Monday, November 23, 2020

The art of collaboration

The coronavirus pandemic has enforced separation and solitude on so many people, and in doing so underlined the inestimable value of interpersonal connectivity and collaboration - which makes this article by author Jen Calleja all the more timely.

Taking aim at the myth of the "unique genius" or "special maestro" who creates in splendid isolation, Calleja makes clear that no artist works "in a vacuum" - neither the Romantic poet nor the bedroom producer. On the contrary, even if they don't stand on the shoulders of giants, they nevertheless benefit in more subtle or prosaic ways from the direct or indirect influence and assistance of others - those who help to make an intellectual or material context conducive to their creativity. Such support and inspiration - "scaffolding" - should not only be given credit where it's due, argues Calleja, but actively celebrated.

I was particularly struck by the mention of her partner's pamphlet DIY As Privilege, "where he discusses how the concept and moniker of do-it-yourself culture masks the support structures that are taken for granted in the production of DIY music". Within artistic and particularly musical circles, it is true, DIY is so often seen as an uncomplicatedly good thing - evidence of laudable determination and defiance apparently against the odds. It's at least partly for this reason that, for instance, Dischord is such a revered record label - one that has developed into a vital support structure itself.

Perhaps, though, we should pay more attention to the ways in which doing it yourself is only possible thanks to privilege, always contingent on a conducive climate. And - going further - perhaps we should note (with some discomfort) how neatly DIY culture's veneration of fierce individualism and self-reliance maps onto the neoliberal ideology to which it is often claimed to be opposed.

The arts are currently under unprecedented threat, and creative people find themselves portrayed as indolent hobbyists. A crude caricature, to be sure - but, sadly, one that is in danger of becoming true as circumstances conspire to ensure that more and more avenues are closed off to those without the socioeconomic means to access them. Now, more than ever, it seems vital for artists to recognise that it isn't a level playing field, to check their privilege and be honest about "the apparatus of their creativity", and to come together in a spirit of solidarity and collaboration rather to continue to adhere to what Calleja calls "the cult of the individual".

Saturday, November 21, 2020

"We started and continue to exist on the fringe"

Happy (almost) milestone birthday to Dischord. As is clear from this Guardian article recounting its history, for the last four decades, the label has been a model for how to operate with ethics and principles in an industry in which such things are in desperately short supply - and for what can be achieved with passion, determination and sheer bloodymindedness, even if that involves holding multiple other jobs and salvaging scrap cardboard from bins to refashion into record sleeves.

It was something of a coup that the article's author Daniel Dylan Wray was able to secure contributions from the usually reluctant Ian MacKaye - but without them, the piece would be much the poorer. After all, Dischord's history is inextricably intertwined with MacKaye's musical career - the label was set up to release music by his first band Teen Idles, and subsequently put out records by Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens and most recently Coriky. Pride doesn't come easily to a famously humble musician, but he has every right to allow himself some satisfaction at Dischord's longevity and legacy: "If you strike a bell and 40 years later people can still hear the ring, then that's something."

A footnote: I didn't know Pussy Galore had a song called 'Fuck You, Ian MacKaye', apparently a critical commentary on the perceived cliqueyness and humourless puritanism of the hardcore/post-hardcore scene around Dischord. The fact that Pussy Galore's Julie Cafritz ended up forming Free Kitten with Kim Gordon in 1992 at almost exactly the same time that MacKaye contributed guitar to 'Youth Against Fascism' on Dirty makes Sonic Youth seem even more like the alt-rock bridge builders that they undoubtedly were...

Friday, November 20, 2020

"A true maverick force and an inspiration for contrarians everywhere"

As Brian Eno once said, The Velvet Underground's first record sold poorly - at least at first - but everyone who bought a copy started a band. Likewise, the Sex Pistols' gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 is widely cited as a catalyst for punk and so much of what has come since. So it's interesting to read Stephen Morris of Joy Division and New Order quoted as claiming that "Punk rock started because in every small town there was somebody who liked Hawkwind".

My knowledge of the band that gave Lemmy his leg up is pitifully limited - though less so after devouring this article by Joe Banks, which is presumably a boiled-down version (and delicious taster) of his book Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground - Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia.

Banks makes what at face value certainly seems like a compelling case that "Hawkwind were one of the most revolutionary bands to come out of Britain in the 1970s", connecting them not only to punk but also to the bad trip flipside of the flower power 1960s and the krautrock scene in Germany, and arguing that they were pioneers of both the culture of raves and free festivals and of space rock. All things considered, it's a wonder - and a source of shame - that I'm not far more familiar with them already, really.

Just watching the footage of the performance of 'Silver Machine' that was screened on Top Of The Pops in 1972 is incredible. How many tiny minds must have been blown...

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The times they were a-changin'

Thanks to Cafe Royal Books for two fantastic new additions to my photobook shelf: John Bulmer's Manchester 1970s and Chris Killip's Shipbuilding On Tyneside 1975-1976 (plus John Walmsley's Anna Scher Children's Theatre North London 1972, thrown in as a very generous bonus freebie).

In his recent contribution to the Offline Essays series, Sites Of Struggle And Photography, Paul Cabuts commented that "photographs are a great way for us to engage with our social history" - a view that should be abundantly obvious, you would hope, but one that is certainly borne out by Bulmer and Killip's books.

As Raymond Depardon did in Glasgow a few years later, Bulmer captured "a city that has disappeared": women in housecoats and slippers sweeping rubbish into the gutter, the organised chaos of overstocked Open All Hours-style local shops staffed by stern-faced men with moustaches, kids playing on boarded-up streets, semi-demolished industrial buildings (back when they were simply swept away rather than converted into upmarket apartments). As in Depardon's pictures, there are occasional flashes of colour amid the gloom, but these are muted, and the key image starkly juxtaposes an advertiser's idealised vision with the grim reality. Not especially subtle, but enormously effective.

As the self-confessed (if inadvertent) "photographer of the English de-Industrial Revolution", Killip, meanwhile, documented not a city that has disappeared but an industry in the process of disappearing - and, crucially, the devastating impact of that disappearance on the local community and landscape. For this reason, the images of the ships under construction (staggering though the scale of those vessels is) are not the most striking thing about the book; on the contrary, it's the way that it's bookended by pictures of the same street less than two years apart - snow-covered and almost chocolate-boxy in the first, abandoned and derelict in the second. "Prepare for revolution" reads the graffiti on the wall - nothing, unfortunately, could prepare Wallsend and South Shields for the loss of their lifeblood.

Monday, November 16, 2020

You should have been nice to me

Of all of the awful things to unfold this year, Morrissey being dropped by his record label doesn't rank particularly highly. In fact, it doesn't even rank at all. For Moz, though, the development is "perfectly in keeping with the relentless galvanic horror of 2020". Not one for overstatement or overreaction, is he?

His latest album, released in March, was titled I Am Not A Dog On A Chain. Well, he's certainly no longer on a chain, so he should be happy. Whatever happened to "I'm OK by myself"?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

When a child is born

As part of The Future Is Female in 2017, Islet member and festival curator Emma Daman Thomas organised a panel entitled More Baby In My Monitor Please, which saw her joined by Gwenno and Lisa Jen Brown of 9Bach. The result was an engaging, thought-provoking and often eye-opening discussion of motherhood from a musician's perspective.

Three years on, and the topic remains something of a taboo. Credit, then, to Jude Rogers for her recent piece for the Quietus, for which she spoke to music-making mums Gazelle Twin and Saint Saviour (or Elizabeth Bernholz and Becky Jones, as they're known to their own mothers). Like the festival panellists, Bernholz and Jones talked frankly about the enormous impact that having a child has had on their lives, their mental health, their creative processes and their music.

