to see at least one film at this year's Doc'n Roll Festival, given that one of its host venues is less than ten minutes' walk from my front door.

Harry Sword's mighty tome Monolithic Undertow (to be reviewed here at some point) had piqued my interest in composer and electronics pioneer Pauline Oliveros, and so Deep Listening seemed like a sensible choice. While Daniel Weintraub's documentary isn't without its flaws, I certainly didn't regret my decision, and felt like I left the auditorium with a firm grasp of her ethos and legacy. 

Buzz review here.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Fruits of the gloom

I love a review that turns me on to a new album - but arguably even better is a retrospective assessment that encourages me to revisit something old and familiar with fresh ears. Such is the case with JR Moores' recent piece on Therapy?'s Semi-Detached for the Quietus, to mark the album's long-overdue issue on vinyl in the year it turns 25.

Moores' thesis is that, overshadowed by the similarly millennial-angsty OK Computer, "Andy Cairns' state-of-the-nation prophetic genius has been criminally overlooked". Sure enough, I hadn't listened to Semi-Detached in years, but his suggestion that it's "one of the most misanthropic albums of the late 90s" rings true. There's a focus and directness that distinguishes it from the frilly-shirted cocaine blizzard of its predecessor Infernal Love. As Moores notes, 'Black Eye, Purple Sky' is about a brutal hangover the morning after the night before - but that might as well serve as a metaphorical description of Semi-Detached as a whole.

First track and lead single 'Church Of Noise' makes an instant impact, and 'Tightrope Walker' and especially 'Lonely, Cryin', Only' are prime examples of Therapy?'s remarkable ability to marry melody with metal chug (incidentally, an ability they've not lost - just listen to this year's Hard Cold Fire for proof). Even at its heaviest, lyrically and sonically, on 'Safe', Semi-Detached still pulls a corking chorus out of the bag.

Returning to the record after so many years, I was particularly taken aback by the feral, relentless, unhinged chaos of 'Tramline'. "I'm getting swallowed up in all of this / And the last thing I need is some rock star bullshit", howls Cairns, clear-sighted after the post-Troublegum excess and feeling like a man being eaten alive by the music industry - perhaps channelling the thoughts of former drummer Fyfe Ewing, who had bailed in 1996.

Even more surprising, though, was the album's slow, subdued final track 'The Boy's Asleep' - I had to check carefully that the vocals on the verse weren't supplied by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat.

Troublegum will probably always be my go-to Therapy? album, but this enjoyable refresher should serve as a prompt to pull one of their other records off the shelf once in a while.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Take two

OK, so I'd already reviewed Thurston Moore's memoir for Buzz, but when the opportunity arose to do a significantly deeper dive into Sonic Life, I was hardly going to pass it up. And here it is, my debut for Punktuation.

This seems an apt place to also link to Michael Azerrad's piece on Sonic Youth's legacy for the Yale Review. His suggestion that "[n]ot many bands were directly influenced by Sonic Youth in a musical sense - the band's sound was too idiosyncratic to copy" is weirdly wide of the mark (I hear their echo in bands all the time - Bar Italia most recently), but the article is otherwise spot on in discussing how they reshaped the rules, developed mutually enriching relationships with artists and filmmakers and gave countless other bands the "priceless benediction" of their endorsement. As Azerrad argues, they "came to embody for many musicians and music fans an aspirational ideal of creative freedom - and, by extension, freedom in general".

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

"I'm still happy to bleed"

With Husker Du's Metal Circus celebrating its 40th birthday, Louder took the opportunity to talk to the legend that is Bob Mould about everything from the madness of the Du's early tours and playfully winding up Fugazi to coping with the band's demise and how Sugar "was a rocket ship that went off fast, burned hard and crashed pretty quickly".

For someone who's recently had his head in Thurston Moore's memoir and has also wolfed down Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, Mould's comments about the inestimable importance of friendship networks and mutually reciprocated generosity to touring the US in the 1980s came as little surprise.

While I would liked to have read more about the post-Sugar period of Mould's life in the late 1990s when he actively threw himself into gay culture and dance music (interviewer Paul Brannigan rather cuts him off there), his observations about the weirdness of the post-COVID live environment are interesting, particularly on the anxiety around transmission: "I had to become like a crazy dictator about people wearing masks at shows." He has a suitably stout riposte to those who moan about the infringement of their liberties: "[W]e're afforded so much freedom in our lives, that the only way we can counterbalance this is to also accept all the responsibility that comes with that freedom." Well said.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Come dine with them

Given the persistent sniping suggestions that The Last Dinner Party are "industry plants" or "nepo babies", it seems rather cruel of the Beeb to choose to extract the quote "Being a hyped, buzzy band can be a curse" as the headline for Mark Savage's interview feature on them. It's hardly a comment likely to endear them to their critics.