What was perhaps most striking was Bernholz's admission: "In my naivety, I thought I'd start to make really nice, gentle soft music after having a kid. Actually, I became noisier, and more aggressive and more mad. ... It was a shock to me how much rage motherhood ignited in me." Interestingly, Jones experienced the exact same thing, attributing it to "the resentment that my freedom as a person had been taken away". For Bernholz, "it was something about control. You're suddenly faced with this new person and you have no control over what happens to them and how they behave." Both sentiments are, I would imagine, familiar to many if not most parents, musicians or otherwise.

I use the word "parents" deliberately. As Gwenno, Daman Thomas and Brown pointed out, how often are male musicians subjected to the same lines of questioning? It was refreshing to read Peter and David Brewis of Field Music talking about not only the songs that fatherhood had inspired but also the significant challenges that it posed, precisely because it's so rare. If these issues are only ever raised with female musicians, then there's a risk of perpetuating the damaging notion that parenting is primarily a woman's responsibility. Here's to more men being quizzed about how childcare impinges on their creativity and put on the spot about whether they feel guilty or judged for jetting off on tour and leaving their little ones behind.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"The dark side of our urban revival"

How does it feel to be seen as the guru of gentrification, which was (and indeed often still is) hailed as the salvation of ailing urban centres, but is increasingly viewed as a malignant force that actually exacerbates inequalities? That, essentially, was the question that Oliver Wainwright put to Richard Florida in a somewhat combative interview for the Guardian.

Florida's blueprint, as outlined in The Rise Of The Creative Class, promised much, not least because it valued creative types as change-makers and economic drivers rather than dismissing them as infantile hobbyists who should give up their pipe dreams and retrain to get a proper job. As Wainwright notes, however, ultimately gentrification has "proven to benefit the already rich, mostly white middle class; fuel rampant property speculation; displace the bohemians he so fetishised; and see the problems that once plagued the inner cities simply move out to the suburbs."

Florida bluntly insists "I'm not sorry. I will not apologise. I do not regret anything", but judging by his other comments - and his new book The New Urban Crisis - he does. What got lost along the way - and what continues to elude many excitable councils and planners - was the fact that gentrification could be fundamentally exclusionary. I love a good farmers' market or artisanal coffee shop as much as the next white, middle-class man, but clearly they're not for everyone.

To his credit, Florida admits, "I realised that we need to develop a new narrative, which isn't just about creative and innovative growth and clusters, but about inclusion being a part of prosperity." A laudable ambition, to be sure, but - Wainwright implies - one that The New Urban Crisis doesn't flesh out in any detail. It's a challenge that cities the world over urgently need to address, with or without Florida's guidance.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Peak performance

There's something of the night about exiled Welsh native Gwenifer Raymond's second LP. Gothic folk-blues played with the intensity of thrash metal, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain is a dazzling display of musicianship. Here's my review for Buzz.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

From the outside looking in

Back in April 2017, I was in little doubt as to the highlight of the Strange And Familiar photo exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery: Raymond Depardon's pictures of Glasgow, shot in 1980. It's incredible to look at the images now and consider that they remained in obscurity for more than 35 years, finally (and deservedly) displayed and published in 2016.

Talking at a recent University of Glasgow event, Depardon revealed that it was the strange rather than the familiar that drew him to his subject matter, the most impoverished areas of the city: "I found everything exotic." Indeed, he attributes the quality of the pictures to the fact that he was a "Martian" exploring an alien landscape populated by people whose language he couldn't understand.

The naturalistic and unflattering nature of the images troubles some Glaswegians, apparently, particularly given that they're the work of an outsider - but others appreciate the way Depardon was able to capture "a city that has disappeared". Ian Jack, the Sunday Times journalist who initially acted as the photographer's guide, has since written of the pictures' "unforgiving bleakness" - but, as I noted in my review of Strange And Familiar, Depardon is in fact a master of incorporating glimpses of colour amid the gloom, which gives the images a spark of life, humanity and hope.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Moving with the times

It seems that White Rabbit haven't quite got a complete monopoly on forthcoming fascinating-sounding music-related books. Picador have picked up Ed Gillett's Party Lines, which promises to be right up my street in "treating dance music as not merely a musical or cultural phenomenon, but a unique lens through which to re-examine Britain's social and political history".

If that objective sounds familiar, it might be because you've seen Jeremy Deller's documentary film Everybody In The Place: An Incomplete History Of Britain 1984-1992, for which Gillett happened to be senior researcher. If the book fleshes out some of the ideas and connections in the film, then it'll be well worth reading.

The only disappointment is that there's going to be a lengthy wait - it's not scheduled to publish until 2023. Talk about a long build until the beat finally drops. Until then, you can whet your appetite by watching the film and digesting his contributions to the Quietus. The one on Housekeeping and the intersection between clubbing, gentrification and capitalism is a great place to start.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Conspicuous consumption

One of the few consolations of a truly wretched year has been enjoying (and indeed often discovering) the gastronomic goodness available a short distance from our front door. Everywhere you look, there are local food heroes who have kept us fed and watered in fine style and, in doing so, kept spirits up too.

In the last three weeks, we've made an overdue return visit to Uisce for an impromptu and utterly stunning weekday lunch, had an entire Sunday fuelled by baked goodness from Pettigrew, popped across the road (literally) to stock up on fresh beer from the Lansdowne, been transported to Vietnam courtesy of the Oasis Home Supper Club, taken delivery of booze orders from Pop'n'Hops and Wine Fiend, and had a first taste of Milkwood's fare in the form of padron peppers, crispy calamari, a selection of pizzas and a pair of plump apple and cinnamon doughnuts.

Not for the first time, the latter takeaway feast on Saturday prompted a Twitter post - and not for the first time, I felt a sense of discomfort and unease about pressing send. In a nutshell, broadcasting what delights I've been eating and drinking feels somewhat insensitive in the midst of a global pandemic and at a time when - as Marcus Rashford has so brilliantly highlighted - there are thousands of people who are unsure of where the next meal of any description is coming from. Put bluntly, I worry about coming across as an insufferably smug I'm-all-right-Jack wanker.

And yet on the flip side, there's a simultaneous desire, a compulsion, to not only support these businesses but to actively promote them, to give greater visibility to good people doing wonderful things in exceptionally difficult circumstances. In this, reassuringly, I'm not alone. Indeed, as The Plate Licked Clean put it today, it's a responsibility: "If you've enjoyed food from a small business this year, tell them. BUT don't forget to tell family, friends (you know, real people) & make sure you share your positive reviews on here, Insta, FB, whatever. Many are hanging by a thread."

On balance - and as you can probably guess from the very existence of this post - I think it's ultimately better to say something rather than nothing. A ringing endorsement on my blog or in my Twitter feed certainly isn't going to make a big difference to anyone on its own, and risks accusations of ostentatious smugness (at least this post might count as proof of a modicum of self-awareness, right?) - but, in the current climate especially, surely every little helps.

A familiar dilemma? A valid argument? Or self-justificatory nonsense? It'd be interesting to know the thoughts of foodie bloggers in particular.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Mail bonding

Trust a postman to advocate paying close attention to the names on their band's mailing list. It paid handsome dividends for Joe Thompson and Hey Colossus, who convinced Mark Lanegan to go from long-time fan to collaborator. The fruits of their efforts, 'The Mirror', appears on new album Dances/Curses and, as one unusually astute YouTube commenter has put it, sounds like "Lanegan does Slint".

In conversation with the Quietus' Patrick Clarke, Thompson also spoke about taking the courageous step of launching his own record label, Wrong Speed Records, and the hugely significant and continuing impact of the pandemic - though he did admit that "[t]his whole thing hasn't affected the bands at our level in the way it's affected those the level or two up". Like me, it's kindred spirits Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs for whom he feels most sorry: "it really felt like this was supposed to be their year".

The interview served as a handy reminder that Thompson's book Sleevenotes and Lanegan's memoir Sing Backwards And Weep are still on my shopping list rather than on my shelves. Poor form.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Musical differences

I'll leave the US election post-mortems and thinkpieces to others, but will note that there are already divisions among those delighted by Joe Biden's victory.

"Mary J Blige, Bruce, Tina Turner - great songs for a great moment", tweeted Thurston Moore. "Coldplay in respect for Biden's son Beau, his favorite band."

Others strongly disagreed. "Terrible music choices but great fireworks and adorable grandchildren", said one supporter - who just so happened to be Moore's ex-wife Kim Gordon.

Biden has already declared that it's "time to heal" and pledged "to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify". Here's hoping he can start by getting Sonic Youth back together again.

Right, enough of the serious political commentary - back to rolling around on the floor laughing at Four Seasons Total Landscapinggate...

Saturday, November 07, 2020

"The time to do this is now"

Bands often cite musical differences when they split - but intra-group tension over political differences is generally far less common. I can only think of a few examples.

The Ramones managed to hold it together despite Joey being a progressive leftie and Johnny a vocal Republican who took the opportunity to declare "God bless George Bush" when the band were inaugurated into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002. When Run The Jewels' Killer Mike gave a pro-gun ownership interview to the National Rifle Association's TV channel (for which he later apologised), accomplice El-P stepped in to defend him. If Morrissey has started spouting his bullshit while The Smiths were still together, you could be fairly sure that Johnny Marr wouldn't have stuck around.

Political differences are at the heart of the strained relations within System Of A Down, with vocalist Serj Tankian on the left of the political spectrum and drummer John Dolmayan, an avowed Trump supporter, on the right. That's no doubt partly why the band, who continue to perform together, haven't released any new music since 2005. Or hadn't, until yesterday.

Ironically, it was actually politics that caused them to put their differences aside and get back into the studio - that and solidarity with the people of their "cultural homelands", Artsakh and Armenia. "The time to do this is now", they've said, "as together, the four of us have something extremely important to say as a unified voice."

The two new tracks - one anthemic ('Protect The Land'), the other fast and furious ('Genocidal Humanoidz'), both proof that the band deserved far better than being lumped in with the nu-metal dross - are intended to raise awareness of "the aggression and injustice being perpetrated against the Armenian people in Artsakh and Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey", which Tankian has branded "a human rights violation and a war crime". You wouldn't get that from Limp Bizkit, would you? It's good to have them back.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Back to Life

After a quarter of a century away, what a year to return to releasing music. Welcome back to Huggy Bear's Chris Rowley, whose new project Adulkt Swim (featuring members of Male Bonding) have unleashed their debut LP Book Of Curses today. Times may have changed, but - personally speaking, at least - making a right royal racket will never go out of fashion, and the album's got me hankering even more than normal for a night at Clwb or the Moon.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Into overtime

Let's just check in to see how the presidential elections are going in the nation that styles itself as the greatest democracy on Earth, and the most enthusiastic and vocal exporter of democracy around the world.


Call me a pedantic old fusspot, but I'd have thought it was important to count all of the votes, not just the ones expressing a preference for your side. I'd also have thought that openly challenging the integrity of the whole system by baselessly declaring fraud and hinting at Supreme Court action might be enough to convince more people that the present incumbent is a dangerous authoritarian.

It's going to be a long and torturous few weeks ahead, by the looks of it.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Election hearing

Donald Trump might be a fat-headed, pea-brained moron. An odious, hate-spewing fuckwit. A pus-filled boil on the arse of politics. Still, without his election we wouldn't have had the fruits of Our First 100 Days - most notably Angel Olsen's 'Fly On Your Wall', which kicked the project off and subsequently found its way onto Phases.

And now, at what I and millions of others sincerely hope is the end of his presidency, he's inspired her into action again - this time in the form of a collaboration with Cass McCombs that also features Noam Chomsky. 'Don't (Just) Vote' is an unlikely alliance, to be sure, but perhaps no stranger than, say, the pairing of Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi, or Karen O and Willie Nelson teaming up to cover Queen & David Bowie's 'Under Pressure'. At least Trump can't take the credit for either of those.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Much ado about Nothing

An album called The Great Dismal by a band called Nothing: not exactly a combination that holds much promise of light relief in the present gloomy circumstances. I plucked up the courage to give it a spin for Buzz's benefit, though, and my review can be found here, together with others' assessments of new LPs from clipping., Elvis Costello, Oneohtrix Point Never and Black Stone Cherry.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Race for the prize

It would have been a travesty if the timing of the release of Keys' Bring Me The Head Of Jerry Garcia and Silent Forum's Everything Solved At Once - sandwiched between last year's Welsh Music Prize ceremony and Christmas - had meant they were overlooked for this year's shortlist. Thankfully, I needn't have worried - they're both on there, together with a couple of other personal favourites (Islet's Eyelet and Los Blancos' Sbwriel Gwyn).

The fact that Kidsmoke are also in the running alongside Keys, Silent Forum and Los Blancos is testament to the exceptionally high quality of the current Libertino stable, and means there's a good chance that last year's victors Adwaith will be succeeded by another of Gruff's charges. Bubblewrap also have three of their releases in contention, though, and on the strength of their showings at the label's tenth birthday party show in December, Right Hand Left Hand and Cotton Wolf must be in with a shout.

As is always the way with these things, the list also serves as a chastening reminder that my finger isn't quite as on the pulse as I'd like to think, given my complete ignorance of several of the other nominees. Still, the announcement will certainly prompt further investigation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Eat in to help out

Order a slap-up Saturday evening takeaway from Oasis Cardiff's Home Supper Club and you're paying for the sustenance of others as well as your own. The initiative not only raises funds to support the charity's work with the city's refugee community but also directly employs clients, equipping them with catering experience and skills. I spoke to catering manager Mark to find out more for a Buzz feature.

It's Vietnamese on the menu this week: beef pho with all the trimmings. Can't wait.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The odd couple

Couples don't come much odder than a cast-iron snooker legend of the 1980s and a British Iranian sometime member of  Cardiacs and Gong. But, having met at an intimate Paris gig by French prog stalwarts Magma, Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi bonded over a mutual love of leftfield music and one thing led to another: DJ slots, a co-hosted radio show and, most recently, a creative collaboration in the form of The Utopia Strong (also featuring Mike J York).

And now the pair are set to publish a book together. Billed as a "joint autobiography" that is "part sonic memoir, part Socratic dialogue, part gonzo mission to the heart of what makes music truly psychedelic", Medical Grade Music promises to be another notable coup for the White Rabbit imprint - and another improbable step in Davis' post-snooker career.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Fuzzy logic

Just how does Ty Segall do it? Not only is he phenomenally prolific, but he also manages to maintain consistently high standards. (Unlike, say, Billy Corgan...)

III is a Fuzz album, and therefore equally the creation of bandmates Charles Moothart and Chad Ubovich rather than a solo record, but rest assured it's yet another tremendous release featuring the hardest-working slacker in rock.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Never knowingly understated

Happy 25th birthday to Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. "Mad, mercurial and massively indulgent" (as I described it earlier this week), Smashing Pumpkins' third record is a magnum opus in every sense, a double album that I got happily lost in for about six months and continue to love in all its endless, ridiculous glory - despite all that has happened since.

With the benefit of hindsight, the record was a heavy hint of things to come: the "insufferable" Billy Corgan losing grip of any degree of quality control and descending further into egomania, among other things releasing an eight-hour-long adaptation of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (first performed in his Chicago tea shop Madame Zuzu's) as a box set for $375 and comparing "social justice warriors" to the KKK in conversation with that paragon of common sense Alex Jones.