The band tackle the Party pooh-poohers head-on in conversation with Savage, dismissing the rumours and claiming that they've paid their dues. Bassist Georgia Davies suggests that lockdown was helpful in enabling them to develop out of the public eye, at their own pace and on their own terms: "By the time we emerged from the chrysalis, we were fully formed." It still looks suspicious to some, though.

Whatever the truth, 'Nothing Matters' was an excellent first single and they've clearly connected with a lot of people, especially through live performances. Quite why debut album Prelude To Ecstasy isn't due for release until February when recording finished this January isn't explained, or queried by Savage. Hopefully they've got some control over things, rather than being at the mercy of label or management strategy.

Friday, November 10, 2023

"A cartographic census of an evolving nation"

I do love a wildly ambitious photographic project, and they don't come much wilder than Daniel Meadows' decision to drop £360 on a double-decker bus, kit it out as a mobile living space and darkroom and then spend more than a year driving the length and breadth of the country taking and distributing images. Many of those pictures have now been collected together in a forthcoming Bluecoat publication called Book Of The Road, and a sample can be perused here.

Meadows was just 21 at the time, newly graduated from Manchester Polytechnic, where he and Martin Parr had produced their remarkable front-room family portraits of those living on June Street in Salford. If that project had very narrow geographical parameters, the same was certainly not true of what he did next.

I'd imagine that many of those he encountered on his travels were pleased to have their portraits taken (and receive a free copy) but nevertheless rather bemused by Meadows' interest. Half a century on, his politically and ethically motivated decision to document ordinary people going about their daily lives has bequeathed us a revealing snapshot of a modernising nation emerging from the post-war years.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Weak beer

By rights, Bar Italia should be right up my street, but new album The Twits is an unsatisfying mocktail - not so much off-kilter as off-colour, off-key and just off.

Buzz review here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

"It was very different in Wales"

If you're in and around Cardiff and haven't yet been to see the Wasteland Of My Fathers exhibition at the Wales Millennium Centre, all about the Welsh punk scene, there's still time - it's been extended until Sunday 19th November by popular demand.

My Buzz preview is here, and if that's not enough to whet your appetite, Huck's Huw Baines spoke to organiser David Taylor of Cardiff Music History about the show and some of the featured bands. Taylor, it turns out, is very personally invested in it, having experienced an epiphany in basement record shop Autonomy that steered him away from metal and towards punk.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Haus music

While Richard Evans' book Listening To The Music The Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Pop 1978-1983 proved a rather frustrating read, it did lead me to conclude that I should investigate more music from the pioneering acts of the period. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark are still going strong (albeit after a hiatus from the mid-90s to the mid-00s), and new album Bauhaus Staircase is very recognisably them, evidence of both high-brow/high-concept aspirations and an unrepentant predilection for pop.

Buzz review here.

Monday, November 06, 2023

Been caught stealing the limelight

In the crowded world of music festivals, it pays to have a USP - and next year's Bearded Theory has one: an exclusive appearance from Jane's Addiction. Fingers crossed that they announce a smattering of tour dates around the festival appearance...

Even aside from the headliners, the initial line-up announcement reveals an array of riches, including Dinosaur Jr, Sleaford Mods, Jane Weaver, bdrmm and Pip Blom. Presumably the organisers' thinking is "Go early and go big".

Like Bluedot (which will hopefully overcome the challenges posed by last year's mudfest and return in 2024), Bearded Theory seems to be getting bigger and better each year. Perhaps it's about time I looked beyond Green Man and seriously considered sampling something different.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Campbell's super

Some people might turn their noses up at Taskmaster generally, or grumble that it's gone downhill since making the switch from Dave to Channel 4 - but for the out-of-touch comedy fan, it remains a reliable way to discover new faces.

This series, it was Sam Campbell who was initially met with a "Who?!" but soon got me investigating further. His stand-up show Companion comes highly recommended. There's an observational humour element to what he does, for sure, but the observations are generally made from a very odd, unique perspective, and he has some of the nervous oddball energy of Mitch Hedberg. I was struggling to breathe during the section about the judge's lunch...

Friday, November 03, 2023

Diamond geezer

Whether you agree with him or not, few music writers are as entertaining as JR Moores when he's got a bee in his proverbial bonnet about something. Recently, it's Andrew Watt's production on the new Rolling Stones record Hackney Diamonds, which has led him to concoct an inspired conspiracy theory based on old rivalries dying hard. Along the way, he refers to Mick Jagger's "concupiscent hooting", declares the consequences of the production "loudness war" as albums that were "less easy on the ear than Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs" and serves up some shoe pie for Red Hot Chili Peppers' "diminishingly returning letch funk". (Leave off Jane's Addiction's Strays, though, OK?)