So Corgan's announcement that the band will be marking the anniversary by releasing a 33-track concept album next year - following hot on the heels of another double album, CYR, due out at the end of November - doesn't really come as much of a surprise. Needless to say, I won't be buying it. Far better just to revisit the original and try to pretend the last quarter of a century didn't happen.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Coronavirus, contracts and corruption

I've been trying hard to avoid the subject of politics on here, out of concern for my blood pressure, but it was impossible not to read George Monbiot's latest column for the Guardian without posting some kind of reaction - even if it is just a howl of impotent rage.

Next time someone tells you that the Tories are merely bumbling fools or (worse still) well-meaning people doing the best they can in challenging circumstances, point them to this piece. The truth is that they're utter fucking scumbags who have seized the opportunity to squander public resources on eye-wateringly large contracts that carry no penalty for failure and line the pockets of their pals and assorted disaster capitalists who've scented cash - regardless of the consequences for the country and its people.

Monbiot's conclusion is worth quoting in full: "The government has bypassed the lean and efficient NHS to create an outsourced, privatised system characterised by incompetence and failure. The system's waste is measured not just in pounds, but in human lives. It is measured in mass unemployment, economic crisis, grief, isolation, long-term illness and avoidable death. So much for the efficiencies of privatisation."

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Range life

As a child, I - like most kids, I imagine - had a hazy knowledge of and critical detachment from the realities of the adult world, and a vague sense of the future that lay ahead, something I regarded with optimism but also nervousness. Which is probably why these images and the accompanying text - taken from Wendy Ewald's book Portraits And Dreams: Photographs And Stories By Children Of The Appalachians - strike such a chord.

Unlike Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon in 1970s Handsworth, Ewald was uninterested in producing pictures that might confirm or contradict the prevailing narratives (and prejudices) about the chosen location - in this case, Letcher County in the Cumberland Mountains, on the border between Kentucky and Virginia. However, she clearly shared their fascination with "the way the people pictured themselves" (in the words of the Paris Review's Rebecca Bengal).

Teaching the art of photography in local schools, Ewald ensured that children were equipped with technical know-how but more importantly coached them in developing the capacity to think carefully and creatively about image making. That she succeeded in firing their imaginations is evident from the results - which, as Bengal says, are "enigmatic and narrative", but "also have the most ephemeral quality of all: the ability to capture a time before the dreams are forgotten".

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Unexpected exhibition

When I lived on Rothesay Avenue in Lenton, Nottingham between 2001 and 2004, its junction with Ilkeston Road was utterly unremarkable. As, indeed, it remained so right up until a few days ago. Strange to think that the corner I used to go around to stock up on fresh veg and odd cakes from the West Indian shop now finds itself the focus of attention for the art world, courtesy of Banksy.

The general consensus seems to be that the artwork is a much-needed good news story for both local people and the city as a whole. However, I wonder about the feelings of the owners of the property that has been selected as the canvas. On the one hand, they've suddenly come into possession of something that will increase the building's value; on the other, the artwork's appearance has already made the wall a target for vandals. Might it end up being more trouble than it's worth?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Pieces and Quietus

When IDLES' Joe Talbot mentioned "pseudo-intellectual rags" in a recent interview with Vice, it was hard not to conclude (as many did) that he was referring at least in part to the Quietus - not least because of contributor J R Moores' evisceration of new album Ultra Mono and the band in general. However, even the most cursory of surveys of the site's high-quality features over the last few weeks makes Talbot's sneery swipe look misguided.

Sure, in a superb Baker's Dozen article, writer Paul Mendez earnestly and unhesitatingly described his debut (and semi-autobiographical) novel Rainbow Milk as "a book about Black intersectionality", but he went on to tell Paul Flynn about some of the records - by Beyonce, Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Mary J Blige, Marvin Gaye, Joy Division and more - that have helped him to find his own identity and/or feature in the pages of a book that is evidently steeped in music.

Another Baker's Dozen piece found Melanie C of that obscure, esoteric collective The Spice Girls talking to Emma Garland about her favourite albums with all the infectious enthusiasm of a full-on vinyl nerd appearing in an episode of Amoeba's What's In My Bag? Her picks include bona fide pop royalty (Madonna, Wham!, Eurythmics) and some unexpected surprises (The Beatles' Revolver, records by Fiona Apple and System Of A Down). The article is an effervescent, gossipy delight - who knew that she and Geri once egged each other on to invade the stage at the Astoria when Blur launched into 'Girls & Boys'? There can't be too many people whose first glimpse of The Prodigy was at an under-18s night at a very dubious-sounding nightclub called Mr Smith's in Warrington.

Meanwhile, Quietus head honcho John Doran has hardly been idle, interviewing Chino Moreno about Deftones' new album Ohms (and producer Terry Date's disgust at their early attempts to cover The Smiths' 'Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want') and inviting Cronos of black metal pioneers Venom to talk about his youth, his band's formative years on Tyneside (take note Thurston Moore) and their legacy. The article includes the best rejection letter I've ever come across, from an EMI employee with too much time on their hands.

By contrast, the often thrilling, always combustible Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster were a band who never really got their dues. Bassist Sym Gharial has a new project and album (called Primitive Ignorant and Sikh Punk respectively) and spoke to Jeremy Allen about the experience of growing up as the son of immigrants and how, as for Mendez, music has figured heavily in his protracted struggle to come to terms with who he is.

Best of all, though, was Lucy O'Brien's interview with Roisin Murphy. While she's barely featured on my radar other than as the vocalist for Moloko, whose slinky ubiquitous singles I deeply disliked, she turned out to be a fantastic interviewee. In the course of their conversation, she talked about the influence of her Irish identity, revealed how she was inspired by seeing Kim Gordon on Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation tour, described herself as "a J G Ballard sexpot" and spoke in fascinating terms about why she's happier to be a woman and a solo artist: "the choices are so multiple and complex and interesting and have so many threads through politics and eco-politics and socio-economics and culture and family, and sexuality, power and submission. I'm trying to hold all them sometimes in one song. It's a juggling act." Probably wise to check out new album Roisin Machine to find out more, then.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

"History is what's written, my pictures are what happened"

Chris Killip may have been born on the Isle of Man, but there's no doubt he has died an honorary native of Newcastle. His projects in and around my home town - not to mention the fact that he was instrumental in the foundation of Side Gallery and a key member of the Amber Collective - mean that his death will (or at least should be) much mourned in the north east.

I've written about his photography on here before - his images of people at work and play at the seasidehis snapshots of the chaotic scenes inside an anarcho-punk venue in Gateshead; and most recently, albeit briefly in connection with Mark Pinder's work in the West End of the city, his pictures illustrating the dramatic decline of shipbuilding on the Tyne. (By complete coincidence, I ordered a copy of Shipbuilding On Tyneside 1975-1976, featuring selected images from The Last Ships, from Cafe Royal Books only yesterday morning, merely hours before the news broke.)

Killip never set out to become (in his words) "the photographer of the English de-Industrial Revolution" and yet that's exactly how he'll be remembered. The scenes and events that he shot may not have seemed significant at the time, but he clearly had the foresight to realise otherwise - and the determination to chronicle what he saw for the sake of posterity. Any understanding of the period during which he was living and working in the north east is enriched by his pictures.

Killip's talent and reputation have been widely trumpeted, but what's struck me about many of the tributes paid to him is their personal nature. The humanity, sensitivity and sense of respect for his subjects discernible in his photos were clearly the mark of a man who was generous and supportive with his time and energy, an enthusiastic and encouraging torchbearer for the art of documentary photography.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Striking a chord

Last week, I found myself facing tiresomely familiar accusations of indie snobbery and elitism from a friend who rarely rates anything released since about 1975 and deems melody and tunefulness to be the only true markers of musical quality. It was serendipitous, then, that Yo La Tengo's Sleepless Night EP happened to land in my reviewer's lap - a release that holds the promise, at least, of common ground.

Alongside studiously faithful Byrds and backporch blues covers sit a dazzlingly original version of Bob Dylan's 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry' and a tremendous new track ('Bleeding') that's in much the same vein. The EP is yet further proof that the trio are capable of being everything to everyone, and once again begs the question: is there anything they can't pull off?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

More IDLES chat

Back, once again, to IDLES. Some people would feel sympathy for them for having committed to a punishing promotional schedule for new LP Ultra Mono last month, only to find themselves perpetually reminded of the fact that "loads of people don't fucking like us", shot at from all sides and forced into wearied self-defence. Others, though, would argue that the band have deliberately positioned themselves on a pedestal and so are fair game for target practice.

For pretty much every positive thing said about IDLES, it seems, an alternative and far less charitable interpretation is also voiced. Take the lyrics, for instance. As Kerrang!'s James Hickie put it, "The lean deliciousness of Joe [Talbot]'s words means they stick in the mind" - only to qualify that with "though they've stuck in the craw, too, of those who see them as zeitgeist zingers that oversimplify and sloganeer". Talbot admitted as much in response, but insisted "that's the point". Talking to Vice's Tara Joshi, he described his lyrics as "transparent and naive", but in conversation with NME's Jordan Bassett, he insisted on the need to be "concise and clear in my message". Guitarist Mark Bowen accepted some of the criticism of the band as a whole - "Our instrument is a blunt tool, so unfortunately it can lack a bit of nuance" - but nevertheless echoed Talbot in stating unapologetically "that's the whole fucking point".

This connects to criticisms of their heart-on-sleeve politics. For some (most notably their rabid AF Gang fanbase), the fact that they are unashamedly vocal on issues such as racism and toxic masculinity means they should be championed; for others, such as Fat White Family frontman Lias Saoudi, they peddle "sententious pedantry", coming across as self-appointed "sociopolitical saviours", as Joshi put it, before she wondered aloud "if there's ever a worry that their politics and allyship might seem performative or cynical".

They've certainly been seen that way by the likes of Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson and various contributors to the Quietus. While Talbot was entirely justified in rebutting Williamson's wide-of-the-mark, methinks-he-doth-protest-too-much jibe about authenticity ("it's like I was being represented as someone pretending to be working-class, which I've never done"), his dismissal of "pseudo-intellectual rags" and his claim that "for intellects, it's quite uncomfortable to admit they like childish art forms" were lame - a classic case of a popular artist shrugging off critical barbs as simply a mark of intellectual snobbery rather than actually engaging with their content.

Of course, spreading a message of "inclusivity and egalitarian politics" also leaves them wide open to being called out for hypocrisy if they're caught not practising what they preach - as the self-declared feminists discovered when they chose three bands with just one woman between them as tour support last year. In the NME interview, Talbot took the criticism on the chin and the band have since put their money where their mouth is, announcing an excellent all-female line-up including Anna Calvi, Shopping, Big Joanie and Jehnny Beth for next year's nationwide jaunt (fingers crossed). Even then, though, Talbot upset Nadine Shah by implying that she was asking for too much cash.

And still the flak continues to come. "I've got no interest in beefing with this group of individuals", wrote Saoudi at the end of a recent article in which - yes, you guessed it - he beefed with that group of individuals. At least he had the decency to admit that when he first waded into the IDLES v Sleaford Mods feud, in February last year, it was an act of "shameless trolling" committed in "a state of frenzied arrogance", "a joyously lurid, deeply pathetic re-assertion of my own group's hegemony over the 'scene'". He also gave grudging respect to Talbot and crew for being "willing to sweat nuts and bolts on stage".

But Saoudi was also quite unequivocal and unapologetic in reiterating his general dislike of the band, declaring that IDLES "represent everything that is wrong with contemporary cultural politics". On this occasion, his charges were more eloquent and nuanced, and the article certainly makes some good points about how deeply rooted inequality is in capitalist/classist society, about the sheer complexity of the contemporary environment and "the lattice work of exploitation" (which means that it can't be boiled down to a simplistic slogan bellowed in a chorus or emblazoned on a T-shirt) and about the mistake of prioritising politics above personality in music.

And yet I couldn't buy his overall argument, largely due to the claim that "[t]he easiest way to gain popularity online, of course, is simply to regurgitate what everybody else already believes". You don't have to look around for long to see that the message that IDLES are preaching is very far from universally accepted. Being an ally and standing up for principles is difficult. IDLES and others have made mistakes, and will no doubt continue to do so. But surely it's important that they're at least trying.

As Bowen told Vice, "I think the internet has led to this thing where everyone's kind of tripping over themselves - and while, on the left, we're all arguing about this, the people who are in solidarity with each other are the fucking fascists taking over the government and the media. It's important to talk about, but I think people need to be a bit more forgiving."

Friday, October 09, 2020

"Dismissed and undervalued"

While I remain utterly indifferent to the appeal of the Charlatans, Tim Burgess continues to rise in my estimation - most lately thanks to this terrific riposte to Rishi Sunak's comments about musicians and other artists retraining for jobs in other sectors in the post-pandemic economy.

Succinct and subtly barbed, it touches on all of the key points: the ludicrously outdated notion that artists are indolent layabouts when in fact most already have to work second jobs, often "in the ironically named 'gig' economy", to support their creative pursuits; the corresponding, casually dismissive depiction of the arts sector as "some sort of luxurious, decadent hobby"; the failure to acknowledge that the arts not only generate billions for the economy each year but also provide nourishment for the soul - "a beacon of light in the darkness of lockdown" (Burgess' own Twitter Listening Parties are a splendid example).

You'd think that the Tories would at least understand the economic case for supporting the sector, even if they don't have souls in need of nourishment.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"I absolutely don't think that it's now impossible to be funny anymore"

Ask the great British public to name a comic actress who's ascended to national treasure status, and many people would probably (and understandably) plump for Olivia Colman. Rebecca Front might not have quite the same stature, but personally she'd get my vote - superb in every single role she's taken; a charming, modest and eminently likeable interviewee; and someone unafraid of severing a friendship and calling out Laurence Fox's bullshit in public.

Talking to Front for the Independent, Alexandra Pollard deftly skirts around the Fox fall-out (on the advice of a publicist, by the sounds of it), but does elicit a pleasingly robust defence of black comedy in the face of those (including her former Lewis co-star, no doubt) who tediously complain that "you can't say anything these days". Political correctness needn't constrict comedy; on the contrary, she insists that making "dark, sinister, weird jokes without being deeply offensive" is perfectly possible. Nothing should be off-limits, as long as the humour comes "from the right moral and ethical place". Ultimately, she says, "You just need to have a moral compass about it." That's a lesson a few stand-ups could learn.

The interview also illustrates the importance of visibility as a source of inspiration. Seeing the likes of Victoria Wood and French & Saunders forging successful careers in comedy opened up "a whole new world". She came to the realisation that "This is something I can do" - and, like many a comedy fan, I'm so glad she did.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Man and vans

It's the little things that can brighten your day. Today, it's been the delivery of a T-shirt from Libertino, this phenomenal clip of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in their prime performing on an Australian TV show and the discovery of Vansplaining.

Low's Alan Sparhawk has been reviewing bands' gear-loading skills and techniques with expertise and wry humour on Twitter for some time now, so the fact that it's blossomed into a video series makes perfect sense.