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Fairytale of New York

In a recent piece on Thurston Moore for the Quietus recently, Stevie Chick noted: "The original draft of Sonic Life was, he estimates, eight times as long as the finished edition." Pity the poor editor who had to pare it down to a mere 472 pages - but I'd have happily wolfed down the full unexpurgated version.

It's extremely hard to do any kind of justice to the book in less than 350 words, but I had a crack at it for Buzz.

Needless to say, Moore's memoir and the recent release of Live In Brooklyn 2011 have sent me straight to the back catalogue of the band that I love above any other. 'Expressway To Yr Skull' is getting a spin every day - and so it should.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Cash for corpses

I usually try to avoid writing about politics and current affairs these days for the sake of my sanity and blood pressure, and I'm not about to wade into the complex intricacies of the Israel-Hamas conflict - but sometimes it's impossible not to be moved to words by fury and despair.

How else to react to Benjamin Netanyahu flatly dismissing the possibility of a ceasefire, citing the Bible in declaring that "this is a time for war" and using the religiously, racially and colonially charged language of "civilisation" and "barbarism" without any apparent appreciation of either history or the horrors that the Israel Defence Forces are currently inflicting on those trapped in Gaza? 

How else to react to the reports of those horrors emerging via various individuals, organisations and international bodies, all of whom are pleading for an urgent end to the hostilities?

How else to react to the way that Israel's relentless assault on Gaza has made dollar signs light up in the eyes of those on Wall Street? The grotesque capitalist urge to unscrupulously and ruthlessly exploit human suffering for financial gain has rarely been so nakedly exposed.

War, then: what is it good for (as Edwin Starr asked)? Simple, really - to paraphrase Megadeth, if killing is your business, then business is good.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The curious incident of the tiger in the lifeboat

Not knowing Yann Martel's Man Booker-winning novel, I went along to the Wales Millennium Centre last week to see the latest stage adaptation of Life Of Pi with few expectations - and left astonished by what I'd witnessed.

Martel's tale revolves around themes of perseverance and belief - but also the value and indeed necessity of creating fictions. The story is evidently a fantastical concoction, and it was incredible to see it brought to life and made believable.

The staging was exceptional - from the clever use of scenery (one minute conjuring a bustling Indian market and the next a huge ship at sea) to the innovative props (such as lights attached to the skeletons of umbrellas to convey the stars). Most impressive in this regard were the lighting/video projections onto the walls and stage, helping to transform the setting. Indeed, the storm that leaves the eponymous hero adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger was so effectively conjured that I started to feel seasick.

And then there were the puppets, created by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell: a shoal of fish, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan - and of course the aforementioned tiger, mistakenly given the name of its captor Richard Parker. The puppeteers' skill at conveying the animal's stealthy, lithe gait was staggering. Little wonder that they shared an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Focusing on the staging and the puppetry does a bit of a disservice to lead actor Divesh Subaskaran, who deserved enormous credit for the energy of his performance. I can't have been alone in fearing that he might stumble off the edge of the lifeboat as it rotated on stage, but somehow he managed to nimbly skip around, evading Richard Parker's attentions and delivering his lines without once coming close to twisting his ankle.

The other cast members weren't quite so impressive, with some lines garbled and lost amid the hubbub, and it's also probably fair to say that the bulk of the action took place before the interval, so the second half - mostly focused on the uneasy relationship between man and beast - was less dramatic. But as a visual spectacle and a feat of dazzling staging, Life Of Pi was a triumph.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Divine intervention

"Harrowing" probably isn't the first thing that most people look for in an album, and there's no disputing that Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter's Saved! - her first release under a new name, having retired Lingua Ignota - is by and large a challenging and deeply unnerving listen, especially on headphones late at night.  Yet it's also a remarkable record that absolutely compels your attention and haunts you long after it finishes - a revelatory religious experience of sorts.

Buzz review here.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Valleys parade

I've written about David Hurn and his work numerous times before, but I was hardly going to turn down the opportunity to do so again at the invitation of Brian Carroll of Offline. My debut contribution to the biannual photography magazine is a review of Hurn's current exhibition South Wales Valleys: Colour at the Workers Gallery, drawing on the launch event and his later interview with Michael Sheen. It was an honour to be asked, and hopefully I won't prove to be a one-cap wonder.