In Episode 1, he meets the fantastic Our Girl, newly arrived in Seattle, and immediately throws himself into action on roadie duties, helping them to lug their kit down to the basement venue. In amongst the candid behind-the-scenes footage that offers us non-musicians an insight into the unglamorous mundanity of touring, there's an eye-opening conversation about the exorbitant cost of coming to the US for non-American bands and some record store chat about Insane Clown Posse's celebration of the mystery of magnets. Credit to Alan's son for perfectly describing the purpose of effects pedals: "They're like Instagram filters, except for sound."

One YouTube commenter has been moved to say "Sort of can't believe this brought up feelings of missing loading in/out" - but, in light of the long, painful live music drought that we're all enduring, such sentiments are entirely understandable. And Sparhawk's comment as the band's van heads off into the night, bound for the next venue, is especially pertinent (and poignant) today, in the face of the Tories' naked antipathy to the arts: "[Musicians] are just trying to put some positivity and love into the world."

Monday, October 05, 2020

"I never thought I'd see this bullshit again"

Despite loving Sugar's Copper Blue, I've never been able to get into Husker Du (blame the recording quality - a lame excuse, I know...) and haven't followed Bob Mould's solo career as closely as I might. But after reading his recent interview with Stevie Chick for the Guardian, I felt compelled to investigate new LP Blue Hearts. Exactly as sold, it's an absolute rager: furious lyrically, blistering musically - the impassioned howl of a man with plenty of fire left in his belly but also a keen ear for a melody.

Unsurprisingly, Mould's anger was aroused by everything going on around him, and Blue Hearts certainly feels like a pull-no-punches state-of-the-nation address. "Things are so bad now that no reasonable artist can keep their mouth shut", he told Chick. "And the words on this album are blunt. This is no time to be oblique or allegorical." It's a defence that IDLES would do well to deploy.

For Mould, the current parlous state of life in the US is horrifyingly reminiscent of his youth, and growing up gay in a country in the grip of Reaganism and the religious right. Sadly, he revealed that even the supposedly supportive, tight-knit punk community offered little sanctuary - he's not the first person I've heard mention Bad Brains' homophobia - and it's appalling to learn that a music publication (Spin) would stoop so low as to adopt tabloid tactics in publicly outing him against his will.

Over the course of the interview, he also spoke about his unlikely yet enthusiastic embrace of electronica and club culture via the gay scene and (for the first time) patching things up with Husker Du bandmate Grant Hart shortly before the latter's death: "Ultimately, our relationship ended as well as it could have. I was really grateful to have that chance, that time with him."

Friday, October 02, 2020

Growing old disgracefully

If you knew William Shatner only from his role as Captain Kirk, then you'd be utterly dumbfounded by his new LP The Blues. To be honest, even as someone aware of his bonkers back catalogue - which includes a bizarre cover of Pulp's 'Common People', a duet with Henry Rollins that is basically just a list of petty dislikes and grievances, and a Christmas record called Shatner Claus (but of course) - I found it one of the strangest and most unsettling things I've encountered this year. Which, given what 2020 has thrown up thus far, really is saying something...

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Biting the dust

Reviewing Bwydiful's entry into the sit-down restaurant game back in February last year, I suggested that it felt like "right time, right place" and that the Victoria Park premises were "at the heart of an emerging foodie hub". So it's a great shame to learn that the burger maestros have fallen victim to coronavirus, casualties of cruel circumstances far beyond their control.

Best of luck to founders Chris and Jon with whatever they do next. Bwydiful's closure is a timely reminder that your local food heroes are trying to fight the good fight but need your support more than ever if they're to stand any chance of survival.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"Brutally raw"

As someone prone to reflecting deeply on (and interrogating) both herself and her art, Angel Olsen always makes for a fascinating interviewee. Judging by the comments made in this recent conversation with Pitchfork's Quinn Moreland, though, there may not be many more interviews to enjoy.

Occasionally in the past a degree of frostiness and prickliness has come across, and it seems as though she's increasingly irritated by the pressure or perceived need to play the promotional game and market herself as well as her albums as a product: "If I had it my way, I would put out a record, do all of my photos myself, put out a manifesto so I don't have to do any fucking interviews, and play a few shows here and there throughout the year ... [I]f I could go without advertising my work constantly, and I didn't have to look or sound like a fucking interesting person, then I wouldn't do it at all. I would just put out the music and let people take it for what it is." She's probably now at a point when she could get away with that - but it would be a shame not to be able to read her words on the page as well as hear her voice in our ears.

Perhaps this is all prompted by new LP Whole New Mess, for which she claims to have gone "back to my roots" in recording and releasing something that is "really raw" and "really purposefully fucked up". Moreland aptly describes it as "the barebones set of demos" that were subsequently fleshed out to form the staggering All Mirrors, "its larger-than-life twin".

Maybe it's because the latter came first (and because I've never really got into Half Way Home and her earlier, folkier material), but I can't help but see the versions on Whole New Mess as mere preliminary sketches that were astutely blown up to a massive and infinitely more satisfying and impressive scale for All Mirrors. Her sound and range has expanded so dramatically and thrillingly over the last few records - as good as Whole New Mess undoubtedly is on its own merits, I'm hoping that it doesn't signal a retreat back into a musical comfort zone as well as a retreat from engagement with the world, interviewers and all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Jigsaw falling into place

At the heart of Dale Cornish's assessment of Kid A at 20 is a very astute point: "For me, ultimately all the criticism comes back to one question: are you listening to the music, or are you listening to the music and comparing it to OK Computer?"

In fairness, back in 2000 it was nigh-on impossible for anyone not to be drawn into doing the latter. OK Computer was such a monumental release, such an astonishing leap forwards, that it has inevitably cast a shadow over everything the band has done ever since. But Cornish is right - try to meet Kid A on its own terms and you'll be richly rewarded.

On the one hand, it was still recognisably a Radiohead record - tracks like 'How To Disappear Completely'  and 'Optimistic' ensured that much. As Cornish puts it, "For all the manipulated vocals and electronics, there are acoustic and electric guitars, and 'proper' vocals. The album continues their path of consolidation of what they were known for, adding new sonic flavours with each album."

And yet on the other hand, especially on first listen, it seemed challengingly different, a conundrum, taking many fans far outside their comfort zone through the incorporation of electronics, jazz and experimentalist flourishes. Of course, it was a journey that some were unhappy to be asked to make, and Cornish rightly cites 'Idioteque' as the album's Marmite moment, a pivotal deal-breaker. But lots of us found ourselves going along for the ride, and it's for this reason that I can't abide those who carp about the band's appropriation of outsider musics. Who cares if they were cribbing from DJ Shadow and Aphex Twin? They had the skill, self-confidence and cultural capital to prise open ears and minds that would in all likelihood otherwise have remained closed.

Twenty years on, Kid A's significance - both for the band and beyond - seems blindingly obvious. Back to Cornish: "It challenged what rock music could be, and now seems to happily exist as one of those albums, like Neu! 75, "Heroes" and Tilt, that are touchstones for rock music; records that have popped expectation and become something new, something other."

Monday, September 28, 2020

"She could make you care about people"

I first encountered Bruce Gilden's close-up portraits three years ago, as part of the Strange And Familiar exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery. The images on display - taken in the Black Country, following an invitation to continue his Faces project there - were undeniably striking, but also deeply discomforting. 

The photographer would no doubt claim that his quite literally warts 'n' all portraits are an antidote to the airbrushed, filtered selfies of Instagram and Facebook (as Chris Klatell has, in an introduction to Gilden's book Face), but they also communicate an unsavoury fascination with the grotesque and a sneering superiority with regard to his subjects. As Sean O'Hagan put it in a review of the book for the Guardian, the images are "relentlessly cruel", dehumanising those depicted and thereby (ironically) failing to give a true, fair reflection of the people in front of the lens.