The review is in fine company in the issue, rubbing shoulders with interviews with Daniel Meadows and Glenn Edwards (on their projects Book Of The Road and Yucker's Year respectively), Tom Booth Woodger (the new steward of the excellent Bluecoat photobook imprint) and Pembrokeshire photographer David Wilson (whose black-and-white image of Carn Llidi and YHA St Davids hangs in our hallway). Copies are available here.

The issue's overall theme is publishing, and to mark its publication there was a photobook fair held at Ffotogallery on Saturday. Unfortunately, I couldn't be there - but I was able to attend the Pictures In Print event on Friday afternoon, hosted by the University of South Wales and organised in conjunction with Offline and Ffotogallery. On the agenda was everything from designing and producing self-published zines, accompanying text, different types of printed form and the approach of a traditional photobook publisher, RRB.

It was a stimulating few hours, and introduced me to both Ffion Denman's Hadau Mag and quarterly art, literature and philosophy magazine Nawr. The latter looks especially intriguing, and now is making the bold step from digital to print - for which I wish the team the best of luck.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Burning ambition

In some ways (mainly musical), Several Songs About Fire - the second solo LP from Parquet Courts' A Savage - is unremarkable. But he then he'll slyly pull a lyrical gem out of the bag and hook you in - whether facing up to himself on 'Hurtin' Or Healed' ("Hollow-faced stranger / Just who might you be? / In the mirror, someone's crying / With the same eyes as me"), bedazzled by another ("Silence is golden / But nothing quite roars / Like a sunset reflected / In those wild eyes of yours") or opening 'Le Grande Balloon' with the arresting line "My stinkin' lies and I were tracked down by a bear".

Buzz review here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Unhappy Campers

A music platform that's beloved by both artists and fans is a rare and splendid thing - which is why the news that half of Bandcamp's staff are being binned is a grim blow. The move comes as part of Songtradr's purchase of the business from Epic Games.

Bandcamp has been a real source of sustenance and hope for independent artists struggling to make ends meet in the streaming era, facilitating close contact with fans - so it's a proper kick in the teeth that it's fallen prey to the predatory pound-chasing techbros, like so many other sites before it.

What's more, many of the lay-offs are in editorial, which will inevitably impact the platform's ability to promote less heralded artists and labels. The quality of the features on the site has been high - in the last year and a half, I've been prompted to plug Yoni Kroll's piece on Welsh-language music and label profiles of Jagjaguwar and Wrong Speed. Quality music writing is increasingly hard to find online as well as in print - and this move will undoubtedly make a bad situation worse.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Glitter in the dark

After Housemates at the Sherman on Tuesday, Bat For Lashes at the Wales Millennium Centre on Wednesday (as part of this year's Llais festival) was - by my reckoning - a second five-star performance in two nights. Unheard of.

I'm also congratulating myself on writing a 600+-word review for Buzz without once using "ethereal" (that was the editor) or invoking the name and artistry of Kate Bush...

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Community spirit

Housemates - a play telling the untold story of Cardiff's place in revolutionising the care system for learning disabled people - underlines the value of compassion and community. It's a message that resonates at any time, but feels particularly vital this week, when we're witnessing what happens when differences are allowed to become dividing lines and misunderstanding breeds fear and hatred. This fantastic show is proof that positive change is not impossible if we recognise each other's humanity.

Buzz review here.

(Photo by Mark Douet)

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Past imperfect

Perhaps I was too consumed with fury at the torrent of abhorrent slurry emanating from the Tory party conference at the time I reviewed what is ultimately kids' entertainment - but it was hard not to reflect on the latest Horrible Histories show Barmy Britain at the Sherman and not see it as one in the eye for rabid nationalist blowhards, pricking the pomposity of those who would have us believe that Britain's past is uncomplicatedly glorious.

Buzz review here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Survival instinct

The Arts Council of Wales' recent announcement of their new five-year funding plan caused much consternation in certain quarters - National Theatre Wales losing all £1.6 million, for instance, and Chapter's slice of the pie cut by £275,000 to £400,000. Two discernible trends were a shift towards backing community/grassroots initiatives at the expense of professional organisations and a greater focus on Welsh-language enterprises.

It seems the latter development is echoing a similar policy adopted by the Books Council of Wales (BCW), if this extraordinary broadside from Gary Raymond of Wales Arts Review is anything to go by. Raymond claims that "the English-language magazine sector in Wales is dying" and blasts the BCW for "facilitating that death". Sick of pleas for understanding and support falling on deaf ears, Raymond had decided that enough is enough and declared that Wales Arts Review won't be going cap in hand to the BCW anymore.