Compare Faces with the work of Mary Ellen Mark, gathered in a new three-volume collection called The Book Of Everything and celebrated in a recent Vogue article. Mark was "uncompromising" and "committed to the truth", in the words of Brenda Ann Kenneally - but, critically, she was also motivated by an ethics of care. Whatever their circumstances, fellow photographer Maggie Steber argues, her subjects were afforded respect. The picture that Steber selects, of a homeless family in their car, is shot with an evident empathy that ensures it recalls some of Dorothea Lange's famous images from the Great Depression.

Arlene Mejorado praises Mark's compositional skills and sense of timing, but claims that "the connection to the people in the picture is more important". Steber implicitly agrees, arguing that Mark was genuinely, fundamentally "concerned" with her subjects. Gilden, by contrast, seems to set out to inspire mere revulsion, and he does so by deliberately denying those he shoots their personal dignity - whether they've consented to being photographed or not.

(Thanks to Jim for the link.)

Friday, September 25, 2020

Hauss music

Not for the first time in a Buzz review, I've found myself referencing John Doran's 2019 defence of the claim that Sunn O))) are "the most influential metal band of the decade". The first time, I was reporting back from December's superb Blanck Mass gig at Clwb (gigs, eh - remember them?); on this occasion, it was in the course of assessing Anna von Hausswolff's astonishing new LP All Thoughts Fly - not one for the faint of heart.

Also featured in this week's review round-up are the latest releases from Hen Ogledd, Action Bronson and IDLES. More on the latter to come soon...

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The light fantastic

Speaking to the Guardian's Dave Simpson ahead of this evening's Mercury Prize announcement, Hazel Wilde was cautiously optimistic about Lanterns On The Lakes' chances: "If we win, it would be for all the artists who have been plugging away for ages without recognition. And we're in unprecedented times, so for an unknown, long-serving indie band to win it with their fourth album might actually happen."

Sadly, it turned out that times aren't quite THAT unprecedented - Michael Kiwanuka was named the winner (to the audience of The One Show, bizarrely), so it's commiserations to my fellow North Easterners. Of course, the judges' verdict doesn't change the fact that Spook The Herd is a very good album, a career high and a worthy nominee - and this brief stint in the spotlight will hopefully have brought these hitherto unsung heroes to wider attention, deservedly so.

Beyond the reflections on their nomination and general underdog status, the interview with Simpson was notable chiefly for Wilde's surprising admission that her musical ambitions were inspired and emboldened by Oasis. It seems that the Gallagher brothers were Wilde's punk, proving that music was actually accessible to all. So there's something to be grateful to them for, after all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

"Music is for me an entirely political interconnection, a political act"

Given that his new LP, out on Friday is called By The Fire, it made perfect sense for the Guardian to mark the occasion by arranging the modern-day equivalent of a fireside chat with Thurston Moore.

In response to fans' questions, he spoke about his love of live music and records as physical artefacts, and waxed characteristically lyrical about everyone from The Wipers and The Fall to Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix, and everything from black metal to disco. (Incidentally, his comments on the latter connect neatly to the chapter on no wave in Simon Reynolds' superlative Rip It Up And Start Again, which describes punk's entrenched antipathy towards disco and consequently James Chance's eager embrace of it.)

There was a revelation, too: "I've also been writing a book, about music, and my own personal experience with it, and trying to talk about my discovering and inspirations and intrigues with being a musician and starting Sonic Youth in 1980. So I've been writing that, and I hope to publish it on the other side of the quarantine age. It's titled Sonic Life." They say "Write about what you know", and Moore certainly knows about music. He might have admitted to listening to fewer records these days, but his enthusiasm evidently remains undiminished.

That said, his claim that Venom were from Nottingham did hint that his musical knowledge, while encyclopaedic, does have its limits. Has he never heard Beastie Boys' 'Dedication'?

(Thanks to Kev for the link.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The hole story

Conspicuous by their absence from David Hurn's recent exhibition Ynyshir: 25 Mile Radius at the Workers Gallery (or so I gather from the Offline write-up - sadly I didn't get there to see it myself) were the photographer's images of the Aberfan disaster. As Offline's reviewer (and editor) Brian Carroll suggested, they were omitted "perhaps justly". That fateful day in October 1966 might be more than half a century ago now, but no doubt there will still be those living locally for whom the pictures would have brought back excruciatingly painful memories.

Nevertheless, Hurn doesn't regret the fact that he and fellow photographer Ian Berry turned up and captured the aftermath: the devastation; the frantic efforts to locate and rescue children and teachers buried under the spoil; the dirty, wearied and despairing faces. On the contrary, he's insisted: "It's a really good example of photography absolutely justifying being done." The pair's cameras bore witness to what happened, and sent shockwaves around the country and indeed the world.

Grant Scott of The United Nations Of Photography has recently written about arguably the most famous of the images, which shows one boy comforting another as they survey the nightmarish scenes from above. It's a sensitive appreciation that focuses in on the hole in the older boy's jumper - a detail that you might otherwise overlook but that in fact says so much.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Black magic

Happy 50th birthday to Paranoid and its "potent anthems of working-class strife". As Joe Sweeney argues in an article for the Guardian, Black Sabbath's second LP wasn't merely the Big Bang moment for heavy metal, but also made for a sharp contrast with Led Zeppelin in that it boldly wore its social and political conscience on its sleeve - something born of the band members' formative years spent immersed/entrapped in the "Dickensian realities" of post-war inner-city Birmingham.

Sweeney points out that Sabbath were far from one-trick ponies - Paranoid's first three tracks alone ('War Pigs', 'Paranoid' and 'Planet Caravan') "gave a pretty thorough representation of what this sneaky-versatile band was capable of". 'War Pigs' in particular is extraordinary, "a rollercoaster ride in a lightning storm" as Sweeney neatly puts it - even if that sped-up section to wind it up still makes me cringe every single time.

The reaction of rock 'n' roll's critical gatekeepers was snooty and uncomprehending - Rolling Stone's Nick Tosches sneering at "the 'heavy' sounds of bubble-gum satanism" and Lester Bangs dismissing them as "unskilled laborers", for instance. But Sabbath had the last laugh, and 50 years on Paranoid has a strong claim to be the single most influential record in popular music.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Feel good hits of the 18th September

Yet more proof of Angel Olsen's golden touch. I've never thought much of Tom Petty, and 'Walls' seemed like a pretty unremarkable song - until Olsen and friend/tour support Hand Habits got their mitts on it. This performance - beautifully filmed during lockdown by Ashley Connor at the Masonic Temple in Olsen's adopted home town of Asheville, North Carolina - is utterly stunning. Incredible (and upsetting) to think it's only a little over six months ago that I saw them both on stage in Bristol on the All Mirrors tour - it feels like a lifetime ago.

If it wasn't for the eternally wonderful Amoeba series What's In My Bag?, and specifically the Melvins episode (my favourite, bar none), then I'd never have discovered this ridiculous song, which somehow switches from plaintive croon to 70s Bowie pomp without batting an eyelid - or new album Songs For The General Public, for that matter.

Viscerals is without doubt my most listened-to album during lockdown. Not sure whether that says more about its quality or the extent of my cabin fever, though. It's such a shame that they had this record all ready to go before the pandemic struck and have been denied the opportunity to take it out on the road, where it belongs.

Try to pin Islet down at your peril. Latest record Eyelet has been described, not unjustifiably, as psychedelic pop - but lead single 'Good Grief', with its intricate construction and busy percussion, is just one reason I think it could (and should, if there's any justice) find favour with fans of latter-day Radiohead.