It's a bold and principled stance, to be sure, and one that throws Wales Arts Review's future into doubt - but then it sounds as though that future was hardly secure anyway. Investment is clearly needed for survival, but hopefully the move will prove liberating and Wales Arts Review can fight on as an independent entity.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Comfort zone

Attempting to answer the question "How can we save our grassroots music venues?" in an article for Rolling Stone last month, Emma Wilkes argued that the most significant problem is their ownership - so it's good to hear that the Music Venue Trust (MVT) have not only created Music Venue Properties, a charitable community benefit society that can take on cultural ownership/stewardship of premises, but also actually made an initial acquisition: the Snug in Greater Manchester. The arrangement will help to secure the venue's future, ensuring that it - unlike so many other grassroots spaces - will no longer be at risk from the whims of a capricious/greedy landlord.

Clearly, the scheme has only been made possible by substantial financial backing, both from investors and arts funding bodies, but the MVT deserve enormous credit for driving the project forwards. In the current climate, it's easy to get despondent and defeatist - so the MVT's determination to roll up sleeves and develop practical plans like this, rather than merely generating hot air, is heartening for all concerned.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Pop art exhibition

Having just reviewed Soft Fascination, it would have been rude not to have caught Islet at Clwb Ifor Bach on what was effectively the new album's Cardiff launch night. Suffice to say they remain among Wales' finest, and it's about time the rest of the world cottoned on.

Buzz write-up here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

"I just like making sounds"

How to get the notoriously reticent/monosyllabic J Mascis to open up? Easy - just ask him to talk about his guitar heroes, as Andrew Daly did for Guitar World.

The resulting list is (perhaps inevitably) a sausagefest and features some very familiar faces including Jimi Hendrix, Tommy Iommi, Ron Asheton, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan ("underrated" as a guitar player, Mascis reckons) - but there are also some more intriguing picks, such as Paul Kossoff of Free, Bones from Discharge and Wipers' Greg Sage. Having seen Bob Mould live on a couple of occasions, I know exactly what Mascis means when he says "[h]is guitar sound is one where it just feels like the guitar is everywhere in the room".

For what it's worth, Mascis himself would occupy a prominent position on my own list, were I asked to compile one - particularly for his incredible, unique playing on Where You Been, the album that is this year celebrating its 30th birthday.

Also turning 30 this year is the Breeders' record Last Splash, and to mark the occasion they've released a version of 'Divine Hammer' featuring Mascis and duly rechristened 'Divine Mascis'. Apparently, it's been kicking around for years, after the band sent him the track expecting him to contribute some trademark chug-and-solo, only for it to be returned with the vocals swapped out for his own. He might rarely crack a smile, but clearly he's got a sense of humour...

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Interest rate

With last night's gig at Clwb fresh in the mind, it seems like an opportune moment to share my Buzz review of the new Islet album Soft Fascination. Suffice to say they remain a unique proposition.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

"Fucking madness but in a really creative way"

A welcome novelty: an article about Manchester's musical and cultural heritage that isn't focused on Joy Division, Factory and the Hacienda (though some of those do get a mention). To mark the opening of an exhibition by photographer Richard Davis, whose work I've been enjoying via the British Culture Archive account on Twitter, Daniel Dylan Wray has written about how the failed housing project Hulme Crescents became a "rent-free creative mecca for young people who shaped the future of Manchester".

A late-night club, gig venues, studio spaces, darkrooms, a growing queer community, "a performance collective using the entire estate as a pyrotechnic playground" - it was all going on, as a cast of interviewees including Davis himself and A Certain Ratio's Martin Moscrop told Wray.

Of course, there's a risk of romanticising, of viewing the period through rose-tinted glasses, and Wray does row back on his initial comment about everyone co-existing in "chaotic harmony" by acknowledging that the estate's lawlessness brought danger as well as freedom. As with the Hacienda and the rave scene in general, harder drugs and gang culture spelled the end of the party.

Overall, though, the piece is (rightly) a celebration of a time and place that evidently proved a cultural catalyst in numerous different ways. And it doesn't just dwell on the past, instead illustrating the sharp contrast to today. As DJ Luke Una is quoted as saying, "One of the reasons you get such incredible art, effervescent culture and creativity is because of a low or no rent situation. Rent is biblically expensive in Manchester and there are no areas where counterculture can be allowed to grow naturally and develop. Hulme was a haven for that."

Maybe that's too pessimistic a perspective on the city - after all, not so very long ago Islington Mill and the run-down post-industrial surrounding area seemed to be performing a similar function (and perhaps still is?). Counterculture will usually, or even always, find a way. It's absolutely true, though, that for creativity to flourish, the conditions have to be right. Gentrification and corporate development seem to be making those conditions increasingly scarce - in Manchester and elsewhere, too.

Friday, September 29, 2023

All surface, all feeling

The release of a new boxset edition of The Darkness' Permission To Land, to mark their debut album's twentieth anniversary, was all the prompt that Patrick Clarke needed to revisit a record that he loved as a nine year old (and only partly because it fulfilled the role that Guns 'N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction did for me: introducing pre-teen ears to the f-bomb).

Two decades on, he reports for the Quietus, little has changed: "I still struggle to find much to The Darkness beyond that surface-level barrage of falsetto and overdrive, and yet it's a barrage that satisfies completely. I desire nothing more and nothing less." Very true. Permission To Land is a high-camp hoot, a record that revels in the inherent ridiculousness of rock 'n' roll through parodying the likes of AC/DC and Queen, but it does so armed with a host of deceptively well-crafted (if lyrically questionable) songs. The suggestion that the album still evokes "childish joy" would no doubt make perfect sense to Running Punks founder Jimmy Watkins, who was reduced to a grinning, gibbering mess when he listened to it for the first time recently.

Clarke also makes the very valid point that The Darkness' modus operandi, which involved maximum flamboyance and giving the footballer's 110 per cent even when only performing to a handful of people in the back room of a pub, meant that they were stadium-ready when Permission To Land took off. I still recall them opening up at Glastonbury 2003, relative unknowns totally unfazed by the occasion who strode on, commanded the Pyramid Stage and by the end of the set had secured themselves a significantly larger fanbase.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Dissent and difference

That Wales had its own homegrown first-wave punk scene is not something that's widely known or acknowledged - but a new exhibition running at the Wales Millennium Centre this autumn, the marvellously-named Wasteland Of My Fathers, is aiming to change all that. Here's my preview for Buzz.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Positive thinking

The myriad challenges facing grassroots venues is, sadly, a recurrent topic around these parts - so how about, for a change, we avoid dwelling on the problems and instead focus on the potential solutions?

In an article for Rolling Stone, Emma Wilkes has proposed four: ownership of venues by those who are actually running them (which removes a lot of the precarity, and certainly seems to be working for the Moon here in Cardiff), "top-down 'research and development' investment from arenas", friends in high places (I never imagined I'd hear Jeremy Corbyn talking about Enter Shikari), and well-off musicians remembering their roots and pitching in to help.

To those, you could add rate freezes and exemptions for venues, caps on their energy bills and lobbying against punitive legislation and licensing conditions such as noise regulations.

I'll admit that when the Music Venue Trust's Mark Davyd proposed the second of Wilkes' solutions - the owners of arenas and other large-scale venues making a financial contribution to the operating costs of those further down the pipeline - back in March, I publicly welcomed the suggestion while privately remaining deeply sceptical of it ever happening. But perhaps we should allow ourselves to be more optimistic in light of the frankly astonishing news - also reported by Wilkes, this time for NME - that Live Nation have decided not only to stop taking a cut of merch sales at all of the venues they operate in the US, but also to offer financial assistance to touring artists. If a corporate behemoth like Live Nation can make a positive change of that magnitude, then there's genuine hope.

Meanwhile, there's been some good news on the local level too, with the announcement that the old Cardiff Transport Club is being converted into a new home for Sustainable Studios and will incorporate a music venue. When it comes to support for the city's music infrastructure, Cardiff Council are much maligned (including round these parts) - so it's only fair that we applaud their efforts in helping to make this happen. That said, the arrangement is only temporary - the lease will run for three years and Lynda Thorne, the Council's Cabinet Member for Housing and Communities, has referred to the development of "a longer-term plan for the site", so there remains an element of precarity.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Preservation order

Like a turd that won't flush, Restore Trust are back, trying to foist their preferred candidates - "the usual mix of libertarians, cranks and arseholes", in the words of Stewart Lee - on the National Trust Council. Among them this time around are retired Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption (a veritable man of the people, no doubt) and Andrew Gimson, who in his candidacy statement bemoans how the Trust is succumbing to "modish nonsense" while crowbarring in the fact that his great-great-uncle built the Trust-managed property Stoneywell in Leicestershire and that he's written "two volumes ... of brief lives of our monarchs since 1066 and prime ministers since 1721", as if any of that matters.

Lee points out that fundamentalist nutjob Stephen Green had Restore Trust's backing last year, and the Christian Voice leader is on the list again, fulminating about how the Trust should end "its current fixation with 'woke' causes" and stop "the waste, the cronyism and the elitism". Fine words, coming from someone formerly endorsed by a shady organisation run out of Tufton Street, a hub for right-wing politics and climate denial, for which cronyism seems to be second nature.