A fiver for the first three Motown Chartbuster compilations? You don't get much better value for money than that. They haven't been off the car stereo since being picked up on a stall in the covered market in Abergavenny in October. An ode to the irresistible power of lust, 'No Matter What Sign You Are' - on the third and best of the discs - may not have been a big hit, but I love the stylish sweep of the chorus and the way it sticks two fingers up at the contemporary hippie obsession with star signs.

"Rarely can you say that a record is perfect. But Fun House is perfect." So said Henry Rollins of the Stooges' second LP, on the occasion of its fiftieth birthday. He's not wrong, you know.

Who knows when live music will return - but when it does, TJ Roberts are top of my list of Cardiff bands I haven't seen but absolutely must. Their debut LP, the cheekily titled Best New Reissue, is a power-pop/melodic slacker-indie delight.

If I'm being completely honest, my love of rock didn't start with Nirvana, or Guns 'N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction before that, or Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet before that. No, it started with this song on a 1984 double-cassette compilation - something I was reminded of when it cropped up on the radio last week.

With Howling Bells seemingly on indefinite hiatus, any opportunity to hear Juanita Stein's vocals is welcome. The gentle psych haze that envelops 'Snapshot' suggests that her forthcoming solo LP might just satisfy those of us still pining for a worthy successor to Howling Bells' debut.

A band I wish I'd watched more of at last year's Green Man - especially since discovering that not only is Richard Dawson among their ranks, but Rhodri Davies too, whose creative destruction of a harp in support of The Ex had me mesmerised at Clwb last September. 'Trouble' is a first taster of new album Free Humans, a bold venture into "weird and wonky pop" (as they recently told the Quietus' JR Moores).

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"It just seemed like a punk thing to do"

Heard the one about the prolific punk/noise musician who achieved notoriety through a prank appearance and same-sex kiss on The Jerry Springer Show? Here's Vice's Alex Zaragoza, the man himself - The Locust's Justin Pearson - and his accomplices to tell the story.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Special Relationship

When it comes to finding an adjective that describes both At The Drive-In and their finest hour, Relationship Of Command, "combustible" is absolutely right. And that's not the only thing Tom Breihan nails about the band and the record in this Stereogum piece marking the twentieth anniversary of its release.

There's no doubt that without that combustibility within the group, Relationship Of Command wouldn't have sounded the same - though it also meant that implosion was inevitable; as Breihan notes, they "were not built to handle adulation or even attention". He writes about "a flammable combination of elements", and the album was the result of a perfect storm (in a good way): their best songs, a producer and an engineer capable of capturing their ferocity on record (Ross Robinson and Andy Wallace) and the right circumstances musically and politically.

However, Breihan only briefly acknowledges the fact that "At The Drive-In had already put together a pretty serious discography on a shoestring budget". Relationship Of Command was certainly a great leap forwards from the likes of Acrobatic Tenement and In/Casino/Out, but the narrative that they came out of nowhere and burned spectacularly brightly for a short period of time is misleading - and potentially fuelled by Breihan's article.

In fairness, though, they only appeared on my radar - and that of many other people - when Relationship Of Command was ready to drop. As I've recounted here before, I was smitten the moment I read about them, and the deal was sealed first by the inclusion of 'Cosmonaut' on a Kerrang! covermount CD and then by a memorable encounter at Leeds Festival. Personally speaking, at least, Relationship Of Command proved to be a classic gateway drug - not only to the band's back catalogue (which sounds meek in comparison) but more importantly to Fugazi, MC5 and a whole host of punk and post-hardcore firebrands.

Where I disagree with Breihan is with his dismissive reference to "their underwhelming reunion", by which point "the magic was gone". Surely I'm not alone in thinking that in.ter was more than just a respectable comeback? Sure, it was no Relationship Of Command, but then what is? For my money, it was significantly superior to those pre-Grand Royal releases.

That reunion also meant that, unlike Breihan, I did get to see the band at a stadium show, cast in the incongruous role of support for Royal Blood. Admittedly they looked "ill at ease in the surroundings", on a massive stage confronted by a sea of "blank faces", but that didn't stop them from turning in the sort of incendiary performance for which they were legendary the first time around.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Seldom seen scenes

For such an enormous country - the largest on earth - we in the West see surprisingly little of Russia. The photos that we do encounter are most often narrow in scope and subject matter: frozen and desolate landscapes, characterless or forbidding concrete architecture thrown up under communist rule. All of which makes this gallery - composed of images taken by Russian photographers - an eye-opener.

Sure enough, those staple elements do appear, but overall the picture they paint of the nation is much more complex, showing the frequently fascinating juxtaposition between the natural environment and the built environment and revealing something of its richness and diversity, as well as of its past and present.

(Thanks to Adam for the link.)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Tunes for troubled times

It's fair to say that Uniform's new LP Shame is very much in keeping with the year of its release, in that it delivers a relentless battering that leaves the listener bruised, dazed and despairing. Here's my review for Buzz.

Friday, September 11, 2020

IDLES speculation

It's fair to say that my relationship with IDLES is somewhat complicated.

While I enjoyed their 2017 show in Clwb enough to give it four stars, I remained "slightly wary" of them for reasons I found it quite hard to put my finger on. Second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance won me over (as it did a sizeable number of other people), though, and by February 2019 I was stoutly defending them from what seemed to be misguided and unfair criticism, first from Sleaford Mods and then from Fat White Family. I then witnessed the band closing out Green Man "with simultaneously furious and joyous abandon", though couldn't help but feel that the experience was marred both by the unusual boisterousness of the assembled audience and the slickness of the set.

And now, while I'll try to avoid forming prejudicial assumptions about new LP Ultra Mono - not least because I haven't heard it (it isn't released until 25th September) and because I actually think 'Grounds' hints at an interesting new direction, showing some evidence of the grime influence they've talked about - I can't help but feel that JR Moores' hilariously stinging review for the Quietus gives voice to all of my greatest concerns.

For a start, there's those lyrics. There's no getting away from the fact that the snippets that Moores singles out are risibly bad. In that early gig review, I noted Joe Talbot's ability to churn out "memorable line after memorable line"; regrettably, "Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang / That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang" is nothing if not memorable. Even at his best, though, Talbot only seems capable of writing in slogans, the sort of things that will look good on a T-shirt. In that respect, he's a bit like fellow Bristolian Banksy, making valid points in a way that sometimes seems clunky and heavy-handed. 

(I'd still strongly defend his determination to make those points, though, in the face of the Sleaford Mods/Fat White Family complaint that IDLES are puritanical social justice warriors. The band's albums might seem to be a checklist of issues, but even Moores concedes that "IDLES' hearts are in the right place" and a cursory glance at the news underlines that those issues need to be raised and discussed.)

Relatedly, there's Moores' observation that "challenging masculinity ... in such a routinely chest-beating way seems self-defeating". It's essentially like fighting fire with fire. Claiming that the songs are "so generically bellowing they could be filed under Sham 69" is comic hyperbole, but it does go a long way to explaining the proliferation of belligerent bell-ends in that Green Man crowd, and is something that has essentially troubled me from that first live encounter, when I said: "As ambassadors for peace, love and understanding, IDLES are certainly unorthodox." Ironically, Moores argues, the message is stated so bluntly and forcefully that it's actually lost in translation.

And finally there's the suggestion that they're the Emperor's new clothes and "not all they're cracked up to be". At that Clwb gig, I pondered why they were attracting such hype and also noted that Talbot's "constant gobbing into the air comes to seem like the behaviour of someone self-consciously playing at being a punk". Authenticity is a notoriously thorny issue in music, but Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson and Quietus head honcho John Doran clearly aren't alone in having questioned the self-image that IDLES have tried to cultivate.

I could also comment on what Ultra Mono's guest list (David Yow, Warren Ellis, Jamie Cullum) says about the band, but I'll reserve judgement until I've heard the results...