The National Trust doesn't get everything right - it could do more on the accessibility front, and the decolonising initiatives seem to have been pursued more enthusiastically at some properties than at others (I'm still looking at you, Kedleston Hall). But the Trust is a force for good and a national treasure in its own right - one that needs to be kept out of the clutches of these horrible Rees-Mogg-endorsed ghouls.

If you're a member, join me in voting to give Restore Trust another bloody nose.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Age concern

Teenage Fanclub's Nothing Lasts Forever is very much an album made by middle-aged men for middle-aged men. But given that I'm undeniably of that demographic these days, I probably shouldn't joke that a song named 'I Left A Light On' (actually about hoping/anticipating that a dying romance might be rekindled) sounds like it might be about the dithering forgetfulness and brainfog that comes with advancing age.

The record's a predictable suite of West Coast folk rock that they could probably knock out in their sleep, but it does have its own comforting charm. My perhaps too generous review for Buzz is here.

Incidentally, when Explosions In The Sky recently released an album called End, they took pains to reassure us that it didn't signal an imminent break-up. Teenage Fanclub don't seem to have made any such statement with regard to Nothing Lasts Forever, so perhaps they're planning on calling it a day. More likely, I'm just reading far too much into the title and lyrical themes, of course...

Friday, September 22, 2023

Love Buzz (and Dale)

By some strange quirk of coincidence (genuinely), I've been playing Melvins' Houdini a lot recently, just as it turns 30. What a magnificently weird beast it is - as this retrospective review by Pitchfork's Daniel Bromfield underlines.

Bromfield talks about it being "both definitive and transitional", and offers spot-on assessments of some of the tracks. For instance, he claims that "[t]he brilliance of 'Night Goat' lies in the way the drumbeat never gets off the ground" - and sure enough, that's what I love about it too, especially when the drums drop out and kick back in around the 3:40 mark. Dale Crover's contribution to 'Honey Bucket' is even better - that track giving way to 'Hag Me', described in the review as "so slow that it feels beatless, almost ambient ... a glacier moving under its own weight", and, as such, a callback to the proto-doom/drone metal of previous albums Bullhead and Lysol.

Bromfield's also right that 'Set Me Straight' is founded on "Crover's most straight-ahead rock beat" and as such comes across as a bit clunky, like a justifiably discarded Bleach demo, and that closer 'Spread Eagle Beagle' is a largely pointless patience-tester.

The second half of the album is generally far stranger, far less coherent and far less direct than the first. It seems as though it's the tracks on that half that Bromfield has in mind when he speculates that "had the Melvins actually spent some time with [Kurt] Cobain or a more reliable producer working this thing out, they might've made a better record". Perhaps - but they've got plenty of form for pissing about, so who's to say? Let's just revel in the fact that what they did produce - on the first half, at least - has very much stood the test of time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A rambling read

Mortality being what it is, we all ultimately end up at the same destination. For writer Geoff Nicholson, diagnosed with incurable cancer, that destination is sadly approaching - but, for this incorrigible perambulator, it's very much the journey that should be the focus of attention and interest, and indeed is in his new book Walking On Thin Air.

Buzz review here.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Banging tunes

Explosions In The Sky are one of those bands who have settled on a signature sound and by and large stuck with it - and so there's something reassuringly familiar about latest album End. While 2003's The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place remains the most perfectly realised version of their vision, I'm never likely to complain about subsequent iterations. Buzz review here.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Conspicuous consumption

It's frothy, glossy, heavily staged TV, but I nevertheless felt compelled to watch the final episode of the latest series of Channel 4's Remarkable Places To Eat, given that it sees Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers take host Fred Sirieix to taste the gastronomic delights of South Wales.

I could already vouch for the quality of Cardiff's Asador 44, having enjoyed a extremely good-value set lunch there in May, but it was interesting to get a peek into the kitchen and see the purpose-built contraption they use for their trademark fire cooking - and also be reminded of the quality of those red prawn bisque croquetas.

Meanwhile, I'm itching to sample the saltmarsh lamb served up at the Beach House in Oxwich Bay (if it's better than the saltmarsh lamb we have ourselves grilled over an open camp fire, it really will be spectacular), and, given that the Welsh rarebit at the Black Bear Inn is considered a bar snack and costs just £4, it'll be very tempting to sidestep the mains and just order four portions when (not if) we pay a visit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Keeping it (Mont)real

On an unseasonably hot September evening, Big Brave pitched up at the Moon with Jessica Moss in tow and proceeded to set amps sizzling. Safe to say that there cannot possibly have been any RAAC used in the building's construction - if there had been, it would been reduced to rubble. Buzz review here.

A quirk of fate then presented the opportunity to see the Canadian avant-metal titans and their violin-playing compatriot again a few days later - this time at the wonderful Bush Hall in London, with Dawn Ray'd and Ragana also on the bill. It wasn't one I was going to pass up - and my fourth encounter in the space of a year and a half (pictured) proved to be the best yet.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Unfairly neglected or rightly forgotten?

When it comes to making it big in music, there's no logic or justice. That's the premise of this Louder article in which Paul Brannigan profiles ten 90s bands that (he argues) were primed for or deserved far better than the modest success they enjoyed.

In some cases, Brannigan definitely has a point. The clean, chunky riffage of Kerbdog's 'Sally', for instance, suggests that they should surely have found serious fame among fans of Foo Fighters, especially of their post-The Colour And The Shape albums, and Handsome's 'Needles' is a solid slab of Helmet-lite.

But in other cases, he seems way off the mark. I'd never heard of Into Another and on the strength of 'Mutate Me' have little inclination to know more, while it's a measure of the mad feeding frenzy that ensued after Nevermind that a band as odd as Shudder To Think - outliers even on Dischord - could ever find themselves with a major label record deal.

Elsewhere, the evidence of 'Painless' makes something of a mockery of Brannigan's mouthwatering description of The God Machine as "occupying the hinterlands between Nick Cave, Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails at their bleakest and most downbeat" (I did enjoy Robin Proper-Sheppard's later band Sophia when they supported Mogwai in 2001, though). One listen to the verse of Whipping Boy's 'Twinkle' and you could guess that Fontaines DC were fans even if Brannigan hadn't spelled it out.

I loved The Future Is Medium by Compulsion, the band that spawned uber-producer Jacknife Lee, so it was good to know that 'Juvenile Scene Detective' still holds up - as it was to be reminded of another band I saw at my first festival, Reading in 1996: Girls Against Boys.

Speaking of which, the very male-dominated list - a sorry sign of the times, arguably - does at least include two female-fronted bands. Drugstore largely passed me by, but 'Fader' - sounding for all the world like a bonus track from The Jesus And Mary Chain's Stoned & Dethroned - is a charmer. Cay, by contrast, I knew, loved, saw live and indeed interviewed. Brannigan mentions the trio's dislike of the Hole comparison, but the cap does fit - though revisiting their one and only album, Nature Creates Freaks, for the first time in years does bring home how much of a quirky Kim Gordon Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star vibe they had going on, all too briefly.

Friday, September 08, 2023

"This is like a photographer's dream"

No matter how many times you approach Port Talbot, it's always a striking sight: bisected by the M4, which snakes around hills and above rooftops, with (if you're travelling west) steep-sided green valleys and prominently positioned houses on your right and the enduring architecture of heavy industry on your left - chimneys billowing smoke, and beyond that the sea.

Needless to say, this unique place is also home to some unique characters, and in his new photobook Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club, Roo Lewis has sought to capture the spirit of what makes it so special. One of his aims was to counter negative perceptions, which involved taking the time to look more closely and getting on the town's wavelength: "You really have to understand the feeling and the culture and the emotion there." The images included in this BBC article certainly suggest that he's succeeded.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Expansion and extinction

In a city that has allowed one of its most beloved venues to be reduced to a forlorn facade and then demolished without permission by developers who clearly feel that they can act with impunity, the news that another music hub has announced expansion plans bucks a depressing trend for tales of hardship and closure. Clwb is something of a cultural institution in Cardiff, and has become practically a second home for me, so it's great to see these proposals taking firmer form.

Interestingly, Clwb's chief exec Guto Brychan explicitly paid tribute to Cardiff Council for their support. I've said it before and I'll say it again: they need to do much more for venues of all shapes and sizes around the city if the label "Music City" is to mean anything.

Of course, bricks-and-mortar spaces are only a part of the live music ecosystem. The recent news that Cardiff-based promoter Orchard Live has ceased trading and entered voluntary liquidation is yet another damaging blow. How they and others managed to survive lockdown is a mystery - but it's a sign of how tough times are that their resilience has finally been broken. A more voluminous Clwb is an exciting prospect - but venues are reliant on promoters to help to fill them.

Monday, September 04, 2023

I'm a believer

It took a while to appear due to a delay over the photos and I initially managed to make the embarrassing faux pas of classifying Fontaines DC as a UK act (cheers to my esteemed editor Noel for the quick fix), but my Buzz review of last month's Protomartyr gig at Clwb is now online. Suffice to say I've gone from having a passing interest to being a paid-up convert.